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Kurt Russell isn’t merely a movie star or a genre icon. He’s one of the most versatile and talented actors in Hollywood, having flourished over five decades in a variety of roles where he played tough, silly, intractable, feckless, heroic and venal. But in his latest film, Art of the Steal, Russell manages to create a kind of character we haven’t really seen from him before: a loser.
Defeated and betrayed, resilient but without prospects, Crunch Calhoun is a thief whose dedication and commitment to others – specifically to his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) — lands him in prison, at an age when he should be sailing off into the sunset, or at least pulling one last job and getting out while he can.
Russell spoke with Spinoff Online about his work in the film, which he characterized as a new and different challenge from the kinds of opportunities he’s enjoyed before. In addition to providing insights about the life lessons he’s learned and the movie teaches, Russell offered some fun anecdotes about his past work, and reflected upon his eclectic career at a time when, not unlike his character, he’s starting to think about the entirety of his life, and what is most meaningful in it.
Spinoff Online: Last time I spoke to you was for the junket for Grindhouse, and I feel like I should apologize for how I was so effusive with my compliments. I was like, I think you deserved like an Oscar for how crazy …
Kurt Russell: That’s cool. I love this one. I loved watching this one slowly make its “Carpenter climb.” It’s like Tarantino was talking to, I guess, Rodriguez and said, well, we wanted to make a John Carpenter movie, and we did. And I said, I told you people won’t for 20 years really understand what you’re doing here. But for me I can remember I liked to look at that one as literally the Cowardly Lion. I remember when Dorothy reached out and he would [growl] like that and she slapped his paw, and I remember going, “Oh, my God. What did she do?” And he just went, why did you do that? And he just turned into this thing that I couldn’t imagine. And I remember doing Death Proof and I was really having trouble with where I was going to go with these three girls at the end. Because I didn’t believe it – I said, “They’re not going to kick my ass. I’m like I’m not going to fucking buy that, no way.” He said, “You’re pretty fucked up from the accident.” I said, “I don’t fucking care if I’m on my deathbed, it’s not going to happen. I’ll grab them by the fucking eyeball and kill them. It’s not going to happen.” And finally I read back, and I saw he gets shot and he fucking screams, because it really hurts way more than he thought. And then as Quentin wrote, “He jumps in his car and takes off. Coward.” And I went back and I said, there it is. What do cowards do? One of the best cowards I ever saw was Stephen Lang in Tombstone. He’d go back and forth from just fucking badass guy to just begging – leave me alone, please leave me alone. I’ll get your fucking ass. Then as soon as you give him two inches he’s back. And I thought that this guy was the perfect opportunity to show really the way these guys can exist is they’re extremely cowardly.
In terms of Art of the Steal, the impression I got from this role was that it was something that seems like you can kind of just ease into it, that it seems sort of like that old shoe kind of thing. How would you characterize it? Does that sense of comfort on screen representative of what work you actually have to do?
No, the thing here that obviously has to take place is you have to play this guy who apparently wants to be the alpha dog and quite apparently isn’t, otherwise the movie’s not going to work. So you’re kind of playing that. Now that I’ve never done before – this is a different role. But I like this way he took this conman/art heist world and connected the Sting world to it and the reason why. I think trust in the world of business, in the world of legitimate business is important, but it’s critical in the world of illegal business. So I liked what it was about, and I thought it was clever and I just really thought that the guy playing the guy would be funny and fun. And I hadn’t had an opportunity to play any kind of character like this in terms of humor and whatnot for a long time. And I just liked what we could do with it and I liked the characters, all together, how they behaved. And I think it works. I think anytime you hear the audience and you are being asked at some point in the movie to say okay, place your bets, who’s doing what’s to who, to me that’s always a good time.
You’ve worked with some incredible ensembles in the past, but what sort of experience do you have on something like this where you aren’t playing that alpha dog?
You play it. You embrace it. You embrace it, that’s what you do. You play the guy who can’t grab the microphone – he’s not the guy. He thinks he’s the guy, or that’s the note he’s playing. It’s fun. I mean it’s fun to do. It’s like anything else – you pick up on what the script is asking for. What does it need? What do you need to do here to sell the audience on this? And he’s a loser. He’s just a loser. He’s going to get fucked in the end. He doesn’t see it coming. We can see it coming. You can’t see it coming because you’re just not sharp enough to. That’s what you play. That’s what you go after. And then what’s fun too about these guys, I think, is that ultimately this guy, you don’t know anything about him. You were told a lot about him. You’re given a lot of information about Crunch. You see a lot, you’re given a lot and you kind of, you know, it’s like looking at people and thinking you know them and then you don’t. And then you find out oh, he really is the alpha dog. I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see that. But that was kind of a subtle illusion there, that he gets old fast, you know what I mean? He goes into prison, he’s only in there five and a half years, but he looks like he’s been in the 10 years. [And] we tried to consciously make as much of that as we could. And that would burn you. That would hurt.
