Chicago-born musician and self-described wizard, Willis Earl Beal, makes his acting debut in Tim Sutton’s Memphis, a beautiful Southern drama following the philosophical wanderings of a lost blues artist trying to re-define the way he communicates with people through his music. The role was specifically written for Beal (the main character’s name is Willis) and based off the legend of O.V. Wright, an African-American blues and gospel singer who had several hits in the 1960s, but died young at 41. In Memphis, we watch Beal drift from microcosm to microcosm in the urban South, interacting with a small handful of character archetypes, while reflecting on his role in society with a soft urgency. The movie is about the loneliness we all face on-a-day-to-day basis in life and the inevitable question we all find ourselves coming back to: Why am I here? We caught up with Willis Earl Beal recently to ask him his thoughts on God, capitalism, and sin.
How would you describe the character you play in Memphis?
It’s me in a different environment, but it’s still 100% me.
How did you go about re-creating yourself in a fictitious setting?
I didn’t. It was just fragmented things. One minute I’m in one environment, and then the next thing I’m in a different environment. These environments are selected. The situation is given to me, but only very vaguely. In one regard it was natural, but in another regard it was unnatural because I find living to be very unnatural. The interactions between people are often not natural at all, and so I was uncomfortable the entire time, but felt more uncomfortable than I would be in my normal life. And the fact that the camera was there was some sort of manifestation of how I think anyway. Because I walk around and imagine there’s a camera on me because I’m the star of my own movie. It was very metaphysical that way. Maybe I’m making it more high-minded than it actually was, but I tend to be high-minded about my personal experiences because I’m a legend in my own mind.
Artists are carefully crafted people. How would you describe the image you’ve created for yourself?
I don’t know, I can see it from all different angles. On one regard, I think many people see me as this blues artist. Sometimes I’m really plain spoken and other times I kind of don’t really see myself as being a real person.
How do these different images and projections manifest in the film?
I think in the film everyone got it wrong. They think it’s about a blues artist who’s having a creative block and cannot produce a new record, and that’s not what it is. It’s about a blues artist who happens to have sang some bluesy music, but he’s not trying to make a record. The struggle that he’s having is trying to communicate in a new way. And I don’t see him as being on any kind of downslide. I see him actually being liberated by the end of the film and free of the restraints and constructs of what he’s been told lead to success; having a woman, having a house, making a hit record.
How would you describe the film in one sentence?
It’s like smoke.
What was your relationship with Tim like?
It got to be tumultuous at times. It was really hard because the things we were going after were things that were truthful, but subtle. It got to be a little too intimate for me, personally. And I felt like I was exploiting myself. At one point I felt Tim and the crew were totally insensitive and I began to look at them as the eyes of God. Like when you call out to God and ask, “Why God?” and God doesn’t answer. And they weren’t able to answer because their jobs were making everything move, but they had absolutely no input. They just set up situations, like the personification of God in religion. God sets up situations and allows you to figure them out. And you’re doubling back on yourself, second-guessing, and there’s no explanation given. You’re in it alone essentially. You don’t know anyone around you. I’m referring to my counterparts. Every character, such as my friends and girlfriend, I don’t really know any of these people but I have to try to know them. My relationship with Tim was exactly like my relationship with everyone or everything associated with the film. Eventually there was some catharsis and I’m glad I did it, but throughout the process some things were very hard to grasp.
What is your personal relationship with Memphis like?
I don’t have a personal relationship with any culture or any place. I have a personal relationship with nature and I think that comes through in the film. [The character] could care less about the history of Memphis. He could care less about blues music. He could care less about anything except trees. And that’s how I feel.
So you’ll take rural environments over urban any day of the week?
I grew up in an urban environment and I found it to be very confining. I prefer rural environments.
I want to talk about the creative process for a bit. What did you get into first: acting, poetry, or music?
Drawing. But then I moved onto poetry. I had a big interest in God because I was raised to be really religious. So I think poetry was my way of expressing my ideas about God. I had always drawn. Music didn’t come until much later because it was something I didn’t even think I was capable of because in Chicago, the environment I grew up in, all the doors are closed. It’s very elitist.
What about with acting?
With acting, still, all of the doors were closed because I didn’t have a conventional approach to acting. I would record my voice on cassette tapes rambling about anything for up to two hours at a time and transcribe 30 minutes that I would memorize as a monologue. My headshot would be something like a blown up polaroid picture from Wallgreens. I think acting is something I’ve never picked up. And I think that’s why Memphis was a great experience for me.
What are some of the similarities between the process of making music or poetry with acting?
For me it requires a lack of thinking. What you might say ‘good acting’, or ‘good music’, requires a lack of thought. Other virtuoso type musicians, I imagine think a lot. But I don’t really have a process. My process is sort of an anti-process; things either come or they don’t come. But because I have the intention to create something, then it will arrive. So for me, that’s the similarity: the total lack of pressure or thought and to really just look at my feelings.
Earlier you had mentioned that poetry had started off as this expression of God because you had been raised in a religious environment. What has been the role religion has played in your life?
You have to be very careful of what you make a child do, because two things I haven’t been able to shake are religion and sex. Nobody molested me as a kid or anything, but for some reason sexuality and religion have been things I could never get away from. And with religion specifically, everything I look at I look at through this religious lens. I always have this feeling I’m being watched. Or that my actions are pre-determined. I try to be broad minded, intellectual. I find that my intellect always comes to mind as this religious, pre-conceived impulse. I’m not quite sure if I’m coming or going most of the time.
Which ties back into what you were saying about an unconscious anti-process.
What is the role capitalism plays in your character’s life?
I think Tim had some intentions, but I could tell a lot of people were going to draw conclusions. In a very broad sense, I would say capitalism is the reason the character saw fit to liberate himself from it. In capitalism, money controls everything, including music, so they want him to make a hit record because they want him to make some money that would thereby make them some money. And when you are making music for money, within a construct, you lose some sincerity there. He can’t do it. He prefers a different route. And he’s into music, he uses it to communicate, but he also wants it to sustain himself. And so capitalism doesn’t factor in our souls needing to be sustained as well.
What are your sins?
That’s why I have so much conflict with God. I don’t believe in the concept of sin. I believe in God, but I have a view of God that he isn’t a singular conscious entity. I think that God is literally everything. Our distance is like the cell trying to communicate with the brain and you never really have it. A cell is just a cell. And even if a cell can conceive of the whole body, the cell can never truly know it. And so God is literally everything, therefore there’s nobody to pray to, so therefore there is no sin. Certain cells are going to die, and certain cells are going to multiply, so theoretically I have no sin. But conventionally, I have many. The question is choosing which reality I believe in: the intellectual versus the zealot. You see? And you’re going to choose depending on which one is more beneficial.