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John Carroll Lynch Helps Harry Dean Stanton Say Farewell with Lucky

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

John Carroll Lynch on the set of “Lucky.”

John Carroll Lynch

Helps Harry Dean Stanton Say Farewell with Lucky

By Jay S. Jacobs

char·ac·ter ac·tor: /ˈker(ə)ktər ˈaktər/ noun 1. an actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles.

You know who John Carroll Lynch is, though you may not know his name. Over the years, Lynch has played dozens of roles you’ve probably seen, and each time you see his face you probably go, “Oh, yeah, that guy…”

He’s a character actor.

Lynch was Marge Gunderson’s doting husband in the original film version of Fargo. He played Drew Carey’s cross-dressing brother on The Drew Carey Show. He was a doomed survivor in one of the classic episodes of The Walking Dead. He was the warden on Shutter Island. He was the main suspect in Zodiac. He was a barber in Gran Torino. He was an angry dad in Crazy, Stupid, Love. He played both the murderous Twisty the Clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy on American Horror Story. And many, many more.

Just in this past year, he played President Lyndon Baines Johnson opposite Natalie Portman in Jackie, one of the beleaguered McDonald brothers in The Founder, a pastor in Miracles from Heaven, relived the Revolutionary war in Turn: Washington’s Spies, reprised his role of Twisty on the new series of American Horror Story: Cult and is in the brand-new season of the Syfy Channel show Channel Zero. And he has a new comedy series coming soon called Crawford.

With that kind of work schedule, you wouldn’t expect the Boulder, Colorado-born actor to have time on his hands to do other things. However, Lynch has been interested for quite a while in directing a film. When the opportunity came up for him to step behind the camera, he jumped at it. It’s even more fitting, because the film Lucky was created as a final showcase for one of the great character actors in Hollywood history, Harry Dean Stanton.

Harry Dean Stanton stars in “Lucky.”

Stanton had an acting career which spanned over 60 years, during which he gained the reputation of one of the coolest men in Hollywood. Over the years, he played in such beloved films and TV series as Kelly’s Heroes, Two-Lane Blacktop, Gunsmoke, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Where the Lilies Bloom, The Godfather Part II, Farewell My Lovely, Alien, The Rose, Private Benjamin, Escape from New York, Repo Man, Paris Texas, Red Dawn, Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and many, many, many more.

Stanton was 90 when he started filming Lucky, which was his first leading role since playing third lead in David Lynch’s The Straight Story in 1999. Sadly, Stanton died mere weeks before the film was set to premiere.

“Obviously, it’s heartbreaking,” John Carroll Lynch said, just three days after Stanton had passed. “He’s so good in the film. But the great part about Harry is that I think Harry likely wouldn’t have cared what the reception was.”

He laughed, thinking back wistfully on his friend. “I think only we would have cared.”

In fact, it is a sad fact that Stanton was not even able to see his Hollywood swan song.

“He was never able to see the final cut,” Lynch said. “There was some talk about showing it to him. I wanted to show it to him, but he wanted to see it on the big screen. He was not a TV guy when it comes to that kind of thing. And the opportunity never came. We had wanted to have the cast and crew with him, and that opportunity never came to pass.”

However, like the old saying goes, Stanton did not have to see the movie, he lived it. Of course, Lucky is not a biographical film, but it was written by his friends Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and inspired by its star. However, in his final interview, which Stanton shared with director Lynch as well as Lucky co-star David Lynch [the famous director, who is no relationship to John Carroll Lynch], Stanton insisted that Lucky was not his story.

“I love that he did that for himself,” Lynch said. “It isn’t. It isn’t Harry. It is a construct. It is a fictional character. It just is based on him, which is a strange relationship of material, obviously, and in this case a fortuitous one and delightful one. The stories in the piece are based on Harry’s life. They are stories that he has told at various circumstances, in Logan and Drago’s hearing.”

Harry Dean Stanton stars in “Lucky.”

However, the character is a totally different being. Part of the art of Lucky was taking aspects of Stanton’s life and working them into a completely new story.

“To weave those into the fictional narrative of a man who lives on the edge of an Arizona town is what the construct is,” Lynch explained. “Lucky isn’t him, you know? He did not live in that place. He did not live in those times. He did not live that sedentary and quiet a life, obviously. Lucky’s life was very different from Harry’s in that way. So, he’s right, it isn’t him. It’s just inspired by him.”

