Kurt Russell Talks Cowboys, Guns, and Life as Hollywood’s Most ‘Hardcore’ Libertarian
The star of The Hateful Eight dished on his excellent new Western, almost being cast as Han Solo, making love to Goldie Hawn while watching Overboard, and much more.
This weekend, Quentin Tarantino’s Western The Hateful Eight will square off against Disney’s space opera Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For its star Kurt Russell, the showdown has added significance.Russell began his acting career as a young teen, appearing in family-friendly films for Disney. When Walt Disney passed away in 1966, it was discovered that the final words he ever wrote were “Kurt Russell.” To this day, the actor has no idea why. Then, in 1976, Russell was invited to audition for the roles of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in a film called Star Wars. After making it far into the casting process, Russell chose to accept an offer to star in The Quest, a Western series for NBC, and the rest is history.
Today, Russell, 64, is known as an actor who marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s a libertarian in an industry of liberals, recently branding the link between gun control and terrorism “absolutely insane.” He has a ranch in Aspen, Colorado, far from the Hollywood bubble, where he hunts elk and deer. And he makes daring cinematic choices, many of which, from Escape from New York to Big Trouble in Little China, aren’t fully appreciated until years later. Like his iconic character of Snake Plissken, Russell is an unapologetic rebel.
In the excellent new film The Hateful Eight, he plays John “The Hangman” Ruth—a bounty hunter transporting a murder suspect, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Colorado to hang. Eventually, they find themselves trapped in a haberdashery during a blizzard with a group of strangers, many of whom are not what they seem.
The Daily Beast sat down with a very animated and fun Russell in New York to discuss the film, his political beliefs, and his fine career.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask: The Hateful Eight is going up against Star Wars. And it’s true that you auditioned for Han Solo, right?
Both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. That was back in the day when all the usual suspects in their twenties would roll in there, and it was early 1976 because at the same time was a television Western called The Quest that they were offering me. I really loved the part. It came down to these things, and I was in there on Star Wars and remember asking George [Lucas] one day, “Do you think you’re going to use me or not?” And he said, “I don’t know which part I prefer you in. I don’t know if I like you as Han and this guy as Skywalker, or this guy as Han and you as Skywalker. I don’t know.” I said, “I gotta make a decision on this Western and I gotta go to work,” and he said, “I just can’t give you an answer.” So I said, “All right, I’m going to go take this Western and there will be one less guy to think about.” I don’t know if he would’ve hired me.I think you would’ve made a pretty good Han Solo.[Laughs] Thanks. The rumor is that I “turned down Star Wars,” and I didn’t turn down Star Wars. But that’s the fun history of that. You know, it was pretty fun because George taped it, and I had no idea what I was saying. I’m talking about a Millennium Falcon and however long it took to get from here to there and the Death Star. So we’re just doing stuff having no idea what you’re talking about and no idea what you’re doing.
Now to The Hateful Eight. I really enjoyed the film, and it was a long road getting this one to the screen. It must be a relief now that it’s finally coming out.
You know, we did work hard and this one had become a long process. There was a read-through, a long rehearsal period, and then you do the thing, and you’re in a pretty interesting condition when you’re shooting at 10,000 feet in Colorado, and then you come home to L.A. and they freeze the set. So you have this great time with the cast, and Jen and I were talking about this the other day, at some point it unfortunately has to be released. You have to let it go. And this one was unique.
As far as Westerns go, I think Tombstone is a criminally underrated film. And your Wyatt Earp mustache in that was pretty imposing.
[Laughs] That was just a warm-up act for this guy [in The Hateful Eight]—unfortunately for Goldie, she can attest! But with Tombstone, it’s OK because it’s had such great impact. It’s interesting to watch it go up the list of favorite Westerns as the years go by. You know, it’s interesting: In France, a journalist referred to The Hateful Eight as a Western-horror film and I thought that was interesting, because for my money I didn’t get that.
Hateful Eight struck me as more of a comic book-pulp Western.