One of the really interesting ideas in this movie is that Matt Dillon’s character hears this story about a con and misdirection and he sort of takes the wrong lesson from it. Have you encountered that experience in your life, where you got really inspired by hearing something, but you ended up going, maybe I took the wrong thing from that when I jumped into it?
You know, I’m not aware enough of my life to be able to look back and give you a good answer, but I have done things, only a few times, only a couple of times when I wasn’t sure what to do and I let someone advise me, and they were personal things. One of them involved – one or two of them involve my children. And the worst mistakes I’ve ever made in my life [was] taking their advice. Absolutely the worst fucking [advice] – I literally never took anybody’s advice after that. I’d rather make my mistake then take somebody’s advice, at that stage of the game, and feel the way I did. Now, doesn’t mean you don’t listen to people and in a commonsensical way say that makes sense. That’s a good idea. No, what I’m talking about is when you really feel lost on something and somebody tells you what to do. “I’ve been through this, here’s what you do.” And you go okay and then you do it, even though you’re thinking “I don’t know about this,” and then you realize halfway through it or just after you’ve done it [it was wrong]. And both times I just called myself on it, I just said whoa, I just did a really wrong thing. And I didn’t know what to do. It was a suggestion that I should not have taken but I just want you to throw this away. If it’s possible for you to throw what I did away, throw it away because I was literally reaching for something here. I did it twice. I remember the two exact things and I just, both personal things, and I said “bad move” and stopped it right there. And just owned up to my own ignorance, my own lost-in-spaceness and ever since then I never even thought about taking somebody’s advice. When I was confused about something I just got to work it out. Work it out. Listen to what people say. I’ll listen to what a lot of people say but, you know, you just keep working it out. You know, finally you come up with your decision that you – I’m not that other guy.
One of the first things that he says in the movie is that there’s no final job, or no one last job. As an actor, have you reached a point in your career where you start thinking about sort of the mic dropping moment?
You know, it’s funny I never did it for that reason and I continue to not do it for that reason. But I know what you’re saying and it’s a fair question to ask – and I’ve asked myself a couple of times, why do I want to keep doing this? I do believe that actors, some actors, and I think I’m one of them, we have probably a stunted growth thing where you never get tired of seeing people and then telling a story about them and behaving as them as you do it. “I saw this guy yesterday, this guy walks up, right” – you know, you start to tell the story. And he’s got this head thing, so now you’re telling a story with a head thing. There’s some of us that are stunted. We don’t know how to get past the funniness of that, or the whatever it is. It just fascinates you. It’s like a baby with a cold rag. You throw a cold rag on him they [enjoy it] over and over and over. After a while you’d think they’d throw the cold rag on and they don’t do it anymore, like a person. But there is something there that that never gets satiated. That never does. But then there’s the reality of all the stuff that goes with it and then there’s other things that come into your life.
But now this thing with my wine has come into my life and it’s big. And I’ve never been one to shy away from things that didn’t have anything to do in Hollywood. When I was playing baseball, baseball took precedence because I knew I had a certain amount of years to it. So that took precedence, but then I got hurt and I had something to go back into. There have been other things. When I move to Colorado. I moved to Colorado, I was 26 years old. I just got finished doing a television series. I said well, I can guide hunting, I can teach skiing and I can work from here, I can get other jobs and I was going to raise Appaloosas. And I said those things I know how to do. I can make a nice living at that. I’m staked from the motion picture business. And it never stopped me from going to Colorado and doing that. Well, it turns out that one thing led to another and once again my acting was going. Five years ago I got fascinated by wine. I’ve always loved wine and I’ve wanted to learn to make it. Five years ago I started to go to Santa Rita Hills and now my wine is in Los Alamos, this little saloon and I love this place and it’s a great place to go for a weekend and hang out. And I like pouring my wine there. I love going into the Vineyard. I love learning about making wine. I make great wine. I’m a serious aficionado of the game. I’m not going to let the movie business stop me from being interested in that, but I’m also not going to say well if I read something or somebody wants me to do something that I’d like to do, I’m not going to not do it. So I just always played it by ear. I always will. I don’t look at controlling a career. I don’t do that anymore.
When I was younger I knew I had to make a living, so I’d listen to people talk about what you need to do next, or whatever and I would listen to it. And inevitably it would be a script I’d read. It had nothing to do with anything anybody said. It was just a script I read and I went oh, I like that. And then I went oh, I like that guy or I’d like to play that guy. I’d like to see that movie. And that’s still what I do now. This movie was just one where liked it. I thought it was clever. I said I’d like to see it. I’d like to play that guy. I think it’s got a good surprise to it. And that’s all I’ve ever done and, you know, I’ve had opportunity, a long opportunity to play different people in different kinds of movies. And I just like that.
The Art of the Steal is playing now in select U.S. theaters.