The death of country music icon Hank Williams at the ridiculously young age of 29 has inspired all manner of speculative reportage and semi-fictionalized drama ever since that fateful Jan. 1 morning in 1953 when his driver, Charles Carr, discovered the singer-songwriter slumped over in the back seat in his car while both men were en route to an Ohio concert that Williams would famously never give.
With The Last Ride (playing at Sundance Cinemas downtown), director Harry Thomason attempts a novel take on that tragedy by re-imagining it, along with scriptwriters Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett, as a kinda-sorta road movie, focusing on the interactions of two disparate traveling companions as they take a circuitous route toward a date with destiny.
Credit Henry Thomas for shrewdly underplaying as Hank Williams, a part that could have brought out the unabashed hambone in many lesser actors. He persuasively plays the country great as a battered wreck — ashen-faced, unsteady of step, and given to violent coughing jags — who has done too much too soon and, ironically, looks much older than he’ll ever live to be. Indeed, there are moments when he appears to be ambulatory only through sheer force of will.
At the same time, though, Thomas conveys enough vigorous sass and intimidating authority to make it clear that, even as Williams himself knows full well that he’s going to hell in a hand basket — or, to be more specific, a powder-blue Cadillac Eldorado — this feisty reprobate will damn sure set the course while enjoying the trip.
In the world according to Thomason and his scriptwriters, Charles Carr is reconstituted as Silas (Jesse James), an unhappily employed mechanic who pounces on the employment opportunity when a stranger (Ray McKinnon) offers cash to anyone willing to drive “Mr. Wells” from Montgomery, Alabama, to stops in West Virginia and Ohio. Unfortunately, Silas — who doesn’t know his passenger’s true identity, and isn’t even much of a country music fan — is almost laughably ill-equipped to fulfill another requirement of the job. Charged with keeping Wells/Williams clean and sober, he can only look on helplessly as the fading hellraiser seizes every opportunity to imbibe, indulge, brandish weaponry and generally misbehave.
Henry Thomas recently phoned … no, I won’t do it, won’t make the obvious joke. Let’s just say he called to talk about the rewards and challenges of playing a legendary country music figure — and his mixed feelings about his own role in pop-culture history as “the kid from E.T.” Here’s some of what he had to say.
CultureMap: Just about everybody has heard Hank Williams’ music. But because he was famous at a time before music videos, before YouTube — many folks may have little or no idea what he actually looked like. Was that an advantage for you?
Henry Thomas: It was, in a sense. It’s always tricky when you’re playing someone, anyone, who is as iconic or well-regarded as Hank Williams. Because, let’s face it, he has a lot of fans. To this day, a lot of people love his music. And a lot of older people know a lot about his life. But, as you say, he was before the music video generation. And there’s only so much you can look up on YouTube for you get some idea of who he was and what he did.
So, yes, for me as an actor, it was a little bit of an advantage, I think. See, I was always worried about the physical resemblance, because we don’t look that much alike. But I didn’t want to get hung up on it, either. Because so much of it was just playing this kind of snaky character in the backseat of the car. That was the allure of the film as much as the opportunity to play a historical figure.
CM: There are a lot of scenes where it’s just you and co-star Jesse James in the car, talking. I assume that, because your budget on this was limited, you had to shoot all of those rather quickly.
HT: Actually, we shot all of those scenes in one day. It was a lot of pages and a lot of dialogue. But Jesse James and I, we just kind of rehearsed it a lot. This is how it worked: We never had time or money to have a week of rehearsals, or two weeks of rehearsals—or any kind of rehearsals, actually. We had 16 or 17 days to shoot the whole movie.
And the truth is, when you work on something like this, you have to step up and do a lot of extra work on your off time. And what happened here is, Jesse and I would get together after work and rehearse scenes for the next day. Or sometimes just read through the script. So that when we showed up to do the work, we weren’t wasting anybody’s time, and we could keep it moving pretty quickly. Because we had to. The alternative is — well, scenes start getting cut, stuff starts getting dropped. And that’s no good.
CM: In addition to portraying the boozing and carousing, you also manage to convey — subtly, without overstatement — the physical afflictions that were everyday torments for Hank Williams.
HT: That was important to me, because that informed a lot of the decisions he made. It definitely played into his alcoholism and his addiction to painkillers. We don’t know everything that he did, or didn’t do. But I think, above all, he was a showman. And he had an amazing ability to charm people. He was always performing, in a sense, because he was in such a constant state of pain.
The only thing that could chase that away was some kind of medication or self-medication to subdue the pain. And throughout it all, he has the smiley, “Oh, yes, ma’am.” attitude about him. I don’t think he would have ever let anyone know what pain he was in. Unless he was too far gone to put up a fight about it.
CM: Did you draw on observations of people you’ve known in your life to get a handle on playing Hank Williams?
HT: Well, I grew up in South Texas. But my dad and actually his whole family came from Montgomery, Alabama. We used to go out there all the time when I was a kid. So the mannerisms of people who live in that area of the country — the accents, the speech patterns, things like that — that was all stuff I drew on because I knew about it first-hand. And it was all from Hank’s backyard, pretty much.
CM: What about Hank’s excesses? I guess we’ve all known people like him who were very charming, very engaging, who nonetheless appeared bound and determined to take a turbo-charged toboggan slide into hell.
HT: Oh, yes. I have several very close friends I could have said that about at various points in their lives. And my dad was a terrible alcoholic for years. So I know what that’s like first-hand. That was easy enough to access.
CM: My father, God rest his soul, was an epic boozer until the day he died. And the scariest thing about him — about many people like him, and I suppose like Hank Williams — was the quicksilver mood changes. The way he could turn from cheery to pissed off on a dime.
HT: That’s the biggest thing, right?
CM: Exactly. One minute, you are the best buddies in the world, and you’re joking about this and that. And then the next minute, you say something entirely innocuous and the next thing you know, you have unleashed the furies.
HT: Yeah, I think that’s the sort of thing that made some people want to keep just a little bit distant from Hank, and not aggravate him very much. And you see a little bit of that at the beginning of the film. But I think the important thing about the film, and the important thing about what it says about Hank, is … yes, it’s a fictional account.
Because, really, no one knows for sure what happened to him during those final days. And there’s been a lot of speculation, even a lot of conspiracy reports. But the important thing is that, near the end, he identifies with somebody, and reaches out to somebody in a compassionate way. To me, that was the real power of the story. This guy was far gone. And he kind of knew his lease was up. So he got this opportunity. And it was kind of redeeming, you know?
CM: I spoke with Arthur Penn a couple years before his death. And he indicated to me that he came to view Bonnie and Clyde as a mixed blessing. Like, he was proud of the film, proud of directing the film, but that’s all people ever wanted to talk about. And his feeling, understandably, was, “Hey, you know, I have directed other pictures.” Do you feel a similar way about starring in E.T. when you were so young?
HT: Yeah, I’ve struggled with that at various points in my career. When I was in my 20s, you know, I really couldn’t stand it whenever anybody brought up E.T., because I was trying to be a brooding, serious young actor. And that wide-eyed child actor thing just didn’t play into the level of coolness I was shooting for.
I know you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. [Laughs] But it does get a little frustrating at times. Because you do have other work that you’re proud of. Films you think you’ve done really great jobs in, that deserve recognition but never really seem to get it.
But on the other hand, just to be remembered for anything is kind of a rarity nowadays. So I’m happy that E.T. was a part of my life. And I’m happy that it’s still a success. But as for its importance in my life? I don’t think it’s at where a lot of people who don’t know me would chart it from the outside looking it. I regard it a lot differently.