Right. People are always talking about the violence in Quentin’s movies, but there’s a strong comic book sense to it. It’s very stylized. People’s personal sensibilities come into play when discussing movies they like or don’t like, but I’ve always found Quentin’s movies to have a very pulp-comic book sense to them.
With violence in cinema, I think it’s worse to not show the blood. I think those old Westerns are far more problematic, where someone gets shot and then they just grab their chest and fall to the floor. You should see the consequences.
That’s the way I feel. Quentin’s stuff is very stylized.
You do seem to have a knack for delivering Quentin’s dialogue, whether it’s as Stuntman Mike in Death Proof or John “The Hangman” Ruth here.
I do like his dialogue. Maybe our sense of humor is similar, but I just think it’s funny. I can’t help but chuckle at some of the behaviors of the people, and he gives you a chance to play memorable characters. Stuntman Mike is a memorable guy—and a big coward. I’d never gotten the chance to play a coward before. And John “The Hangman” Ruth, his belief is the cornerstone of American life for the rest of the world back then. He believes there’s a place where, no matter how bad you are, you’ll get your day in court. Due process. And he puts himself at extreme risk doing that. And he’s tied to a fuckin’ wildcat.
Was it tough to act out those scenes with Jen’s character? Your character has to smack her around a bunch.
First of all, I didn’t really have a problem with it because the character has clearly set up the rules for her, and if you step outside those rules, he’s going to slap you on the wrist or elbow you in the nose. So for him, I didn’t have a problem with it. But what you don’t see is the Fred and Ginger of it all—the we need to work this out. I had to be able to do this to [Jen] at any beck and call, and [Jen] needs to be so comfortable that she needs to just react and trust that I’m not going to hit her. Then, she’ll be able to relax and we can dance around. We had a lot of fun and she’s just great. And Daisy’s a button-pusher, man.
I wanted to discuss a recent contentious interview you did about gun control that seemed to catch you by surprise.
Here’s the thing: I’m just selling a movie. I never go out there to do publicity about anything other than the movie. I have my political point of view, of course; I’m an American and I’m entitled to it. But I don’t like espousing it publicly. I’m very vocal with my friends, and they’ll tell you that. But this guy just wouldn’t stop. He just went down this road and I went, “OK,” and tried to bring it back a couple of times to the movie but he just wasn’t having it.
He got into the whole thing about how gun control was somehow going to fix terrorism, and I was like, “Dude, I just don’t get that thinking!” It reminds me sometimes of being a parent. Let’s say you’re the parent of a kid who’s getting bullied at school. Your kid is getting punched around and he comes home and tells you about it, and your response is to say to your kid, “Now, are you sure you haven’t done something to make him mad? Are you sure you didn’t do anything to anger him?” and you never give the kid any credence as far as, “I believe you and I believe the bully. He apparently doesn’t care for you, and you’re going to have to turn around and face that bully.” At least that’s one argument to have, isn’t it?
I just didn’t get where he was going saying that gun control was a magic wand of fixing the situation with terrorism. That isn’t going to stop them from what they want to do.
What’s it been like to be a libertarian in Hollywood? You’re in the extreme minority.
I’ve heard some pretty rough things through the years that were really undeserved, but the number one thing was my case was worse, because I couldn’t say, “I’m a Republican, sorry.” I wasn’t a Republican, I was worse: I was a hardcore libertarian. I’m not a Bill Maher libertarian. That’s faux-libertarianism. He doesn’t know what it is. I like him, and he’s a nice guy, but seriously, that’s not libertarianism. The other thing I’ve found is that a lot of liberals in Hollywood are faux-liberals, and a lot of Republicans in Hollywood are faux-conservatives. When I was a young guy, I was finding myself not quite being able to see the things that were going on and buy into a political culture. I didn’t know what to do, so I finally said, “Why don’t I go back and see what the Founding Fathers were all about, and see how that stacked up.” Well, I found them and I found libertarianism. They were pretty radical guys, and damn smart, and I just believe in that old-time stuff and think they had great ideas.
Years later, I had the wonderful opportunity to go to the Cato Institute’s 20th anniversary and spend some real time with some amazing people. I met some great people there, and that cemented it for me. I felt, guess what, there is a place where I can have a conversation and not be laughed at or smirked at.
