Death Proof - Kurt Russell interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
KURT Russell talks about playing Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and working with a director of QT’s reputation…
He also discusses performing his own stunts in films, and Hollywood’s remake culture – especially when it comes to revisiting his old movies.
What was it like to work with Quentin Tarantino?
Kurt Russell: It was a very interesting experience and a tremendously, spectacularly fun one. Once I became involved, and I know there were other actors he was talking about using, I talked to him about those guys with regard to what might be right for this character. We started rehearsing, and generally you have a pretty strong idea right away when you read a script, about who that character is and how to play it. And sometimes a strong concept can hit you. I remember when I did Escape From New York and played Snake Plissken, I spent weeks thinking about it, thinking about what I could do that could be right and how he’d look. And Stuntman Mike was not dissimilar, because there are a lot of different ways to go.
So how did you decide which way to take it?
Kurt Russell: In rehearsal I said: “I’m going to do some really bad stuff here, so don’t be scared. I’m going to try some really out-there things.” And Quentin said: “Great, great.” So, I was doing all kinds of versions of it and we finally settled down on what we thought was the thing to do. As it went along, he and I would talk about it. We would never disagree and we were never not in cahoots about the character, how he should behave and what he should do, or how he should sound. But we’d get to these places where we’d realise: “Well, we could do this too, and it wouldn’t be wrong, because of who he is and what he knows…”
But then one day he asked me: “Have you ever played a character, or worked with a director, where you started out in one place and the director got you to do something you didn’t think you’d do?” I said that I hadn’t, so we talked about it and I knew he was putting something in my head — either that or preparing me for something. Then by the end of the movie I said to him: “We can just play this out and he gets beat up, or we can do something I’ve never seen before with this kind of character. I’m going to play that word you wrote in the script.” He said: ““What’s that?” I said: “He gets shot and takes off. Coward.” So, I really started going down the road I wanted to go down. There was that sense of trying to find the character.
Were there any other specific moments like that?
Kurt Russell: A prime example of that would be the time we were shooting the scene with the girls on the porch, when I was talking with Vanessa [Ferlito], just a straight scene. I was feeling really good about working with Quentin and having a good time. I was looking at her and I just got bored with what was going on for a second and I started doing John Wayne… I’m thinking: “Aw, this is going to piss everybody off but I don ‘t care, I’m just gonna do it.” And just at the time I thought he was gonna say: “Cut! Good, well, yes, we could do that…” He said: “Wait, wait, go back to this part of the speech. Do John Wayne. Go! Do John Wayne…! Now do Brando! Do Brando!” It was all over the place, and I thought: “Wow, does this guy love to play!” He’s a guy who loves to play as much as I do. How can you not love that? It’s film. If you don’t like it, burn it. Start a fire with it. If you like it, put it in the movie. Who knows? In fact, that’s exactly what we said to each other: “Who knows?”
As a result, Stuntman Mike is a very complex character…
Kurt Russell: Yes, and it’s fun to look for that and try to bring that out. I’ve always enjoyed trying to play different characters, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do it. That’s what Quentin said. He said: “I want you to play this part because you’ve got a rogues’ gallery like nobody else I can think of – and I want you to add this one to it.” So I read it and I thought: “Gee, a chance to work with Quentin Tarantino? What am I gonna say? Nah, I don’t think so, I’d rather go golfing…”
What surprised you most about working with him?
Kurt Russell: Very little surprised me. Although I suppose I continually learned how open he is as a person. He wears his heart on his sleeve, especially if you’re open to him. He’s unique. He really is. You can’t even begin to know what he knows. He could probably, if he wanted to, blow your mind in half, or scare you, or whatever he wanted to do by seriously repeating a piece of writing you did on a movie. I’m not f****g around!
How many of your own stunts did you do?
Kurt Russell: It depends what you call a stunt. In Tango And Cash, the first thing I had to do was run through a glass window, fall onto a car, roll off the car, get up and chase the guy as a car goes by at 60mph. To me, that’s a stunt. Then there’s fight scenes. There’s a scene like [the scene at the very end of Death Proof] that’s an ass-whipping scene. That’s just taking it. That’s just taking the punch, which is the hardest thing to do in a fight scene. They guy who takes it is the guy who sells it. It’s a long day. That’s tough. But it’s not a stunt. Then there’s driving fast and spinning cars. I never considered that stuff stunt-work. I consider that driving. You’re bumpin’, you’re grindin’, you’re slammin’. It’s only a stunt when you crash! You can call it stunt-work if you like.
Back in the day, though, when I was a kid you had to learn how to ride, how to hitch the wagons, how to jump off the horse and how to get knocked off the horse. That was tough to do with Indian gear on. You had to learn how to take an arrow – that was a big one. And later on you had to learn how to drive cars and drive them fast. And I used to race cars when I was a kid. I won six nationals and one world championship. I did it seriously; I was thinking of doing that for a living. I went into baseball instead, and I used acting as a way to make money.
Why did you learn to do all that extra stuff on top of acting?
Kurt Russell: You learned to do all that stuff because it made you more valuable. If you were an actor, you had one value, and if you were a stunt kid you had another value, but if you could do both you had a greater value. You were more hire-able. So I did it out of necessity: learning to rope, do a flying W, whatever you were going to do. So stuntmen were always in my life. I knew a lot of guys and I’ve known them for years. Some of them I worked with on Death Proof. Terry Leonard and I have known each other forever. Buddy Joe Hooker, who does stunt driving for me in this movie, he slid a motorcycle underneath a truck for me in 1967.
What do you think the appeal of a ‘grindhouse’ movie like Death Proof is?
Kurt Russell: I don’t know. It’s an idea that hasn’t been out there for a long, long time. Back in the day I used to audition for some of those pictures. I didn’t ever do any of ‘em but I auditioned for some of them. Me and Ronny Howard were actually talking about this recently. We used to see each other and one of us would say: “Hey, if you actually get this movie are you going to do it?” And the other would go: “I don’t know. I’m not sure about that bit with the rats…” [Laughs] I wouldn’t quite say they were grindhouse movies but, later on, a lot of the films I did with John Carpenter were very much appreciated by Quentin and Robert [Rodriguez].
How do you feel about the upcoming remake of Escape From New York?
Kurt Russell: As far as remakes are concerned, they’ve done a lot of those that I made. They did some Disney movies, like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, they took Stargate and turned it into a TV show, they took Backdraft and made it into two fire-fighter shows on TV, they’re going to redo The Thing, they’re going to redo Escape From New York, and as I like to say all day long: “That’s all well and good but wait till Stuntman Mike hears about this!”
Who cares what I think about it? I couldn’t care less, but what he thinks about… Uh-oh! [Laughs] I think I’ve done a lot of movies but I’ve only done one sequel. So, I left the door open for a lot of guys to make a lot of money. I think I’ve done a lot of movies that people would like to have seen a sequel to. But I grew up in a time when we didn’t do sequels. You just did a movie because you wanted to do a movie and you wanted to tell a story. It wasn’t to build a franchise. I’m a bit locked into that. I did Escape From LA because I wanted to play Snake [Plissken] one more time and I wanted to work with John [Carpenter] one more time. That film will not die.
Would you do a cameo in the remake?
Kurt Russell: For a shitload of money I’d consider it. And I mean a shitload!