Kurt Russell is at the stage of his 50-year career where he’s become a living legend. Thanks to a selection of indelible roles over the years – Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, R.J. McCready in The Thing, Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China (all with director John Carpenter), the title role in Elvis, Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, plus roles in Silkwood, Stargate, Miracle and many others – Russell is now the kind of actor who instantly brings gravitas and authority to a character and a film.
You can currently see him in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight as John Ruth, a bounty hunter in post-Civil War Wyoming whose mission to bring the depraved Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice runs into a collection of enigmatic and dangerous characters in a snowbound outpost. But Tarantino’s epic is not the only Western that Russell did this year; he also starred in Bone Tomahawk as the no-nonsense sheriff Franklin Hunt, who runs into a horror he cannot fathom. We spoke about both films recently with Russell, along with a potential Escape from New York remake and more…
Den of Geek: You did the staged reading for this, right?
Kurt Russell: Yeah.
What do you remember about that and what impressions you had of this script?
What I remember about it was Quentin wanted to do a rehearsal of it. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that. I love to read. It’d be fun to meet other actors and see what you are going to do.” I had no idea at the time that there was a screenplay that he had leaked out that he was so angry about. Once I heard that, I thought, “Oh, OK. He just wants to see it played one time.” So I read the script. I thought John Ruth was great. I thought, “Too bad he’s not doing this. It’s a fun movie. And it’s really great. And John Ruth would be a great character to play. At least I get to do it once.” And I kind of had this idea about it, and, sure enough, Quentin wanted me to go down that road, sort of a John Wayne take on the character, blustery, this and that, and have fun with it.
Anyway, a month later…I found that I incorporated many other people into my thoughts as John Ruth. I actually have six names in a part of my script, which every once in a while…I wrote them down because it was a reminder to not be afraid to go there, to be that person, to feel that Broderick Crawford at one point, Jackie Gleason at one point, Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China at one point, Claude Akins at one point, John Wayne at one point, Jason Robards — guys that were in my mind.
After kind of blending all that in there, you have your John Ruth. Then you no longer have to sort or assess anybody… it just stops and it congeals, and it’s just John Ruth.
It was not an easy thing. It was not an easy thing creating what I wanted to be a memorable character. He had to be memorable because of the ending of the movie where the Major (Samuel L. Jackson) was going to go, what the “Lincoln letter” meant to John Ruth and what it means to the movie.
So, along with that was the task of starting a parade and knowing that this character was going to sort of set the tone of the movie. This guy, he’s going to let you know how much fun you can have, the time to take it seriously, how much to listen to and say, “I better remember that,” but have an overall sense of, “Let’s just go along here and have a good time for a while. You are going to get the information, but let’s just go along. Let this play out. Let this take its time. But don’t think that this doesn’t matter,” that sort of thing. Those are the things I was thinking about with John Ruth as I was working.
I heard the John Wayne cadence in a few of the lines. And then it made me think that the character is like that morally gray John Wayne in The Searchers, because you don’t really know if he’s a good guy in any way.
First of all, he’s bombastic. He’s big. He’s a big Yank. He doesn’t really care what other people think. But then there’s other times when he’s not at all like that. Like at the table. At the table he’s just so betrayed by the one person he doesn’t want to be betrayed by. But that’s entirely different. That’s just a real person sitting there.
And then there’s other times where he’ a little more…He walks over to Michael Madsen’s character and he doesn’t bombast at all. He chooses to go easy and choose his words carefully. He knows this is a real player, so, “OK. We’ll do this differently.” And, of course, when he deals with him later on, [laughs] you think there’s going to be some big thing. But he’s already worked out what he’s going to do there.
So you realize he’s pretty clever at his job. He’s really good at it, actually. One of the things I love about the movie is that he turns out to be right about so much. My favorite thing looking back is when he walks into the door and says, “Who busted that, that Mexican fellow?” “Yeah, he did.” He just knew those things. He should have listened to himself more than he did.
You’ve been in two Westerns this year. Is Kurt Russell singlehandedly bringing the Western back with the help of Quentin Tarantino and Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk writer/director)?
[laughs] Got two good writers!
Everybody knows Quentin’s dialogue, but the dialogue in Bone Tomahawk is fantastic too.
It really is. I’m glad to hear you say that. And I agree. That was why I did it. I thought he was a great writer. I like Zahler’s Western style writing as good as anybody. I thought that Kevin Jarre in Tombstone, his writing was pretty tough to beat. That’s about as good a dialogue as Westerns have ever had. This is very different than Zahler did, but it’s very authentic. It has that good authentic feel to it.
That’s why I felt that I’d like to see the movie made, I’d like to see the movie done, and I would have loved to have seen more coverage because I think the audience would have gotten more into it. But the movie has gotten great reviews. That’s nice. I thought that’d be a great movie to be able to get made because it’s just not going to be made. And it sort of belongs in its own category.
