Evan Smith: You were in Austin for a week in March—first to be honored for your film work by the Texas Film Hall of Fame and then to play a show at South by Southwest. At this point in your career, do you think of yourself as a singer who acts or as an actor who sings?
Lyle Lovett: I definitely think of my career as a musical career. Every day for me is trying to figure out how to write a song, to write one so that I can perform it.Going out on the road and playing is how I make a living. And I love to do that.
ES: So the acting is something that just happens to take up a portion of your time.
LL: I’ve been really lucky to take part in some incredible movies, but it’s not something I pursue. I don’t think of myself as an actor, though in getting to do some of these movies, I’ve grown to really admire actors. Getting to see how people work, to see how much there is to it and how skilled actors actually are at acting, has been an education. It’s been fascinating to me.
ES: How did you get your first movie role? If I’m remembering correctly, it was in The Player.
LL: Actually, the very first thing I got to do was something else. It was 1983. I was out of school, playing half a dozen clubs around Texas every month or six weeks, and I got a call from Tim Leatherwood, at Anderson Fair, the famous acoustic music room in Houston. A movie-of-the-week was shooting in the area, and they needed somebody to sing a song. They were going to have auditions at the old Allen Park Inn, on Allen Parkway, which is where all the productions seemed to camp out. I went over there and stood by the swimming pool while the director, an English guy from New York named Anthony Page, sat in one of the pool chairs as several of us took turns singing songs. And he gave the part to me. The credit was “Singer at Beach.”
It was the sequel to Bill—it was called Bill: On His Own—and Mickey Rooney was in it. He was in town doing a play, so they were shooting it in Galveston. They had dressed up the seawall to look like Venice Beach, and I was sitting there, playing and singing, as Mickey and Dennis Quaid were walking by. Because of the singing part, I was able to get my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card. It was really cool.
ES: The opportunity to be in another movie didn’t present itself for another eight or nine years.
LL: No, it didn’t, until Robert Altman came to a show we did. Tim Neece, who was managing Rickie Lee Jones, put together a summer tour in 1990 in which we played outdoor amphitheaters, including the Greek Theatre, in Los Angeles. Altman’s granddaughter had talked her grandparents into coming to the show. A couple of months later, after the tour was over, the phone in my kitchen rang, and it was Altman. I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Hi, this is Bob Altman. You wanna be in a movie?” It was exactly like that. I said, “Uh, sure.” He was calling about Short Cuts, which he was working on before The Player came up. He told me all about it, and he asked if I was familiar with the [Raymond] Carver stories [that inspired the movie]. Of course I was. But then Short Cutswas preempted by The Player, and he included me in thatas well.
ES: And there you are.
LL: I was very excited. When I was a kid, I went to a Lutheran school, and my folks were counselors for the youth group. They had a reputation for being a little liberal. They would have meetings once a month and plan activities, like going to the movies. Some of their movie choices were a little racy. In the seventh grade they took me to see M.A.S.H., an R-rated movie directed by Altman. So, you know, a few years later, to actually hear from him …
ES: You got to work alongside Whoopi Goldberg in The Player. What was that like?
LL: She made me feel as though I’d known her my whole life. She was so reassuring and helpful. She was like one of those great teachers who give you the confidence to feel you can do something or can learn something as opposed to making you feel like you can’t.
ES: I’m guessing Altman was the same way.
LL: Exactly the same. He treats you like you can do it. He assumes you can do it. And then you can.
ES: You’ve now done four movies with him: The Player, Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, and Cookie’s Fortune.
LL: And I did the music for Dr. T and the Women.
ES: You were also in a few non-Altman films, including The Opposite of Sex. I wonder if that was a big leap for you, having gotten comfortable with Altman’s particular way of working.
LL: It really was. My first thought was “Why would somebody else want to hire me?” And my second was “What’s this going to be like?” Don Roos [the director of The Opposite of Sex] turned out to be wonderful, nurturing, and smart—all the things that make a great, insightful person.
ES: Any plans to do more non-Altman movies?
LL: If the right opportunity comes along. It’s fun to be in a movie and do all that pretend stuff, to be able to act out something that’s imaginary. Playing music or writing songs can be an isolating experience. Even if you’re out on the road, playing five or six nights a week—which we have to do when we go out with a large band, just to sustain it—you get in your own world. You don’t always work with other