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Kris Kristofferson would occupy a privileged, esteemed place in pop culture even if he never set foot in front of a camera. A Rhodes Scholar and Army helicopter pilot, Kristofferson famously turned down a teaching position at West Point to take a job as a janitor in a Nashville recording studio as a way of breaking into the music industry. Kristofferson’s career as a songwriter began to take off when his hero and friend Johnny Cash covered his hangover classic, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” In the ’70s, Kristofferson enjoyed a vigorous dual career as a popular, acclaimed, influential singer-songwriter and as an unlikely cinematic superstar.
He joined forces with Sam Peckinpah for the 1973 revisionist Western masterpiece Pat Garrett And Billy the Kid, a teaming that continued with Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Convoy. Kristofferson made a huge splash at the box office acting opposite Barbra Streisand in 1975’s A Star Is Born, and headlined the sprawling, prestigious cast of Michael Cimino’s notorious 1980 bomb Heaven’s Gate. He’s subsequently segued into character parts in arthouse fare like John Sayles’ Lone Star and Silver City, and blockbusters like the Blade trilogy. Kristofferson can currently be seen as the villain in The Last Rites Of Ransom Pride, an intense, surrealistic Western starring Party Down’s Lizzie Caplan as a revenge-hungry gunslinger in the Old West. The film—which costars Peter Dinklage, Dwight Yoakam, Jason Priestley, and Scott Speedman—has just been released on DVD.
The Last Rites Of Ransom Pride (2009)—“Shepherd Graves”
Kris Kristofferson: Well, it’s uh… it’s Western. It’s a combination of Sam Peckinpah and Fellini. It’s really not like anything I’ve read or done before. But it’s very interesting.
The Last Movie (1971)—“Minstrel Wrangler”
KK: The Last Movie? It was Dennis [Hopper]’s first film after Easy Rider, which was a huge success. And I was down in Peru, and the film was about the effect a movie that’s being made down in a place like that would have on people who had no idea what movies were. That was very much like what was going on in real life. I think Dennis and the film sort of affected the town where we were doing it—up in the Andes—like it did in the film. I think they got a priest defrocked because of some bribe that Dennis had paid him to have a mass for James Dean while we were down there. And I guess he paid the priest and then the priest got in trouble for it. But it was very exciting. Most of the people were down there just for two or three weeks, most of the other actors besides Dennis. But I stayed down and went all over the place, looking at all the Inca ruins and Machu Picchu, several times.
AVC: Was there a screenplay for The Last Movie? Or was it largely improvised?
KK: Well, I think there was a screenplay, but I think it was also largely improvised. I ended up being in it briefly. I was doing the music for it, and also one of the stunt riders quit, so I was riding the horse. I was one of the few people who could down there.
AVC: Did you at least pick up three paychecks?
KK: No, I don’t think I got paid for any of it. [Laughs.] But I was doing it just for the love, not the money.
AVC: Was that the first time you acted?
KK: Yeah. I didn’t have a lot of acting in it, there was just like, one line at the beginning of the film. But no, I’d never been in a film before.
Cisco Pike (1972)—“Cisco Pike”
KK: Harry Dean Stanton brought me the script. It was just when I was starting to perform my songs down at The Bitter End, and there were a lot of movie people who came in there. And Harry Dean helped me with it; we did a screen test together, and next thing I know, I was in the film with a lot of famous people.
AVC: Gene Hackman was in that as well.
KK: Yeah, he was a great guy.
AVC: Was it intimidating being around all those experienced actors?
KK: I’m amazed I wasn’t more intimidated. I’m just amazed I wasn’t more amazed, because before I was playing the Troubadour, I had never had a paying gig to sing. And to be doing that and the film, I’m surprised I wasn’t just thunderstruck.
AVC: Sometimes being inexperienced is an asset, in that you don’t know enough to be freaked out or intimidated.
KK: I think I knew enough to be intimidated. I don’t know what it was. But I really enjoyed it, and feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to make a living singing my own songs and acting in films with people I respect.
