Photography: RLJ Entertainment/Scott Everett White
Photography: RLJ Entertainment/Scott Everett White

The Emmy-winning actor has received a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for his performance in S. Craig Zahler's horror western.

There’s a terrifically suspenseful moment near the end of Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s audaciously entertaining mashup of traditional western and horror melodrama, when it looks like the good guys are about to be carved up and served as blue plate specials.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his faithful deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) are being held captive in a cave by the same cannibalistic troglodytes — yes, you read that correctly — who abducted three folks from their Wild West town, and have already devoured two of them. As they await a similarly grisly fate — along with Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the sole survivor of the original abductees — they pass the time until dinnertime by talking about something that’s of extreme importance to Chicory: Were those fleas in the traveling flea circus he recently attended real, live fleas? Or were they dead fleas tricked up to look like they were doing tricks?

No kidding: That’s what they talk about. Because, really, what better way is there to take their minds off what awaits them?

Bone Tomahawk — currently available as video on demand (VOD) in a variety of digital platforms, and scheduled for a December 29 DVD and Blu-Ray release — is a movie that abounds in eccentric twists, unexpected situations, intriguingly complex characters and splendidly colorful dialogue. At one point, the arrogant and elegant John Brooder (Matthew Fox), who also joined Sheriff Hunt’s search for the abducted townspeople, reveals a surprisingly sentimental side as he pays tribute to his horse before putting the wounded steed out of its misery. At another point, Chicory consults Hunt out of the blue about another pressing matter: Just how does one keep a book from getting wet while reading in the bathtub?

For these and other reasons, Zahler received a richly deserved Best Screenplay nomination from the prestigious Film Independent Spirit Awards last week for his Bone Tomahawk script. But wait, there’s more: The Spirit Award voters also nominated Richard Jenkins in the Best Supporting Actor category. (Winners will be announced during a February 27 ceremony telecast live on the IFC cable network.)

Jenkins — who received an Emmy Award earlier this year for his performance in the HBO drama Olive Kitteridge — is a respected veteran actor whose lengthy list of credits runs the gamut from Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado to Adam McKay’s Step Brothers, from HBO’s Six Feet Under to the acclaimed 2007 indie drama The Visitor (for which Jenkins received an Oscar nomination.) We caught up with him two months ago when Bone Tomahawk had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Cowboys & Indians: Over the years, I’ve heard directors talk about how difficult it is to cast westerns, because not that many contemporary actors have much experience on horseback. But you and your costars looked pretty at ease in the saddle.
Richard Jenkins:
Well, I had a horse when I was a kid. But I wasn’t a very good rider — and he threw me a lot. I had him for a year, and I thought, “This horse is too much for me,” but I rode anyway. In this film, I was the worst rider of the four of us. I had forgotten a lot, but I got through it. Fortunately, we had a good wrangler, and I was fine. My ass hurt for four days, and my thighs hurt, because if you don’t ride on a regular basis, it’s really tough on you. But it was great when you had the four of us cantering on the open range. That was just cool, really cool.

C&I: How did you respond when you first got the script for Bone Tomahawk? Did you think: “OK, this is a western — with cannibalistic troglodytes? What the hell?”
Jenkins:
[Laughs.] No. At first, what I heard was, “It’s a great script — but it’s really bloody.” People at the agency that I’m with had read it, and that’s what they said. Then Craig said he was interested in me playing Chicory, and my agent said, “You should read this.” So I got about 10 pages into it, and my first thought was, “I hope he doesn't die in the next scene — but I’ve got to do this.” I read it, and it is bloody, but it’s not supernatural. All of it could happen — that’s what I loved about it. We're food to these people, and that's what you do with game you catch. I thought the logic of it was brilliant. I thought the characters were extraordinary. I thought Chicory was just ... well, I’ve been waiting my whole life to play someone like that.

C&:I: Were you thinking about another movie or TV character… ?
Jenkins:
Chester in Gunsmoke. I’m 68, and I watched Gunsmoke every week while I was growing up. And all the others. Cheyenne, Maverick, The Rebel, Wanted: Dead or Alive — I watched all of those, I never missed them. But while I was growing up, Chester was the guy. When I was kid I thought, “I just love this guy.” There something so human about him. Something so unguarded. And he adored Matt Dillon. I just love the early Gunsmoke episodes — they’re on [Encore Westerns] now — and I still watch them. I looked at Bone Tomahawk as kind of my homage to growing up with all that stuff. So I was grateful I got to do it.

