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In Monte Hellman’s hypnotic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, folk singer James Taylor gives a lead performance that is both unassuming and arresting, the kind of askew, unshowy, vanity-free acting that perhaps only a nonprofessional actor is capable of. As the shiftless twentysomething Driver, who initiates a cross-country drag race with a middle-aged man played by Warren Oates, Taylor is as meditative as the slow-burning film he’s in.
Hellman wanted to cast Taylor after seeing his picture on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard. “I just flipped over his face,” the director once said. When he contacted Taylor and had him do a screen test, it was clear there was something special about the musican’s on-camera presence. As you can see in this clip from that test, in which he is interviewed by actor A. J. Solari, the twenty-two-year-old Taylor has a sweet shyness that’s slyly seductive. The footage was unearthed by Hellman from his garage in 2007 for Criterion’s DVD release of Two-Lane Blacktop.
Now watch the man in action, however taciturn. Here’s the crucial scene in the film in which Taylor challenges Oates to their epic road challenge.