Fans of the Western genre have gotten used to not getting much in the way of new Westerns on a regular basis. Basically, they appear in waves, which is why John Maclean’s feature film debut Slow West is such a welcome addition to the genre, since it takes a very different approach.
Part of why Slow West works so well is the pairing of Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the renegade Silas and the 16-year-old Scottish immigrant named Jay Cavendish, whom he offers to escort across America looking for his sweetheart Rose, who has become a wanted criminal. Along the way, the meet a lot of unseemly rogues who are trying to collect the bounty on Rose’s head so Silas and Jay have to reach them quickly.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Smit-McPhee while he was in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, and then just last week, Fassbender came to town and we had a chance to sit down with him for the video interview below. And yes, we may have deliberately forgotten that he had previously done an earlier Western called Jonah Hex:
And here’s our interview with Kodi Smit-McPhee, already in progress as we were talking to him about being in New York to show the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, following its premiere at Sundance.
Kodi Smit-McPhee: It’s a beautiful movie and it’s beautiful for these festivals, too. I think a lot of people are craving something like this to come along.
ComingSoon.net: I was speaking earlier with John about how the Western goes through these periods, but Western fans generally like the good Westerns.
Smit-McPhee: Absolutely. That’s all we’re trying to say at the end of the day that it’s not necessarily definitive that makes something good. It’s just if you like it, it’s the quality of itself. I loved it, it’s great, and I think to me—I’m not a professional critic or anything—but I felt the journey that I had through this movie, watching it, he’s just created a great balance for the soft side of it, but then the horrible, gritty harsh side of it, the humor, it’s all great.
CS: I feel “The Road” was somewhat of a Western even though the setting was different obviously…
Smit-McPhee: Yup, yup, exactly.
CS: It’s hard to believe that movie came out six years ago…
Smit-McPhee: Yeah, that was a long time ago.
CS: So it’s interesting that years later you do a similar two-handed Western with Michael Fassbender.
Smit-McPhee: Totally. I actually saw the relativity in that as well, but that’s really interesting that you say “The Road” is a Western. It really has the aspects of it, and the elements, totally, of that kind of on-the-road heading towards something, a definite end yeah.
CS: How were you contacted about this? I know John was going to shoot in New Zealand so he wanted to cast as much down there as possible. But you’re playing a guy from Scotland…
Smit-McPhee: I’ve been living in L.A. for the last five years, only because it’s the best base to work out of where I want to go. I think I was filming at the time on “Apes” and I read the script. I read a script going into them with an open mind, just waiting for that thing to hit me in my soul. This kind of did that from the start. I felt it was unique in its own way and it was different, and it was maybe a little bit, to be cautious, it was cool to have that feeling about it. Once I saw and Skyped John Maclean, the director, I saw the clarity in it and I saw his point-of-view, and I just felt so comfortable. I really wanted to be part of something so unique.
CS: I have to say for someone who started as a child actor, you seem to find these really good roles and scripts. It’s pretty impressive.
Smit-McPhee: Thank you.
CS: I think a lot of actors would just want to keep acting and will take whatever comes their way.
Smit-McPhee: Of course, of course. I’m one that’s looked that in the face and said “I don’t want that.” As soon as I arrived in America from Australia, I kept my passion that my father had given to me and I didn’t really do all the red carpet crap. I just did whatever I needed to do for whatever I was a part of. And from those qualities, I’ve learned in the best way and I’ve kind of matured into something I really feel comfortable in. I really want to keep that relevant always. I want to always do quality jobs that hit people in different ways and they can take it away with them, rather than just something to do it just because I have to.
CS: Oh, and the other movie you did that was kind of a Western was “Young Ones”…
Smit-McPhee: Yeah, and with that little bit of a futuristic element in it, it’s really cool. If you look at the body of work I’ve done, I feel maybe the characters themselves and the drama and the depth of it has been relative, but what I’ve always tried to make sure of is that the stories themselves are different.
CS: Doing movies like this, has it made you enjoy the genres more? I know John has mentioned a few movies that influenced this, so did you watch those?
Smit-McPhee: Actually, for the character itself and for any character work, I don’t really need to know anything else but what that character needs to know, and I love to completely submerge myself within the moment in that character. But personally, myself and for my vocabulary in this industry and my intellect, I’m always expanding my horizons in each experience I have and learning so much from directors and seeing what they pull from. It’s always recycling by creating things uniquely, and that’s what I’ve grow to admire. I’d love to do that one day.
CS: What did you learn from working with Michael Fassbender? And he seems like the perfect actor to do Westerns, so you wonder why he hasn’t done more.
Smit-McPhee: Oh, man, so perfect! And he’s a great guy. He’s so down to earth, and he doesn’t mean to, but he just keeps things so lively on set and happy. That’s because he’s really a kid at heart, and I think he has a huge passion for what he does, but he just likes to fun. He does things with a really great energy. That actually just helped every day. It keeps you moving forward when you’re on a project and you’re shooting scenes out of place. It’s just good to have someone with you in that state of mind.
CS: I have to say the film is fairly grim because you deal with the immigrants coming here and having no money.