One of the most fascinating things about Bone Tomahawk is that, yes, it has troglodytes instead of outlaws or rustlers or Indians on the warpath, but it really is a western. A very traditional one, in some ways.
Jenkins:
I’m sure The Searchers is the easiest one to compare it with. You have the vistas and the panoramas, just like in John Ford’s movies, where you have these guys riding out on their quest. But you also build up to it. They set these people up, so you get to know them a little bit before they just run out on the trail. That’s the thing about this movie — it takes its time. With most other movies nowadays, it’s jump cut, jump cut, jump cut. I don't know if it’s because I’m old — I don't know, I can’t figure it out — but I just love the pace of this one.

C&I: You and Kurt Russell have some great scenes together — especially when you’re talking about how to read a book while you’re taking a bath and, later on, about whether there are live fleas in a flea circus. I can only imagine that when you read this dialogue for this first time…
Jenkins:
I just thought, “Man, are you kidding me?” [Laughs.] At that point when they’re in the cave, most writers would just write to the plot. You know: “Let’s get ‘em! Let’s kill ‘em! Let’s do this! How are they coming at us?” But right in the middle of this, Craig writes this scene about, “Were these real fleas? Were they alive or dead?” I just thought, “Oh my God, nobody does this.” The same with the scene where they talk about reading a book in the bathtub. What that does is, it really shows you how much [Chicory] worships this sheriff. Because he says, “I bet you Mr. Brooder couldn't have thought of that.” Kurt says, “Go to sleep, old man.”

C&I: But it also shows how much the sheriff cares for Chicory, because he actually engages in the conversation with him.
Jenkins:
It’s such an intimate conversation to have. I mean, the sheriff is trying to solve a problem for him. He’s dead tired, he can barely keep his eyes open, but he’s trying to help Chicory. I love that, that’s so warm and human. I love the way he does that, he’s half asleep when I ask him the question and he doesn’t say, “Shut up, let’s go to bed.” I love that. The same with the flea circus conversation — when I read that, I couldn’t believe it. I just thought, “That’s the most brilliant thing.” It comes at just the right time, and it makes perfect sense.

C&I: And the woman who’s also held captive, the character played by Lili Simmons — she also joins the conversation. Because, like the sheriff, she’s trying to help Chicory get his mind off the terrible thing that’s about to happen to all of them.
Jenkins:
That’s right. They understand what he's doing, and they help him. They tell him, “It was real. Don’t worry. It was real.” By God, he’s going to die a happy man.

C&I: You’ve been a working actor since the 1970s, in film, theater and television. But I think it’s safe to say that since 2007, when you played your first movie lead and got an Academy Award nomination for The Visitor, you’ve reached another level of visibility and recognition.
Jenkins:
Yeah, it’s kind of like you go along, you go along, and then all of a sudden, something stands out — and that takes you to somewhere else, and you go along from there. Definitely, The Visitor is where that started for me. And knock on wood, a couple of things are nicer. I get better parts, and that’s what all actors want. And the money’s better. That’s nice, too, because we want to, you know, live as actors. But like I said, I’m 68. And for me to be talking to you about doing a movie like Bone Tomahawk — it's something I never thought I’d get to do. I’m a very fortunate man. I know that, and I know luck has a lot to do with it. Anyone who says luck doesn’t have a lot to do with it, I don't think is being honest.

C&I: True. But chance favors a prepared mind. And you were more than ready when The Visitor came along.
Jenkins:
Well, [writer-director Tom McCarthy] had seen something I’d done, and so he asked me to do The Visitor. And I remember: We were out on the street in New York, actually, when we were first shooting, and he said, “One of the reasons I cast you is, I wanted an everyman. I wanted somebody who walked down the streets of New York and people won’t stop and say, ‘Oh, look, it’s…’” And soon as he said that, some guy walked by us, and looked at me, and said, “Hey, how you doing?” And I just turned to Tom and said, “I’m not that invisible.”