Friday, April 04, 2008

Easy Rider
Marcus Ashley on Music, Movies and Modern Masculinity
Interview by Hara Finnegan

As I sit down for my very first interview with actor and musician Marcus Ashley, something dawns on me. There is a way a person is perceived and the way a person really is. Sitting down with someone for a few hours is surely not going to let me know who a person really is, but I did in fact gain some insight into the dark recesses of Mr. Ashley’s mind. And there was light to be found. To be more specific, provocation.

Sitting in a dirty wicker chair, he puts his boots up along the edge of a wall, tucked a bit uncomfortably. He is tall, clearing a decent 6 foot 3, and he resembles a young Peter Fonda. Within the first few minutes, I notice what would be the theme of our interview. “A man out of place in the modern world.”

At once guarded about his privacy, yet very genial, we sit across from each other chain smoking and drinking burnt coffee.

He lets me know that he is a bit uncomfortable about being interviewed, mentioning a previous interview he had to give while shooting a “Lifetime” movie, something you can’t quite imagine that he would do. The movie, not the interview. “It was embarrassing. In fact, I was so embarrassed all I could do was smile, like a goon. I don’t even remember what I said, but I remember thinking how stupid I must have looked just smiling like that. Embarrassed like that.”

I get the feeling he’d like to forget the past and focus more on the man he has developed into. I also get the feeling that he’d like to be quoted and assessed accurately. I will do my best.

We talk movies. We talk music. We talk politics and what he calls, “the over feminization of the concept of masculinity that is perpetuated by the media and advertising.” I am clearly dealing with someone who has read voraciously, in fact probably lives surrounded by piles of books.

Yet, Marcus Ashley uses words like “Radical” and “Yeah Man” with such adoptable easiness that it makes you want to use them in your own daily vernacular. As we talk and I scribble (I left my tape recorder at home, in hopes of avoiding a more prohibitive type of interview) my feeling is that an interview in of itself is kind of an invasion of privacy, though necessary in our PR-fueled world. Left only to my own powers of observation, one particular thing I do start to notice is that this guy is really cool and really smart. Forget what he looks like. For years we have swooned over movie idols, projecting our wildest and most romantic or heroic fantasies onto them. It makes sense that we would want to project onto Mr. Ashley in black and white or glorious Technicolor. He is soulful. He reminds me of characters long gone from the screen. He reminds me of Hud. He reminds me of Bullitt. He reminds me of Dirty Harry. A cowboy incapable of intimacy, a cop in silent turmoil, and well... Dirty Harry, who’s just downright bad ass.

For sure, Mr. Ashley seems interestingly out of place. None of it is put on, though secretly, like a private detective, I insist on finding his Achilles heel, since his complexity somewhat eludes me. In his work to date, he’s displayed the gangly physical comedy of Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona” and the cool, reserved, cocky, self-possession of Paul Newman in “The Hustler.” Carrying both of these personas both at once and both with equal seriousness can only be pulled off by an actor in a Paul Thomas Anderson film.

As he sits there chatting about movies and acting and his ideas about men crying in movies, I start to daydream. I’m a bad interviewer; all I can think of is Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “Boogie nights” crying in a Corvette, juxtaposed with images of Marcus Ashley. And I can’t help but stare at his face and his amazing hair. I interrupt him for a moment to ask him where he gets it cut. “It’s not the cut,” he says, “A stylist on a photo shoot put some gunk in it earlier today.” I have to say, that is some amazing hair gunk. He’d prefer I didn’t mention his looks, though he modestly recognizes them. “I don’t really wanna talk about it", he says. He’d rather talk about art and music and cognitive dissonance. Marcus Ashley is not even a narcissist. Great, what am I gonna do now? I so imagined him as a bad guy. Or wait, maybe I was just projecting. Projection is something a lot of people do when they first meet Mr. Ashley. In fact, I am so instinctually sure of this, I decide to probe deeper and ask, “So, what do you think people’s first impressions of you are?”

