Known best for his dark, soulful indie-folk recordings under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Will Oldham has actually worked on and off as an actor since the age of ten. Now the influential cult artist
returns to the big screen with Old Joy, an indie feature executive-produced by Todd Haynes and featuring a soundtrack by Yo La Tengo, which just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“When I was a kid, I always thought that acting was going to be the way to go,” says Oldham. Long before he came on the music scene in 1993, releasing There Is No One What Will Take Care of You under the moniker Palace Brothers, he was involved in a “pretty intensive theater-training thing,” through high
school in Kentucky, leading to radio and TV voiceovers. Some relics of that time remain — including, Oldham supposes, one Kentucky Fried Chicken spot still in rotation in his home state. Oldham went on to do film work, from bit parts in Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy and the new indie Junebug to more substantial roles in John Sayles’ 1987 mining film Matewan and the 1993 Southern drama Elysian Fields.
But Oldham, with his ties to a number of experimental American artists — from filmmaker Korine, who also directed a video for his song “No More Workhorse Blues,” to the band Tortoise, with whom he just released The Brave and the Bold — had serious doubts about Hollywood as a full-time occupation. “The main obstacle is how much interpersonal contact it demands,” says the fairly reclusive artist. “Like I want to spend time with a bunch of people I don’t respect? I’d rather teach preschool and
spend time with people I have a lot in common with! At least in the down time with making music, you can have a great time with the people you’ve gotten together.”
Old Joy director Kelly Reichardt, however,
managed to win him over with her lyrical screenplay about the end of a friendship. The two first met year earlier, at a screening of her 1994 film River of Grass at New York venue Tonic, and Oldham went on to score her short film Ode. And with Old Joy, backed by her long-time friend Todd Haynes (director of the Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven) Reichardt offered the singer both a stripped-down set — a crew of six, shooting only in daylight in the Cascade mountain range outside Portland, Oregon — and a challenging role, as the wanderer Kurt.
“Kurt’s life — in order to maintain a certain freedom for himself, he kind of comes and gets what he wants from people and then he moves on,” Reichardt says of the character, who we get to know as he goes on an extended, introspective hike with his friend Mark (Daniel London), the more responsible of the two who is preparing for life as a father. Over the course of their retreat — the filming of which involved two-and-a-half-mile hikes with the equipment up the mountainside — the friends realize how little they have in common. “I
felt totally in line with the Kurt character,” Oldham says of the nomad, “and sometimes I felt intrigued by him and then sometimes I felt pity. I know for a fact that different people in my life have those reactions to
“Will’s an incredibly generous person to work with,” Reichardt says. “He’s an actor where if you ask him to contribute he will, but he wants to be directed. He said all the time: ‘Tell me what you want.'” Many of Oldham’s improvised moments with London ended up in the film, including a story he tells, based on his own experience, during the movie’s emotional climax, set at a hot springs.
Meanwhile, Oldham plans to tour Scotland next month, followed by March dates in Japan. Until then, he’s in Iceland, finishing mixing his next Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, due later this year — possibly as soon as the fall. “Just now, I was caught up in mixing,” he says, “and I was thinking this is, like, one of the best things I’ve ever heard.”
The new effort features an Icelandic string quartet,
on at least one track, as well as the songwriting debut of his twenty-one-year-old cousin, who was his touring keyboardist in 2004. “Being able to bring things out of people and be witness to that,” says Oldham, “is the best part.”