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'Lucky': A tribute to Harry Dean Stanton that he never saw

Harry Dean Stanton singing
Harry Dean Stanton singing "Volver, Volver" in "Lucky."
Magnolia Pictures
Harry Dean Stanton singing
Director John Carroll Lynch on the set of "Lucky."
Magnolia Pictures
Harry Dean Stanton singing
Harry Dean Stanton in the film "Lucky."
Magnolia Pictures
Harry Dean Stanton singing
Harry Dean Stanton and director John Carroll Lynch on the set of "Lucky."

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The legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton died this month at the age of 91.

He had incredible range — playing everything from a singing inmate called “Tramp” in the 1967 film, “Cool Hand Luke,” to a loving, hard-on-his-luck dad in “Pretty in Pink.”   

Stanton was also one of the few character actors to move on to leading man status, with acclaimed, starring roles in “Paris, Texas” and “Repo Man."

In the new film, “Lucky” (opening Sept. 29), Stanton stars in the title role as an elderly, chain-smoking, rough-around-the-edges Navy veteran who's coming to terms with his own mortality after a fall in his kitchen. 

If the character bears more than a slight resemblance to Stanton himself, that's because the movie was written — by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja — with Stanton specifically in mind. "Lucky" is directed by another veteran character actor, John Carroll Lynch. The film is Lynch's first turn as a director.

Lynch and Stanton both had roles in the HBO series, “Big Love,” but that’s not how they met. Instead, they first came across one another at the bar at Dan Tana’s, the West Hollywood restaurant where Stanton was a regular.

John Carroll Lynch stopped by The Frame studios recently to talk with John Horn about "Lucky" and about Harry Dean Stanton's legacy.

Interview highlights:

On how he and the writers negotiated with Stanton about how much of his own story he wanted to include in "Lucky":

I think there was an ongoing set of negotiations with that. I think for a long time, as [Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja] were writing, they were certainly being inspired by him and they told him all about it. They would tell him about scenes they were writing. And in the pre-production stage, we would go over every Sunday and we would talk about the script. And he approached it as any actor would. He would negate sentences to wonder what they were about. Like he'd go, 'What if I didn't say that?' or 'I don't think I need that' or 'Why am I saying this?' Those questions, which actors do all the time. But the cross-current was always that much of what he talks about in the movie is autobiographical. He did serve in WWII, he did have moments as a child where he had existential fears ... So those things were in the movie and it was only during those times that I began to realize that some of the reticence wasn't just about negating the material just to see what the stories were that you need to tell, but also because it was, How much am I going to reveal of myself?

On whether he thinks Stanton knew on some level that this could be his last, if not one of his last, films:

I really couldn't say what it meant to him to make this movie as a last coda to his career. But I do know that the things that were said in the movie, the things that he talked about, were important to him to say.

Lucky song scene

On the scene in the film where Stanton breaks out into song at a party, singing "Volver, Volver" with a mariachi band:

The character is searching for some way to get over this fall that he's had, emotionally. And while there's nothing technically wrong with him, he's trying to figure out what to do with this sudden feeling at his age that he's not going to get over his fear of death, he's not going to get over that sense of mortality that he's suddenly face-to-face with. And the singing does that for him in the film. It starts the process. But that's the structural issue and the story issue and that's all true. 

My experience of him is that while he was always feted as an actor, and should have been, I think he self-identified more — in my experience with him, I never asked him — as a musician first. And it was the only thing in the movie that he was precious about. About making sure that it was beautiful. When we were getting ready to do that [scene], he wanted to make sure that he was in good voice on the day, he wanted to make sure it was going to be good. In all the acting he was willing to let it fly and just see what happened. But in that, he wanted to make sure it was good.

On what he learned about acting from directing Stanton:

One is a willingness to be simply present and to wait for those things to happen and not worry about the doing of things. So many actors I know — myself [included] — there will come a time when the lens is on you and you feel the need to do something and you stop the process of listening and being. And he never did. Never. The other thing is he made it look effortless, in every single role. People don't want to work with [kids] and animals cause they're too real, they create a sense of falseness in whoever’s around them. That’s one of the reasons why they’re so aggravating as acting partners because they show your falseness so grossly and it’s embarrassing. Acting with Harry Dean could be like that, because he's going to be so real that you better come ready to be true. 'Cause if you're not, you're going to look really false ... Harry Dean made everybody better by doing that.

On the fact that Stanton never got to see the film and what he hoped he would have said about it:

He wanted to see it on the big screen, we wanted to show it to him that way ... and the opportunity just never happened ... The thing I would have wanted him to say is, 'So, we going over to [Dan] Tana's now?' That would have been great. He would have had notes, of course he would've. He would have had thoughts about it. And I know he saw pieces of the movie, but I think as an actor, he had done his work and you were just going to do with it what you do. And after he was finished, he didn't really have any ownership of it. He even said at some point somewhere that I saw in print: "I don't really see myself in this character." (laughs) Which I just love.

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