AUSTIN – "I was the 'Inspector' in An Inspector Calls 797 times altogether," marveled Kenneth Cranham about the recent smash revival in London and on Broadway. For 18 days shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1995, Cranham was a documentary filmmaker in Deep in the Heart (of Texas), an independent movie based on a regional hit play, In the West. The movie is currently playing in Dallas at the AMC Glenlakes 8 Theater, having world premiered there on April 24, and at the Angelika Film Center in Houston, where it opened on May 1. On May 8 it begins also at the Dobie Theatre in Austin. If it's well-received in the Lone Star State, it may warrant a wider release.
On a break from his lead role in a production of the Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov's Flight at the Royal National Theatre, Cranham was more than happy to come back to Texas for a spell to do publicity. "I can't resist going somewhere I've never been," Cranham explained about his stopovers in Houston and Dallas. "And it's so nice to travel with a context, a task, not as a bewildered tourist."
This sense of adventure is why Cranham agreed to be in the low-budget movie in the first place. After all, the final cost for the film was $125,000, scant catering money for, say, The Boxer, Jim Sheridan's 1998 IRA drama in which Cranham co-starred with Daniel Day Lewis. Cranham's extensive film career spans Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968), Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973), Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988), and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Book (1991). Cranham is probably best known as "Harvey Moon" from the long-running BBC series Shine on Harvey Moon.
"I'd had 11 months on Broadway," Cranham recalled. "I went home to England and was sitting about. I really fancied going somewhere else in America besides New York. America has always been a fascination for me, particularly the music." A devotee of blues, jazz, show tunes, of all the genres native to the country, Cranham was so thrilled with Deep in the Heart (of Texas)'s western soundtrack that his one condition on taking the part was to meet the famous and working Texas musicians heard on the soundtrack.
In the West began in 1985 as a series of monologues in which members of the Big State Theater Company, located in Austin, Texas, drew names out of a hat and created a character and related text for the drawn company member name to perform. These Texas tall tales, from two to six minutes each, were devised one at a time. A long-running, word-of-mouth hit, In the West grew to 45 monologues and toured the state. In 1991 the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. produced a program entitled "Texas Festival of the Arts," and In the West was invited. Stephen Purvis, a documentary film and television maker born and raised in Texas, produced, directed, co-adapted (with Jesse Sublett and Tom Huckabee), and is distributing the film. "Everybody 'In the West' is born with a tale," is the subtitle of the movie. The plot, such at it is, concerns a couple on assignment in Texas for British television. They arrive with their crew in Austin to capture the city's and nearby Texas Hill Country's colorful citizens. Among them: a batty "pie lady" with an unsettling family life, a deer hunter who isn't what he seems, and a rabid high school football coach whose motivational techniques at halftime include showing his Vietnam scar. These and a dozen other "characters" having their say are recorded by the British team.
In the play, the linking character was a photographer; deemed too thin a device for the movie, the photographer became a husband-and-wife documentary filmmaking team with marital wrinkles. The wife is played by Amanda Root, star of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Among Root's parts for the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played Juliet to Daniel Day Lewis' Romeo and Cressida to Ralph Fiennes' Troilus. She recently starred as Anne Elliot in Roger Michell's film version of Jane Austin's Persuasion. She, too, signed on to experience the mythos of Texas, eschewing her normal fees.
Much of Cranham's task in the film is to listen. "I had to find a way to be fascinated by these people," he explained. "I find that in traveling there's a great sense of freedom to recreate yourself, and that's what I did with my character, who's a cynic at the beginning and a puppy dog at the end."
Cranham continued, "I tried to get the thought right. The camera can read your mind. So you have to get the emotions down. I had such a blank face as a young man. Now it's such a map. It's become overexpressive. It has such dips in it."
Speaking of his face, Cranham recalled how, during the Broadway run of An Inspector Calls he developed a black mole on his forehead. "Everybody said I should get it removed. And I did, even though I thought it added character. Everybody said that while I was at it I should fill in some of my dips with plastic surgery. I thought, I've been away from home for nearly a year, nobody would know. I was tempted, but I didn't go through with it."
A running joke in Deep in the Heart (of Texas) is the pains to which Cranham's character goes to break in a pair of cowboy boots. "I kept them. But I cheated. My pair has a broad fitting," he laughed.
Deep in the Heart (of Texas) opens May 8 at the Dobie Theatre in Austin. For show times and ticket prices, call (512) 472-3240
By Peter Szatmary