Text: John R.P. Del Rosario
Ned Van Zandt has lived a distinctly American life. He’s written about it in his one-man play “Del Valle” which recounts his life from residing in the Chelsea Hotel at the time of Nancy Spungen’s murder to serving jail time for an ’06 drug charge. In it, he plays 16 characters and is a regular American story of redemption.
“I find myself in these Forrest Gump situations of great cultural importance,” Van Zandt said—like being in the crowd as a child waving in President Kennedy’s final motorcade in Dallas. From Hollywood to New York punk, Van Zandt said the hardest role he’s had to play is himself in this production.
On April 6 Van Zandt and Marfa Live Arts present a documentary, Sad Vacation, at the Adobe Room in Marfa and on April 8, he performs his one-man play “Del Valle” at the Capri in Marfa. We caught up with him to check what he’s working on.
Tell me about your time in jail. Did you learn anything practical?
It was the best thing and the worst thing to ever happen to me. At the time it was the worst thing, but it ended up being the best thing. I was only in jail for 6 months, but it seemed like 10 years.
I became great at negotiating in tough waters. It’s not a fun place. How to survive on very little food, I’d never experienced hunger before. Somehow, I was able to bridge my way between a black gang and the Aryan gang. It made me realize I’m tougher than I thought I was, but it was not fun.
You were famously in the Chelsea Hotel during the murder of Nancy Spungen. How did you come to be there?
I was a Hollywood actor living in Los Angeles and in the summer of 1978, I was 24-years-old, and I was offered a job to go to the Renaissance Fair in Marin County (near San Francisco). It was a fun summer job for an actor. While I was there, I met a bunch of punk rockers who said they were all moving to the Chelsea Hotel in the fall. I was young and crazy and so I joined them and moved to the Chelsea the same week Sid and Nancy moved in. I lived there on-and-off for a year and a half. It practically killed me, but it gave me a good story.
What makes your one-man play different from other one-man shows?
The difference between my one-man show and a lot of one-man shows you see is it really is a play: it has a beginning, middle and end.
It’s got a historical aspect to it. It’s just about how does one hit bottom and find their way out. I don’t get preachy or anything like that. But it is about perseverance in the face of some really tough stuff. That’s the deal. It’s great storytelling and I think it’s timely, too—how to survive in darkness. How to get out alive and in good spirits. It’s Hollywood with Chaka Khan in the 70s, it’s New York and the punk scene, it’s Broadway, it’s Texas—it’s good.
Are any of the 16 characters you play fictional?
None are fictional. It’s funny, about a year ago I was at a private reading of this for some television people. Alan Ball (creator of 6 Feet Under and True Blood) he asked me the same thing. I said none of the characters are fictional. There’s one plot point that I fictionalize. The names of the characters in prison, their names are not correct, of course, but everything else is true.
You do a lot of stage acting, even doing some plays in England. How are British audiences different from American audiences?
British audiences don’t laugh as much. In fact, last summer when I was doing a play, I thought, “Oh, dear!” Turns out, they’re just if not more engaged but they’re more stoic in their reaction. Americans are more raucous. The British are more reserved.
Aside from the play, what else have you been working on recently?
A movie I’m in is in post-production: We Only Know So Much. I’m auditioning like crazy. I just shot an episode of Power, which is this great show on the Starz! Network that’s going to be out this summer. Right when I hang up with you, I’m going to an audition for Madame Secretary. That’s just the New York actor’s life. Right now it’s pilot season, so I’ve been getting a lot of auditions. So, we’ll see.
Have you ever been to Marfa?
I think I’ve driven through Marfa. Marfa’s always been a part of my imagination. Some of my favorite movies were filmed in Marfa. A lot of New Yorkers that I know live in Marfa. I’m a Marfa virgin. I can’t wait.
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