Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady in the film "Big Sur." Credit: Getty Images
Normally the beat generation is portrayed with the adventurous “On the Road” style. But Michael Polish's new movie "Big Sur," based on Jack Kerouac’s book of the same name, is showing a new side of the story: the struggles of living the beat life. Josh Lucas plays Kerouac’s best friend, Neal Cassady, in a time of his life when money and prospects were low. While Cassady has a hard time being the good husband and father, becoming a father in real life actually saved Lucas from an unhealthy life as an artist.
Do you remember the first time you read a Jack Kerouac novel?
The first time I read Kerouac ("On the Road") I subletted a little apartment in New York City. I was 19 years old, here to study acting, and it was one of those reverential moments where you read the work of total greatness. I had read some great literature before but nothing that felt so current and vibrant and something that spoke to me as a young man in that way. I was in love with it.
It was written in the '50s. How is it current?
I felt the currentness of it in the sense that it spoke to me in terms of my own desires and hungers for women, alcohol, playing, creativity and art, and sort of the way I was consuming New York City. What struck me about doing this movie and understanding ["Big Sur"] was [recognizing] the same things I have gone through in my own life. There is a price to be paid for that kind of hunger. I find that this book talks to some of my own demons in a way that I think the movie captures beautifully.
What price did you pay? You didn’t go as far as Jack Kerouac did, so what stopped you?
No, of course not. I didn’t drink myself to death. What stopped me was a choice. I think this movie is a cautionary tale about an artist who’s facing profound self-destruction because he has lost the joy of life. And for an artist who celebrated the joy of life so tremendously that’s a sad thing to see. For me I have dealt with enough art and personal questions about that exact subject that I have tried to stay away from it. Honestly, having a child was the ultimate thing to do to make me shift towards health. That makes it impossible to be selfish.
The beat generation is known to have broken boundaries, but it didn’t seem to make them happy. Where did their experiments fail?
Again I go back to that word consumption. They were consuming everything. They were consuming women, each other, drugs, alcohol. The truth is that when you are looking for something outside your soul to make you happy, you are going to be unhappy. As much as [the beat generation] shared women, as much as they shared drugs and alcohol and everything, they also shared the pain of what those choices cause in the end.
Do you ever feel that being happy degrades your art?
I feel like the more I suffer the more I can portray great suffering, but I’m not terribly interested in art about great suffering. What I find interesting about "Big Sur" is that it has great beauty too.
This is a movie based on Jack Kerouac’s writing. Do you play Neal based on Jack's view of him, or have you added other interpretations to your portrayal?
That’s a very interesting question. I have gotten some criticism and even someone last night said, ‘"You know, Neal was a motor mouth, he was much more manic than the way you played him." The truth from what I understand is that the time that I played Neal in this movie is that he wasn’t like that. He was a guy at this point who was literally living at home with his three kids and his wife, trying to be a normal guy. He was burned out. He was like Jack was at this point. They were both a bit beaten down by the fame they had acquired. Particularly for Neal, I think he suffered from the fact that he didn’t ever do anything great other than live. What I am attempting to play in this movie is a man who has still all of his forces inside of him, but he is also a little beaten and a little sad.
Who depends on the other more, Neal or Jack?
My sense of Kerouac is that as much as he was a great artist, he was not a great man. Cassady was a great man, which is why he inspired all these artists. I don’t think Cassady depended on anyone. I think Cassady was a true wild man, a true free spirit. Cassady could bounce from women to friends to drugs to jobs to any form of life, and do it with great joy. He had the opposite of nostalgia; he was always in the moment.
There are very few lines in the movie; big parts of it feature only voiceovers. How do you make the character of Neal shine through anyway?
I think this movie is very honorable from a literary standpoint because you are truly listening to the way the book was written. What me and Jean-Marc (Barr, who plays Kerouac in the movie) created was a look between each other of deep friendship. And I think this whole movie was about finding these truths within your eyes. It didn’t matter about dialogue; it mattered about the way that we took each other in.
How do you create that?
We talked about what it would be like to share women, what would it be like to have this history of having been on the road together, what would it be like to be broken by fame. Both Jean-Marc and I have been at times broken by fame — been broken by pain and careers that didn’t go how we wanted them to go and been angry at politics. It was an amazing journey, which is not very common, honestly. Actors are very competitive and I felt no competition with him. I felt nothing but love.
As an actor, have you ever had to depend on other people’s help to get by like Neal in the movie?
I did have that period of seven years where I couldn’t get a job and I couldn’t make ends meet. There were periods of my life when I had to make a choice between drinking a beer or having rice and beans. I worked very hard because that’s a terror of mine, and I have seen how painful that is for people. I think that’s something that Cassady really suffered from: that he was a guy who in the end of the day was constantly letting down his family by not providing for them. Luckily he had great friends. But I think that that haunts a man.
How do you think the beat writers' struggles relate to today?
I think we are in a generation that is very loose. It’s very easy to be lost. And I think that people said that the beat generation was a lost generation, because they were just on the road, just drinking, doing drugs and having sex. I think there is almost a direct correlation between the joy of it and the pain of it, because they go hand in hand. With great excess comes great trauma. But it’s a lot of fun in the process.
I could imagine that, with your family, you are in a place in your life where there aren’t that many ups and downs?
It depends. I totally love being a father. I find it the most fascinating, mesmerizing experience of my life. And on a daily basis I have to remind myself that I want to be there for him in every way. So I want to stop the highs and lows because I want to be solid. Yet I still have the same urges to be a wild drunk womanizing mad man.