Kurt Russell ('Death Proof')
It seems inconceivable that Kurt Russell began his career in 1961, but it's almost equally unbelievable to think that he's worked pretty much steadily ever since... and without being typecast or otherwise forced into a certain type of role.
But then again, look at the range of films he's done: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Elvis (1979), Escape From New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Captain Ron (1992), Breakdown (1997) and Miracle (2004) to name but seven of his more than 80 professional credits. Suffice it to say that some of these characters have proved more memorable than others, but what's most fascinating is that Russell continues to challenge himself (and his fans) by finding new and different directions to take his career.
In his latest film, Russell plays Stuntman Mike — a strange, charismatic stuntman who also happens to be a serial killer... not to mention what the actor hopes will be another worthy addition to his already impeccable roster of classic characters.
Is this what happens to Snake Plissken after he becomes disaffected? "Maybe Snake's stuntman. Not Snake, but Snake's stuntman might be this guy, yeah."
Do you have a reel of Vanessa Ferlito's lapdance at your house? "It's going to be interesting to see if he finds that reel. It's been an interesting experience, this movie, all of the way through everything. Here it is and it's coming out and I have no idea what he's going to put on that DVD, I have no idea what he's going to put as the movie that he takes overseas, and I don't know if other guys are going to end up making grindhouse movies. You know what I mean? If they're going to come back and say, "Let's make some double feature films. Let's get back and do some of that." Hey, if Grindhouse works, people may... maybe you guys remember, but we used to always watch double features. So when you went to just watch one movie, it was a little bit like, "This better be good!", he laughs. "You were more interested in getting your money's worth than you were in critiquing the movie. That was a long transition. I remember that distinctly, saying, "Wait. We're going to pay the same amount of money for one movie? This really better be good." There was a little bit of like, "They don't expect us to think that short in the beginning was the other movie, do they?" It was like Ward on Bewitched — come on, it's a different guy! They don't think we know that? So double features for me, that was the norm."
What was your reaction when Quentin came to you with this idea? "I was in Tahiti. I was vacationing and Freddy Rodriguez called and said, "I think Quentin's going to come to you with this movie." He said, "I think it was supposed to be Mickey Rourke, but I don't think that's happening. And there are some other guys they're talking about. I know that Ving Rhames was someone who was being pushed heavily." But I don't know if Quentin had ever seriously considered it or not. I've done lots of parts where I ended up being the guy and they were talking to other people and vice versa where I was close to doing it and then I decided not to or whatever — it didn't work out. So when I got it, [the film] was well underway and we played a little phone tag."
"Quentin left me some messages and during the course of the messages we began to kind of feel each other out a little bit — I could tell. He just said, "I want you to do this movie. I really want you." After I called him, he said, "I can't believe that Snake Plissken is going to be Stuntman Mike!" He said, "Call me." So I called him up. We got ahold of each other and he said, "You've had a rogue's gallery over the years of great characters that I've just loved, and I would really like to see Stuntman Mike become one of those guys, one of those characters that you hang on your wall when you're done." I said I'd love to do it. I read it, I thought it was exactly the kind of movie I'd love to work on with Quentin, and in the environment he was talking about, there was just no reason not to just jump and say, "Let's go do this and have fun"."
How much of a charge was it to get a role where you play so many different levels? "Well, there's a lot of stuff that's not there," he laughs. "You know, when you read a script you kind of get your own ideas right away. But the great thing about working with Quentin is he's mapped this guy out with what he does, but he hasn't really mapped out how to play him. When I rehearsed, for one of the few times ever, every time you read a character you kind of get a general idea what you're going to do. We did a read-through and I realized in the read-through I still don't have any idea here. But I knew in his mind he'd hired Snake Plissken and he'd hired Macready from The Thing. I knew what he had in his head. And when I looked at it, I said, "He's Stuntman Mike; he's not those guys." And he said, "Well, I've got Kurt Russell. I don't have Mickey Rourke. I don't have Ving Rhames. I have Kurt Russell, that's who it's going to be." And what was great was the two people that worked together, him and me, we really meshed well together and sort of said, "We're going to find this as we go." And he never stopped me from trying to find it."
"One day I'm talking to Vanessa [Ferlito] and it's the straightest scene in the movie, and it's Quentin so I'm feeling really good and free. So I go, "Let's talk to [her] like John Wayne." You can just feel the whole room [withdraw], and I just wouldn't stop and I was having fun. I was thinking he's going to say, "Cut! OK, that was crazy, that was fun." And just about that time he goes, "Wait, wait, wait, wait. Keep it rolling. OK, go back to this part of the speech." Where? "Here. This part. Do John Wayne, all of the way. Yeah. Let's go. John Wayne." I'm thinking I'm going to really go John Wayne on him, and I do this thing, and then he goes, "OK, Brando! Brando!" I realized, this guy loves to play as much as I do. He just wants to have fun and, who knows? Who knows? It's film. Start a fire with it! Who cares? Go find out and maybe it's in there, maybe it's not, but who knows?"
Well, [we go] all of the way to the end and the end stuff, I just took one word and ran with it: coward. This is a guy who kills women. He's a coward. I said, "I don't think I've ever seen one of these guys in these movies finish up in fact true to form." It's one of those things where when you hammer your finger, you have an idea what that will feel like, but when you do it it's like waaayy worse than you thought. He and I were laughing as we talked about it, and I said, "I want to do that." He said, "OK, let's do that. Let's try it"."