Most Hollywood libertarians—you, Vince Vaughn, etc.—seem to live outside Hollywood.
Well, there are a lot of Johnny-come-lately’s now, which is interesting. They’re trying to constantly get me to go on these shows and whatnot, and you only end up promoting their shows. And I don’t want to go on those shows and have someone think, “The last thing I want to do is watch Kurt Russell talk about shit that I don’t think he knows anything about.”
Is it Fox News that’s been trying to get you on? Oh, all of them. Bill Maher, too. I have friends that have shows. I don’t want to hurt their careers by associating them with me! But all those things. Although I must say, as the years have gone by, yes, I clearly at times was—at least in terms of “the hang”—politically persona non grata. But I always had a good time talking about things with people. The thing people did get to know about me if they engaged me is that I’m fair, I’m pretty energetic, and I’m pretty knowledgeable. I don’t pop off without finding out about stuff—and I like finding out about stuff, and don’t have that much of an agenda about it. I believe in limited Constitutional government, free market capitalism, reach for the brass ring. There’s this place where you can go do that and don’t step on anybody’s toes and still try to reach for the brass ring.
Back to your movies, I grew up with Snake Plissken. Has there been any talk of you donning the eye patch again? I know they recently green-lit a remake.
With Escape from New York, John [Carpenter] and I really had a ball because it was our second time working together, since we did Elvis. And for him to cast me in that movie was something because nobody had ever seen anything I’d done that was even remotely indicative that I could play that part—except John. So I was excited about that because I loved that character. And Escape from New York wasn’t in a lot of theaters, but it was very beloved. Then we were asked a lot, and I’m not really one for sequels. Then years went by and we did The Thing and some other projects, and I told him, “It’s been 17 years since we did that which fits into the timeline,” since ours came out in 1980 and was set in 1997. So once we did Escape from L.A. there was talk about doing Escape from Earth, but then I realized I’d be too old. So now, no. I think Snake should always be around 35 years old and shouldn’t ever be older than that. But he could have a son somewhere, absolutely—with some strange person.
And as far as the son thing goes, I read that James Gunn really wants you to play Chris Pratt’s/Star-Lord’s father in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy sequel.
You know, to be honest with you I just spoke with [Gunn] the day before yesterday, and I haven’t seen that movie yet. I’ve heard a lot of people say they like it and he sounds very nice, but I’m on this whirlwind press tour and I need to know what I’m talking about and get an idea of what it is. I need to sit down, watch the movie, and read that script and then I’ll have a conversation with him and we’ll see if it’ll happen.
You know, a lot of people really admire your and Goldie Hawn’s relationship. When it comes to stars in Hollywood, we usually see people getting married several times, but you two have managed to stay together.
Hey, looking at it from the inside, all I can say is all that both of us have ever said, which is, “Hey, man, I have no secret. I don’t know.” I can drive her completely crazy, and she can drive me totally nuts, but isn’t that what you do as a couple who’s been together for a long time? You laugh, you cry, you experience every emotion. And when you’ve been together that long, I do think it’s fair to say that you can speak to love. I don’t know what you’ll say to it—or about it—but you can speak to it.
When was the last time you two watched Overboard together? It’s become such a celebrated little film.
It’s amazing you asked. When it came out it floundered a little bit in the beginning, and then it got going, and it got going. That was the only movie that year that went up six weeks in a row, but it was just a tough release. Since then it’s had a life of its own. But that was the last time we saw it, in 1987. Then, about two months ago, Goldie and I were getting ready to go to bed and, in all honesty, we were sort of having a good time together. We had been away and we hadn’t had much time together. So we put the TV set on for a little background noise and we’re going to snuggle up and have a good time together and, sure enough—boom!—up comes Overboard. I didn’t know whether to quickly go by it or not, and I said, “Honey, get in here, you gotta see this.” So she came to bed and it was on a channel that didn’t have any commercials and we watched all of Overboard and we looked at each other and said, “Jesus, no wonder people like this so much!”
