I tell actor and author D. R. Haney that it feels like it’s always night in the Los Angeles of Subversia, his new collection of nonfiction stories, and he laughs. As a matter of fact, I’m interviewing him over the phone in the middle of the night while he sits outside a friend’s house.
“I suppose this is all some sort of compensation for the fact that I was never allowed to stay up late as a kid,” Haney says. “I was very enamored of movies starting around the age of nine, and I would get out of bed in the middle of the night, sneak downstairs, and watch horror movies with my ear about six inches from the little speaker on the television. I’m very much a night person.”
Haney’s stories, mostly set in L.A., eschew the city’s famed sun-drenched glitz in favor of its less-examined depths as he details a run-in with a bedraggled Elliott Smith at Ralph’s Supermarket, the futile search for a guitar case on Sunset Boulevard, stalking The Walkmen with his first novel Banned for Life in hand, writing the screenplay for Friday the 13th Part VII, and being hit by a car on a Hollywood crosswalk — an accident that resulted in several surgeries and disrupted his career.
As Haney tells me “there are a lot of levels to L.A. that escape people” I’m reminded of something he writes in Subversia: “I don’t see L.A. as the sunny, seedy, superficial place others do. I see it as haunted.”
Haunted, in part, by the impressions of the same legendary actors Haney identified with as a troubled Virginia teen — James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift among them. He recounts in Subversia the moment he’d determined to be an actor, assessing his potential in the mirror at fifteen.
“I was very eager to get away from my home town,” he says. “At that time I probably thought there were a lot of scores I wanted to settle. I thought, like so many people, that fame would settle those scores. But, of course, I never really became famous, except briefly in Belgrade, Serbia.”
After the fall of (President Slobodan) Milosevic, Haney greeted an audience of thousands with the Serbian three-finger salute at a film premier.
“The audience went berserk. I think it was this huge thing because I was an American,” he reasons. “I was a sort of unofficial ambassador who had come there, made this film, and then saluted them with this expression of solidarity.”
Such is the nature of Haney’s storytelling in Subversia. One good tale surfaces in the wake of another, and it’s the juxtaposition of them that resonates. When an acting job, for instance, takes Haney and a friend past James Dean’s crash site in “Highway 46 Revisited,” the search for the intersection unfolds alongside a reflection on his friend’s complete emotional withdrawal shortly afterward.
“We all used to be different people,” Haney writes, “an actor with designs on directing; an actor who styled himself after James Dean; an actor who really was James Dean and became, in a flash, a memory.”
Though the book’s title began as a nod to the counter-culture, rebellious types Haney admires — Dean, punk rockers, Rimbaud, the Beat Generation — it is as much self-reference as homage.
“I’ve lived life on the outskirts, in the margins of society,” Haney says, and of the book’s frankness he adds, “I’m not one for secrets. I tend to think of everything as fair game, and I do put myself out there. The only way to get a lot back is to put a lot out.” •
By D.R. Haney