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The Sam Shepard play “True West” is a revival of an American theater classic. The play has been a magnet for great actors since it was written in 1980. In this contemporary version, it stars Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, who sit down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss the “double natures” of their characters and the complex inspiration of playwright Shepard.
Next: the revival of a modern classic of American theater, Sam Shepard's "True West." The play has been a magnet for great actors since it was written in 1980.
At the famed Sardi's Restaurant, Jeffrey Brown recently spoke to the latest duo to take it on.
It is part of our regular series covering arts and culture, Canvas.
I want something of value. You got anything of value, Lee?
"True West" is a tale of sibling rivalry spiraling to the breaking point.
I am about to kick your ass out of here in one minute.
: Oh, now you're going to kick me out? Oh, oh, now I'm the intruder.
Going at it nightly in a new Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre, 48-year-old Ethan Hawke as Lee, menacing, a petty criminal and drifter, and Paul Dano, 34, as Austin, a buttoned-up, straight-arrow, Hollywood screenwriter, two brothers locked in a psychological and eventually physical battle of wills while house-sitting their mother's Southern California home.
Hawke was first approached about the revival several years ago.
I was planning to say, I'm the wrong guy. And between the phone calls to plan the meeting and the meeting, Sam passed. So the meeting took on a whole different tone.
Sam is Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor who died in 2017, and was known for his portrayals of rootless characters making their way at the fringes of the American dream.
"True West," which premiered in 1980, is considered one of his masterworks, and has seen notable stagings, including on Broadway in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, and an earlier production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, one that was filmed and shown on PBS, where a 14-year-old Ethan Hawke first saw it.
And I had seen or heard nothing like this play, and it was half-rock concert, half — I didn't know whether it was Malkovich I love, you know, Steppenwolf, or Sam Shepard, or was it the Hank Williams song in the beginning? What was it that was so good?
But it did something to you?
It did something. And then I went to library and I got seven plays, you know, and I just started chasing all this stuff.
The more times I have read the play, including throughout our entire process, the more there was to be mined. And that's the most exciting thing.
Sam Shepard is unbelievably funny, and he's a deeply spiritual man. And he's got a profound sensibility about America, and it's not knee-jerk macho. It's many, many things.
He said it was the most authentic Western he'd come across in a decade.
He liked that story, your story?
Yes, what is so surprising about that?
As the play develops, the brothers' roles shift.
Hey, that's my story we're talking about.
It's idiotic. Two lamebrains chasing each other across Texas, are you kidding?
With older brother Lee encroaching into his brother's turf, writing, with unexpected and unwelcome success.
Who do you think is going to see a film like that?
All right, first off, it's not a film, all right? It's a movie. That's something Saul told me.
Oh, he did, huh?
Sam was trying to write about a self. It's not that Austin and Lee are the same self, but each self is hurt and fractured, and we get these double natures, you know, these aspects that are spinning around and creating these cyclical, you know, cyclone that these guys are caught in.
And parts of ourselves that we reject or that we're afraid of, or…
By the second act, much alcohol has been consumed, and mayhem ensues. The actors, working with director James MacDonald, had to decide how to play it.
That's not a scene that when, I read the play, that I can fully comprehend or dream, until we're throwing ourselves around and getting lost in. So that — the way that stuff developed was really — was fun, was challenging. And, God, we're so drunk by that point in the play.
Yes, I know.
Each scene, we get a little drunker and a little drunker. And you start to feel drunker and drunker. It's a hypnosis. If Nina Simone, what makes her great is, she hypnotizes herself. And our job there is to hypnotize ourselves, and just be inside this play.
And that's why we rehearse a lot, so you can get a little lost and still…
… hurt each other.
Theater is thousands of years old, and there's something exciting about being a part of an ancient form.
Indeed, Hawke and Dano both started acting very young, and have sought a variety of different kinds of artistic experience.
Hawke has appeared in more than 70 films of all kinds, including a widely acclaimed performance in last year's "First Reformed." He directs films and plays, and has written three novels.
Dano, who first appeared on Broadway at age 12 and is known for films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Love & Mercy," made his directorial debut last year with the film "Wildlife," an adaptation of the novel by Richard Ford.
Making a film is something I have wanted to do for a long time. And I was — I'm so happy I got to go do it, you know?
And your brain just starts to dream that way. It is about learning. And that still is probably one of the parts that gets me off the most, is trying to figure out how to do it.
The great challenge in an actor's life is, we're all only as good as our opportunity. When you see something, a piece of art at a very high level, it's a little bit like a North Star or something, where you go like, oh, right, I want to be a part of that, and I want to do that, and I know I'm not doing that at a high enough level yet.
And so you just go back to work.
"True West" runs through march 17 at the American Airlines Theatre.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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