Sitting on the back porch with Kris Kristofferson and his wife, Lisa, it's easy to forget you're in the presence of someone who has spent four decades actually earning that most overused of terms, show business legend. In two different show businesses - movies and music.
Married since 1983, bringing their kids up in Hana where they've lived since 1990, they're spectacularly down-to-earth. They're a poster couple for something even rarer than all the lifetime achievement awards Kris is winning these days: a happy marriage. They finish each other's sentences. They listen to each other. They make each other laugh.
They're just back from the Nashville Film Festival, where his newest film "Bloodworth" debuted.
Kris Kristofferson taping the introduction to Maui filmmaker Tom Vendetti’s “When the Mountain Calls Nepal — Tibet — Bhutan” last week.
ROBERT C. STONE photo
Lisa and Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson’s latest film, “Bloodworth,” opens in theaters later this month.
Samuel Goldwyn Films image
Kris Kristofferson performs in concert at 7 p.m. June 4 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to benefit Lokelani ‘Ohana.
Backstage with recent touring partners Joan Baez, Merle Haggard and John Prine.
LISA KRISTOFFERSON photo
Although Lisa says it's rare for him to have anything good to say about movies he's in, this one's an exception.
"It looked really good when I saw it the other night," says the 74-year-old artist, the familiar voice now like burnished oak. "I was blown away. It's one of the best films I've ever been associated with. All the performances were great so I have to give credit to the director."
Adapted from William Gay's novel "Provinces of the Night," it casts him as E.F. Bloodworth, a guitar-playing traveling man who ran out on his wife and sons 40 years earlier for a life of whiskey and women. It chronicles his returns to the family's rural Tennessee home for some consequences.
"He's a wandering musician and a drunk," says the actor of the role that's already generating serious critical buzz.
"It's not a big stretch," he adds with a laugh.
It's Kris' face on the poster, along with the names of co-stars Val Kilmer, Hilary Duff, Dwight Yoakum, Frances Conroy, W. Earl Brown and newcomer Reece Thompson. "I don't know why I'm on the poster," he says of the still striking image, the leading-man looks now graying into the grandpa you wish you had. "All the performances were great, but I would say Reese Thompson, the kid who played my grandson, carried the bulk of the film."
From the poster and the trailers, it's impossible not to make comparisons to Bad Blake, the role that earned an Oscar for Jeff Bridges in 2009 for, seemingly, channeling Kris Kristofferson.
"Uh, no," he says when asked if that role was modeled after him. "I'm not quite so heavy, or so drunk." Instead, the role was based on Kris' longtime guitar player, Steven Bruton.
"It was bits and pieces," adds Lisa of Bridges' award-winning performance. "He just took your look, and Steven's life story, and combined Waylon (Jennings') walk. But the main story mainly followed Steven. He was a great singer-songwriter in his own right, from Austin, who died at 60 years old."
"He was my guitar player since he was 19. We went through a lot together, adds Kris.
The part in "Bloodworth" had been intended for the late Johnny Cash, but was an easy fit for Kristofferson.
"I thought it was an interesting story and one I could identify with," Kris says. "I was pleasantly surprised by the people in it and the director (Shane Dax Taylor)."
Following the Nashville screening, the festival honored Kris with a surprise. "They kept it a secret from me until after, he says. "But it was a lifetime achievement award - the kind you get if you live long enough."
Maybe he could use as a bookend with the other prizes he's picked up in that city, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It's really appreciated," he says of awards. "I'd be happy whether I got 'em or not because I've been doing what I love to do for it seems like centuries but it's been decades. Probably 40 years. And it's nice to get recognized, you know, by the Grand Ole Opry, and country music's people. Any positive feedback is nice. It's not necessary, but it's nice."
Even at this age, he has more movies in various stages of production than many young actors have in their entire filmographies. They include "The Last Rites of Ransom Pride," "The Greening of Whitney Brown," "When Angels Sing," "Joyful Noise," "The Motel Life" and "Dolphin Tale."
"He's done four movies back to back," says Lisa. "It's staggering."
"And I can't remember 'em," adds her husband.
In fact, on this particular afternoon he is filming the introduction for a local production, "When the Mountain Calls Nepal -Tibet Bhutan," by Maui filmmaker Tom Vendetti. Co-produced with Robert C. Stone and following their Emmy Award-winning documentary "Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness," the new film is about Vendetti's personal experiences and reflections from over 30 years of traveling through the Himalayas, discovering sources of happiness in unexpected places,. It features a score by acclaimed musicians Paul Horn and Christopher Hedge, and narration by poet Ann Mortifee and Stone. (Full disclosure calls for mentioning that the script for the project was written by yours truly, which led to this interview opportunity.)
Featuring appearances by the Dalai Lama, Maui's Lama Tenzin, Horn, Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmond Hillary, the Prime Minister of Bhutan and a representative of Green Peace China., the fil is tentatively slated for its world premiere this fall, Nov. 5, in the MACC's Castle Theater. The program also features a concert by Horn and a reading by Mortifee.
It's the completion of a cycle for Kris, who also provided narration for Vendetti's first documentary of his travels in the Himalayas.