“People assume because of the way I dress, the way I look, that I’m an asshole. Mostly women,” he says. “Fuck stick,” I say. He nods and laughs. He says that sometimes people mistake his shyness for “not being very nice, or bright. People just make assumptions, ya know?”

I nod, but I don’t do much talking. Instead, I notice how unbound he is in his own skin, and his speech pattern, which is relaxed, direct, self-assured and without a hint of neuroticism. This is counter to my own fixed neurosis, yet sitting with him is somewhat relaxing, in a “sitting on the front porch, drinking lemonade and watching the tumbleweed skirt by” kinda way. It reminds me that there can be a deep, mutually respective relationship between the sexes. A very relaxing idea for a woman and the stuff chick flicks are made of, or should be made of.

I'm excited to next barrage him with questions about his new ‘self-titled’ album release, “American Weapon,” and his recent work as an actor, when he is interrupted by a call (as I am later told) from his mother. He steps away from the table, excusing himself. Moments later when he returns, he explains that he is having his mom ship an old guitar to him that he left at home years ago, and that he had to explain to her how to loosen the strings in order to ship it properly. It could have been a call from his agent or publicist or even a girlfriend perhaps, but no, it was his mother, and somehow that makes me like him even more.

When he sits back down, we talk about his career path and where he is with things at this very moment. “I find that people tend to talk more than they think and that unless you blow your own horn in this town, it takes a little longer to get noticed. That was me.”

I'm not sure how this could be. To me he stands out like a sore thumb, or more appropriately, a diamond in the rough. We talk about music and his musical influences, mainly producers and below the line guys, with the exception of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Portoise Head, and The Cowboy Junkies to name a few, and notably Daniel Lanois and Jandek. I can tell from his speech pattern when talking about these two musical geniuses that he is very very inspired.

He even starts to remind me of Kurt Cobain from some old interview footage from the early 90’s I had been recently researching. “We are a very conflicted race and there is a tremendous amount of growing to do. We have biologically hardwired behavior that results in a lot of pain towards other people. It also hurts to not have definitive answers. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, we are in a painful predicament." He makes loneliness and self reflection sound absolutely glamorous, but more importantly, he makes the internal contemplation of this existential journey seem quite refreshing and stimulating.

His frankness about the subject of insecurity erases any kind of shame or stigma about it. "It’s not easy, looking at your own life and exploring it in your art.” As depressing as some of that matter can be, he holds himself with a bit of nobility when he speaks about it. When I look at his body of work, I see an actor whose looks never dominate a performance, though up until this point in his career his looks have quite confined him. “People see you a certain way,” he says. He plays the drunken, whiskey-swilling, distraught loner type well, but somehow I glean from our conversation that there is a well of chameleon-like performances that have yet to be had. This is an actor on the brink…of falling… out of recognizability, yet fully into a character’s skin. I believe that’s how stars are made.

Distracted once again, I start to hear Cobain’s “Oh Me” playing in my head.
“Would you like to hear my voiceSprinkled with emotionInvented at your birth?I can't see the end of meMy whole expanse I cannot seeformulate affinityStored deep inside me”

I ask him his likes and dislikes, what discourages him and what excites him. He says beauty excites him, emotional, intellectual, sonic, great film performances; any kind of craftsmanship below or above the line. And hope excites him. I tell him my middle name is Hope. His reply, “Well, then I guess you excite me.”

I ask him about his dislikes, “carrot cake and any cake with fruit or vegetables for that matter.” He makes light of it. His modesty comes back as I sense that he senses that we’re on an episode of “Inside the Actors Studio.”

“So what made you want to become an actor?”

“I would watch movies and I’d want to be part of that story. Stories had a huge impact on my life and my imagination. And I was shy, and I wasn’t happy being so shy, and I discovered that being out in the world in this way wasn’t personally painful. A character has a choice to decide to do something or not do something, and it will serve the story to tell that truth as accurately as possible.”

