Back on the trail

Anna Kerrigan on depicting mental illness and creating backstories for Cowboys

by Jennie Kermode

Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell in Cowboys
Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell in Cowboys Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

In the first part of our interview about Cowboys, which screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, director Anna Kerrigan and I discussed how the story deals with gender issues, how she identified locations and used them to address the theme of declining mental health, and how she undertook the casting process, choosing Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell to play divorced parents. In part two, we talk further about that complicated relationship and about young Sasha Knight, who plays the transgender boy at the centre of it.

“What I really liked about working with him is that he was awesome on set,” Anna says. “He came prepared, but I always get sad when there's a child on set where they're like, little adults, where they're so professional that you're just like, ‘Oh, you're not going to have a childhood,’ you know, but Sasha is just like a kid – a very active kid. And he was running around. I was sometimes the mean director where I say, ‘You can't have a Snickers bar between the scenes,’ because they're going to go crazy. You know? It was on that level.”

I venture that I think, in a lot of ways, Jillian had the most difficult role, because she has to come across as an antagonist for a lot of the early part of the film but then we see that there’s a lot more going on with her character.

“Yeah, I think she felt really crappy. I mean, kids are really sensitive. And she definitely did a great job, but it was a fairly uncomfortable character. And she's a big ally to the LGBTQ+ community. There were times when we would do work and then she’d be like, ‘I'm so sorry!’ And I was like, ‘It's okay. Don't worry, you don't have to sell flagellate, we all know you’re acting.’ But I think when you're playing a role like that – I mean, I'm not an actor, but it's just got to be really taxing on you. And it's not much fun to be there.”

I ask about how she worked with Steve to portray a character who is struggling with mental illness, and how he and Jillian worked together to show us that there was still chemistry in their relationship.

“We have a whole backstory worked out for them,” she says. “I'm sure that they also talked privately about that. In terms of Steve, I don't know what magic he does. I mean, he lives on a horse farm in Kentucky. At one point, he sent me a photograph of the scripts on top of the hood of a car in his garage. And I was like, I don't know what you're doing. But I just imagined him like pacing and running lines and acting by himself. He started prepping far in advance as because he likes time to really wrap his head around it. And, you know, that makes sense to me, that's the kind of prep that I like an actor to do.

“That might be because I come from theatre. If you can get so deep into the lines and what's happening, you have so much more room and freedom to play. So anyways, he put a lot of work in. We talked about the mental health stuff a fair amount. We both know people who are bipolar or who struggle with various mental health issues, and it was important to both of us that it's not like when you have a manic episode, you suddenly become a different person. What I have observed with my friends who are bipolar is it manifests very differently in every person. It's like it is, in some ways, some sort of heightening of expression of who they are.

“I think for Steve, I encouraged him to find the specific way that this happened for Troy, and some of that is in the script, where he is like, the world's best dad. And then those traits get exaggerated to the level of being kind of scary. And also, you know, I feel like we so often see that and think it's like, black or white, when it is not like that actually. We were interested more in like, the different phases of his ascent. And also that he's aware that it's happening and not wanting it to happen and trying to hide it.

“I remember talking to Jillian as well, saying I think his character, the way this mental health stuff manifested, the way he is as a human, he's super charismatic and he's really fun. And like, if you don't have a language or understanding of what that is, in their early dating, we imagined that he was impulsive, and it was sexy, and it was a little dangerous, or whatever. And that's really attractive for her. And in the backstory that we built for them, we imagined that she had like dated some people but Troy was the one who really came and just loved her so fiercely, and swept her off her feet. And you know, we deal a lot with like gender, and who's trapped by their gender and who's trapped by their body and whatnot in the film. But for Jillian, it's like her, whatever her idea of being a woman was like, Troy made her feel like a sexy woman, you know?”

I suggest that she seems like someone who has a quite a fixed idea of what it means to be a woman, to the point where she might well have come into conflict with her child even if she’d had a girl like she thought.

“Yeah. It's interesting. I think there's also a cultural, regional qualifier to different ideas of being the perfect type of woman. For East LA, where I live, or for, you know, this particular part of Montana. What I had seen in Montana was, I would hear women talk about men, in this way sometimes where I would sort of laugh where they're like, ‘Well, that's not what a man would do.’ There is like a crazy expectation put on men, as well. But yeah, I think for Jillian, I was sort of inspired by like, this sort of über femininity. There is something, to me, that's a little grotesque about that level of femininity. I'm not that much woman.”

Growing up, she says, “We played with trucks, we played with Barbies. We played around in the mud, we did all sorts of stuff, and it's something that I didn't really think about until I got older, that was like it was actually a gift that my parents didn't really create boundaries.”

So did she expect the film to do as well as it has with critics and festivals?

“Of course you have this like dream that it's going to be well received,” she says, “but I think that that if I get too into the fantasy it’s not good. I've found that the best way for me to use my energy is to focus on making it something that I'm proud of and that I stand behind personally, and not worry too much about other people. I mean, of course I did test screenings, and I like feedback and whatever. But you know, I try not to have an ego as I'm shaping something like Cowboys.

“I was so pleased that the film was been received like it has, especially in this time where it's like, you know, usually at festivals you sit with people, they feel the film and this is a very emotional film. And so I was really worried that we weren't going to get any kind of buzz. I thought this would play well with a bunch of people in a theatre, or that was my hope. So I've been particularly pleased that people have connected to it, maybe even more so because everyone's at home and it's an interesting movie in that it’s sort of escapist, you get to go to Montana and whatnot. But it is an intimate movie that also offers like an opportunity for catharsis, depending on how emotional you are. It's funny to be like, the most psyched when someone tells you that they cried,” she says, laughing. “Would you be really excited that you made me cry?”

So how has she been using her time creatively during lockdown?

“Well, I was lucky in some ways with this process of finishing a movie, but I've been writing. I have a screenplay that we just sent out that we're trying to find producers for. It's a much more R rated father daughter story, which makes it sound like there's something happened in between them. There's not, but it's in sort of a big, flashy world that's like sort of Hollywood adjacent. And then I'm also working on something that's set in the Renaissance, which I'm really excited by.

“I'm also working on a TV show. I have been busy. I feel lucky that I've felt busy but I think it's it's just a scary time for a lot of people in general, obviously, and filmmakers too. We would have never been able to make Cowboys for our budget during Covid. I'm so lucky that we made it when we did.”

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