John Carroll Lynch -From Acclaimed Character Actor to First-Time Director

by Silvia Bizio October 4, 2017
Actor and director John Carroll Lynch

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“Harry would have loved to see this movie,” says actor John Carroll Lynch (American Horror Story, Fargo, The Founder) making his directorial debut with Lucky, which gives us the final, unforgettable performance by Harry Dean Stanton. One of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood history, appearing in films from Cool Hand Luke (1967) to Alien (1979), from Paris, Texas (1984) to Repo Man (1984), Harry Dean Stanton is the title character in Lucky, a 90-year-old man who lives in a remote desert town at the twilight of his life. The film, written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, features what critics have called Stanton’s finest performance since Paris, Texas and promises to stand as an enduring testament to the actor’s life work and artistic legacy. Among the characters who populate the sleepy town alongside him are Ed Begley as Lucky’s sympathetic doctor and David Lynch as Howard, owner of a runaway tortoise called President Roosevelt.  We sat down with Colorado native John Carroll Lynch, 54 years old, at a Beverly Hills hotel the day after the Los Angeles premiere of the film.

Lucky is a very special movie: not much really happens, and yet it manages to involve the viewers deeply.

Except everything happens, because this is life!  (laughs) That’s one of the things that I loved most about it, the sense of an epiphany that I myself experienced when some things happen that don't  alter much of the course of one's  life but certainly re-orient it.    

I understand the script was written with Harry Dean Stanton in mind.

Yes, it was absolutely shaped around Harry, both in terms of his behavior and in terms of his autobiography.  One of the screenwriters, Logan, was his assistant for 15 years, so he knew him quite well. It was a weird circumstance to have a movie inspired by a person that the actor actually is, as opposed to who he is playing.  And while some people think that would make it easier to act, it actually makes it harder, because you are working against your own biography while you create this character.  So it was really a tricky bit of business for Harry.  And it was also very revealing, because it’s one thing to tell these stories over and over again in private, it’s another one to put them on record, especially as the background of a person other than you. 

Was Harry like that in life, sort of a loner?

He certainly didn’t live in the country and he didn’t live an isolated life the way that Lucky does.  But there’s always been something enigmatic about the center of Harry Dean that the movie definitely captures.  The sense of how the world looks to the character, that there is no God or afterlife, that is straight out of Harry Dean’s playbook, both in his life and in his art. I liked those things for the character because it means the stakes are really high and you only have a certain amount of time left.  There’s a limit and you have to come to terms with it. That’s what I was passionate about in this story.  For an 89-year-old man, he was in very good shape.  It was an exhausting process shooting the movie so when we were going towards pre-production we wanted to make sure that Harry never had to face a full five day week, followed by another full five day week, and we also made sure that he could get home in between.  So we would work for two days and then we had three days off, and we did it like that, for six weeks.  We ended about a week before he turned 90.


A scene from the movie Lucky, with Harry Sean Stanton  and David Lynch

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton in a scene from John Carroll Lynch's Lucky.

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What about David Lynch?  How did it come about?

Harry suggested David for the part and it seemed like a good idea to everyone involved.  I had seen David’s work in films other than the ones he directed and I had also seen the two of them in the Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction documentary (2012), and the warmth between them was so palpable.  It seemed like a perfect fit to me; we asked David and he was very positive towards it, it was just a matter of trying to find the right time because he was in the midst of post-production on Twin Peaks.  He ended up giving us two days, came fully prepared and gave us what we needed.  It’s amazing.   It’s the second largest part of the movie.

And an important role…

Yes, Howard’s journey is like the harmony line to Lucky’s melody line in the piece, so it had to work. It was fun to work with David, and it wasn’t intimidating because he came as an actor and I felt I was working with an actor.  He really put me at ease.

The music is an important element of Lucky, especially with Harry Dean playing the harmonica.

Yes. There's also Johnny Cash and  “I see a Darkness”, which is not the kind of music you can afford in a movie like this, but it was worth it because it emotionally worked. Johnny Cash and Harry Dean’s careers were kind of concurrent, they both started working at the same time, in 1956.  And then, of course, most of the time we hear the harmonica of “Red River Valley” it was Harry playing. We went up to his house to record it and he just played four or five different variations of the song: I really got a sense that his self-identification was more likely to be a musician than an actor I think. 

He used to sing as well.

He had a band and he had tours in Australia that would sell out, he was a bona fide musician. Mariachi music, of course, was one of his passions, so that gave us an opportunity for a special moment right in the middle of the film, at a very crucial moment. When he sings, and when he plays the harmonica, it is so touching!   

Did Harry Dean have a chance to see the finished movie?

Sadly not. We offered to show it to him of course, but he didn’t want to see it on a link, he wanted to wait and see it in a theatre, and time went by, screenings were pushed back and then it was too late. Some people ask me if it is bittersweet, and I say no, there is nothing sweet about it, is just bitter. As I said, I think he would have loved it.”