If you’ve been to the movies or turned on a television in the last 25 years, you’ve likely stumbled upon the work of the consummate character actor John Carroll Lynch, whose breakthrough role was as would-be stamp painter Norm Gunderson in the Coen Brothers 1996 film Fargo. After that, the Colorado native appeared in such works as Beautiful Girls, The Fan, Face/Off, HBO’s series “From the Earth to the Moon,” Gone In Sixty Seconds, The Good Girl, Gothika, “The Drew Carey Show,” and “Carnivale.”
In more recent years, he’s taken on larger roles in David Fincher’s Zodiac, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Crazy Stupid Love, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Jackie, The Founder, and a memorable turn as a murderous clown in the series “American Horror Story.”
Now well into his 50s, Lynch has taken on directing for the first time in his career, with Lucky, a quiet and quirky character study of an elderly man played by the iconic Harry Dean Stanton, for whom the part was tailor written. With a colorful supporting cast (that includes David Lynch and Ron Livingston), Lucky is a moving, almost-spiritual work about community, living longer than you ever thought you would, and the family that forms around you, whether you know it or not, as you get older. The following interview was conducted at the SXSW Film Festival in March:
Third Coast Review: This is a film is not only about an older man, but it also feels like a film made by a seasoned filmmaker. It feels like a film you build up to rather than debut with.
John Carroll Lynch: [laughs] I guess when you do your first movie at 53, you really should dive in and get started.
3CR: Why was this the story that you wanted to be your first as a director?
JCL: Yeah, things happen, so you go with what the flow is going with, but this movie to me became important because it’s a story about a person who lives on the edge of the town of mortality. I mean that literally. He’s on the outskirts of the town we all live in. Like anybody, he’s going to hear the tremors first and then the rest of us have to maybe deal with it too. I have a lot of personal stuff tied to this, like my dad is 86—four years behind Harry Dean, at least one president behind Harry, although it was FDR, so it really doesn’t matter.
I’ll say it in the clearest way I can. No one would watch a soccer game without a time limit. It would be a terrible game. The thing that makes it real, the thing that makes it exciting, is the clock, and the thing that makes soccer exciting for those who love it is also penalty time, when you don’t quite know when the game’s going to end. That’s what interested me about this movie, and about this story. Lucky is a man who, by all rights, has thought about mortality before. Certainly he did in WWII, and he did when he was 13, but he’s in penalty time, so thoughts are different, and he’s certain he doesn’t have any backup. He’s certain he doesn’t have any god to lean on, and how do I come to terms with my mortality with no proof anything happens later? That’s what really attracted me about the script.
3CR: Was it written for him?
JCL: It was tailor made. Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, the writers, they did a beautiful job of encapsulating Harry’s being, Harry’s life. Not only in terms of the work he does, because they wrote a script that fits his sensibilities and what he brings to a movie perfectly, but they just used so much of what they knew about his life in the movie. It’s not biographical, but it’s in essence a fictionalization of his life in a five-day period.
3CR: They used things from his life including some of his old friends. David Lynch is amazing here, and it’s not some throwaway comic cameo; it’s like a legit character that you really grow to care about. Were those people who made themselves available whenever you needed?
JCL: Without a doubt, everybody showed up for Harry Dean. And that was not just the people you saw on the screen. That was from the DP, Tim Suhrstedt, who I’ve worked with before as an actor. I knew him, I liked him, I love his work. Ira Steven Behr, one of the producers, knows him, and that’s how he got the script, but he showed up for Harry Dean, and that was true for every single person, honestly all the way down to one of the set dressers came from Richmond, Virginia, to work on this movie because he loves Harry Dean. It was all about him.
3CR: Is Harry Dean a guy you can direct easily?
JCL: Oh, he’s direct-able. He just doesn’t like to be directed. I don’t blame him. He’s 90-years-old. He knows what he’s doing. But also, what was beautiful about this movie is he distrusts the word “acting.” He doesn’t really believe he’s acting anymore. He is. He’s forgotten more about acting than most of us ever knew. But you really have to earn it, and rightly so. He’s a master, and you don’t go in there without having a reason, and there were several times in the course of the thing that I had to go in there and go “I’ve really got to make sure he understands this is where we are, this is where we are headed.” Sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong, and we worked it out.
3CR: The scene with him and Tom Skerritt is one of my favorites. I hope people appreciate that ALIEN reunion.
JCL: They haven’t worked together since then.
3CR: Have you worked with Harry Dean as an actor before?
JCL: No, I met Harry Dean through my friend Drago. The whole thing for me came through Drago, the writer. He asked me to read the script, he asked me to play Joe [played by Barry Shabaka Henley], and as the thing progressed, Drago knew I had wanted to direct for a while, and he said, “What do you think about directing?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And he said, “Let’s get on the phone, and I’ll tell you the story of the movie, and let’s see if we agree.” And that’s how it began. I met Harry Dean at Dan Tana’s [a landmark West Hollywood eatery] through Drago and Dabney Coleman. Meeting Harry Dean is great, and as should happen with Harry Dean, I have a story of meeting him that might all together not be totally true, but most of it is. But I’ve got to be honest, I’m not sure if I know how much truth there is in it.
3CR: The story might be better than reality.
JCL: Yeah, it might be better than reality, and it might be just two things I put together because I heard it happen once, because he is partly legend.
3CR: Thus the title of that great documentary on Harry Dean from a couple of years ago.
JCL: Yup, Partly Fiction. This, I guess, could be called Partly Fact.