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)—“Billy the Kid”
KK: Oh, that’s funny, I just saw that last night. It was on television. Well, Sam asked me to come down and talk to him. Sam Peckinpah. When I was going up there, it was a little intimidating. He was throwing knives at a little wooden door he had in his office, an old wooden door. And he was throwing knives in there, and sticking them. And I don’t know if he was doing that to get my respect or my attention, but anyway, he ended up putting me in it. And geez, he was really one of the directors that I respected the most at the time. It turned out well.
AVC: That was probably Bob Dylan’s biggest film role. Did you spend a lot of time with him on the set?
KK: Oh yeah, well, I got him in it. [Laughs.] I was talking to him, and I thought it’d be great for him to work on there, and he did a good job.
AVC: It’s a bit of an odd role.
KK: Well the problem was that Sam thought the studio was forcing [Dylan] on them, to make the film commercial. I think that kind of got in the way of their relationship. But Bob was great.
AVC: Peckinpah was famously strong-willed.
KK: Yeah, well, Sam was—we got to be very good friends, and I was in several of his films. But he was his own worst enemy. I think he fueled his creative energy with anger at the studio, at the people who were hiring him. And that can work for a while, but it can be destructive.
Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)—“Biker”
KK: My role in that was very small. [Peckinpah] just more or less made a place for me in that; I think the film suffered because he made the scene that I was in, where I was supposed to rape the leading character, the girl, and he made it so that it was almost like she was enjoying it. [Laughs.] And I remember when—what’s his name, I’m terrible at names—the lead actor in it.
AVC: Warren Oates.
KK: Yeah, Warren. I remember when we were watching the scene, during the dailies, and Warren was like, “Gee, she liked it! What is that?” And it was really hard for him, because it wasn’t supposed to be that way, but Sam was trying to make me look good. I think he made the scene too sympathetic to me.
AVC: Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs also generated a lot of controversy for its ambiguous depiction of rape. It seems like there was an awful lot of rape in American films in the ’70s.
KK: Is that right? I hadn’t studied that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Possibly some part of it was a response to the new freedom, where you could show things that you couldn’t before. Anytime anybody has a new freedom, they take it maybe a little too far.
KK: Well, compared to what goes on today, I don’t think it was too free at all. I think you’re right, especially with people who are used to pushing things as far as they can, anyway.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976)—“Jim Cameron”
KK: Yeah, that was kind of a troublemaker as well. I know there were a couple of weeks where I didn’t even have any clothes. There was nothing but love scenes. It didn’t go too well with my marriage at the time. But I don’t know, I was just learning on the job, more or less, trying to do as good a job as I could.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) — “David”
KK: Yeah, that was a good one. I’m blanking again on the name, who was the director, the famous…
AVC: Martin Scorsese?
KK: Oh yeah, Martin. He was great. I was really honored to be doing a film with him.
A Star Is Born (1975)—“John Norman Howard”
KK: Yeah, I don’t know if it was the biggest commercial hit, but I thought it was a good film. I really enjoyed it when I saw what she’d done with it. Barbra and I were battling during a lot of it over artistic choices, but I really ended up indebted to her.
AVC: What kind of artistic choices?
KK: Like when in the first scene, when I meet her, the way it was written in the script, it had me coming in and grandstanding all the way through the crowd, and throwing pieces of fried chicken all over the place, and drawing attention to myself. And I said, “You know, it’s not the way it happened.” You try to go in there and not be seen, and people keep coming up and drawing attention to you, by coming up to your table and everything. And she ended up doing it the way I suggested, and it gave more sympathy to my character.
AVC: Elvis was bandied about as a potential lead for the film before you were cast.
KK: Yeah, there were a lot of people. I think the Colonel wouldn’t let him do it.
AVC: I read a really great biography of Colonel Tom Parker that came out a couple of years ago, and there’s a debate as to whether it didn’t happen because Elvis was out of shape and didn’t want the role, or Colonel Tom Parker shot it down.
KK: I know he was really disappointed that he couldn’t do it, after the film came out. I mean, that’s what I heard. I didn’t hear him say it. But I always felt like it was a really good job, and I like that she made it—if you watch the other versions of A Star Is Born, the guy is really a loser. And she made me a lot more heroic and sympathetic, I think.
