Meet Wyatt Russell, Hollywood’s Most and Least Likely Leading Man
The last eight years, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s son has quietly been making a splash on-screen. With ‘Lodge 49,’ he’s testing his leading man DNA. He’s nervous about it, too.
Wyatt Russell walks into a room and it’s almost too easy to make assumptions about him. Luckily, he upends nearly all of them.
The star of AMC’s big-swing summer series, Lodge 49, which debuts Aug. 6, towers a few inches above a tall-and-thin six feet, with hair down to his shoulders, a scruffy beard, and a languid surfer beach drawl to complete the stereotype of the SoCal beatnik—which he plays very well, but hardly fills.
No, this is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and his foray into Hollywood would seem a formality had the 32-year-old actor not spent the majority of his life rejecting the family business in pursuit of a career as a hockey player.
When we meet in Beverly Hills to discuss his new series, which is also his first leading role, the person we encounter is not the strung-out stoner his looks might betray, nor is it the entitled heir to Hollywood royalty you might expect from a person with as much celluloid history in his bloodstream.
Instead, the Wyatt Russell we meet is as wide-eyed and enthusiastic as a breakthrough actor experiencing the spoils of Hollywood for the first time, but with the self-awareness and intelligence of a person who knows how brutal the industry can actually be.
Maybe that’s because, for all the ways he’s seen his mother, father, and half-siblings Kate and Oliver Hudson navigate the business, he’s also churned through perhaps the only industry more ruthless: professional sports. Before he started seriously pursuing a career in acting eight years ago, he had spent over a decade as a promising hockey goalie, until an injury set him on a new path.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Russell’s debut as a leading man is in a TV series as unconventional as Lodge 49. As Russell tells it, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The official logline for Lodge 49 describes it as a “modern fable,” centered on Russell’s character Dud, a lost soul trying to rebuild his life after a surfing injury, the death of his father, and crippling debt have left him homeless. One day, while spelunking for treasures with a metal detector on the beach, he discovers a lost ring that takes him to the doorstep of Lodge 49, “a dusty fraternal order which offers cheap beer and strange alchemical philosophies.”
So what you have is this unusual mix of a series about this eternal optimist, Dud, who is either blind to the fact that he’s hitting rock bottom or manifests a trampoline from optimistic delusion to bounce him back up again. He lands at a Masonic Lodge, of sorts, that provides a lifeline yet espouses just enough woo-woo philosophy to make you fear: Is Dud in a cult?
Nonetheless, for all the talk about this six-foot surfer boy with Hollywood lineage in the starring role, it’s because Russell so intrinsically telegraphs a glass-half-full kind of gumption that the tonal gymnastics of the show sticks the landing. More, that it still feels at home on AMC, a network that has pretty much defined its brand in dark, disturbing drama: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead.
Ever exuberant, Russell sees a throughline.
“Everybody starts from an honest place of who they are: Don Draper, Walter White, and Dud,” he says. “It may be easier to utilize a character who has darkness in them because you can find a lot of interesting qualities in those people. It’s harder to find the interesting qualities in optimism, because it’s not something that we necessarily gravitate towards in our everyday lives, especially in our 24/7 news cycle where, constantly, what grabs our attention is negativity.”
So bless Dud’s gumption. And, really, Russell’s, too.
This isn’t a profile about the little boy who grew up on a movie set, and whose scrapbook of school-play star turns hinted that he’d one day follow his parents’ footsteps all the way to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In fact, he tells me, despite his family’s careers, Russell only recently “after many years of thinking it wasn’t,” began to think of acting as “a fantastic way to make a living.”
He lived in Santa Monica until he was 15 before moving to Vancouver to play hockey, at the advice of coaches who saw Russell’s potential. Kurt and Goldie moved with him. (The reasons that Russell emerged a well-adjusted Hollywood kid should be apparent.) Cute side story: Kurt Russell once told The New York Times that he took the role as coach of the heroic 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in Disney’s Miracle in homage to Wyatt’s passion.
After two years of playing college hockey at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he headed to Europe to go pro, first in Germany and then in the Netherlands. His stories from that time are about as wild as you’d expect from a guy in his twenties touring tertiary European cities with busloads of hockey players. “ I lived with a heroin addict named Harm," he told The Ringer last year. “That was the life experience, watching somebody shoot up heroin while you’re eating potatoes he made."
