June 7th, 2012
03:45 PM ET
"I'm a writer, that's essentially what I am. The acting's just the thing that I do to make a living, because you can't make a living as a writer."
So says Sam Shepard, who has been busy with acting as of late thanks to parts in Cannes pick "Killing Them Softly" and this week's DVD and Blu-ray release, "Safe House."
The latter thriller's set in Cape Town and stars Denzel Washington as former C.I.A. operative Tobin Frost, who resurfaces in South Africa after having "gone rogue."
Frost mysteriously turns himself in at a safe house managed by young agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) under the direction of his boss - Shepard's character - assistant CIA director Harlan Whitford. (Shepard and Washington had worked together in the past, but the two actors did not have any scenes together in "Safe House.")
"Denzel's character was someone who was regarded as sort of a distant figure so we didn't have to be in the room together at all," said Shepard, who also told us that he studied up on the C.I.A. with the help of his friend, former United States CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
"I know Valerie Plame Wilson, who's part of the Santa Fe Institute, and she was working with the CIA, of course, when that cover-up thing - you know - that happened. She gave me a lot of books for reference and stuff like that," he recalled. [In 2003, Plame's cover was outed as a spy.]
Shepard, 68, has found immense success in both theater and film. Having written more than 40 plays, he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for "Buried Child," and has more than 10 Obie Awards. He was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager - the first person to break the sound barrier - in 1983's "The Right Stuff."
Some of you will also remember him from the roles of Frank Calhoun in 2004's "The Notebook," and Spud, the husband of Dolly Parton's character, Truvy, in 1989's "Steel Magnolias."
But with the acting gigs, Shepard admitted, "it's more to buy time to write." His latest play, "Heartless," is set to open late this summer.
"We start rehearsals in July and open very late August or early September," said Shepard, who was uneasy divulging too much about "Heartless," explaining that he tries not to talk too much about his plays this early in production. He did say that the story was "female-heavy," an attribute that is "unusual" for his works.
Shepard also often directs his own plays.
"The truth is I'm always involved," he said. "Many times I'll direct myself if I have time to do it but I found an interesting young English director, Daniel Aukin ... so I feel good about that. I like kind of coming and going because I can rewrite as rehearsals progress so sometimes it's good to stay away from everything and come back to it [and] see how the actors have taken a hold of it."
He's equally tight-lipped about his personal life.
Shepard quietly separated from actress Jessica Lange in 2010, after having been together since 1983. So quietly, in fact, that the split wasn't made public until last December. Shepard and Lange have a son and a daughter.
He also has a son from his marriage to actress O-Lan Jones, who he was married to from 1969-1984.
In 1970, Shepard began a short-lived, tumultuous affair with Patti Smith, whose music career he helped encourage. Shepard eventually decided to return to his wife and baby, and before finally breaking up for good, he and Smith wrote a two-character play in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, "Cowboy Mouth," by shoving a typewriter back and forth to one another. The play premiered in 1971 with Shepard and Smith starring as Slim and Cavale, the fictionalized versions of themselves.
The play has been revived and will open at Lucky Cheng’s in New York on June 7.
And what would Shepard be doing if he wasn't a writer or actor?
"I'd probably be riding a horse somewhere," he said.
About this blog
Our daily cheat-sheet for breaking celebrity news, Hollywood buzz and your pop-culture obsessions.