3CR: In addition to just capturing his essence in this character, there are bigger things going on. This character has this daily routine that he does, which you show us at the beginning, and then he starts to break routine and that’s when life creeps in. We all have our routines, but it’s when we stray from the routine that things suddenly get interesting.
JCL: Yeah, and he strays from routine, because he’s forced to. There’s a moment that he has a fall. I don’t know about you, but every time I see an adult fall, it’s terrifying. And he has a fall in the movie, and the fall’s affect is not physical, but it shakes him and it makes him look at his routine. One of the things I loved about the script is, it’s not a thing that happens when he says, “I’ve got to go find my long-lost daughter, now.” Or, “I’ve got to jump from a plane or rob a bank.” There are good movies on all those subjects. It’s about how he goes back to his life with a different perspective, which is what I think most of us do.
3CR: As much as he is a man on the outskirts, he also has this little family of people he sees every day who look after him.
JCL: But he’s not aware of that.
3CR: Right, he’s cultivated this family just by being around them every day.
JCL: Yes, that’s right. In essence, somebody plants a garden—and the cactus is a big image in the movie—and there’s a cactus that’s been growing there, and there are a bunch of other things that grow in the shade and they’re all around each other and they co-exist, and they actually support each other, but they may not necessarily know it.
3CR: That’s why when the woman shows up to his house, he’s shocked. He has no idea that she even noticed that he wasn’t around. That’s a great moment.
JCL: Yes. He doesn’t know where anybody lives, and everybody knows where he lives, and it’s a matter of him not being conscious of the fact that he’s in a community of people.
3CR: I also love the scene where he goes to the doctor. I know plenty of people close to that age that hate going to the doctor so much that they won’t, and the doctor’s attitude here is “Well, it hasn’t killed you yet, so why stop now?”
JCL: Ed Begley’s great in the movie. They’re old, old friends, and the part was written for him, and they have an easy way with each other, and that was the first day of shooting. So it was jumping right into the pool. That scene was quite an education. Ed was so terrific, so on the ball, Harry Dean loved having Ed there, so it was well scheduled that way so he’d get off on a foot that he felt confident about.
He’s trusting me. He’d met me like three times before we started doing prep for the movie, he knows I’ve never directed before. There were a couple of times during the prep where he’d be asking questions at his house, I’d run him out. He’d run out of questions, and he’d go, “Well, I guess y’all just know your shit.” But then the next week, there’d be another set of 12 or 15 questions that we’d have to get through. So he was trusting somebody he didn’t know well to do something with his words, with his life. He was extraordinarily brave both physically and emotionally to do this movie.
3CR: When we first met a few years ago, you were talking about The Invitation, in which you mentioned this phenomenal monologue. You were also recently in Jackie, in some of the tougher emotional scenes.
JCL: Thank you very much. As one of the many LBJs that’s been around.
3CR: Just in the last year.
JCL: There’s three LBJs in the last year, and that’s not including all of the plays of All The Way all over the country. Hugo Armstrong who played Vincent in our movie played LBJ at South Coast Rep in All the Way.
3CR: [Jackie director] Pablo Larraín did such an incredible job with the sequence of that movie. Did you have any sense when you were shooting of the structure of the film and the way he pieced that together that was so unusual and effective?
JCL: The screenplay had that, but when you hit the ground in Paris, because we shot the interiors in Paris first, and you walk in the White House, it’s chilling. And then to see [Natalie Portman]…I came there the first day. She was working. I wasn’t working yet. I was doing costume fittings and getting the ears figured out, and he was working with her on the tour of the White House, and she was doing that, and it was like looking through the lens of the past. And also that beautiful video feed that he got. It was really incredible. Then to get off the plane in Dallas, or to stand in the group of 200 people who were photo doubles of the dignitaries who came to the funeral—having the photo doubles of Haile Selassie and Charles de Gaulle, it shook you to the core.
3CR: Or re-creating the swearing in moment…
JCL: It was very specific, obviously, but you understood why it was. The movie is so much a movie of the mind, right? That without those landmarks, which we particularly as Americans have an iconographic relationship with, they’re fundamental to our memory whether or not we were alive at the time, and they are fundamental to the story of our country, and he was meticulous about making sure that those landmarks were clearly outlined so that he could fall into her mind and fly all over the place.
3CR: Of course you also popped up on last season of “The Walking Dead” in that one capsule episode as Morgan’s sensei. Morgan as always been a character that I love.
JCL: Yeah. Lennie [James] and Harry Dean would have a nice scene together. They both bring that level of truth, but it was a great feeling to say things like, “We’re not built to kill.” And “All life is precious.” You can get behind that. I can get behind that.
3CR: Especially on a show like that.
JCL: Especially on that show.
3CR: It runs so counter to everything that show is about.
JCL: Yes, that’s exactly right. The show is really a struggle between hope and despair and who you are. In essence, it’s like Lucky: Who are you at the end of your life? Everybody on that show is already dead, so how are you going to behave? And to play a guy who chooses to behave ethically, but not because he didn’t know what darkness looked like; it’s because he knew what darkness looked like, which I think is more poignant, telling, and, on that show, vital.
3CR: I can’t look at Morgan on that show now without thinking of that exchange. Everything he is is because of that relationship and the way he tries to live his life.
JCL: Absolutely. It’s funny, on Twitter the other day, I got a screenshot of Morgan and a quote from a recent episode, “Can I have my stick back?” They said, “Why?” He said, “A friend gave it to me.”
3CR: John, thank you so much. Good to see you again. Best of luck with this.
JCL: Nice to see you too.