‘The Harder They Fall’ Star Edi Gathegi’s Battle to Not Be Just Another Dead Black Guy in a Movie
The journeyman actor of “StartUp” and “Twilight” opens up about his heroic neo-Western “The Harder They Fall” and escaping Hollywood typecasting.
Virtually every actor, at some point, has to face their death on screen or on stage. There are some, like Sean Bean, whose very presence conjures a knowing anticipation of their eventual fall. Others, like the multitude of Black characters in horror films, speak to the history of racist violence against Black people both within and outside Hollywood, where actors big and small, owing to a dearth of opportunities, are compelled to jump on stories that recognize them as props and not people.
Edi Gathegi knows a little bit about death on screen. He’s died a lot. Perhaps more than the average actor might. From The Twilight Saga to X-Men: First Class, the Kenyan American actor has reckoned with his demise in ways that are both frustrating and illuminating.
“There’s almost a spiritual element to dying on screen,” he tells The Daily Beast. “You have to get to a space mentally where life leaves you over and over again.” And while that “meditation,” as he calls it, is one that most actors have to deal with, Gathegi also knows that his deaths haven’t always meant much. During his younger years, scrapping for work meant that a gig was a gig, an opportunity to put food on the table and hopefully be considered for more work. But those times are changing and he’s become more selective about how his characters’ death might contribute or take away from any one story.
But for his most recent role of sharpshooter Bill Pickett in Jeymes Samuel’s neo-Western tale The Harder They Fall, this one death felt “well-earned,” not just because it was written and executed by Black hands, but also the weight and suddenness of it aligned with the danger and ephemerality of Black life just a generation after slavery. The film, which was released earlier this month on Netflix, is but one stop along the next period of the 42-year-old journeyman’s career—he’s slated to appear in the third season of the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind next year—that finds him holding more agency than ever. After more than two decades of work, it’s about time the powers that be start honoring the brother, by choice or by force.
How’s the response for The Harder They Fall been on your end?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Folks didn’t know this is the movie they needed in their lives and now they know.
So when did you get the script and how did y’all build chemistry as a cast with the director?
Well, Jeymes and I have known each other for 10 years or so. We reconnected five years ago with this script. He said I got something and you’re gonna be in it and that began the collaboration. I was in there with him going over script notes; I was heavily involved for years. He referred to it as our movie. It’s a beautiful thing to work with someone who has such a clear vision for what they want and you watch them execute it. Nothing could get in his way. COVID couldn’t shut us down. It’s finished and now it’s out there and it’s a dream he had 15 years ago, five years before he met me. And along the way he assembled his squad and made it happen. It’s an inspiration to all filmmakers. And this is his first film, too. It could’ve been his hundredth but it’s his first.
It’s beautiful to watch. And then the chemistry between the cast? I know a lot of that stuff is individual, running lines etc., but it did seem like y’all had really great banter—especially between you and RJ [Cyler].
Oh yeah—the nature of the role, we ride together. So we came up with a backstory we could sink our teeth into and anchor us in who we were to each other. He’s my little brother till this day. We talk all the time. He’s just a riot. You saw the movie. He’s really like that. [Laughs]
Just coming off watching it, I remember being delightfully surprised by how thrilling and propulsive it is. There’s no wasted motion.
The thing that bums me out is the whole COVID of it because I’ve seen the movie twice and it gets better with each viewing. There’s no comparing watching it in a movie theater as a communal experience with everybody. The sound going around, the gunshots goin’ bang, it’s just a whole vibe and for people to not be able to experience it in the way, man... COVID, man. It’s a theatrical experience, fasho.
I wanna come back to your character, Bill Pickett, and how different the character is in the film compared to his actual biography. You’ve mentioned how you and RJ came up with the backstory for y’all’s characters but I was wondering since it’s come out, do you think the biography of these people not being a part of the film makes it a little more muddled? Y’all wanted this movie to be a door for people to understand the connections between Blackness and cowboys. Do you think that gap makes it harder to go back and read with accuracy?
I think it’s ingenious to have all of these characters exist in one film. They all existed over a large period of time. They weren’t alive in the exact same era; they weren’t together. So to put them together creates a whole new conversation. And that conversation is: we existed, check all these people out. If you’re interested there’s literature, there’s documentation and stories. Go back and do your homework. I think if he made a biopic of all these people—and he couldn’t because they weren’t alive at the same time—and it was just a straight-up story of some pickpocket, some cowboy, some sheriffs or whatever, then I don’t know if it’d be “blockbuster-y.” I don’t know that the world was ready to unmask in the way that they came for this. This was a fictional telling—a classic Western revenge tale. It’s super poppy. We’re bringing you out to the theater to entertain you and then there’s a hidden education and then there’s these kinds of conversations that ensue. People can talk about it and feel butthurt or go, what was the whole purpose of this? But now we’re in discussion. I think that was a clever thing to do on behalf of Jeymes.