Semi-Tough (1977)—“Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller”
KK: Well, I loved football when I was going to school; I loved playing it. And I was tickled to get to play the character. I just wish that that the character could have been more like the book. I think the director wanted to make more contrast between the character Burt Reynolds was playing and mine. Or something. But he didn’t let me do stuff that was in the book that I liked. I can’t remember what it is now, but I’m glad I did it. It wasn’t nearly as funny as the book. The book is great.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)—“James Averill”
KK: Oh yeah. That was a turning point, definitely. It was crucified by the press. They were fascinated by it. I remember hearing that—I forget what the secretary of state’s name was at the time—but he went to Hollywood, had a meeting with the different studios, and said there’d be no more films made with a negative picture of American history. Heaven’s Gate was based on a true story about the cattle people; the people who had the money turned on the settlers who were in the area. And it was mainly a defense of their behavior. And the cattlemen’s association had just about declared war on these people who were poaching cattle, and because they were mainly immigrants.
AVC: It was genocide against the poor.
KK: It was. At the time, it was looked at as un-American. But it was true.
AVC: It’s incredibly brutal in its take on capitalism. How did you come into this? When you read the script, did you have any idea what kind of a Herculean endeavor it would become?
KK: Absolutely not. I was up there for six months in Montana where we were making it. And my marriage fell apart in the middle of making it, and then it was the biggest bomb of all time. It definitely was a turning point in my life. [Laughs.] I didn’t get any good work for a quite a while after that.
AVC: When I spoke to Tom Noonan, who has a very small role in that, he said that he felt physically unsafe when he was making it. He compared it to Apocalypse Now.
KK: [Laughs.] There was dangerous stuff done all during that thing. My guitar player Stephen Bruton was in it, and he was almost run over in the big battle scene when they’ve got horses and stagecoaches going around in a circle, around the cattlemen. And it’s amazing more people weren’t hurt or killed.
AVC: Apparently the American Humane Association was so horrified by what happened on the set of Heaven’s Gate in terms of killing and abusing animals that they demanded that they be on the set whenever there are animals.
KK: That reminds me of Peckinpah, in the beginning of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, they’re blowing the heads off of roosters, and there was quite a bit of discourse about that.
AVC: You said that after that, you didn’t get very good parts.
KK: I just took whatever looked interesting to me. And I wasn’t, and am not offered leading roles anymore. But I’ve had a pretty good life in film.
Convoy (1978)—“Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald
KK: Oh, what I think was funny was that Sam got me to do the film. It was written by the guy who directed my first film, I can’t think of his name.
AVC: Bill L. Norton.
KK: Bill Norton, yeah. He wrote Convoy, which we rewrote all the way through. I remember at one point, they were going to fire Sam. We were off for about a week sitting there waiting, and Bob was getting ready to film a big fight in a bar room that we had. Anyway, I told them that I wouldn’t finish the film if they fired Sam, which they were going to do. So they said they weren’t going to fire him, and I stayed on the film. But Sam came up the first day we were filming it, the first scene, and he came up behind me and said, “You son of a bitch, I was out of here.” And I said, “You son of a bitch, you got me into it.” He was trying to get out.
AVC: You had each other to blame for being in that film.
KK: Well hell, he was the one who got me in in the first place. I figured he had to finish the ride.
Songwriter (1984)—“Blackie Buck”
KK: Oh yeah. He’s a great director. Alan Rudolph saved that film. And unfortunately, they decided to show the first screening of it, where all the press was and everything, in Nashville of all places, where they felt they were being criticized. I remember Chet Atkins walked out in the middle of the film. But they couldn’t have picked a worse place to play it, because it was really the story about what Willie [Nelson] had done, which was when they wouldn’t do his music in Nashville, he went off to Texas and did it. So that was a mistake, and the film didn’t get near the exposure it deserved. And I can’t think of her name, but the woman who was a critic for The New Yorker?
AVC: Pauline Kael?
KK: I think so. She liked it. And they figured that it was the people who we were lampooning in there that kept it from being popular.
AVC: Rip Torn is the bad guy, but it seems like the country-music establishment is the villain. So it seems perverse to go to the same people and say, “Hey, how do you like this film about you?”
KK: But yeah, getting back to Alan. He was a great director, and he was very creative on the spot. We would come up with ideas all the time, and he would say, “That’s great, and then you should just do this.” And he would have the perfect ending to the scene. I think I was lying in bed with some girl, and at the end of the scene, he had me walk into the bathroom, and I was still wearing the eye mask and looking in the mirror. And I think I say, “You good-looking son of a bitch, don’t you never die.” He thought up the scene, and I was able to put some of my experience in there.