"And we just went down that road and we didn't stop and finally, he never did ever say anything to me directing-wise ever until the last scene in the car, when I'm hanging out of the car. He goes, "OK, you're in bad shape." I said, "OK, here we go. How bad?" He said, "As bad as you want to be." And I just did this thing and all of a sudden he comes over and he's confused; he's walking around and everybody's kind of like is he actually going to say something? They kind of back off, and I said, "What?" He says, "Uh- maybe less?" and I jumped out of the car and I said, "I did it! I got him to say too much!" And so he comes marching up to me months later — we're going to do the looping — and he comes marching up and he plops down and I just watched the end and it was going back to the beginning. He said, "Did you see the take that I used?" It was that take."
"I could never go too far for Quentin, so they ended up using that take. Even he would surprise [himself], and I loved that about him. He knew that was too much until he put it in the movie, and he said, "Nope. That's what I want to do." We wanted to do a lot of different things with Stuntman Mike."
What about when you break the fourth wall and look at the camera? "That was another thing, I forget how. I think we were just plugging along and I turned around and looked at him and he said, "You should do one of those things where you look right at the camera." I said one of those Burt Reynolds-kind of things? He said, "Yeah!" So I did a look, I did a look with a wink, and I actually did one with a wink and I start to sneeze. But we did ones where we just looked and got in the car. That's what's fun — you do all of these different things and then you know that when he gets in the room with Sally [Menke, Tarantino's editor] they sit there and make up their mind as to what movie they want to see."
What about Stuntman Mike getting beat down by three badass chicks? "Well, like I said I actually read the script," he laughs, "and I knew what I was getting into, and my hope was that I could make it so that women in the audience would scream and holler and stomp and cheer... and they do. So it was great, and it's also got a flair to it, which is he's so wussed out at that point. I think if you watch closely you watch him… well, there's a line that is cut out and it might go back in one of the versions where he says, "You know I usually pay women to beat the crap out of me." I felt like in a way this whipping he was getting was for free. It was better than anything he'd ever gotten, and he was sort of enjoying it — getting beaten to death."
Except for, "Be careful, my arm is broken!" "Yeah, exactly! That literally was a throw-in. There was one thing where [Tarantino] said, "I don't understand. Are you saying Mommy?" I said, "No, I'm saying 'Bobby.' He's calling for his brother, he's so out of it. 'Bobby!'" This is one of the things I did just as they got there; I said, "Be careful, my right arm is broken!" And they pulled me out. Then we looked at each other and then looked at the girls and he said, "When he says that, grab his right arm." We went back and we did it again, but it was actually hard to get the timing right. But we finally got the timing right, and he threw in a nice little crunch," he laughs.
Was there ever a moment between takes where Zoe Bell challenged you as a real stunt woman? "No, no. You know, we just had a great time. It was a great experience together. But the thing about me is that my life has been kind of interesting in that especially when I was younger, I did a lot of stunts, and I did a lot of stuff on horses, and then I did a lot of stuff with cars because I used to race cars seriously. I raced as a young guy and I won six nationals and one world championship and it was serious in my life; as a matter of fact, it was a possible future for me, and I chose baseball instead and that became something I was extremely focused on. Acting from the age of nine was something that was always there because my dad did it and I knew it was a way to make money; I knew his agent, so I could go in and get jobs. But the stunt world was one that I was already very close to because of all of my dad's friends, and back in those days the more stuff that you could do as a stunt kid or as an actor, the more work you got."
"You could go to work as a stunt kid, you could go to work as an actor or you could cross over. So it was really in those days a necessity; it was born out of necessity, it wasn't born out of desire. It was just the more stuff you could do — if you could flip wagons, if you could ride horses into the ground, if you could get shot off of a horse, if you could spin a car, then you were more desirable. You were a better commodity. So I learned that stuff at a very early age and then as the years went by I did a lot of car driving in movies and stuff. Actually, the driving stuff in Breakdown was more difficult than this, but it wasn't at as high a speed, and it wasn't as long. We were six weeks making this."
In the annals of car chase movie scenes where do you think this falls? "It's funny. Quentin is so up on that. I just watched the guy from Nightline interview him and ask him that question, and the guy made the mistake... he's a really nice guy, but he made the mistake of saying, "What are your favorites? Bullitt or The French Connection?" And then of course what Quentin did very nicely was mention four other ones that in his estimation are obviously way above Bullitt and way above French Connection, you know what I mean? And he has specific reasons why. Now, one of the reasons that he will talk to you at length about this car chase is because there's no special effects in it — just people driving cars. Just like my character says, "Real cars driven by real stupid people," he laughs.
Did you see anything of Snake in Freddy's character from Planet Terror? "In the character he played? Yeah. Freddy called me and he said, "I'm kind of doing… I'm based sort of loosely…" I was like what are you trying to tell me? He said, "The prototype for who I'm playing is Snake Plissken." I said, "Join the crew. There's been like 50 people who have done that." He said, "Is that cool?" And I said, "Well, make him cool." And I love Freddy, I love Freddy to death; I always say we only work on each other's movies anymore, and he did a good job on the movie, but his character does not want to run into Snake Plissken," he laughs, one last time. "He does not want to do that."
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