Sam Shepard grew up in a place that no longer exists. The Orange Groves of Duarte, California, where the Pulitzer-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor was raised outside of Los Angeles are now the 10 Freeway, malls, and an In-n-Out you can afford to skip for any of the dozen you’ll come across in the next few towns. Maybe it is that inheritance, or lack thereof; or maybe it is his love of the road, of going somewhere, even nowhere, that makes Shepard feel like the American icon of an era always in the rear view mirror. But, at 71, Shepard is still pretty punk rock. He still drives cross country to most of his film sets, still raps out with his former girlfriend and best friend Patti Smith, still writes some of the best American fiction, and still acts with all the power of his Days of Heaven and The Right Stuff youth—maybe more so, according to him.
As he tells it, his work was never about catharsis. But he has gotten better at it, as a writer and, particularly, as an actor, where the man once sort of famous for writing about complex father figures has been playing enormously complex patriarchs (most recently in Netflix’s Bloodline, and last year’s Cold in July) to acclaim. Shepard and I talked about the road he took to get there, what has been lost in the process, and how he goes forward.