You two have such great chemistry in that.
Yeah, and these people were real people who were regular Joe’s, and that’s the way people see us. And I said, “Why shouldn’t they? That’s the way we are.” I remember I was reading the script for Goldie as a writing sample for another movie Goldie was trying to do, and I got to page 12 and said, “This is really funny to me.” We had said to each other, “No need to think about working together all the time. We’ve had fairly long careers before we met, let’s have fairly long careers after we’ve met. We don’t have to work together a lot.” And I said, “Goldie, read this, it’s so good.” And it turns out the writer had modeled the roles in Overboard after us. We went after Mike Nichols to direct it and he was going to, but then he got sick. So then we did it with Garry Marshall, and Garry did a very different version than what Mike would’ve done, and who’s to say!
They also apparently green-lit a remake of Big Trouble in Little China starring The Rock.
I heard about that, I heard about the Escape from New York remake, and I heard about an Overboard remake.
Is nothing sacred?
Well, the way I look at it is this: in all honesty, it’s flattering. And secondly, I think there’s a lot more pressure on the director than there are the actors, although the actors will have to face their own comparisons, too. I have no sacred feeling about that. I did a remake of The Thing with John Carpenter, although John was very clear about how we weren’t remaking The Thing, but doing an adaptation of a short story called Who Goes There.
Audiences don’t properly embrace many of your films until years after they’re released. Are audiences on some sort of delay when it comes to Kurt Russell?
The one now where people come up to me and say, “You know what I saw?” Death Proof. People finally caught on to Death Proof and really love it. I can’t say I don’t know why, because I do, and it’s really not about the public. It’s about the way it’s written about at the time, it’s about the time it comes out in, and it’s about the release pattern it gets. And if it doesn’t get the treatment it needs in all those regards, then it doesn’t even get a chance to get to the audience that hopefully will want to see it. But, hey, a thousand reasons, ifs ands and Peter Pans, who gives a shit.
You seem to have interesting taste in movies. Not everyone would sign on to an Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China. These are left-field projects that don’t fit into a box.
You’re right. One of the movies I didn’t do that I would have loved to have done is Repo Man.
I love Repo Man. From Harry Dean Stanton all the way down to the punk soundtrack.
It’s one of my favorite movies! I could talk for an hour about Repo Man. I mean, everything about it. I also love Blue Velvet. I would’ve read Blue Velvet and thought, “Oh my god, this is great!” So I tried to do my own thing, but also mix in some mainstreamers along the way. With Tango & Cash, I looked at it and just thought, “Man, I really want to do that because I want to do something that’s flat mainstream.” I did have my own little world of, if those went out there and did well enough and I could make a nice living, I could go and do all the other things.
One of your movies that was quite prescient was Executive Decision, which came out back in 1996 and depicted a group of Islamic terrorists hijacking a commercial airliner.
That’s what the CIA thought! They wanted to know about that, and where that one came from.
Yeah. And I remember the president at the time [of the 9/11 attacks] saying, “We couldn’t imagine anyting like this,” and I had this feeling of, “Well, go to a Kurt Russell movie once in a while!” It’s funny because I was talking to Joel Silver about that and said, “Joel, really? Don’t you think Arab terrorists are kind of yesterday’s news? What about these Japanese subway attackers.” I was looking for something that would be fresher. And Joel says, “Nah, I think it should just be the Middle East thing.” Well, god. It was prescient. I was thinking it was hackneyed, and it hadn’t even happened yet.
Like much of your filmography, you were ahead of your time.
All I try to do when I go to work with anybody is talk to the director, make sure I try to understand their vision, and then do whatever I can to make that vision come true. Because if they really do have a vision, and it’s really strong, you have a chance of making what’s in your head meld with theirs, and then get it out there. You do what you do, and whenever the audience sees it—now, 10 years, 15 years, a hundred years from now—hopefully it won’t feel dated. I hate the feeling of a dated character. You can do Big Trouble in Little China and wear a mullet, but the guy’s not dated. To me, what’s part of Jack Burton is that he does have a mullet. He has to have a mullet, I think… and moccasins.