Kurt Russell on the American Tough Guy and His New Cannibal Western

You want to follow Kurt Russell anywhere. Even into the weird wilderness that a tribe of cannibalistic cave-dwellers call home. He’s that sharp, that confident, that poised. He’s the real deal hero type. InBone Tomahawk, Russell plays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, an experienced lawman in the Old West who leads a posse on a rescue mission into such a neck of the woods. The movie is a collision of genres: one part cowpokin’ Western, another part ultra-violent horror, Russell, playing the kind of no-nonsense hero that he’s perfected over 53 years of acting and 92 film and TV credits, at its center. Sheriff Hunt feels like a “best of” for Russell. There’s the sincere-but-tough gravitas of Tombstone, the ferocity of Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken, and the deadpan comic genius of Big Trouble in Little China. And apparently he’s the splitting image of the Western hero; Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight will be his second of the year.
Despite dealing with an injury that delayed our interview by 24 hours, Russell was in good spirits when we sat down to chat about Bone Tomahawk, the state of the American male, and the art of growing a great mustache.

How are you feeling? Everyone’s hearts just skipped a beat when we heard you were injured.

Yeah, it’s been an interesting couple of days. It’s amazing because it goes back forty years to when I was playing [base]ball. I was injured out of the game with a torn rotator cuff. There was no operation at that point, so it was just “don’t do it any more harm.” That’s what we were told to do. So through the years, it finally got to the point where it was going to break down. And I have a [reads off note] “severe calcific rotator cuff tendonitis with a partially torn rotator cuff.” I told the doctor I want to know what this is exactly so I can tell people when they ask me. He said to tell people, and in this case it’s true: it’s the worst case he’s ever seen! So anyway, I’ve got my sling and I’ve got the cortisone shot right in the bone on the calcified area. Hopefully, it’ll start to help break that down. Then I have to go to rehab while they decide whether or not it’s going to need surgery. It probably will.
My immediate reaction to this is “He’s Kurt Russell. He’s going to be fine.”

Yeah, right!

Bone Tomahawk is from a first-time director, S. Craig Zoller, but you’re quoted on the back of one of his novels, so you were a fan. How did you come to be involved in this movie?

I remember when I read Tombstone and I remember feeling that it was quite unique and I loved the dialogue and I loved the feeling that [Kevin Jarre] just had a style and a complete approach to the western that I had never really read before. I liked it! It was fantastic. It was a movie that needed to be made and I would love to do it. So I went out and got the money for that. I hooked up with [executive producer] Andy Vajna. On [Bone Tomahawk], it’s just one of those little indie movies that they were going to try to put together. They were coming to me and I told Craig… I told him that I liked it and I wanted to talk to him about what he wanted to do. So at some point we did. We started the process of making the movie, which got close a couple of times and then fell down and got close and fell down. You know, like these little movies go through. I had never done one of these independent-type pictures before.

I had to crack up on something I read about [Bone Tomahawk] where they said it was destined to be a cult classic. Now with some of the movies I make, they say it up front! That’s code for it’s not going to get promoted well, nobody’s going to know what to make of it, the reviewers watching it aren’t going to know what category to put it into, and it’s going to be around for ten minutes. I’ve made quite a few movies that fall into that category. They were made, they were misunderstood or they were just so different that they didn’t follow the norm. I can give you Escape From New York to Big Trouble in Little China to Used Cars to Overboard to Tombstone. I’ve done ten of them! I look at that and think’s that’s okay. I think Death Proof is going to fall into that category. That’s Tarantino’s movie. I have people coming up to me who never went and saw it at the time because they didn’t know about it. I think that’s what’s going to happen here. There are going to be a lot of people who won’t know about this. It’ll come and go. I fully expect this movie to be, 15 years from now, something that people come up to me and say “Do you know what I just saw? Bone Tomahawk! Man, that was fantastic! What was that?” I think that’s what’s going to happen. I think that’s where it’s at.

Bone Tomahawk reminded me a lot of The Thing. It took people a long time to warm up to it.

It came out the same year as E.T. and we had an alien most of the audience couldn’t watch! It was just a story of paranoia, extremely well handled by a master. Yet at the time, it was just “Holy shit, what is this?” What would you call that genre? The horror genre?

It’s a horror-something.

A horror-something. Now it’s completely a classic. It’s up there in the top echelon of horror movies. I remember reading it at the time and talking to [John Carpenter] about it. What’s this thing look like now? What’s it look like when it does this? I’ve been drawn to movies like this for a great part of my life and Bone Tomahawk did that and I thought it would be fun to go after it. I wanted to be a part of it and play a character I thought I could serve well and at the time, I felt like working.
What I like about Bone Tomahawk is how it begins like a very traditional western. It’s likeThe Searchers. Men-on-a-mission, engaging in camaraderie. And then it takes this crazy left turn.

