An Interview by Charlene Krista
January 1984 issue of "Films in Review"
"One of the lovely things about film is that in each scene, you can take the opportunity to show the audience another cut of the character. I sometimes set that as a challenge to myself. As I'm going through the script, I make a blueprint, and think, 'alright, what can I reveal here? What can I show here?'"
Since making his film debut a scant three years ago, actor Peter Coyote has had more than ample opportunity to develop his craft, having appeared in
such notable films as Walter Hill's Southern Comfort and Steven Spielberg's E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.
In his latest film, Cross Creek, which is based on the autobiographical memoirs of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Coyote plays Norton Baskin, the local hotelkeeper, who befriends newcomer Rawlings, woos, and eventually wins her heart.
Sipping hot tea with honey in his suite in New York's Mayfair Regent Hotel, Coyote exudes a down-home warmth and charm that is welcomingly refreshing. Dressed in a bold floral print and comfortable-looking faded blue jeans, Coyote is an interesting composite: he bears more than a passing resemblance to Harrison Ford with a blend of Sterling Holloway's wistful smile and Henry Fonda's mellow voice.
Born in Manhattan, Coyote was raised in the suburbs of New Jersey and the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. "I'm an easterner," he says, "but I've lived on the west coast for twenty years. I feel more like a westerner now." Laughing as he speaks, Coyote adds, "I felt more like a westerner then - I left as early as I could!"
Coyote's father played an indirect role in fashioning his life-long ambitions. He explains, "My father was a Renaissance man. He was a Japanese Go Master; he was a successful business man; he was the president of a railroad; he was a partner in a major antiques business and he raised cattle. He had extraordinary breadth." Minimizing his own contribution to the growth process, Coyote notes, "I was sort of just a loud, fat, showy kid who liked to jerk around in front of people and happened to have a penchant for studying behavior and body language as a reflection of inner life. So, if you have that predeliction, you gravitate toward theatre, psychology or psychotherapy!" His family's support of the arts reinforced in Coyote the notion that artistic endeavors were something to be pursued. "One of the great things about my father," Coyote goes on to say, "is that he was a patron to jazz musicians. We had great jazz musicians around the house - friends that were always coming to our farm to go coon hunting. Secretly, they were my inspiration," he smilingly states. "They were the first grown-ups that I had even seen who liked what they did for a living. Through them, I learned that it was possible to grow up and be loose and funny - and have a good time!"
Yet despite this apparent aura of freedom of expression and creativity, the adolescent Coyote found life less than satisfying. "One of the things that led me to run away when I was about sixteen was this feeling of being deprived by privilege of adequate tests of my worth. I'm actually a very competitive person, and the notion that I was playing with a stacked deck made me crazy." Coyote offers an analogy. "I don't want to be the best basketball player in the world in a fixed game. I'd rather be the 11th best in an absolutely unrigged game. Then I could say, 'I'm 11th' and really hold my head up."
The next stage in Coyote's life sounds as if it was borrowed from a 1960s headline. "I lived on communes. I was involved with practically every kind of revolutionary movement of the period. My 'family' of people was called 'The diggers.'" He laughs, "We were a kind of 'out-there' tribe." On a somber note, Coyote continues, "And I traveled around in my truck, did far too many drugs, buried a lot of my friends, lived in the backwoods. I learned how to weld, plumb, fix cars, do wiring, do carpentry - lived a life." He reflects: "I felt like I'd been in school for 15 years and it was time to de-program and re-educate myself."
"It's funny," he adds, "I quit acting for eight years and I can't figure out in retrospect if it was a good or bad thing to do. I had adventures, did things that most human beings - let alone most actors - haven't done, which I can draw on. I had a lot of freedom. I ran in some dangerous company and I've been in some rooms that I'd rather not remember, but I wasn't working during that period of time. I wasn't practicing and I wasn't really pushing myself." Commenting on his present position, Coyote notes, "True, I've grown I've seasoned and matured, but at the same time, I haven't done the same body of work that some of my peers have. And I suppose that I have some lingering insecurity or doubt about that."
Coyote smilingly states: "It's not like I've been out there for twenty years trying to get into films. For the first 14 years that I was an actor, I didn't want to be in the movies. I was rather snobbish about it. It wasn't until I was honest and answered my own envy and jealousy about it that I actually decided to go for it." Noting that October 1983 marks his third anniversary with his Beverly Hills agent, Coyote admits, "I've done something like fourteen or fifteen films in that period of time, in a really tough time. And certainly, a number of those roles have been forgettable, but I just feel like I'm paying my dues."
In addition to his film work, Coyote is a member in long standing of the San Francisco theatrical scene, where he currently resides with Marilyn, his wife of six years. Coyote first became involved with professional theatre in 1964 through the San Francisco Actors Workshop. From 1965 to 1978, Coyote performed with and/or directed a variety of street and equity-waiver groups, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Magic Theatre. For three years, he also served as the chairman of the California Arts Council.