However, even for such a legendary actor, it was a bit of a daunting task. Lucky rises and falls on Harry Dean Stanton’s performance, a performance which was eliciting praise and buzz even before the actor’s death. As a first-time director, Lynch had to capture that. Looking back, Lynch acknowledges that it was an experience to work with the actor.

“What was the thing that Logan said that was funny?” Lynch laughed. “He liked to do nothing, and then rest after. There was a lot of that.”

Still Lynch understood. Stanton was an older man, and this was the first time a film relied on him in years. It turned out that Stanton was completely up for the challenge.

“I think this was a daunting task for him, to take on a piece with such a short shooting schedule that was such a gargantuan piece of work,” Lynch said. “Every scene begins and ends with him. That was something that we planned, because the story is an interior journey for the character. It has to be him that’s living it. He threw himself into it, fully and completely. It was an exhausting task, but one that yielded great fruit.”

As a long-time actor, who has worked with such legendary directors as The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and David Fincher, it perhaps no surprise that Lynch would be intrigued by the art form. However, Lynch said it was more elemental to him, part of the same gene that made him want to be an actor, the fact that he is a storyteller at heart.

“It’s an outgrowth of the desire to play different people,” Lynch explained. “To tell different stories. The opportunity to tell stories that are focused on people that I can’t play. Years ago, I worked with a wonderful director. He became a director because he couldn’t play the parts he wanted to play. He just couldn’t play those parts, so he became a brilliant director.”

Harry Dean Stanton stars in “Lucky.”

Therefore, Lynch realized that just because he couldn’t perform the stories, that doesn’t mean that he can’t make them.

“My desire to tell stories that I can’t tell at my 6’4”, 250 lb. frame, is part of what I want to do,” Lynch continued. “It’s almost like the desire to do voice work. You’re freed from your instrument to explore as much of humanity as one can in these limited circumstances.”

Interestingly, Lynch’s voyage to Lucky started as an actor.

“I got the script from [co-writer] Drago [Sumonja] in June of 2015,” Lynch explained. “He asked me if I wanted to act in the feature. I read the script and said of course. Drago knew I wanted to direct. He had spoken to Logan about it. A couple of months later, they decided to ask me to do that. We had a great conversation about the visual elements of the movie. I thought the film was quite full of them, quite full of those cues. We all agreed on what needed to happen next in the story, to tighten the story up, the interior journey of Lucky.”

Of course, Lynch’s acting career has been a journey of diversity as well. He has done comedy, drama, horror, action, the sky’s the limit. This wide range of characters has always fascinated him.

“I started to learn to act in rep,” Lynch explained. “I took off in theater. I worked in a couple of companies. You would play Shakespeare one night, [Anton] Chekhov the next. Do [Harold] Pinter, or David Story, or Edward Albee. There was a wide variety of parts. It was also a situation where, because it was a company, one of the producers said, ‘The joy of the company is that people get miscast.’ I think she’s right about that. You have to learn how to stretch. You have to learn how to do parts that don’t necessarily fit you.”

However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Lynch has always felt this adventurousness was necessary to acting, and now to directing.

“I was always attracted to that,” Lynch continued. “I was always attracted to the opportunity to play one part on one day, and then play somebody completely different. It’s always been a passion of mine to try to figure out how to change the integral relationship you have as a performer with the audience. It’s great when actors are able to do that. Harry Dean was one of those, you know? Harry Dean could play the most vicious sons of bitches, and then play the sweetest person in the world. You would believe him wherever he wanted to take you.”

Harry Dean Stanton and Ed Begley, Jr. star in “Lucky.”

As an actor, Lynch has followed a long and winding road himself. In fact, it is probably a tribute to his craft that certain people recognize him for certain roles.

“There is a demographic thing that happens,” Lynch admitted. “For American Horror Story, there is a demographic of women between the ages of 14 and 18, and 20 now, that love that show. Then there are the people who remember me from The Drew Carey Show, who may not remember me very well because I’m not dressed in a dress. Then there’s things lately. The Founder has been getting a lot of play from streaming. There are so many people who have been coming up to me lately going, ‘I love that movie.’ I go, I do, too.”