I can tell accuracy is very important to him.

I ask him about ‘Masculinity’ and what he thinks of it and if it impacts him as a man and as an actor playing a male character.

“We are, for the most part, somewhat insulated from survival issues these days. There’s a conflict inherent in modern man, dealing with traditional gender roles while as a society we are a bit removed from circumstances that created those roles. There are traditional ideas of strength.” He pauses to gather his thoughts. "But in the same breath we are told that men need to be more evolved, more emotionally sensitive. Being strong and responsible... there is something biologically inherent in that, I don’t think that’s wrong. But along with that there should be concepts of chivalry and honor that seem... a little lost these days. And in the media milieu, we’re told that being more sensitive is a positive improvement upon traditional precepts, but in reality, the propaganda is a mixed bag: half the time, emotions are okay and half the time, not okay. There is a legitimatization of male vulnerability, but it isn’t always legitimate. People look at men and say, ‘Aww, look, he’s growing, isn’t that cute?’ But I don't know if deep down a lot of men really want to be 'cute', or view that as a positive. And I think there's an underlying uneasiness... a feeling that masculinity is somewhat threatening. So it's a period of upheaval... confusion. You see it on TV. Ads featuring beer drinking troglodytes sandwiched between ads for male moisturizer. Or better yet, beer drinking troglodytes using moisturizer.” He grins, though with uneasiness.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I have a feeling he wants to kick a curb, but instead swiftly steers the conversation towards his music and “American Weapon.” I believe his music is possibly a way for him to get out his angst and frustration about the matter.

I ask him what his music is about, a deceptively simple question, met with a complex answer about his auspicious beginnings.

“I started my recording career at Prince's Paisley Park Studio in Minnesota . I had signed with this label, and I just felt like, they didn’t get what I was trying to do, sonically or texturally. It all felt so wrongly produced, so I left, bought some recording equipment, and sat in my house for the next 8 years writing and recording music and so this is some of it.”

His music sounds like that of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley combined. He says, "I like the idea of music being transportive; sonically…it has to take you somewhere." As I listen to it, I can only describe it as musical opium addiction. A deeply emotional experience skating on razor blades of placidity. As music, it fits into an indefinable complex category, yet is utterly contagious.

We get on the topic of acting again and the thing he’d like to talk about is the concept of the ‘Underdog.’ “The humble contender, the unbelievable contender… it’s that step right after sitting on the bench to pummeling out of the gates.” Like “Smarty Jones,” I think to myself. It’s the moment of transition, of growth into manhood, which most excites him, as that moment can happen at any moment, and at many moments, in a man’s life and mythic journey.

And as I listen to him and nod in agreement, I can’t help but think to myself, that to truly risk, we must advance with brave disregard for the scrapes and scratches that we will incur as a result. One cannot always walk with bold confidence, not if one chooses to be an artist, as that is a world internalized, externalized, stretched, torn and pulled in every direction. A life well worn, a life well examined perhaps.

We talk about ‘paying dues,’ a term frequently heard in this town. In a sense we are all paying our dues, but isn’t that what even the greatest artists still do? Isn’t that what we all do anyway, pay dues? We are the judge and jury of our own merit and the journey has plenty of places to be lost and found. Isn’t that why and how actors cloak ourselves in a character, in the seams of their skin, to pay their dues?

For all of his intelligence and seriousness, I find myself laughing hysterically at Mr. Ashley; his stories, his audition nightmares, his episode of “Days of Our Lives” when he first migrated out to LA. I say my goodbyes to him and toss away my half empty cup of burnt coffee. He leans over graciously to give me a hug. I walk to my car thinking, all in all, this guy is really funny and smart and sensitive and good-looking and sweet and engaging on so many levels, so much so that I realize I was just sitting across from a pile of dreamy Stardust.

His ambition cannot escape him. This is an actor who has his best work still ahead of him. One to watch, one to listen to and certainly one to project our wildest depth-provoking fantasies onto.

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