In 1975, he joined the San Francisco troupe of Paul Sill's Story Theatre, designing and performing the production's music, as well as performing in multiple roles. In collaboration with some of his former associates from the Mime Troupe, Coyote performed with the Reinhabitory Theatre Company, which presented bawdy improvisations based on ancient and new stories indigenous to Northern California. As a member of the Magic Theatre, Coyote had the opportunity to showcase his talents playing the lead in the world premier of Obie-winning playwright Michael McClure's The Red Snake. He subsequently played the leads in the world premiers of Sam Shepard's True West and in Marti Epstein's prizewinning plays, Autobiography Of A Pearl Diver and Charles, The Irrelevant!
Coyote's television credits include playing the prosecuting attorney to Ellen Burstyn's Jean Harris (the convicted socialite murderess) in NBC's top-rated, two-part drama, The People vs Jean Harris. He also played the lead in the docudrama, In The Child's Best Interest, which was nominated for a Northern California Emmy as Best Dramatic Production. Coyote co-starred in the TV movie, Isabel's Choice, with Jean Stapleton and Richard Kiley, and also co-starred in the PBS series, "Up And Coming." Despite this television work, Coyote reveal, "I stayed away from television a lot, though I'm really scared of it," he laughs, "because the medium has a tendency to define you quickly, and then present you to every household in America in that definition. And once you get locked in that way, that can be fatal to a varied career." Further explaining his view, Coyote notes, "Since I'm new and not yet defined, I'd just as soon cut myself the biggest field to run in."
Making his movie debut in the comedy, Die Laughing, Coyote then played supporting roles in such films as Tell Me a Riddle, the film which marked the directional debut of actress Lee Grant. This film also marked the first movie Coyote was to work in with a woman at the helm. Coyote is quick to laud Grant's directorial talents. "Lee is interesting because she's such a fine actress. In an industry where they refer to actors as 'the talent, or faces,' it's a relief to work with someone who is completely tuned to the actor."
A breakthrough for Coyote came with Walter Hill's thriller, Southern Comfort, in which Coyote played a National Guard squadron leader whose company crumbles in the face of adversity. After seeing his performance in a pre-release screening of this film, director Steven Spielberg cast Coyote immediately in E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial. In the time between these two films, Coyote played major roles in The Adventures of Lyle Swan (Timerider) and Endangered Species.
Coyote beams when he talks of Keyes, the government agent he played in E.T., who emphathizes with the young Elliott as E.T. is dying, and though an adult, manages to retain his childlike innocence and perception amid overwhelming stoic logic. Coyote also has great personal and professional regard for E.T. scriptwriter Melissa Mathison. "When I met Melissa," he states, "she asked me what I thought of that scene (the scene where E.T. is dying). I told her that I thought it was the only scene in the movie that didn't sparkle. She invited me to write it, and I wrote a draft, which she criticized very expertly. And I wrote another one, which she reviewed. Then, Melissa took the two and made her own amalgam. We both agreed that it was very important that we not denigrate adults or science, or say that one lost one's childlike wonder and compassion as one passed puberty! I take some credit in assuming responsibility for that." With much sincerity, Coyote adds, "So, aside from the extraordinary generosity that she showed me as a young and unknown actor, in inviting me to participate in that way, I was also pleased that I got that kind of direct input into the finished ambiance of that scene."
When asked how he feels working with women, especially women who are relatively new at practicing their craft, Coyote readily admits, "I find that I like to work with women. Very rarely run into status competitions working with women. I think it's very easy for men and women to work together on some levels without certain kinds of competition." He goes on to say, "On E.T., Spielberg's producer was a woman. His first assistant director was a woman. The author was a woman. And I tell you, it lent a really nice atmosphere to the set." Referring generally to his experience in working with men on films, Coyote quips, "I really hate the feeling of being surrounded by gorillas, many of whom could not really give a damn about the work."
When called to expand as to how these women's relative "newness" affects their craft, Coyote responds affirmatively, "It's helpful." Relating this to his own background, Coyote says, "I've been a student of Zen Buddhism for a long time. There's a wonderful book called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, in which the author, the man who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, talks about 'beginner's mind.' How a beginner is wide open - has no fixed ideas, no limits - and jumps into a subject. And because beginners have no preconceptions, they often come up with startling and original ideas." He continues, "What I find in some people who have been around for a long time, who are not beginners by their own estimation, is either a deifying of information or just a fixed way of thinking that's dead. I find that when you work with beginners all the time, there's a freedom and an experimentation that actually creates a more participatory feeling."
Coyote prepared for his role as Norton Baskin in several ways. "First, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' works and the two biographies on her. I called the authors of both of those biographies. Then I met with Gordon Bigelow, the definitive biographer of Marjorie Rawlings who had just published a lovely book of her letters. He was charming to me and very cooperative, and mentioned that Norton was alive. That blew my mind! So I called him up and we chatted! When I went to Florida, I met with him. He was extraordinarily generous and he actually gave me insights into playing him."
