Kurt Russell‘s phone is blowing up. Throughout our interview his text message alerts ping multiple times each minute, thanks to a massive message chain featuring most of the cast of the new Quentin Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight. That group (the “Haters,” as they call it) is unusual. Typically a movie cast comes together for a short time; major cast members might not even meet. Then everyone goes their own way, with, perhaps one or two lasting new friendships.
Despite the downbeat, violent, and just plain ‘ol mean nature of the film’s characters, the Hateful Eight cast had a ball on the cold set. The group has stayed in frequent-to-constant contact in the months since wrapping the shoot. “We spent a lot of time with each other,” Russell says. “It’s fun to talk about, and this was a pretty special bunch. It was the perfect experience in terms of working with the actors and Quentin.”
When we spoke to Russell most of the cast was in Los Angeles doing press for the movie, so the Haters were more active than usual. (We can only imagine what some of those texts have to say about some participating journalists.) So our interview started there, and quickly ran into the history of The Hateful Eight, and the particular difficulties of playing a bounty hunter who has his live quarry cuffed to his wrist for much of the movie. As a bonus, Russell responded to a question about Stuntman Mike (from Death Proof) with a detailed background of that unique character.
Nerdist: Walton Goggins was saying you’re all part of a big text message group.
Yeah, we have a chain. We still do it, and I’ve never been involved in anything like that. I never had that kind of a relationship with a group. I’ve had great times with actors. The Thing was a great group of guys, Backdraft, Tombstone, then you go to individual people, working with Sly on Tango and Cash, working with Goldie. When you’ve been around as long as I have, and you’ve had the opportunities I’ve had… I’m a fortunate guy. This one, though. [There was] the material itself and the challenge of trying to create a memorable character. I was given that task. I like that opportunity.
N: This began in an unusual way, with that live-read.
KR: Yeah, that was weird! It was interesting. Look, I text with friends, but I don’t do anything else. Twitter, Facebook, it’s not part of my world. So because of that, when Quentin called to say he wanted to do a reading of one of his screenplays, I said “great!” Figured it would be a nice thing, we’d have a couple of drinks, see some other actors, maybe get fifteen minutes to create a great character. Maybe I’d be playing three roles. So I said “sure, absolutely.” A month later, he calls up, wants to rehearse it. I said, “uh, ok, great.” I read it, and when I read the part he wanted me to play I thought it would be a lot of fun, and I knew why he wanted me to play it. The role was right up my alley, I could come up with something for it. So I started meeting other actors at that rehearsal, I did this one little thing, and he said “yes, go with that!”
N: What was that thing?
KR: It was a John Wayne-ish take on the character. So I did that, then there was another rehearsal. And I thought, “what in the world…?” Then I learned we were going to do it in front of 1600 people. Then there are microphones, and the direction is “use the microphones for this, don’t use them for that,” and during that time I found out that this was the screenplay I’d heard about, when Quentin was upset that it had been exposed. So I thought he just wanted to see it played out one night, he was pissed off, wasn’t going to do the movie, he just wanted to see it played.
So I thought “that’s fun, I get to do this the one time it gets done.” I asked if he wanted it played to him, so he could see it, or played to the audience. He said “live with both, and have some fun.” You know, it’s two different things. if you’re going to do it as a movie, a lot of this is very intimate. The audience can’t hear it. You’re not going to [mimes exaggerated stage whisper] PLAY THE SCENE FOR THEM. We did it, had fun. Then months later, he wants me to play the character. Then I found out he had written him with me in mind. He heard my voice in that the way he heard Sam Jackson’s for Major Warren.
N: You and Sam had almost worked together for Quentin before.
KR: Right, we almost did Django! Sam was on that, we did a reading on Django, and I was going to play this guy Ace Woody. Quentin fell behind in the shooting, and in the interim, because of falling behind he started trimming things. One was going to be Ace Woody. I ended up going down to New Orleans, was there for ten days, it was clear it wasn’t going to happen. We just said “ok, should we do this another time?” Walton came in, did some of that stuff, and Quentin gave some of it to sam. There was a minute where Quentin was going to play it. So anyway. It was really fun to go into rehearsal again and start with the character from when we did the reading, but I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to do the movie version, it was going to be different. So we started bringing it down, in many terms, and brought the character and performance up in other ways.
And when you first see John Ruth, that’s when you start to get the tone of the movie. When you meet John Ruth, boom!, the movie is on the way. It’s bigger, it’s got a tone and a rhythm to it. That was a bit of a challenge, finding what’s going to work for it.
N: You spend a lot of this movie physically connected to Jennifer Jason Leigh, which seems like a very specific challenge.
KR: Yes. First of all, physically it’s more intimate and difficult than you would be led to believe. Not easy. The choreography of everything is specific. She’s always got to be on my left. I have to move her, I have to get her to the right place. She was a great dance partner. She needed… she was in the midst of creating a really different character. I haven’t seen that character before, Daisy Domergue. She needed to get there, and the only way she was going to get there was by feeling confident and free–not afraid of me. I’m talking about me, the actor. Because, number one, if I’m going to just shut you down all the time, you can’t become anything. If I’m gonna make a mistake and hurt you, then you’re playing it [shying away] and that’s not Daisy. She had to get that confidence. I had to help her feel that way.
