Westward bound

Kodi Smit-McPhee on love, murder, horses and Slow West.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

John Maclean's Slow West star Kodi Smit-McPhee on God and art, not Jean-Luc Godard
John Maclean's Slow West star Kodi Smit-McPhee on God and art, not Jean-Luc Godard Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who stars with Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn in John Maclean's wild Slow West took a stand on a lawless world, the love of his horse, how to live as a sinner, and his future as a superhero starring opposite Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Oscar Isaac, Channing Tatum, James McAvoy, and Fassbender again in Bryan Singer's X-Men: Apocalypse.

Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), a young man from Scotland, travels to the American West in search of the woman he loves. He does not know that Rose [Caren Pistorius] and her father [Rory McCann] are wanted for murder, with a high bounty on their heads. On his quest, Jay encounters an illustrious assortment of temporary travel companions. Fassbender's Silas first takes the boy under his wing and teaches him how it is safer to "travel with a killer," than with a teapot and a guide book. When Mendelsohn's outlaw Payne enters the picture, dressed in an enormous furry coat, the battle for the boy's soul has begun. We are in the year 1870 and journeys can be dangerous without protection.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay) with Michael Fassbender (Silas) on his horse Ziggy:
Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay) with Michael Fassbender (Silas) on his horse Ziggy: "Sometimes when he was around other horses or people he would be uneasy…"

Anne-Katrin Titze: You're a western hero. How does that feel?

Kodi Smit-McPhee: It feels very good. The story is beautiful and I love how he almost rebooted the novelty of westerns by bringing two worlds together. The pure, loving, kind of European type essence of Jay and that is brought into the gritty, raw western gross, lawless world.

AKT: Were you surprised where it lead you emotionally?

KSM: Yes! Definitely. There was so much I was shocked about when reading it. The immature blindness but the complete presence of passion within the love that he has for this girl [Rose]. And it's because of his age and the blindness of love. I'm sure everyone that has gone past that part who is in the audience is looking with tragedy in their eyes.

AKT: Did you watch westerns when you were a child?

KSM: I hadn't watched a lot but I had a great appreciation for them. When I kind of dabbled in this, I learned so much more about them.

AKT: Did John Maclean show you any in preparation?

KSM: While we were in preprocess of it. I only say that I learned so much more about westerns personally but not necessarily for the character or anything like that. Even with John we said we didn't want to watch any movies like that. I think the pureness comes from the moment and completely being submerged in the characters.

Silas (Michael Fassbender) Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee):
Silas (Michael Fassbender) Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee): "I learned so much about nature and myself and the world through the craft of acting."

AKT: I was only wondering if you had any favorite western heros. Ben Mendelsohn told me about how much he loved Burt Lancaster.

KSM: My gosh, I admire Ben so much. He has such a great vocabulary and intellectual source for what he does here in this industry. It's hard to explain, but movies itself isn't my passion. I have a passion for what I came into this world for, which for me is art and God. And I don't mean God in the way so many of our rational thoughts are connected to it but just in a way of nature. And I learned so much about nature and myself and the world through the craft of acting. My idols are really people like Deepak Chopra or a lot of spiritual leaders. Through that it told me to face my industry and learn more about that.

AKT: There are some extraordinary images of nature in the movie. For example the hyacinths in the fake Colorado forest. At the same time there is a lot of violence happening around you. We see that the woman Jay loves is wanted for murder and that is shown at the same time when your character becomes a killer. How far did you go into reflecting what it might feel like to kill someone?

KSM: That's a very interesting question. I think it speaks for itself how it unfolds in the movie. It's the concept of such a pure entity coming into this world and almost losing itself, parts of its purity through what he has to do. He grew. We all do, we grow through our sins.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish:
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish: "Jay knew as much as he could about astrology, back in the days without technology."

AKT: Yet, this is so terrifying.

KSM: Yes, I see. I never really thought about it. In duality, I think about what's coming. I think about what's happened. Then when I'm in the moment as Jay, I'm just in the moment. And then I jump out of that after. But I completely agree and I just don't know how to answer that.

AKT: It's the effect your performance has on the audience. You make us think about how terrifying it must be to have killed someone. That decision at the moment is ….