The Founder is the story of how McDonald’s billionaire Ray Kroc stole the business from the McDonald brothers, who first started the restaurants. Lynch played the younger brother who believed in Kroc, until he ruthlessly took over the company, eventually putting the brothers out of business just for spite.

“He was ruthless all right,” Lynch agreed. “The thing about it is, he had won already. He still couldn’t be generous. Because, he couldn’t abide someone knowing what he was when. That’s something what happens, I think, to some people. It just becomes so hard for them that people don’t think of them as the person they want to be. Does that sound familiar to anybody we’re dealing with? Any kind of personal criticism that is negative, they respond so passionately against [it]. They have to erase or eradicate the other person. That’s what happened there.”

Speaking of erasing and eradicating, at the time of this interview, IT was the number one movie in the US. And while Lynch was not personally involved in that film, he does have a unique perspective on a specific question, having played Twisty the Clown now on two seasons of American Horror Story. So, what exactly is it about clowns that makes them scary?

“Clowns are scary for a lot of different reasons,” Lynch laughed. “First of all, they need something from you. Every clown needs something from you. They’re aggressively asking for something from you and you’re not sure what. They also cover their faces. They are showing you this really overly-aggressive smile a lot of times.”

Harry Dean Stanton stars in “Lucky.”

Still, Lynch does feel a little culpability in the bad rap that clowns get from people in general. After all, in general they are trying to give you a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants. What’s so wrong with that?

“I’ve gotten in so much trouble with clowns, with people who love clowning,” Lynch admitted. “It’s a life-long pursuit. There’s a guy I worked with at the Guthrie [Theater in Minneapolis], he teaches clowning at Yale. It’s an art form. I apologize to those people who are searching through it as an art form. Everybody’s just trashing them. It’s not fair. It’s not right. I’m sorry for contributing, and I look forward to contributing [more].”

Which is rather likely, as American Horror Story has a long history of bringing back actors they like over and over in different (and sometimes the same) roles. Lynch is just glad to be a part of the AHS repertory, and would be happy to continue with them.

Harry Dean Stanton stars in “Lucky.”

“I hope they continue to [bring me back] for as long as the show is on,” Lynch said. “I enjoy working with that crew very much. I’ve had such a great opportunity to work with the visual effects crew, particularly. They are really good friends that I get to see on that set, who I rarely get to see otherwise, because they are busy and I’m busy. The cast of those shows is so extraordinary, starting with Sarah [Paulson] and Evan [Peters] in this season. My God, they are incredibly good actors. Then when you add the daunting and formidable women of American Horror Story, with Franny Conroy, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett. You just go, well that is one of the best casts on television. Why wouldn’t I want to go play with them?”

Lynch also played Eastman, a survivor whose meeting with Morgan (Lennie James) – one of the main characters on The Walking Dead – was recounted in the fan-favorite 2015 episode “Here’s Not Here.” Even though it was planned as a one-time thing, people still recognize him from the role.

“The zeitgeist of it all is great,” Lynch said. “It’s fun to hitch your wagon to those things. It’s also great to do it in material that feels right. The things I got to say in The Walking Dead… to say the words ‘We’re not built to kill,’ and to mean it, was something that I don’t mind saying over and over again.”

Lynch is also very excited about a new show starting the same week as the interview, Channel Zero. Much like American Horror Story, Channel Zero is an anthology series that changes its cast and concept yearly. Lynch is a big part of season two, which is called “The No End House.”

“It’s a horror anthology,” Lynch said, enthusiastically. “This is going to be a really creepy show. I think [director] Steven Piet did an amazing job. Nick Atosca, the writer, the show runner, they wrote such beautiful material. It’s heartbreaking. It’s scary. It fills the niche of horror that I’ve learned to enjoy, which was new for me a few years ago. It creates fear. It creates revulsion, to some degree. And it creates pity. All at the same time. That’s the best kind of horror for me.”

Harry Dean Stanton and Ron Liebman star in “Lucky.”

Also, of course, Lynch has the release of Lucky to worry about. And he has dipped his toe into the follow-up.

“I absolutely have started thinking about [a second directing job]. I’m working with a few friends of mine who are all wonderful writers, on a couple of things. I’m trying to use the Robert Altman advice of ‘Producing is kind of like cooking. Keep things on the stove and then one starts to boil,’” he laughed.

