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Richard Harris calls the script "amazing," but refuses to define it for anyone but himself. "What it's about for you I don't know. It's that open and it's about many things. What it means to me taps into superstition and the past. I also think the picture is about memory. We cling so much to the past, to memories and our experiences, that it becomes impossible for us to function."
SILENT TONGUE marks a departure for Harris because, as the quiet and introspective Prescott Roe, he is playing against type. "After one read, I wanted to do this movie and I definitely wanted the part of Prescott," he says. "My agents all thought it was the part of Eamon I wanted, being Irish and flamboyant. But, after doing THE FIELD, a part that was so big and explosive, I wanted something completely opposite. Everything in the part of Prescott is interior and it's been a long time since I've done something like this. I wanted an opportunity to test myself."
The script also made a deep impression on Alan Bates, who agreed to do the film immediately after reading the script. Even so, Shepard's choice for him to play Eamon McCree was a surprise. "I was entranced by the script, and, of course, wanted to work on the film," Bates recalls. "When I got word that Sam wanted me to play Eamon I was a bit taken aback because it seemed like a part Richard Harris would automatically get. In fact, I insisted on talking to Sam about it because I couldn't understand why he wanted me for that role."
River Phoenix was quoted as saying that "The script just blew me away. I had shivers, humming to the rhythm of the words." Like Harris and Bates, he welcomed the opportunity to work with Shepard. Relying on the director's "truth gauge," Phoenix trusted Shepard to keep his performance honest.
One of the techniques Shepard used was simple and powerful. To maintain the illusion of the bond Talbot feels to his wife, a connection so strong and entrapping that he cannot relinquish it, even after her death, Shepard literally tied Phoenix and Sheila Tousey, who plays Awbonnie, together with a piece of twine during rehearsals.
Phoenix found Shepard's innovative, yet unobtrusive, direction very effective. "The first time I met Sam, I felt like we were an uncle and nephew out doing their chores on the farm. Without a word spoken, I felt warm and secure and there was an instant trust. I knew it would be a pure experience."
Phoenix immersed himself in the role, one of his last, arriving on the set weeks before his actual call. Because the anguished Talbot is married to a half-breed Indian and speaks in a language that is part English, part Kiowa, Phoenix visited with the Native Americans who had been hired to play Kiowa warriors. He emerged from the make-up trailer in full warpaint.
Dermot Mulroney offers more insights about Shepard's "process." "He's a great watcher. He sort of takes in everything and invites you along." Mulroney adds that Shepard was "wide open to anything I had to say," an unusually generous attitude for a director. Of all the actors, Mulroney was the only one to have worked previously with Shepard, appearing with him in the film, BRIGHT ANGEL.
River Phoenix stars as Talbot in Sam Shepard's "Silent Tongue."