KSM: A thing of the now.

AKT: And the now is stretched. That's the power of it. Your character has so much time to make that decision!

KSM: You don't even know whether you can define sin within that option.

AKT: Lets move on to the lighter aspects of the movie. The laundry line in-between two horses! Did you practice a lot? Riding with a laundry line?

KSM: We practiced not with the laundry, just with a rope connecting the two horses. It was interesting, but we eventually got it. Once you grow a little into a relationship with your horse…

Kodi on Ben Mendelsohn as Payne:
Kodi on Ben Mendelsohn as Payne: "I admire Ben so much. He has such a great vocabulary and intellectual source for what he does here in this industry."

AKT: And Michael Fassbender.

KSM: … and a relationship with Michael Fassbender in our tighty whities! That was such a fun scene.

AKT: I asked John Maclean about the scene with the cat and you hiding under the bed. He told me that a lot was cut of what sounded like a fascinating interaction. just hearing about it, I am sorry it was cut.

KSM: I thought it was so beautiful, too. I loved that. Not to compare him, because he is so unique, but I thought it was such a Tarantino-type moment. I was under the bed and a moment unfolded with characters coming in that explained the history of Rose and her father. It was really cool. Also Jay was so scared being under the bed. I was kind of sad that that was taken out, too. And there was also a cat in a carrier that they brought up.

AKT: I've heard the cat was speaking?

KSM: Yeah. I loved that. Everyone was so confused about it. It would confuse people, but in the best way, because they would find an answer within the confusion.

AKT: The scene with the abandoned children hinted at the possibility that the film could have gone in another direction. You and Fassbender raising those two children? Was that ever an option?

KSM: It's tantalising. There is the worthiness of a whole story there. I had that same thing with Payne's gang. i felt they could do a whole movie with those characters and those actors.

Jay with Silas having a close shave:
Jay with Silas having a close shave: "I'm just in the moment. And then I jump out of that after."

AKT: You get all the questions I forgot to ask Ben and your director. Do you know the mystery of the running cheese? Why do Rose's cheeses not ripen?

KSM: Oh my god, yeah you are right. These are the things. I love these little easter eggs and I really don't know why he did it.

AKT: Did you ever feel that Silas and Payne were acting as two father figures towards Jay? Who are fighting over your soul?

KSM: Yes, yes. All the characters that come into the story have depth.

AKT: Did you surprise yourself with something you did when you were watching the finished product?

KSM: I want to know in the end product that at the time when I was filming it that I had a full passion. If I have full passion I have full commitment and then I have everything I need.

AKT: What is coming next for you?

KSM: Next is X-Men. I'm going to be shooting X-Men with Fassbender again. It will be great to be on set with him again. He is a very fun person. Moving into a franchise and playing a super hero with Fassbender will be interesting.

Kodi Smit-McPhee on working with Michael Fassbender:
Kodi Smit-McPhee on working with Michael Fassbender: "I'm going to be shooting X-Men with Fassbender again."

AKT: You already know how to ride with a laundry line between you. That's almost a super hero quality in itself.

KSM: In fact, I think we should bring that into X-Men. Have a clothes line scene.

AKT: Slow West begins with you shooting at the stars. Was that always the start of the script.

KSM: No, there was a darker beginning. I love how it starts now. Jay knew as much as he could about astrology, back in the days without technology. He knew of Newton's Laws and the universe.

AKT: How much of a horseback rider were you before this film?

KSM: I did Romeo and Juliet before this. I got horse lessons and I did a lot of galloping and stuff. But here the part that helped so much was my horse. It was such a beautiful horse. Sometimes when he was around other horses or people he would be uneasy but at the end of the day he was very cooperative and it was fun to shoot with him.

AKT: The horse is lovely and had to take a lot of mud and dust and whatever you had put on him. You both look your filthiest.

KSM: I know. I was loving him that day. I was like, okay, we are in this together.

AKT: What's the name of the horse?

KSM: Ziggy. I believe he could have been in Lord Of The Rings. Because it was in New Zealand and they trained all of them.

Read what Ben Mendelsohn had to say about working on Slow West here and thoughts from Slow West director John Maclean.

Slow West opens in the US on May 15 and in the UK on June 26.

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