As soon as the news hit that the great Richard Linklater was plotting a “spiritual sequel” to his cult classic Dazed and Confused, fans were left wondering whether this new iteration could mine the magic of the original. After all, so much of Dazed seemed like kismet. Take, for example, the time a gregarious UT film student chatted up a random fella at the Hyatt’s hotel bar in downtown Austin, Texas, only to have the night end with the two—many, many drinks later—getting booted from the establishment. That random fella was Don Phillips, the casting director for Dazed, and the young buck was none other than Matthew McConaughey, who ended up parlaying the rowdy, drunken evening into the role of Wooderson, a lovable creep with a nose for weed and an eye for high school redheads.
In the sequel, who could emulate the charm of McConaughey as the breezy, easy-on-the-eyes stoner-philosopher who can’t seem to part ways with the good ol’ days?
That task fell to Wyatt Russell.
Fortunately, Russell knows what it’s like to stand on the shoulders of giants. He is the son of film icons Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and at 29, was born one year before the release of Overboard. In Linklater’s Dazed continuation Everybody Wants Some!! he plays Willoughby, an enigmatic college baseball pitcher who enjoys Carl Sagan, smokin’ weed, and practicing telepathy. He’s the team’s resident hippie, and in one of the movie’s more memorable sequences, he schools the incoming freshmen in the art of the bong rip while railing against Van Halen (this is the early ’80s, after all).
“I’d never compare myself to Matthew McConaughey because I’d sound like an asshole,” says a chuckling Russell. “But yeah, they’re similar in a way. With this movie, you didn’t want to emulate and wanted to be unique. Sean Penn did Spicoli—the epic stoner character—so I thought about how I could make it different.”
In person, Russell is the spitting image of his father—squinty, soulful eyes, square jaw, big smile—with Mom’s blond mane, and a hint of surfer-dude insouciance. You probably first caught him onscreen as a flirty hockey player who tries to pick up Leslie Mann’s character in This Is 40, or perhaps as Channing Tatum’s football-playing BFF in 22 Jump Street. That he’s portrayed a string of athletes is no fluke. Unlike McConaughey or his half-sister Kate Hudson, Russell’s first love wasn’t acting; he wanted, more than anything, to be a professional hockey player.
“It’s truly one of the first memories I have,” he recalls. “I was in Toronto with my parents and my Dad took me to an outdoor hockey rink. I was 3 or 4, and I just remember everything about that day. For some reason, I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do.’ And this is around the time that Gretzky came to L.A., so I immediately joined a hockey league.”
At 15, Russell moved to Vancouver to pursue a career in hockey, playing juniors in the British Columbia Hockey League, where he’d square off against fellow future actor Taylor Kitsch. There, he says he found himself on the receiving end of a lot of crap for his A-list pedigree.
“In hockey, it was a freak show,” says Russell. “I’m the son of actors and from California, and in Canada hockey is a religion, so me coming in, it was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I just had to put my head down and work really hard, and it was difficult, but it made me who I am and gave me a backbone.”
He eventually attended the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where he played goalie alongside future NHL-er Cam Talbot. But he was plagued by nagging injuries.
“I had been pulling my groins in college a lot and missed my whole freshman year of college because of groin pulls,” he says, laughing about the good times he missed. “It was chronic, and I couldn’t figure it out. I went to the doctor and he told me I had hip dysplasia. So I knew my hockey days were sorta limited at that point.”Russell then chose to go play hockey in Germany—until his body finally gave out. “When I broke my hip, it was the final straw,” he says. “I cried for three days and called my Dad from the locker room and said, ‘I think it’s done. I just can’t do it anymore.’ The injuries had become too much, and the stress, and the rehab. I was 24 and thought, ‘Either I can either spend this time rehabbing and go play in Norway, or I can call it.’”
Like the younger Russell, Dad Kurt also wanted to pursue a career in professional sports. Despite a youth spent as a contract player for Disney, the elder Russell wanted to be a baseball star, and played second base for the California Angels’ minor league affiliates, the Bed Rainbows. He eventually moved up to AA ball before tearing the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, and hanging up his glove for acting.
“Acting was something fun that my Dad did, but baseball is what he really wanted to do. He was 22, and we were almost the same age when we got injured,” says Russell, before letting out a laugh.
“It’s funny. My whole family was baseball-nutty. My grandfather’s godfather was Lefty Gomez, the Yankee legend, and my whole youth was baseball. My cousin is Matt Franco, who played for the Mets and the Braves, and is one of the better pinch-hitters in Major League Baseball history. I was supposed to be a baseball player, so when I picked hockey, Dad was like, ‘Ugh.’ But he turned out to be the best hockey Dad ever.”
And when it came time for him to play the role of a pitcher in Everybody Wants Some!!, Kurt didn’t give him any baseball lessons. They weren’t needed. “It’s a weird genetic thing: I can just throw and hit a baseball for some reason,” says Russell, with a shrug. “It’s just something I can do.”