"I took some aesthetic liberties with him, but it was from his photographs of parties of the '40s that I got some major ideas about body language and his inner life. No matter how much research you do, you are still answerable to the script. In the final analysis, it didn't matter who Norton Baskin was. What mattered was who he was in the script. He doesn't do anything overtly dramatic," Coyote explains. "He doesn't have the peaks in his performance that Geechee or Marsh Turner or Ellie has. But I made a decision that he was really an artist without a medium. That he had the creativity, perceptions and the sensibilities of an artist, and that his medium was reality, everyday life. He lived life with style and grace, with a sense of harmony, humor and wit. He put everything into his everyday life that Marjorie put onto pieces of paper."
After much reflection, Coyote adds: "And her everyday life was more cranky and obdurate. Unaesthetic, actually. And in that insight, I found a kind of complimentariness that explained them to me as a couple." He asks, "You know how couples often act-out their blindsides in each other? And when you think for a minute about the force of his life. Norton was one of six children born on a Georgia farm. He was like a 'cracker' by birth, yet he ran a sophisticated hotel in Ocala Florida - nothing like the little Island Grove Hotel you saw in the film. This is a man who married one of the famous authors of the day, rubbed shoulders with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins. He went on to act in a Hollywood movie (referring to Baskin's rocking chair cameo in the film as he directs the newly-arriving Steenburgen to the Island Grove Hotel), went out with actors - people literally half his age, and went on to be feted at the Cannes Film Festival. So he really was an extraordinary person and his life was elevated. And you know," Coyote says pensively, "who's to say which was the most successful life?"
Coyote maintains that Norton was an observer in the film, as was Steenburgen's Marjorie. "Norton had the same kind of clear, observational ability that Marjorie has," he claims, "but wasn't driven to be anything other than what he was. And so, I think he represented the positive side of Marjorie, a kind of maturity that knew itself. And that was the way I could, or attempted to, lend gravity to the role." In describing his focus, Coyote notes, "When he walked into the room, I wanted you to feel like this is an interesting person This person has something, that there's something going on inside of him that's appealing and attractive."
Coyote recalls his first meeting with director Martin Ritt. "I turned up in his office to read for Marsh Turner, the part Rip Torn played, which I misread! It was very interesting," he laughs." After I read Marsh's role, Martin cocked back in his chair and said, 'very good, young man, only one thing was missing.' I immediately started thinking 'what was missing?' and Martin said 'the danger!'" Snapping his fingers. Coyote admits, "I knew he had me! It was just - spot on. I knew exactly what he meant.'' Trying to salvage the venture, Coyote began, as he puts it, "back peddling," until Ritt suggested that he try for the role of Baskin.
"Working with Martin Ritt was a real pleasure," Coyote reveals. "Most often you run into directors who are technically proficient, but empty. They don't understand story or structure, and they don't understand when an actor has a problem, how to help him or her out of it. I knew all about Martin's reputation as a director. I knew about his films and I also knew something about his background in group theatre." He continues, "It's very liberating to work with a very knowledgable director because you can take risks and go places without worrying whether an inexperienced director will let it through."
"Martin works very intensively with John Alonzo, his cameraman," Coyote states. "John is wonderful because he's the master of the hand-held shot. You very rarely have to deal with the marks." To illustrate Coyote says, "The camera finds you, and you can really concentrate on the other person." Coyote further explains, "Martin tends to squat about 20 inches away, and he watches you as if he were watching somebody doing needlepoint. It's really intense and it's really precise. He's looking for the tiniest flickers of lapsing concentration or anything that he feels is dishonest."
When questioned whether in working with Ritt, he encountered less of a vacuum atmosphere then he would normally encounter in film making, Coyote responds: "It's the nature of film acting to be subjugated to the director. You never transcend that no matter how much you like the director. You never transcend the limitations of having to act in minute and a half chunks. But it does make a difference," he adds, "knowing who's watching. When you're performing for Martin, you feel like you're performing for a really knowledgable audience." With a laugh, Coyote muses, "He's almost enough!"
Of all the roles he's played to date, Coyote is uncertain which part hits closest to home. "I don't mean to sound elusive," he earnestly says, "but I'm not sure what 'home' is. I have this semi-permeable sense of self. If I look at you long enough, I sort of feel myself 'bleeding into' you. One of the reasons that I'm an actor is that it stretches that semi-permeable membrane, or keeps it flexible and loose so that sense of self is always elastic. As far as I'm concerned, I'm the person I'm talking to." He jokes, "and when I do know who I am, I'm usually in trouble! That was the person I was trying to extinguish for years with drugs and hair-raising adventures that I would prefer not knowing. So what hits closest to home? I don't know, as long as there's real human integrity and truth in the script, in the role. My job is to create the glue and the grout - the stuff that holds tiles - to hold it all together."
With a burgeoning film career, beautiful wife and thriving fourteen-year-old daughter living in a nearby boarding school, Coyote looks like a man pleased with his accomplishments and at peace with himself. Though disarmingly laid-back, Coyote is intent on his objectives. With a sidelong grin, Coyote unabashedly admits that in ten years time, contentment would be "polishing an Oscar for acting, writing and directing, snuggling under the covers with my old lady and watching my kids have a good time!" One gets the impression he will.