Smit-McPhee: Absolutely. I think I’ve grown to admire the amount he’s brought into it, and he has his story but he has the historical events that he’s left as Easter eggs almost throughout the story. I look at myself and see sh*t that’s something I really couldn’t do, so it’s amazing.
CS: I don’t know how much riding or shooting guns you’ve done in previous movies, so did you already have a lot of those skills in place?
Smit-McPhee: I did “Romeo and Juliet,” I had to do a lot of horse riding lessons for that, so I was grateful that I had a little bit of that left there, but working with a new horse and new people and a new film, I just went into it as a rookie. It’s always cool though working with animals if they’re cooperative. There can be days where it keeps you going longer but you work with it.
CS: A lot of British and Australian actors go to drama school but you came into it a little different. Did you ever feel like you needed to go back to school and do that kind of stuff?
Smit-McPhee: Not at all. I don’t think there’s a lot to be learned there really, to tell the truth. I mean, obviously for the people we admire and there’s a huge amount that my Dad taught me that I look up to, but it kind of evolved out of my passion for it and the craft that my Dad taught me to take on myself. I definitely don’t regret anything in the process or the way that it happened. In fact, I’m so grateful that it happened in a natural process rather than “I’m going to go to school and try to be this.” It was never a thing that I said I wanted to do. It’s simply something that just happened and then took on very quickly. I’ve learned to be extremely humble within that, and I’ve just followed the journey and learned so, so much personally, and it’s really taken me great places.
CS: Oh, your Dad is an actor as well?
Smit-McPhee: Yeah, my Dad’s an actor and he got me into it when I was eight years old, and my sister was also an actress too, so it was just something very normal to me. I saw that it was an art, and he got me into it just for the fun of it. I did a lot of short films and stuff and that escalated quickly to Australian feature film auditions and then I got my first feature film and from there, that’s what got me to “The Road” and America. I’m very grateful for the start of my career, and where I am now and to be able to continue that momentum.
CS: You’ve worked with some great actors over the years from Michael to Viggo Mortensen.
Smit-McPhee: They never really sit down and say “I’ll give you lessons,” but it’s through the wisdom of observation and simply being a sponge and staying in your place, you really learn so much. Definitely.
CS: At this point, are you looking for things that will allow you to change things up and challenge yourself more and do things that you wouldn’t be expected to do.
Smit-McPhee: Yeah, definitely. I’m always trying to do that with each new film I do. That’s why I love getting into the Western and there was that futuristic Western and then “Romeo and Juliet” and from that, to something like “X-Men.” “X-Men” will be the next great challenge for me, and the next step, and also because within the franchise industry, it’s opened me up to a lot more people, wanting to expand the horizons on that.
CS: Do you know if Michael put in a good word with Bryan Singer or is it just coincidence that you ended up in that movie together?
Smit-McPhee: Actually I think it was just coincidence. I first just had a meeting with Bryan Singer and we hit it off and spoke a lot about our own interests in quantum physics and the kind of spiritual world, so we hit it off and then I just did an audition and they were saying, “Bryan’s just wanted you the whole time so let’s just get this audition done with.” So I was like “Oh, God, I feel like I’m in the right place. Yeah, I can’t wait to connect up with him again on set. It’ll be such a different environment.
CS: Do you separate in your head movies like “X-Men: Apocalypse” and something like “Slow West,” because there’s so much more interest and money behind them. I think the first time I heard of “Slow West” was when they announced it for Sundance while something like “X-Men” or “Apes”…
Smit-McPhee: That people have been talking about forever. I never really thought about it and I just end up being grateful to be a part of something that people see coming, and there is definitely a fine line and a definition between the two worlds of independent and franchises, like two different machines. Gratefully, I feel like the passion still drives it which is all I care about. And yeah, I’m sure I have that somewhere subliminally in my mind, but I know if I give my passion and give all that I should, it can’t be that bad.
CS: Do you have a lot of long-time friends who get excited when you get cast in one of those big movies?
Smit-McPhee: Of course. I mean, moving out of Australia, it was a really interesting transition in time for friends, and I’ve moved away from a lot of my old friends so the ones I know now have only known me for the four years I’ve been here, and them being in L.A. you can’t really escape the industry so they’re all so used to it. So if anything, I’m grateful for that. I don’t want to be looked at any differently, but they’re just giving their love and they’re happy I’ve finally hit that thing that I’ve been working pretty hard for.
CS: But do you like being in that environment where you have the industry around you constantly?
Smit-McPhee: Oh, no.
CS: It can go either way, because it can be good for an actor since they’re visible to the people who might cast them.
Smit-McPhee: Well, you’re right, but I tend to, when I’m in L.A. I’m out of the state of mind of an actor and I’d rather be known as an artist, and as an artist, I love L.A. and as an artist, I would love New York, but as a human, I love the country. I love suburbs, I love my family. I love just being surrounded by great people and unfortunately, within this industry and in L.A., everyone can do something for you, so you always have this shield but I’ve grown an appreciation for it and I definitely can enjoy it.
Slow West opens in select cities on Friday, May 15, following its run on DIRECTV. Look for more interviews soon.