A series of groin injuries and a broken hip, exacerbated by cramped bus rides and the general body wear-and-tear accrued by a goalie, brought an early end to his hockey career. It dropped Russell smack-dab in the throes of a mid-life crisis a good 20 to 30 years before most men find themselves at a similar crossroads: “Alright. What now?”
While recuperating from his injuries in Groningen, Netherlands, he binged movies. Maybe, he thought, he’d direct. He had acted in one film before throwing himself into hockey—a scene in his father’s film Escape from L.A. when he was 10—and, more than a decade later, still remembered that he didn’t like being in front of the camera.
“I liked playing hockey and being a goalie because it was numbers related,” he says. “You’re either the best or you’re not. It’s numbers. You have the best goals-against average and save the most pucks and win the most games, or you don’t. It’s not subjective. So going into this world, I didn’t like the subjectivity of it because it meant that other people were going to put what they thought about you onto you.”
Consider his decision to try his hand at auditioning, then, a whim—albeit the most epic of whims, one perhaps buoyed by his family’s pedigree. His first audition was for a role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He didn’t get that one, but he started getting others. There was Law & Order: L.A., Cowboys & Aliens, and his first big breakout, a part in 22 Jump Street.
Early on, though, there was a pattern. In 2010’s High School, he played “Drug PSA Stoned Teenager.” In This Is 40 he was “Flirty Hockey Player.” As his roles expanded, the “type” he was cast as didn’t necessarily follow suit, whether it’s a spaced-out pitcher in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! or a backpacker roped into a video-game horror show in an episode of Black Mirror. Lodge 49, too, sees Russell working in that mold again.
But take a closer look at those projects he’s been cast in, and what’s impressive is not so much that he’s been routinely cast as a surfer-stoner-laid-back-bro, but that each time he has, it has been in wildly diferent genres.
In the last year, he’s starred in Blaze, a biopic of country musician directed by Ethan Hawke, finished work on Overlord, a World War II/sci-fi hybrid produced by J.J. Abrams, and was cast in The Woman in the Window, a thriller adapted by Tracy Letts, directed by Joe Wright, and starring Amy Adams. Then there’s Lodge 49, a prestige cable drama that escapes tonal definition.
“It’s been 7 or 8 years since I started doing it,” Russell says, of acting. “For the first time now I probably just last year felt like I might be able to do certain things.”
He remembers getting cast in High School as a hippie-like stoner because he knew how to play guitar.
“From that, you gain confidence to say, ‘Well, I did that, I can do a different version of it,’” he says. “I found myself always trying to find the different version of the guy you had done before. Because that’s the way it works. Somebody sees you in something that they like you in, and they go, ‘Oh he would be great in this.’ It’s up to the actor to give it dimension. Inside the dimension you give it, sometimes somebody else sees an aspect of that dimension and says, ‘I bet you they could do that.’”
In the early episodes of Lodge 49, there are distinct themes that emerge. Russell’s favorite is the way that the show honors the blue-collar population of Long Beach: the plumbers, pool servicemen, and trade workers who give the area life. More, it shows that the emotional weight stressing a family business can be as important, and as volatile, as the finances.
The character of Dud doesn’t just miss his father, he misses the normalcy that the family business—pool cleaning—provided. Russell’s own family business operates from an obvious extreme in relation to Dud’s, but he understands, especially in these last few years, the comfort that comes from normality.
Yes, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s actor son can refer to the family business as normal.
“It did seem normal to me because they never made what they did abnormal,” he says. “They never made themselves abnormal. They never looked at themselves like, ‘I’m special because I do this.’”
“The normalcy of who we are came from the core values of who my parents were when they grew up and transferred it into their parenting styles for the way we are. It’s definitely not a normal thing, to do this. People can get caught up in it. It’s hard not to sometimes.”
When we talk, Russell is wrapping up a week that had him travel back and forth between Los Angeles and New York four times. He’s engaged to Search Party scene-stealer Meredith Hagner, whom he met while shooting the indie Folk Hero & Funny Guy. And he’s promoting his first leading role, an achievement some might rule destiny given who his parents are, but that others might rule unlikely, given the unique story of the actor who sits before me. An actor who still can’t help comparing things to hockey.
“There’s almost nothing else that’s truly numbers-related,” he says. “That game was. That’s what special about sports in a way. It’s an equalizer. This is not that. I didn’t think about ‘I’m going to be a leading man,’ because I just wanted to do something that made me as happy as hockey did.”
Now, he’s doing it.