You can’t send Harry Dean Stanton into the desert, as John Carroll Lynch well knows, and not think of the role that made an icon out of the veteran character actor. “Oh yeah,” the filmmaker allows, during a call to the Straight from Toronto. “You’re gonna be walking straight into Paris, Texas.”
Stanton spends a lot of time walking through the desert (Arizona, actually) in Lucky, opening Friday (October 20). Along with a few other nods scattered throughout the film, it’s a deliberate reference to Stanton’s storied past, inside a movie that was written by screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja with the man himself very much in mind.
Elaborates Lynch: “It’s a movie inspired by Harry Dean Stanton but it’s not Harry Dean Stanton. He’s a fictional character. But we were able to land the actual person it was inspired by.” As he wryly notes, this relieved the first-time director of any concerns about performance quality.
But this was no ordinary role for a man who almost never received top billing during six decades of steady work. Lucky is a hard-bitten and determinedly nonspiritual loner facing the end of his life. In September, a month before the film started making its way into theatres, Stanton passed away, leaving us with an unflinching performance from the very threshold of death’s door, and an extraordinary epitaph to a singular American life.
“The challenge of playing a character inspired by yourself, to reveal your own stories in a different context than the ones that you lived, and to make an arc of a character that lands the way this one needed to, in order for it to be a movie about something other than simply Harry and his friends—that was the challenge that Harry sought to embrace,” Lynch says. “And there were a couple of times in the movie that it was so raw for him, he really didn’t want to do it.”
The director points to a scene in which Lucky recalls accidentally killing a mockingbird in his youth—a tale that ends on a yawning note of high sadness, and that Stanton had to be cajoled into doing. “And at the end of the day he went home and he turned to Drago, who was driving him, and he said, ‘I’m really glad we did that. I’m glad that’s in the movie.’”
It’s probably important to clarify here that Lucky is anything but a downer. Quite the opposite: the humour’s as dry and pervasive as the landscape, relieved by sparkling cameos from the likes of Beth Grant and David Lynch (as Lucky’s best friend), with Stanton deadpanning his way around a cantankerous character who survives on nothing but cigarettes, milk, and Bloody Marys. Its most memorable image—and it’s a wonderful way to remember Stanton—is that of the then 90-something actor doing yoga in his underwear. That vision, one presumes, was a gift in itself to the man behind the camera.
“I personally have never seen a man’s body at that age revealed on film,” says Lynch. “And he is so utterly vulnerable, so fragile—and at the same time so vital and filled with light. And that’s what the movie is about. The metaphor of his body is the movie itself.”