And then there’s Quentin, who is unique in and of himself, which is a completely different style. It’s a broad style. It’s like going from a reality-based time period to Broadway-based. So it was serendipitous the way it worked out in terms of doing two Westerns in a row, because I’ve been involved with Bone Tomahawk for maybe two or three years. Finally, that particular group of actors could get together at that particular time and do it. And it just turned out to be right in front of this movie, which I was kind of displeased by because I wanted to have a tight sort of beard and a tight haircut for that guy of that time, just turn of the century. And I had to let it grow some for this movie. So I thought, “Well, I just have to cheat that a little bit. I don’t get to quite cover that character the way I would like to.” But it still wasn’t wrong. There was nothing wrong with it. It was right for the period and whatnot.
But this look is what…it wasn’t just the mustache; his hair is all over the place. This guy’s a wild, wild looking beast. And it was important with John Ruth that when you see him, it’s as significant as it sounds and as it behaves. You know, “Holy shit. That’s a lot of man.” [laughs] Everything. He’s just huge. Everything’s big. His bombastic nature is just thrown around the room. Or as Quentin said one day, “It’s not like you are a bull in a china shop. You are the bull and the entire movie is a china shop.”
I’ve never played a character like that. I’ve played characters that were sort of…Jack Burton was kind of an invention in Big Trouble in Little China. He’s full of himself in a funny way. He’s doing his best. John Carpenter and I used to talk about it. Our idea was that it was almost as if John Wayne were doing a movie with a director who secretly doesn’t like him, so he prints all of John’s bad takes, when he kind of stumbles off the horse and he gets up and he kind of falls down. He’s not stupid, but he’s not bright, and kind of brash and whatnot.
Anyway, the whole movie is printed with takes where he’s not that good. But the Chinese guy is really good. [laughs] So he’s going to go to the premiere and just be shocked, like, “God. How did that happen?” That was sort of Jack Burton to us. But in his heart he was good. And he was going to come through for you. He was going to fight for you.
Somebody said that The Hateful Eight almost plays like if John Ford had made The Thing. And you get that sense of the closed room and nobody really knows who anybody is. I imagine that Quentin probably watched a lot of those same Westerns and that kind of filtered down into his sensibility…
Before we started the movie, Quentin ran The Thing one night, the one that John and I did. And he had Ennio (Morricone) doing the music, and he did the music for The Thing. A lot of music here has got that feel to it, right? It gives it a sense of gravitas that I really think is cool. I love the fact that I got to be in both those films. I love the fact that those two directors directed those films. I love the fact that I got to play the characters that I got to play in those films. Sometimes when you get to do a really fun movie, it’s not so much the character you love as much as the movie, or sometimes the movie is not really what you love, but the character is irresistible. It’s really fun when the two are together — you love the movie and you love the character that they want you to do.
That was the case here. That was getting to do something with Quentin…It’s made me feel like I was getting to work with him in his prime and all the other actors are in their prime. And I feel that way about myself. And I felt that way about the character, that John Ruth is in his prime. He’s an old bull.
Every once in a while you get the opportunity to really have the freedom in a character to work with somebody who is truly great, who is going to give you all that power and strength to go with and hold that baton while you have it, hold that baton and run with it, get things going, get that locomotive under way. Then when it’s going full speed, “All right. Here. You take it now. Let’s go.” It was a fun experience.
We were talking about Star Wars just before the interview. Harrison is playing Han Solo 30 years later in the movie. Under the right circumstances, would you want to revisit Snake Plissken 30 years later?
No. Snake, the way I played him was — the reason we did Escape from L.A. was because they’d always wanted to do another Escape and I don’t like sequels. It’s not why you make movies. I think you make them to have that unique experience. But I get it. And there were different personal reasons that I did that for. But I said, “You’ve got to do it now, guys, because two years from now I can’t do it.” And I just was on the edge.
But you can watch those two movies back to back and Snake is still Snake. There’s no separation. He still looks like Snake. He acts like Snake. He is Snake. If we’d have done it then, I’d say yes. Do it then and save it. Hold it. Put it in the bank for 15 years.
But there’s no reason for it. Look, Snake Plissken at the time was referred to as the dark side of James Bond. It was in 1980. That’s what he is. He’s James Bond. I don’t want to see James Bond at 65 years old. I don’t want to watch that. I’m not so sure I want to watch Han Solo at 75. If it’s done right though, there’s a real character. Han Solo in that regard is more of a real guy. I don’t see Snake as aging. I seek Snake as being a one-age person. So if they want to do that, great. Go find another Snake.
But it’s going to be hard because you’ve got to find another John Carpenter, too. He and I pretty much understood that world. We look at the world a little differently. [laughs] I’m not sure these other guys will do that. Big Trouble in Little China was like that, too. And they’re talking about making that. So, OK. Good. Good luck. Show me something good. Find a reason for why you did that. I hope it’s not just to take advantage of the name and the sort of feeling that somebody else created. That’s not very pretty. But my hope would be that they could. I wish them good luck in doing that.
I like to see remakes of things that you have a different take on, like we did with The Thing. That was (original novella) Who Goes There? We didn’t do a remake of a seven foot character. We did Who Goes There? This is about paranoia. That’s John Carpenter. That’s completely different. And it’s a completely different atmosphere. Maybe somebody has a take on Escape from New York like that. Great. And I’ll be the first one to sit there and go, “This is awesome! This is great! I love this.” But I hope they do something like that, not just to sort of take the title. That’s not going to do anything.
The Hateful Eight is out in limited release on Christmas Day (December 25) with the movie expanding into wide release in January.