The theme of the film is, "when the mountain calls show up." Asked why he showed up to participate, Kris answers, "Well, I did the first time. And I really like it it's hard to talk about spiritual things."
It also reflects his longstanding willingness to support projects in the Maui community, primarily in Hana where their kids have been through the public school system and Lisa is active in a spectrum of projects.
Kris will be doing a June 4 solo concert in the MACC's Castle Theater - the same show that fills concert halls across the U.S. and Europe - as a benefit for Lokelani Ohana. The local program seeks to create a facility providing housing for adults with disabilities when their parents can no longer take care of their needs, as an alternative to foster care.
"There was a little girl in our daughter's class who has Down syndrome, and she's now 20," explains Lisa. "Her mother came to me and asked if Kris would be interested in helping out the organization, and they told us a little about it. The funds will go 100 percent to finding a home, a place, so this is for them."
He does things like that. Previous recipients of his Maui concerts have included Ohana Makamae, providing family services in Hana, and Hana High School athletics.
"I've been here a long time," he says of his involvement. "This is home. We've been out here since 1990. It kind of reminds me of my memories of Brownsville, Texas, where I grew up, down there in the Rio Grande Valley."
But like his good friend and fellow Texas native, Willie Nelson, there's something here that resonates deeply.
"I've always identified with the people I knew in Hawaii. I've been to Hawaii since I was a little kid because my father used to fly through here for Pan American. The first construction job I ever had was Hawaiian Dredging out on Wake Island when I was in high school. There's something about the way the people look at life that I identify with."
And its distance from the show biz meccas of Nashville or Los Angeles probably counts in its favor.
"In Hana, he's just 'Uncle,' " Lisa continues. "Nobody cares. Whenever he's referred to as 'Hana boy,' he swells with pride. Family matters here. It's a culture where family matters. It's a special place."
The artist's lack of pretension comes with deep political passions that have been consistent throughout the ups and downs of the last half-century. Although he grew up in a military family, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University and was on the way to a military career of his own, he chucked all that to fly oil rig helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico and then head for Nashville where he launched his musical career as a janitor at Columbia Studios. All along, he's been an outspoken advocate of political ideals forged in the JFK era. He still is.
"Well, yes, I believe in Barack Obama.," he says. "I think he's the best thing that's happened to United States politics since Kennedy. He's got a hard road ahead of him with the Republicans in charge of the Congress, but I think he's the most intelligent guy. I can't believe some of the people who are opposing him."
When reminded that his side used to be the one opposing "the system," but now the Tea Party has assumed that role, he says, "It's completely upside-down. They somehow think that rich people, successful people, are the people who made the country what it is. Probably in my income bracket now, it would be wise to be a Republican, but I have no inclinations in that direction. There are still a lot of people who need help, and that's what I believe Americans stand for, taking care of people who need it."
In the seemingly nonstop schedule that recently reunited him with his "A Star is Born" co-star Barbra Streisand to hand out the Album of the Year Award at this year's Grammys, does he ever think about kicking back at this point in his career?
"That question makes me laugh," Lisa answers for him.
"Why?" asks Kris, catching her laughter.
"Because it doesn't matter if you've done five films or 10 in a year, you still wonder if you're ever going to get in the business again if you're ever going to get your break."
Considering the point, Kris concedes, "I really enjoy the opportunities that I got. As old as I am, I can work as much as I want to. And my primary work is the concerts, where I'm doing what I wrote, all by myself. It's very satisfying.
"And I can also work with people that I'm friends with, that I admire a lot." Besides old pal Willie Nelson, his collaborators cover a broad spectrum, from Joan Baez through John Prince to the guy he's been touring with a lot lately, Merle Haggard.
"He just came off a three-week tour with Merle," says Lisa. "Just the two of them onstage the whole time. They really cracked each other up - it was really fun to watch."
For all the stereotypes of country music, Kris' version is different. It's more music about the country.
"It's more Americana," says Lisa. "It's more of a free speech issue. There's a new crossover, it started in Nashville."
"When I was on my way to Nashville, I was writing what I believed in," Kris recalls. "And after I was finally able to make a living at it, I continued to do that. Some of the things that used to ruffle people don't anymore. When I first went there, I couldn't have gotten 'Help Me Make It Through the Night' past the censors.
"I don't even know if I have a definition for country music," he goes on. "To me, the kind of music I always wanted to make was just real, and as honest as I could make it."
There's not really a label for that.
Lisa points out that his recent touring partner, Haggard, is best known for being "proud to be an Okie from Muskogee." His redneck anthem is poles away from Kris' politics. But now Kris adds his own irreverent verse to Haggard's version -"and he has me sing it with him every night."
"You and Merle represent such diverse politics," concludes Lisa. "And yet you respect and adore each other onstage. I think what the audience takes from that is, wow, if these guys can find common ground, maybe the rest of us can."
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
* Kris Kristofferson performs in concert at 7 p.m. June 4 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to benefit Lokelani 'Ohana. A silent auction begins at 5 p.m. The event includes an appearance by Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and a performance by kumu hula Hokulani Holt with Pa'u o Hi'iaka before the concert at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $15, $30 and $50 with limited $250 tickets with a post-show meet-and-greet, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.com.