AVC: Was it true to kind of your experiences in the country-music business?
KK: It was more Willie’s story than mine. But I felt that it was fair.
Amerika (1987)—“Devin Milford”
KK: [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to do that one, because I thought it was a little too right-wing. And my manager at the time begged me to, so I tried to do as much damage control in it as I could. But it was not something I think about a lot.
AVC: It was a relic of the Cold War as the Cold War was winding down.
KK: Yeah, well, the Russians were the bad guys. I was over in Moscow when the thing came out, and I was trying to counter the damage.
AVC: What were you doing in Moscow?
KK: Oh, some sort of a peace conference with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, and I got to meet him, and I was just trying to establish some kind of communication between us and them. So I had done a film that was making it look like it was dividing Russians and Americans, and I felt a responsibility to try and counter that.
Trouble In Mind (1985)—“Hawk”
AVC: This was a favorite of mine.
KK: Oh, really, yeah? Well I’m glad; I’ll have to look at that again. It didn’t get a lot of coverage. But I loved working with Alan. He’s such a creative director. Not just in writing the thing, but in the way he reacts to things that happen. He’s creative all the time. A lot of people are so worried about where the cameras are going, once you get started, they can’t really be thinking. But not him. He’s good.
AVC: Trouble In Mind was one of Divine’s only films not directed by John Waters. Did you have an opportunity to work with Divine at all?
KK: Yeah. I think we had a scene together, a scene or two. But I remember I thought he was really great. That was his first male role, I believe.
AVC: Apparently that’s something he really wanted to do, to be less of a drag queen and more of an actor.
KK: Well, I think that again is more of Alan’s sense of humor.
Big Top Pee-wee (1988)—“Mace Montana”
KK: [Laughs.] Yeah, one of my favorite films was that film he did before that.
AVC: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
KK: Yeah. And every one of my kids liked it. In fact, I liked that one better than the one I was in. But it was definitely something, one of those films you can go back and look at again and again.
KK: Well, it was good work. I got to work with some good people, and I think it’s the only one people nowadays identify me with. [Laughs.] It seems like everybody, the civilians I talk to bring that one up. I’m trying to think of a film that I did, I did a couple of films and I can’t think of names worth a damn, but I was thinking of the one where I played the killer sheriff…silver…uh…
AVC: Silver City?
KK: No. Uh… oh boy. They say the first thing to go is your legs, then it’s your reflexes, then it’s your friends. [Laughs.] My memory is really bad now. This guy’s a very good independent director, the guy that did this film. And you know his name, and I know his name just like my family. But I remember when he asked me to do the role, a killer, a sheriff who was really a cold-blooded guy.
AVC: Lone Star.
KK: Lone Star! Tell me the director’s name.
AVC: That was John Sayles.
KK: Yeah. It was a great experience. I remember when he offered me that role and I read it, and I said, “You know, I’d love to do this, but I wonder why you thought of me to play this guy.” I can’t remember what his answer was. It was one of the best films I’ve been in.
Planet Of The Apes (2001)—“Karubi”
AVC: Was your character one of the apes?
KK: Yeah, I was… No, I wasn’t an ape. I was a caveman type of guy. I think. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s filming like when you have that level of costume and makeup and special effects?
KK: It’s not really an acting job. It’s you more or less having to hit your mark. I remember I fell out of a window backward. I can’t remember what the scene was now, but I was in a bedroom, and I was supposed to go up against the window, and I actually fell out; I could have broken my neck. But for some reason, I flipped and I landed on my feet. And I remember coming back up to the window, and I said, “I meant to do that.” Stealing the line from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Everybody on the set thought I’d killed myself.
Fast Food Nation (2006) — “Rudy Martin”
KK: Oh yeah, that was good. And again now, who was the director?
AVC: Richard Linklater.
KK: Oh yeah, it was good working with him.
AVC: Did you read the book it was based on?
KK: Yeah. My part in it wasn’t really big. But it was, when you’re working with people you respect, there’s a reason you respect them: They’re good creative people. And I’m very fortunate in the things that have been offered to me.