N: How do you do that?
KR: You physically say “we’re going to do this and this,” and you do it twenty times. I say “I’m not going to hit you, you’re not going to get hurt, that’s not going to happen.” And we do fifteen takes, and they may not like that, but that’s the way it goes. And I’m not going to feel the pressure of that, and make the mistake of clocking her.
N: Are your physical styles different?
KR: No, they’re complimentary. She can take a punch as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with Zoe Bell. It’s all in the person who takes the punch, the physicality. But it’s all in the trust that person has in the actor delivering it. So once that’s established you can never break it, and you can begin to take off. And she did. it was such a blast to be working with Jennifer when she was working that. And we’re creating something together. It’s the two of them together, it’s like a marriage that is really messed-up.
N: There are scenes where they are strangely intimate, given their situation. It’s perverse, in a way.
KR: Yeah! It is; it’s weird. It’s a Stockholm syndrome sort of thing. I had to find my guy, she had to find her character. Everyone was pretty clear on what they were doing, but the two who had to find their way, I think, were me and Jennifer. I don’t know if that’s fair to say, exactly, but it felt that way. Everyone else seemed to just go right into their thing. We had a lot of life to create together, and the fact that they’re chained together created a different scenario for them than for anybody else. And if you’ve been together for a week, 24/7, you’re going to have Stockholm syndrome of some kind. Those two people, that’s what was fun, was finding what that would mean to them. There are things they weren’t even conscious of. We worked out things; we wanted to find those places–like there’s one place where she falls asleep on my shoulder. It’s one shot, and she’s conked out. They’ve been awake for a week, they’re both on the verge of passing out!
N: It seems almost like being in the service, where it doesn’t matter whether or not you really like the guy next to you. Eventually you get as comfortable as you can.
KR: That’s exactly it. You’re just dead tired. And they learn to like each other, there are certain things they like about each other. They’re like a married couple, in a weird way. Jennifer and I would say we’d love to see the week that they spent together getting to this point. [note: none of what follows is spoiler material–it’s an alternate vision of the characters’ story, not something that is in the film] Where, if, instead of getting to the point we see in the film, if she had gone to court and been hanged, then you see John Ruth watching her hang, he’s got to head on to the next one, and he just wanders down the street, his left arm, where she’d been chained, he doesn’t know what to do with it, he’s kind of lost.
N: Not to change gears too much, but I think about your Death Proof character Stuntman Mike a lot. I’d love to hear your vision of what that guy means, and who he is.
KR: In that movie, he says some things that are indicative of where and how and why he became what he did. Those characters, you can just say “oh, well, it’s because they’re crazy.” But how did you get there? For Mike, I always looked at this guy who saw a pretty cool life happening for him, as like Robert Urich’s lead stunt guy. He’s going to become his right-hand man, I’ve seen a lot of guys like that, Quentin’s seen those guys. The stunt man gets tight with that actor, then they end up buying a string of horses together that the stunt man takes care of, and on their imagination goes. So at one point Mike’s life was headed in that direction, it was going good.
And then it went south as shit. Someone told a story that wasn’t true, Robert Urich stopped answering his phone calls. Then maybe an accident happens, the first one was an accident. But he comes out of that and actually feels good. So you begin to break that down, and it finally got to the point where, as Michael Parks’s character says, “it’s the only way he can shoot his goo!” That’s what he became. It’s his way of getting off.
Now, what I thought was interesting was, did he actually get beat to death at the end, or did they leave him to die? Is he maybe there, still alive? And he’d be scared for a while, because he is truly a coward. To me, that’s what was the most fun. And I didn’t know what to do with that scene. I told Quentin I was having a hard time with the end, when he’s getting beat. I thought about it, went back to the script, and it’s right there in the script. He gets in the car, chases those girls, she flies off the hood, and when he gets shot, it’s SO much more painful than he ever imagined. What’s just happened is he’s thrown into a reality he’s never experienced. His brain can’t even bluff. And as it says, he runs–“a coward.”
Now the only real great cowards I remember are two characters. One was from the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t believe when Dorothy slapped the hand of the Lion, I thought it was going to eat her. And of course it doesn’t, he’s a coward, and that’s the first time I ever saw a coward like that. The next time was when I was working with Stephen Lang, in Tombstone, and he’s playing Ike Clanton. He comes at me across the OK Corral, grabs my leg and cries “don’t shoot me, I’m unarmed!” He was so cowardly, and when he gets pushed off he finds his balls and off he goes. Stephen had this great ability, he showed me something as an actor that was terrific. He could go from being a total coward to being an in-control bluffer, back and forth, so quick. He’d threaten Wyatt, then beg, then apolgize, then walk five feet and be taunting him. So I thought “that’s what I’ve gotta do for Mike,” I’ve got to be so horrified that this is happening. But when he starts to think he’s gotten away, he gets confident again. And then when he feels pain he’s back to being a baby. That’s Stuntman Mike.
Images: The Weinstein Company