WATERVILLE — Actor, producer and singer-songwriter Keith Carradine has seen many changes in the movie industry during his 40-plus-year career, including the growing challenges facing independent filmmaking.

“I don’t think independent films are going to disappear, but it will be more difficult to find public viewing circumstances which people can go to,” he said in an interview this week.

Carradine, 63, believes that’s where small art houses, such as Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, fill a critical role in keeping independent film alive and publicly available.

The stakes are high, according to Carradine.

“I think that indie filmmaking is the last bastion of true creative, artistic spirit,” he said.

Carradine will soon add Railroad Square Cinema to the list of small art houses he has visited — he’ll arrive in Waterville Sunday for the Maine International Film Festival. This year, festival organizers are conferring on Carradine the event’s most prestigious accolade: the Mid-Life Achievement Award. The recognition is given annually to someone who has made significant contributions to the world of independent film.

“I’m greatly touched that, at this point in my life, I’m considered to have a body of work worthy of recognition,” he said. “The bottom line is, I’m very flattered and honored.”

Others who have received the award in recent years include Thelma Schoonmaker, Malcolm McDowell, Jay Cocks, John Turturro, Bud Cort, Lili Taylor, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, Sissy Spacek, Terrence Malick and Jos Stelling.

Carradine will receive the award at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Waterville Opera House, where the 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville” will be shown. Carradine starred in the film as womanizer and singer-guitarist Tom Frank, and won an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for his song “I’m Easy,” which he performed in the movie.

Altman, described by film festival programmer Ken Eisen as “simply the greatest film director ever,” died in 2006.

Altman was a genius, according to Carradine, who worked with the director/screenwriter in several other films, including “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Thieves Like Us,” both of which are being shown during the festival.

“He invited you to bring whatever you wanted to the party,” Carradine said of Altman. “You had a great sense of freedom working with Bob, and a great sense of security. He got remarkable things from actors. Bob was a really innovative filmmaker — truly an artist.”

During the film festival, Carradine will be reunited with Altman’s widow, Kathryn, who will attend “Celebrating Altman,” a special program honoring his work. Altman actors and collaborators Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls and Mike Kaplan also will attend the program to discuss Altman movies scheduled to be shown Tuesday and Wednesday.

Carradine is looking forward to the reunion. He said he saw Kathryn Altman and Michael Murphy recently when they came to see him in the Broadway show, “Hands on a Hardbody,”  which netted Carradine a Tony nomination for feature actor in a musical (“It was a great show and I had a great time doing it,” he said); he also saw them at the Torino Film Festival, in Turin, Italy.

“It’ll be great to see them and spend time with them (in Waterville),” he said.

Also celebrating Altman will be Annie Ross, who starred in his film “Short Cuts,” and created its soundtrack. A founding member of the jazz vocal ensemble Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, she will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Opera House.

On roles, filmmaking

Carradine, star of not only film, but also stage and television, has a difficult time pinpointing a favorite role or experience.

“There’s a bunch of them,” he said. “It’s hard to single out any particular experience.”

But he cites the 1974 film “Thieves Like Us,” “Choose Me” (1984), Trouble in Mind” (1985), and “The Moderns” (1988) as some of the most memorable.

He also cites as a favorite the 1980 film “The Long Riders,” which was directed by Walter Hill, who won the Maine International Film Festival’s 2006 Mid-Life Achievement Award). The film starred Carradine and his half-brother David Carradine. “I’ll never forget that,” he said. His brother, star of the 1970s television series “Kung Fu,” died in 2009.

Carradine has another half-brother, Michael Bowen, and two full brothers, Christopher and Robert.

He cites the 1978 film “Pretty Baby” as a challenging role that forced him to dig deep.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” his most recent film released this year and one that will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Railroad Square, was also a wonderful experience and it’s “an extraordinary film,” he said.

He played Wild Bill Hickok in the HBO television series “Deadwood,” and Frank Lundy, an FBI agent, in Showtime’s “Dexter.”

Carradine is philosophical when recalling the changes that have occurred over time in the movie industry.

Hollywood began with a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, with great energy and a “kind of from-the-gut approach to creating something people wanted to see,” he said.

The original filmmakers came into the industry to entertain and tell stories. There was a big shift, however, when Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures, to a bean-counting, shelf-life approach that didn’t have a lot to do with filmmaking or storytelling, he said. Making films required a lot of money, and big money was needed from ticket sales.

Movies became more formulaic, according to Carradine.

“It’s like the numbers have gotten higher and higher to make the equation work,” he said. “You have an obligation to the people putting out money to do something that will generate enough ticket sales to recoup the investment.”

Movies are a big responsibility, he said, and the larger the project, the more people are required to work on it and the more money is needed.

At the same time, the industry is moving toward different forms of delivery. At one time, people watched movies in theaters; then they could watch them at home on VHS and then DVDs. Now, movies are streamed digitally, he said.

But Carradine believes there will always be filmmakers who have a vision and will find a way to make good quality films and ensure that people see them.

“The indie film on a shoestring budget is the last great hope,” he said.

Early influences

Carradine recalls opening night of the musical “Hair” at The Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles in the late ’60s.

He was 19 and blown away by the performance.

“I couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” he said. “I was absolutely overwhelmed and I wanted to be part of it.”

Auditions were held for a replacement cast and David Carradine and his friend Jeff Cooper tried out for the parts of Claude and Berger. Keith Carradine accompanied on piano while they sang.

What happened next was unexpected. An official pulled Carradine aside and asked if he could come back to audition himself. He did, the next day.

“I came back with a guitar and a song I wrote. It was the first song I ever wrote. It was a terrible song,” he said.

The song, “Where Will I find Her?” was a typical adolescent song about love, he said. “I sang that song and several weeks later, I found out that they actually cast me,” he said. “I was stunned. It was the beginning of my life’s great adventure.”

Carradine has carried throughout his long career the influence of his father, the actor John Carradine.

The characater actor who did everything from Westerns to Shakespeare died in 1988. His influence is deeply rooted in the way Carradine conducts himself in his own life.

“It was about professionalism,” Carradine said. “It was about good manners. I hang up my clothes at the end of the day and I treat my fellow filmmakers with cordiality and respect, and I’m not just talking about actors and directors — I’m talking about everybody. That’s probably my father’s influence.”

Carradine remembers distinctly some words his father left him:
“He said temperament in an actor was nothing more than bad manners; so if you’re temperamental, it means you didn’t get brought up right.”

The only specific advice Keith remembers his father giving him was to get a degree in English literature if he was going to be an actor. Keith set out to do that, enrolling in Colorado State University and majoring in English and minoring in drama, but lasted only a semester, he said.

He speaks respectfully of his father, whom he said did not have any formal schooling past the age of 14 and wanted to leave home. His mother said he could if he passed all the exams one needed to finish high school.

“He passed all the exams, which got him all through high school,” he said. “He was a voracious reader and he was extremely knowledgeable and learned and erudite. There was no subject on which he could not hold his own. He was just brilliant, my dad.”

As he was being interviewed, Carradine was driving from his home in Connecticut to Virginia to meet some filmmakers planning a film to shoot next summer. He would not reveal details about the film.

A native of San Mateo, Calif., Carradine has never been to Maine.

But everyone says it’s beautiful, he said.

“I’m really looking forward to my trip up there this weekend.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]