Willie Nelson, “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” (premieres at Austin Film Festival TOMORROW)

by:  Joe Leydon

More than three years after filming at various locations in and near Austin — including the preserved set of the fictional western town Luck on Willie Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood, Texas — Waiting for the Miracle to Come will have its long-awaited premiere Saturday and Monday, Oct. 27 and 29, at the Austin Film Festival.

The fanciful drama is the first dramatic feature written and directed by acclaimed documentarian Lian Lunson (Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Willie Nelson: Down Home), and lists German director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) and Irish rocker Bono (who wrote a song for the soundtrack) as executive producers. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, consider this: Willie Nelson stars in Waiting for the Miracle to Come opposite no less a notable than Charlotte Rampling, the celebrated British actress whose lengthy resume includes such outstanding films as Georgy Girl (1966), The Damned (1969), Zardoz (1974), The Verdict (1982), I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), and 45 Years (the 2015 drama for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress).

And you know that song written by Bono? Nelson sings it during the film.

What’s it all about? According to the official synopsis: “Following the death of her father, aspiring trapeze artist Adeline Winter (Sophie Lowe) discovers a cryptic letter he once wrote directing her to a goldmine in a remote California desert. Upon arriving in a mysterious town, she finds herself at the gates of ‘The Beautiful Place,’ a house occupied by retired vaudeville stars Jimmy and Dixie Riggs (Nelson and Rampling). As she gets to know this mysteriously eccentric couple, Adeline discovers that her father’s posthumous words were directing her to a reward far more valuable than gold.”

Lunson says she wrote her script especially for Nelson, because “his presence and stillness as an actor is unlike anyone else’s. And growing up, I always wanted to be Charlotte Rampling, So bringing these two icons together on screen is a dream come true for me.”

During my brief conversation with Rampling on her final evening of filming in Spicewood, the actress praised Lunson for the audacious inventiveness of her casting choice. “It took someone with imagination, really, to think that we could be a couple — could be believable as a couple,” Rampling said. “And in fact, I think we are, you know? It’s really worked. There’s something special that happened. And that’s only when a director feels that this could happen between two people, do you know what I mean?

“That’s how directors are clever. The way they cast is really so important, because if you don’t have that chemistry, you can’t act it. You know, if you don’t actually, really feel that you’re connected to somebody, it’s difficult to act it. I mean, it’s always difficult to come across as connected to someone. But when it works, audiences feel very quickly that something’s truthful and real.”

The entire production of Waiting for the Miracle to Come was “a lovely experience,” Rampling said. “I had some truly beautiful scenes. I loved expressing Dixie’s fragility, I loved the singing — and I loved doing things with Willie because he’s such a special person, you know? He’s not an actor, so he’s very instinctive. He’s very natural. And in a way, this film was about that, too. There’s something very organic about this film.”

Willie Nelson offered his own take on Waiting for the Miracle to Come when we talked at the close of his own last day of filming.

Cowboys & Indians: OK, the last time we chatted a couple years back, you indicated that you didn’t really think much of yourself as an actor. Have you decided to change that appraisal?

Willie Nelson: [Laughs] No, no. My opinion hasn’t changed.

C&I: I’ve been on the set only a couple days, but it looked to me like you were really doing some good work out there.

Nelson: Yeah, I fooled you. Fooled you again.

C&I: You’ve worked with several outstanding directors, including Sydney Pollack, Michael Mann and Barry Levinson. What do you think is the most important lesson you were ever taught as an actor?

Nelson: To find your spot where you’re supposed to stand and remember your lines. If you do that you can’t go far wrong.

C&I: Anything else?

Nelson: I heard somebody say one time, “Don’t ever let them catch you acting.” I think that’s pretty good advice. If you can act without looking like you’re acting, maybe you’re doing something. Slim Pickens, I did a movie with him one time. And he told somebody in the press or something: “Willie Nelson plays himself better than anybody could.” That’s about it.

C&I: Director Lian Lunson says she wrote Waiting for the Miracle to Come with you specifically in mind.

Nelson: That’s always flattering when something like that happens. But it’s still a challenge to make sure that they didn’t make a mistake thinking you could do something maybe you couldn’t do. This movie has been pretty easy really, for my part. I know the crews work from sunup to sundown many days, but it’s been relatively easy for me because I live right up the street here.

C&I: No long commutes?

Nelson: No, I just drive down the hill and do my lines and go back. It’s a perfect way to do a movie for me.

C&I: I have to admit that when I first heard you were co-starring in a movie with Charlotte Rampling, I thought, well, that’s certainly offbeat casting. But now that I’ve seen the two of you doing a few scenes together, I find myself thinking: “Of course! Why didn’t someone think of this before?”

Nelson: Yeah, I guess that’s where Lian comes in. She can think of those things. Like, “Well, if I put these together, it’ll be a good mix and they’ll work out something.” She’s good at that.

C&I: How would you describe the experience of acting opposite Charlotte Rampling?

Nelson: It’s always a pleasure to be working with a professional you know and have known for years. She is a professional, so you didn’t expect anything less from her. She was fantastic and that was what we expected.

 C&I: What was the most difficult part of playing your character, Jimmy Riggs? What was the toughest nut for you to crack?

 Nelson: [Looking at his feet] These bleeping shoes.

C&I: Are they really that bad?

Nelson: They’re uncomfortable [Laughs] No, they’re not that bad. It’s just something to bitch about. Just kidding. As I said, I can’t play anybody but myself. So this was an easy role to play, really.

C&I: Finally, what was the most enjoyable part of making this movie? Besides the short commute?

Nelson: Working with people like Charlotte, Lian, and [co-star] Sophie Lowe. And this whole crew — these guys are great. It’s always nice when you see something working. As Leanne said, we’re waiting for a miracle. And we’re seeing them every day out here.


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