The Searchers. That’s the normal western dialogue of the time, which in no way represented reality. I love The Searchers. I think it’s a cool movie. But the dialogue style? No way. It can’t compare to Bone Tomahawk or something like Tombstone. This is a much more of that true flavor. This makes you feel that this could actually be some weird little town in 1897 that is just out there where nobody knows where everything really is. The people talked this way. I believe that. I don’t think this is a Hollywood western dialogue movie. This has a style to it. It lends itself much more to the credibility of reality than almost all westerns. It doesn’t have a modern day sound to i

When you walk into a bad situation in a movie, everyone knows: you’ve got this. Are you good at faking that or are you that kind of guy in real life?

No actor is like almost any of the characters they play. I thought this character was more of a continuum in the vein of man like Wyatt Earp. A man like Sheriff Hunt would have known Wyatt Earp and they probably nodded at each other and stayed out of each other’s way. This guy is the one who didn’t become well known and famous, you know what I mean? This is a lower profile man. Wyatt Earp wasn’t interested in, well, he was interested in low profile for legal purposes, but he was not interested in low profile for living purposes. I think Sheriff Hunt is not that. I think Sheriff Hunt is a good man, a simple man, but he’s hardbitten. He’s of that time. I think it’s a representation of a man who I can believe in, in his behavior and in his tone…I believe those guys existed. And they were like that. This was only a little more than a hundred years ago. To me, part of what this movie has to say is look at how much men have changed in just 120 years. Where are those men? Where are the men that are in this movie? After 120 years, living in America, it’s a very different mentality. The mentality of the American male, or at least how it’s discussed in the media, it’s changed significantly. I find it interesting. I find it interesting to explore that in the behavior of people. I’m going to be doing that again in a very different way in Quentin’s movie [The Hateful Eight].
There have been movies where you’ve deconstructed what the American male can be. I’m thinking of ridiculous “tough” characters like Stuntman Mike and Jack Burton.

You say words like tough and it comes out like macho and stupid and shit like that. It’s not about that. I remember my dad and I remember my grandfather when I was a young guy. They were just different. They didn’t show what much of the press has attacked as a certain kind of cartoonish manliness. To some degree, on a personal level with me, I’ve been portrayed as people that I’m not, because I’ve played people that I’m not. You play different people, you express different parts of your personality and you try to explore the character that you’re playing. If you do it well, it’s not seen. You’re not watching someone work. You feel like that’s someone who the actor is. I suppose I have to try to take that as a compliment! [Audiences] just think you’re a guy from another era.

That’s why people like you. You seem like a reliable, old school guy.

That’s nice. All that means is they feel that way from the characters they’ve seen. What I have discovered over a long period of time working as an actor is that you’re not going to control what other people think. Many times, it’s not going to be be what you think. That’s okay. That’s the job you’re in. The job you’re in is to convince people of the character you’re playing. I’ve played a lot of different characters. I’ve played a lot of different guys in a lot of different kinds of shows. The characters in the Disney light comedies I did were very different from some of the movies I’ve done with John Carpenter and Quentin. You know,Dreamer has a very different character than the character you see in Bone Tomahawk. I think the fun part is to go and play as many of them as you can and work with as many great directors as you can and do as many good movies as you can and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes they’re going to fall in your favor sometimes they’re not. You just go about doing you work and when people have an image of you, it doesn’t really matter what the truth is.

You have this incredible mustache in Bone Tomahawk. How important is creating an instantly iconic look for so many of your characters? I feel like people can recognize so many of your characters from wardrobe or hairstyle alone.

I try to draw it from the script and then go into my imagination and do what I think will work. When I read Snake Plissken, I said to John “Oh, I know what I want to do! I want to wear an eye-patch!” He’s got nuclear dust in his left eye and his eye is messed up! Who knows? Maybe he can still see out of it? Maybe he can see through that eye-patch. He’s constantly in a little bit of pain and agony because his left eye is always bugging him.

For this guy here [Sheriff Hunt], I had to do a different version of him because I was getting ready forThe Hateful Eight. I would have changed my look significantly for this one. I would’ve had much shorter hair. Men at the time typically had shorter hair, but I looked around and there were all kinds of different looks. But I was really getting ready for Quentin’s movie and I had no choice because we finished on a Saturday morning at 10:00 and I started rehearsal on Quentin’s movie Monday morning at 8:00. I had to continue to grow my mustache. Not my beard. I cut by beard down, but I continued to grow the mustache, so it was a massive thing for Hateful Eight. It’s a different look and I was getting ready for it. I had to cheat it. So the look I have in Bone Tomahawk was sort of a halfway house thing, halfway to where I was going for Hateful Eight. It’s in full blown maturity in Hateful Eight! It’s a mustache wearing a man in, not the other way around! [John Ruth] is a far different guy. He’s a bigger that life character. The mustache said a lot.

Well, your hair is always impressive in the movies. Everyone told me to ask your about hair in this interview because it’s always so good.

I still got some, so that’s good, I guess!

VIA Esquire