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Willis Earl Beal Talks About Nearly Sabotaging His Film Debut

Actor, poet and musician opens up as 'Memphis,' directed by Tim Sutton, premieres at Sundance

January 19, 2014 12:47 PM ET
Willis Earl Beal poses for a portrait during Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Willis Earl Beal poses for a portrait during Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Jeff Vespa/WireImage

"I’ll have a double scotch and a steak medium rare," poet, musician and actor Willis Earl Beal tells the server at Grub Steak, a Park City surf and turf joint that’s something of an institution among Sundance programmers, filmmakers and reporters. He’s wearing a Zorro-style mask with eyeholes blacked out by a thin nylon scrim, and as he orders, he slips me his new self-released EP. They can’t serve doubles in Utah so they bring him two drinks. Tim Sutton, who just directed Beal in the film Memphis, grabs one of them.

Sutton and Beal are here to celebrate the premiere of Memphis, a meditative tale of a talented artist struggling to record an album as he wanders through the overgrown grass, empty parking lots, and golden hour sunsets of the mythic blues city. Meandering like the Mississippi River, Beal navigates his way through creative and emotional disintegration, and along the way links up with the Stax Records establishment, with cameos from legendary vocalists Larry Dodson and John Gary Williams. The film – scored by Beal with several haunting new tracks – is reminiscent of David Gordon Green’s George Washington with a splash of Tree of Life-era Malick. Sutton and Beal spoke to Rolling Stone about the attraction to Memphis, art imitating life, and their cathartic, porn-burning, wrap party.

19 Burning Questions for Sundance 2014

Why set this in Memphis?
Sutton: I dig Memphis as a town. I didn’t know much about it more than I’d read about it. The thing about Memphis that interests me, more than a town like Detroit or Philly, is that Memphis represents this great thing that at one point in time has almost been lost. Not to go too far into idolizing urban ruin, but this is a place that is purely blessed on one side and cursed on the other. It generates the most creativity in American music, but it’s [photographer William] Eggelston’s town, it’s Elvis’ town, but then Martin Luther King got shot and the whole fucking thing goes into a crater. It’s a vortex of spirituality.

Beal: There’s a goddamn pyramid in the middle of the town.

What made you decide on Willis?
Sutton: We met, and he was the guy. I wrote this character named Ezra Jack, but he’s well known, he has the voice of God and won’t sing. People want him to sing, and he won’t sing. He keeps going away and away, and he won’t sing. I interviewed a couple of actors who are good actors who you’d recognize, and I saw a clip of Willis and he was singing into his phone, this song "Disintegration." What really struck me was the moment between his notes. I wouldn’t say we clicked and were best friends we’re not. We clashed on this set. We had different things going on at the same time to make this character and this film work. 

Beal: I almost got my ass canned.

Sutton: You did almost get your ass canned. You canned me, then I canned you, then I came back.

What happened?
Sutton: This was an incredibly difficult performance for Willis because it is him, but it absolutely is not him, but it is him. There were all these characters that came into this movie that were strangely representative of his life. And, what we talked about in the beginning of the movie, is we just wanted to lay it on the line we weren’t interested in a movie that had a perfect plot. We wanted to do a disintegration. There’s a point in the film where he had to go further and further into the dark, and I wanted him to go to Beale street and cause havoc. Willis didn’t want to do it. He spent a lot of time in his life doing shit like that, he didn’t want to regress like that. The day was horrible, we were having a horrible time, Willis was drunk out of his mind.

For authenticity?
Sutton: Process and product is the exact same thing for me. And I think it is for Willis too.

Beal: It was not method acting. They were in search of authenticity. So I started to regress into this mindset of them being against me. No excuse, but that’s what he said, he wanted me to go to Beal Street and act like a damn fool, and I’ve been kicked out of clubs and been drunk in the street, and I’ve done a lot of things to humiliate myself in my real life, and I didn’t really feel like it. I just felt like I was exploiting myself and unknowingly they were exploiting me. I went off, I disappeared, and then I showed up to the house totally smashed and ready to go to Beale street. And they said well, we’re not going down there and I just flipped. I just started trashing the place and in that moment, I knew, right before I trashed the place, I said film this, this is me imploding. I knew that I was quitting at that moment, I knew that it was over, and everyone was going to spread my name and say, 'He was impossible to work with,' and my career was over. In a way, it was going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because I’ve ruined everything in my life always. At the end of the whole shoot we had a bonfire, and I had a folder full of pornography images and we had the whole cast come over and I wrote my sins down.

What was in the folder?
Beal: Pictures of ladies from the internet. I saw this film, it was like the fucking Twilight Zone, my uncle was in this film, my dad, my mother. I grew up in this place, but not in Memphis, but in Chicago, and all these people. . . . And for the first time, I experienced the difference between having the family that you’re born with and having people that actually in someway care about you, and understand you and want to help you. What you have there is both a documentary and a fictional film. 

How do you feel now, Willis?
Beal: I struggle. I’m pretty much the same, really. The only difference is that I’ve moved from New York to Washington State with my wife. It’s sort of strange because I have the same trajectory as the character, except I have a wife. I’m driving around Washington state in a Mini Cooper.

Do you feel like you came out of it?
Beal: No, I didn’t come out of it, I still struggle every day. I still Google myself incessantly on the Internet, and listen to my own music incessantly. I feel sometimes like I’m folding in on myself.

What are you working on music-wise?
Beal: Well I just gave you that EP. It’s not like "Nobody Knows." I sing in a lower tone. There’s a little bit of Leon Redbone in there, all I can tell you is all of the music is tinted gold. I’ve got all of the material written and finished for my third record, if they don’t fire me. We’ve got seven out of ten songs fired. If they don’t fire me. 

Will they really fire you?
Beal: Well, I’m a difficult person.

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