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Updated: Friday, 28 Jan 2011, 7:53 AM CST
Published : Thursday, 27 Jan 2011, 7:04 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Be careful what you say. The day may come when you get hurt in a violent collision with your own words.
It was 1999, and the rebellious son of conservative parents was busy rejecting every value they had ever tried to teach him. J. C. Shakespeare was living the high life, acting and doing stand-up comedy. His career got a big boost when he got a part in Richard Linklater's film Waking Life.
"I heard from a friend and he said, 'Hey, they're looking for people to go in and you're just supposed to rant about something.' So I said, 'I can do that.' I said, 'That's what I do all the time,'" Shakespeare said.
"The loose narrative [of the film] is that this character may or may not have been hit by a car at the beginning and he goes into this dream state," Shakespeare explained. "He knows he's dreaming, but he can't wake up. And he keeps running into all these odd-ball characters. So the amount of philosophy and the amount of metaphysical ideas that get packed into your head as you sit down and watch this thing is pretty mind-blowing."
Shakespeare played one of those odd-ball characters, a guy called, "Self-destructive Man," a guy who rants about the powerlessness of average people.
"Self-destructive Man feels completely alienated," the character said. "Man wants chaos; in fact, he's got to have it, depression, strife, riots, murder."
As he talks, Self-destructive Man fills a gas can with fuel, pours it over his body and protests his alienation by setting his body on fire.
The line between actor and character, though, was not particularly clear.
"Shortly after we shot my scene in the movie, I actually had a little brush with the law that was a huge wake-up call," said Shakespeare. "At the time, it was, 'Oh, I can't believe this happened to me.' I got a DWI downtown because I had a headlight out on my truck. It had been out for six weeks and I hadn't fixed it and that's why I got pulled over. I really started thinking; it was like, 'Wow, this lifestyle I'm living is criminal.'
"I began to realize that all of the things that I wrote about and all of the things that I did in my comedy were about what I thought was wrong and who was stupid, and if you didn't think like I did then you were an idiot and I'm going to make fun of you for it. So it was kind of a projection of a lot of the teenage angst that I felt."
The problem was, though, that Shakespeare was no longer a teenager; he was in his mid-30s.
"I remember having a conversation with some friends one night and they said, 'What would you be willing to die for?' I was stumped. I woke up the next morning and I was still thinking about it: There is nothing I would die for. I was married at the time; I was like, I would rather stay alive even if it came down to a choice between me and my wife. I thought: There's something deeply wrong with that world view.
"All of this stuff was swirling around in there and I realized I need to find something that I'm for, something that I stand for, something that's important to me. What percolated to the surface was: I need to be of service to someone else. I need to help somebody else.
"So it was curious that, here I get this role and I portray myself on the screen as this guy who's so fed up with the injustices and the hypocricies of the system that he just chooses to opt out and lights himself on fire, while at the same time, there's these little voices in the back going, 'You really need to change; something's got to change."
"My life is full of meaning," he said. "Since that time, I got remarried; bought my first house; got a job teaching high school; went back to school and got a master's [degree]; started counseling; have two beautiful little girls and a third one on the way. My life is full of meaning and to have come through that fire, I think, was an important part of the process for me to value what I have now."
So when Shakespeare sat back to check out a "60 Minutes" story on CBS News about the Tucson mass shooting, he was shocked when the piece included part of his scene from Waking Life. Two friends of accused shooter Jared Loughner told a CBS correspondent that Loughner was "obsessed" by the film.
"It was a jarring experience and my first instinct was: Wow, words that I helped put into creation and spoke into existence have been taken by another person and turned into something really, really dark and horrible," said Shakespeare. "It was like being punched in the gut, you know. It was like, 'Oh, no, no, that's not what you're supposed to do when you watch this movie; you're supposed to think.'"
The one-time actor, who is now a therapist working with young people, was more than shocked, though; he was mad, too.
"Part of my emotional reaction to it was, 'Oh, my gosh, I've spent the last 12 years of my life really putting my life together and discovering meaning and helping young people discover meaning for themselves so they can sort out all of this stuff. And now this is on national
television; my character is on national television saying things that certainly don't reflect my current world view.'
"I felt when I watched that scene on '60 Minutes' that the voice that I have now was silenced. It was put out there and said, 'This is what this character said; this is what this guy heard; this is what he did.' But I have a lot more that I could say now that would be way different from what Self-destructive Man said in Waking Life. That's the message that I want to get out there; that's what I do every day with the kids that I work with. I help them find something that's meaningful to them personally, so that they can rise above the things that are holding them back and taking them to dark places and work toward something positive instead of getting dragged down by everything that's negative around them."
All this does not mean Shakespeare regrets his role in Waking Life.
"I don't; I don't at all," he said. "At the time, it was the best thing that had happened to me at that point. What I do regret was seeing my words on '60 Minutes' and the way they framed the story made it look like: He loved this guy in this movie and that's why he went and shot those people."
On the other hand, Shakespeare does see the relevance of Self-destructive Man to the Jared Loughner case.
"I don't feel like works of art are responsible for horrible crimes. I do think that when people are in a certain state of mind that's very disturbed and very irrational and apparently very delusional, it's very easy for them to latch onto a fragment of truth that they find somewhere and sort of extend that into a world view, which is, you know, a classical rhetorical mistake, to mistake a fragment of truth for the whole truth. I think that's what, in essence, was going on for Jared Loughner.
"He had this idea that words were meaningless. Well, words aren't meaningless, but there is a separation between the word that we use to symbolize something and the thing itself. So he was onto something in that there is this area of separation between words and the things they represent. But that doesn't mean words are meaningless.
"So there's a blind spot in his philosophy: If words are meaningless, well then, therefore, events are meaningless because the only thing we can use to describe events is words. So therefore, there's no meaning to anything. Well, that doesn't work and it's not true.
"And it's just sad that someone like Jared Loughner not only cuts himself off from any future possibilities, but he cuts off everybody that he killed and shot.
"Without these great tragedies, the great awakening on the other side doesn't happen. What the character [in Waking Life] is saying is that that's part of the process. Destruction and creation are part of the same process of life. The problem is, if you get caught in the destructive part, you don't complete the cycle. That's exactly what has happened to Jared Loughner and he's taken that opportunity away from all those people who were affected on that day."
Shakespeare was shocked and angered to see his words in Waking Life come back to haunt him. So he did what he had to do.
He said something.
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