A veteran of twenty-one films, Peter Coyote was born Peter Cohon in New York City half a century ago. In the mid-sixties he went out West to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing but instead quickly became involved with the” remains” of the famed Actors’ Workshop. After a short time, however, he switched allegiances and joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe: he found the members more passionate and provocative—and they offered him better roles. By 1966 Coyote was directing a scandalous production of The Minstrel Show and touring the United States with the cast which was renowned for its critical success as well as for its repeated arrests. Just a year later, the show won kudos from the establishment in the form of an Obie. But viewed through the radical lenses of the day, the honor was considered a sure sign of having been co-opted—disgusted, Coyote left.

Returning to San Francisco at the height of the counter-culture revolution, Coyote and members of the Mime Troupe founded “The Diggers,” an urban coalition dedicated to everything that was free; they baked bread for the Summer of Love and they ran the Free Store. For twelve years he was an honorable member of the Free Family and The Diggers, living in communes and in a refurbished truck, taking an inordinate amount of drugs (“mind-expanding” and otherwise), and “exploring absolute freedom.” On this gypsy path, he met poet and Zen prophet Gary Snyder and, struck by the encounter, was inspired to read extensively about Buddhism. When Governor Jerry Brown later appointed Snyder head of the California Arts Council, Snyder asked Coyote to participate. In 1975, Coyote became the Council’s Chair. After three years his thoughts turned once again toward acting and, at the same time, he began a regular zazen practice. He decided to give his second shot at acting five years. After a stage appearance in 1980 as the lead in the premiere of Sam Shepard’s True West, his film career took off.

Coyote now studies Zen with Robert Aitken and Nelson Foster—although he counts Snyder as his teacher, too. His most recent film Sleep Where You Fall, directed by Roman Polanski, has just opened in Europe. These comments were compiled from a conversation with Coyote at his home in Mill Valley, California; in the course of our meeting, he scanned the trees for the birds he loves, consumed an enormous bowl of new potatoes with sour cream, and talked about his profession and his practice.

—David Schneider

 Digger-turned-actor Peter Coyote. Courtesy of Photofest.
Digger-turned-actor Peter Coyote. Courtesy of Photofest.

There are two kinds of actors: icons and transformers. A transformer is somebody like Dustin Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave or Robert DeNiro who completely loses himself in his character. An icon reflects one side of his character that audiences like to identify with: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a real career decision, because while audiences may respect you as a transformer, they will never love you—they will never clutch you to their bosoms.

Transformers violate the deeply held common-sense belief in a fixed self, so if you are a child molester today and play Jesus tomorrow, they can’t put it together. They say, “You know I believed that S.O.B. when he had his hand in the pants of that five-year-old. I believed him. And he couldn’t do that if there wasn’t a little of that in him.” In order for them to say that, they have to believe that it’s not in them. The actor knows that the fixed self is a lie; he knows how vast the perimeters are. I can’t pretend that I don’t have homicidal impulses, thieving impulses, or scheming—whatever it is.

Acting is dangerous. Let’s say Roman Polanski hires me because he sees a certain darkness in my personality—I start mining it twelve hours a day. I’m living it; I’m thinking it; I’m trying to touch it and make it raw and quick because the best acting is not pretending. If I pretend to do something you see it. What an actor does is to creatively alter his internal imagery to produce real feelings. And when you ask somebody to evoke psychic demons for twelve hours a day three months running, shit starts coming up unbidden. But, at the same time, you can’t forget who you are; you can’t not address the technical reality. 

I get in there and drop in my trench. I’m doing my one breath (koan) “mu” or whatever I’m doing—light booms can be falling, people can be screaming—and I’m in that trench with my character. That’s Zen practice. Acting is about discovering what’s true in the moment. It’s playing jazz on your own nervous system. 

You get taken over by spells, you know? You see this most clearly with a mask. A mask is technology for obliterating the ego. If you put a mask on and stand in front of a mirror—and it’s a good mask—you will be inhabited. It’s like a voodoo, a real possession. 

I really work with my breath a lot. I’m sitting in a chair and maybe I’ll take ten breaths, or maybe I’ll meditate for five minutes just where I am. On the spot. Taking a breath and letting it out before I answer the phone. Taking a breath and letting it out before I answer somebody who is upset, before I speak when I’m upset. Trying to take care of my house, trying to clean up, trying to keep my altar clean.

I think that it’s not right livelihood to use violence to engage people, to titillate them. But that’s a conundrum, because it also exists in the culture and as an artist you’re going to reflect it. There are people who take advantage of that, like pornographers take advantage of First Amendment rights. It’s a vicious circle. I’m acting in a story right now in which there’s a kind of violent conclusion, but it’s inescapable.

I’ll give you an example. I make a lot of money doing voice-overs. That’s how I save myself from going on the road and doing films I don’t want to do. I’m the voice of General Motors, and someone just sent me an article about the animal experiments General Motors is doing in the name of crash safety: smashing dogs and pigs and ferrets with pneumatic hammers. At the same time, they have the worst restraint system of any car made. They fought the introduction of the air bag for nineteen years. So I wrote to the chairman and said I can’t do this. I am a Buddhist. I can’t urge people into unsafe vehicles, and I can’t condone the killing of other forms of life.

Buddhism helped me to get out of a rut I was in in the sixties—we were always trying to make a separate kingdom, to create an alternative society. Pondering interdependence made me realize that there is no outside place to stand. Anyplace you stand is going to be an admixture of positive and negative, enlightenment and bullshit. To me the real work is involved with the way I treat every member of a crew, the way I treat other actors, the way I treat the material, the way I prepare myself, the way I go to work, all the way through. I can be responsible for what I can be responsible for. That includes saying no to a script that I think would be misinterpreted or abused. But beyond that, I’m in the mix.

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