Sometimes film and television can be educational for people. Sometimes that’s the way people come into new ideas, but to expect a film or TV show to be something you have to learn from can be an undue expectation. Like, do you really want Hollywood to teach you everything?
Nobody really wants to be preached to. We’re not in school. You want to be intrigued, you wanna peep behind the curtain a little more. Like, oh, these people existed, well shit, let me go on YouTube and figure out who this person is. Like, I love RJ playing Jim Beckworth, well, who is Jim Beckworth? Oh he was a mountain man and a trapper, OK, what the hell is a mountain man and what the hell is a trapper? And he just created 10 very strong characters who really existed and it’s 10 opportunities to learn about Black culture in this country.
It’s our stuff. It’s our culture. And expecting Hollywood to do that work for us is kinda wild.
It’s a fair critique but you have to understand what we’re up against. Dare I say, we’re in a white supremacist culture that has a history of erasing our culture so these are the wins we’re getting now and we’re gonna continue to elevate them. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to do the biopics that everyone wants to see about Rufus Buck. It’s a clever way of entering the conversation.
It’s like what Watchmen or Lovecraft Country does in presenting an alternative history— although these are actual people—but introducing it as a mythology allows interest to build. What I’m hearing from you is like, let’s put out the mythology and have people figure it out on their own.
It’s also like, white stories get the latitude to tell whatever story so why can’t we take a little liberty and have fun?
Yeah, white people can pretty much do whatever they want in Hollywood… [Laughs]
It’s like, let us have something!
A little somethin’, yeah! I bring this up because it’s personal to me, just watching your movies and the prevalence of death. I did wanna get your take on what it means—and this is so weird to say—but to be murdered by Black hands? To have your death be handled by a Black creator who is at least somewhat interested in honoring Black life.
It really depends on the story. It depends on the importance of a moment like that to the story. Really, what I’ve learned and come to understand as an artist is that the story comes first. So whatever serves the story is best for the movie. And if the character dies and it’s a really pivotal moment, then lean into that. But I don’t always wanna be in a movie where my character is dying but sometimes that’s what the part is and that’s what helps tell that story. For this, this was a well-earned death. This was a Black outlaw who was running with this gang who was loyal to a fault. He had unconditional love which I thought was a beautiful aspect of what made Bill, Bill. The big brother. He rode all the way to the end selflessly. Civilizations have been saved by people like Bill who put the group above the individual. That’s who Bill is. For him to die in the hands of a Black creator, I felt like it was warranted. Again, I never love dying but it’s an interesting thing. We’re going to die. I just have the opportunity to rehearse it over and over again.
Does it desensitize you a little bit?
There’s almost a spiritual element to dying on screen. You have to mentally get to a space where life leaves you over and over again, which is a meditation. It’s interesting. I’m going to be extremely selective of how I continue to die. I wasn’t in control of… you know, you can always say no. But when you’re a young actor and you’re trying to get jobs in this business and your characters keep dying and you need to feed yourself, you take those roles. But as you gain more agency, you can be more selective. I’ve reached a stage where I can do that. I’ve noticed the trend historically in this country where it’s just easier to kill people when you’re darker. And I fall directly into that category. [Laughs]
You know what I mean? So I owe it to myself. It’s something that people pick up on, like, “Goddamn this man is dying all the time. He’s dead in everything.” [Laughs] Like, “He’s dead in this! Why you gotta kill him in this?!” After a while I was like, you know what, you right! At the same time, you know, Leo [DiCaprio] dies! All jokes aside, it’s complex but if the story demands it I lean into it, and if the story doesn’t demand it then I reject it. This was a story that benefited from that very emotional moment in the middle of the battle. I also got to do G shit in the battle, you know? With X-Men I was robbed. They got rid of me before we even went to battle.
Yeah! Like how does that even happen!? The fuck, man.
It didn’t make sense. The sad thing about it is that it didn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense now, and it’s like 10 years of memes. It never made sense. Why would you do that to Darwin?
It’s worse now looking back just because of all the conversations that’ve happened in the last decade or so about representation—like, meaningful representation. Not just like, let’s throw a Black person in this or a throw a queer person in this. I remember being in the theater and just being like, why did that happen?
It hits different when you’re Black. Like, if you’re Black and you just saw Darwin die it hits you because it’s just so irrational. It’s the only Black guy, and it’s like, what the fuck did they just do? But that was the world we’re living in and hopefully the world is slowly evolving. You gotta remember, I was one of the first Black superheroes. It was Wesley Snipes and will.i.am in the X-Men before mine.
Fucking will.i.am. I completely forgot about that.
Yeah, we hadn’t had Wakanda yet. We didn’t get on the scene in that way. If Darwin was around now, I think they would have handled him with a lot more respect and care.