Right now, Lucky is at a full-on boil. As it is being released, staggered weekly through cities around the country, it is getting the kind of critical acclaim that an established director would crave. Of course, as pointed out earlier, Lynch has worked with some of the greats, so it is no shock that he would pick some things up. However, he is quick to point out that there is only so much you can learn as an actor on set.

“The opportunity to follow people who have broken the story down into its commensurate parts and asked the question, ‘What belongs in the frame, and what doesn’t?’… I’ve seen each of them tackle their material,” Lynch explained. “These are masters of their craft. The ‘how’ of doing it is no longer really what they are after anymore. They are after the ‘why’ of it.

“As a first-time director, there’s still a lot of ‘how’ involved. But this story was so fully aligned for me that I was desirous to talk about joy in the face of mortality. Which is what I think we’re all looking for, to some degree. It’s Lucky’s story and it’s Harry Dean’s experience, as a person who has reached a venerable age, to tell us that story from a point of view that is so dramatically interesting.”

Of course, it couldn’t hurt having an established director on the set. David Lynch played one of the townspeople in Lucky’s hometown. Still, as a first-time director, it must have been a little intimidating trying to direct one of the most acclaimed and eccentric directors in film. However, John Carroll Lynch said David Lynch was not a problem on set at all. He just came in and did his job as an actor.

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton star in “Lucky.”

“As David I’m sure would attest, I had my hands full with Harry Dean,” Lynch laughed. “I wasn’t worried about David at all. He was so great. He came in, he was so generous to me. He so loved being there with Harry. He said in print recently, he just loved to sit with Harry Dean. They’d sit, smoke cigarettes and talk. They were a delight together. I was thrilled to have him in the picture. He was everything you wanted an actor to be. He was prepared. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the material. He was not wrong about it. He took direction and adapted. And he, obviously, knows how a movie is cut together, so he was wonderful in the frame.”

The rest of the cast was an interesting, quirky mix, too. Among the actors who went out of their way to be in this small film were a very varied group which included Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant, and several others.

“Everybody in the movie, they came for Harry, first and foremost,” Lynch said. “They came to play with Harry. I would describe it as Rolodex casting. Everybody came from one phone call. That’s what we needed, we couldn’t wait to go about it in any other way. The amazing part was how we got a lot of yesses, even when the picture, the time and the schedule was locked. Because of David’s schedule, key people fell out because of that.

“We were able to find replacements for those people quickly and efficiently, because of everybody’s connections,” Lynch continued. “James Darren came through [producer] Ira Steven Behr. Hugo Armstrong came through Drago. It goes on, and on, and on. Ron, Barry and Beth came through me. Pam Sparks, who Joe’s wife Pam, is Logan’s mom. She did a lovely job, too. It just happened that way. That’s how it had to happen.”

The hometown of Lucky is also a character of the film, of sorts, and it turns out that the rustic backwater was so evocative for a reason.

“It’s a town called Piru, California, and I think it entirely exists on film rentals,” Lynch explained. “It’s a backlot that’s just been grandfathered into the LA studio area. It’s a tremendously photogenic town. I’ve worked there several times. This one features it in a way that I’ve never seen before, with the way we blend in the desert scenes, which were shot in Cave Creek, Arizona. Those were absolutely crucial openings to the fragility and vitality of the desert itself, important to the story.”

After all, Lucky is sort of an anomaly in modern Hollywood. It’s certainly not a big, bright, slick blockbuster wannabe. Lucky has more of a personal, artistic feel to its tale.

“None of us wanted to make from this story anything that looked remotely like what a Hollywood version of this would be, of course,” Lynch said. “That’s kind of an unfair statement, because this is a Hollywood film. This is an American movie. It has its ancestry in the movies of Jim Jarmusch, The Last Picture Show, and even Wim Wenders, though he is a European filmmaker. With John Ford. Those were the people we talked about in the process of working together.”

Lynch is right. Lucky is a uniquely American film. As unique as its star, Harry Dean Stanton. And it’s a wonderful way for the man to say farewell after spending so much time as a part of our lives.

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: October 6, 2017.

Photos © 2017. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. All rights reserved.

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