More than 50 years after his first screen credit, Kurt Russell, the star of classics like The Thing and Escape From New York, has had a terrific 2015. Earlier in the year, he headlined the underappreciated Western Bone Tomahawk, and he'll next be seen as one of the titular characters in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming The Hateful Eight. (Sounds like he could have a decent 2017, too.) Vulture caught up with Russell during his fruitful Hateful Eight press tour to talk texting with his co-stars, developing Stockholm syndrome with Jennifer Jason Leigh, and playing his character all the way to the end. Caution: Hateful Eight spoilers ahead.
You guys all seem to be having a good time promoting this movie.
I mean, when you have a movie like this, it’s …
[Michael Madsen enters the hotel room.]
Michael Madsen: Everything he says is …
Kurt Russell: Hey, man! [Laughs.] I was just going to exclude you from the conversation.
[They get up and embrace.]
KR: How are you?
MM: Good, good.
KR: You look good. You want to have lunch?
MM: In my room?
[They both laugh.]
KR: See you later, brother.
It must be funny when you shoot a movie and go your separate ways, and then come back to do press like this.
Well, yeah. However, this was extremely different for me. I always make it clear that when I’m done, I have a life, and I go back to that life. But, obviously, the bulk of my career was in pre-texting days, pre-internet, whatever. I don’t do the internet.
Well, I’m not a social-media guy, I don’t do Twitter or Instagram, Facebook, whatever. We’re all on a text chain, though. When the movie was going, we started texting, and when the movie finished, we didn’t stop. Michael’s kind of not on the texts so much as everybody else is. But we all hook up on that text chain. It’s mostly a daily thing. We became close, we really did. More so than I’ve ever had that sort of experience before. It was shocking to me how evident it was that we were working with someone, in Quentin Tarantino, who was absolutely in his prime. He was focused, dedicated, fun, funny — he was all Quentin, all the good things. Aware, totally on top, open.
The actors were also at their prime. Everybody wanted to be right there all the time. That baton was getting passed around the room constantly. After a while, we realized, everybody realized, there was no do your thing and then go away. It was do your thing as part of this and then help them bring their best. This isn’t a bullshit — it’s a real Western. It has aspects of old Westerns, aspects of ’60s and ’70s Westerns, it’s got aspects of spaghetti Westerns. And I agree with the people who say that this is his best screenplay. It’s really clever, smart, and he does something in the middle of it that nobody would do, he just says, “Okay! Here’s what happened.” You’re telling me everything, you’re giving me everything! “That’s right, I’m giving you everything.” I just thought that was great.
It’s such an ensemble. You’re all in a room together.
We were always all in the room.
That’s so unique.
I was dead on that floor for three weeks.
So you were just lying there?
Oh, yeah. Holding my breath. I needed to be there for Jennifer. I’d been chained to her for five months! I wasn’t going to just take off, just throw a dead body in there. Which, by the way, would’ve been a lot safer because there’s no chance of a dummy breathing. She needed John Ruth’s dead body there, and I’m John Ruth, and I knew that. It never entered my mind not to be there. I wanted to hear it, too. I suppose it’s like a play. In a play, I’d be dead there on the floor, having to control my breathing. And you can’t fall asleep, which I did do once. [Laughs.] But I was a part of what was going on with her. It was Stockholm syndrome. When you’re chained to somebody for five months, you’re chained to them.
Yeah, we’d take it off, go take a break, but as soon as we came back, she was always on my left, always on my left, always on my left, I was always on her right, always on her right, always on her right. She had to learn to have complete trust in me. These hits that she takes — and she takes them perfectly — we did a lot of takes. It was important for her to gain trust in me that she was never going to get hurt. Once you’ve established that trust, which we did, you have a lot on your plate. Break that trust once, you’re never going to get it back. Like that bowl thing, for instance. That’s a really hard thing to do. I told her, we may do 20 takes, but I can tell you what’s never going to happen: That bowl is never going to hit your head, that fist is never going to hit your nose. Me slugging you, me elbowing you, you’re not going to get hit. That’s a bond.
That relationship is so interesting because the two of you — you beat her up, a lot. Obviously, that’s in service of the story, but it’s pretty intense. When you were working out that dynamic, what were you thinking about?
You’re right, that’s a physical relationship. It’s the Honeymooners on steroids. There’s a portion of their relationship that’s a goofy couple.
They’re sweet to each other!
Oh yeah, he cleans her face! It’s like, you’re bugging me, I don’t want you to look bad. This thing came up where she wanted to eat some jerky in the scene. I said, “Why don’t you get it from me?” So I went to the prop guy, who goes into a pouch and gets some jerky. That’s the difference with Tarantino — of course the prop guy has jerky from the time period. [Laughs.] I take it, we get into the scene, and she thinks I forgot it and she hits me, right? And I’m doing the scene and I don’t pay attention to her, and as soon as that happens, she’s in cahoots with me. She knows just what to do. Finally, I say, “Yeah, it’s coming,” and she knew just when to do it, and I give it to her, and I say, “It’s the last piece.” It’s like they’re on a schedule, it tells you so much about them.
When you’re watching, you kind of get caught up in the violence. But eventually you remember that this is the late 1800s, and it's brutal.
Jennifer and I talked about that. Ruth caught her on a boat going to Italy, so she’s dressed kind of nicely. It would have been interesting to see the week they spent together before what is shown in the movie, to watch the progression of that strange Stockholm syndrome that came over them. I always pictured that ,at the end of that week, he takes her and she hangs, and she’s looking at him as she’s hanging. Then she dies, and you see him put the the handcuffs in his pocket, and now he doesn’t have her on his left. He just walks down the street, kind of lost. He goes into a bar and he sits down, and you see him sit down at the bar, and the camera just continues on down the street and you fade out. You realize that that’s what happens to him once in a while. It’s like being Mary Poppins. At the end of that movie, she’s standing there, and the parrot says, “They didn’t even say thank you. They didn’t even say good-bye.” And what does Mary Poppins say to that parrot? She says, “And that’s how it should be.”