Western fans are bound to get a kick from “Hickok.”
Fresh from his first season as security chief for a futuristic theme park on the hit HBO series Westworld, Luke Hemsworth shoots and scores as legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok in Hickok, an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing Wild West drama set to premiere Friday, July 7, in digital and limited theatrical release.
Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr., the same filmmaker who earned his spurs last year with Traded, Hickok fancifully reimagines the title character’s real-life stint as marshal of Abilene, Kansas. Costars include Kris Kristofferson as George Knox, the imperturbable mayor who hires Hickok as lawman; Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as a local doctor who tends to Hickok during times of trouble; and singer/actor Trace Adkins (who also appeared in Woodward’s Traded) as a corrupt saloon owner who puts a price on Hickok’s head.
“Classic westerns hold a special place in my heart,” Woodward says. “So having the opportunity to bring such a compelling and iconic story to the screen was a real pleasure. It was such an incredible honor to work with two of the western genre’s living legends, Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Dern, and to watch Luke Hemsworth so successfully take on the challenge of portraying one of the west’s most recognizable heroes. The entire cast really brought the Old West to life.”
Luke Hemsworth, brother of fellow actors Chris (Thor, The Avengers) and Liam Hemsworth (the Hunger Games franchise), has racked up several film and TV credits in his native Australia. But Hickok marks the first time he has played the lead in an American-produced feature. We spoke with the 36-year-old actor a few days ago about his new movie, and here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: Almost everyone has heard the name Wild Bill Hickok, but it’s safe to say most people don’t know the particulars of his life. As an actor, how do you approach playing a historical character like that?
Liam Hemsworth: I approach it by trying to gather as much information as I can, and then wading through it to find out what is real, and what is rumored. And what I very quickly find out is that there’s a lot of room for interpretation there as to what these guys were really like. And then, on top of that, you take an artistic license, and you try and bring some sort of uniqueness, some sort of realness, to this person. Try and flesh it out, for want of a better term.
But even then, we have people on set who are constantly reminding us that they wouldn’t have said something that way, or they wouldn’t have done it that way, or ridden a horse that way, or held a gun that way. So you have those experts which you refer back to — and it’s a beautiful kind of dance that we all do. Hopefully, we end up with something that brings some sort of light and justice to it all.
C&I: It’s been said that, deep down, every actor — and every director — wants to make, at some point in his or her life, at least one Hitchcockian thriller, and one western. Would you agree?
Hemsworth: Yep, absolutely. Especially a western. I think that’s always been in the cards for me, because even as a kid, those films seemed so iconic. I grew up watching them, and then staring into the mirror and trying to outdraw myself. And then outdraw my brothers. It’s so much fun to get on set and then play around with another actor, and actually try to outdraw them. It’s really cool. It’s such a wonderful blessing and opportunity to be able to do that, and to do it creatively, and to try and do something that, hopefully, someone else hasn’t done. That was my thing: I wanted to steer away from anything that resembled something that someone else had done, you know?
C&I: Were there specific TV or movie interpretations of Wild Bill Hickok that you wanted to steer away from?
Hemsworth: Well, I think the Deadwood version of Hickok was the one that we most steered away from. Don’t get me wrong: I thought Keith Carradine was wonderful. But I’m a lot closer to Hickok’s actual age when he died. People forget: Hickok was 39 when he was killed. And also, we wanted to make him a little different — grittier, I guess. Hence the beard instead of a mustache. Most of the versions of Hickok I have seen are Hickok with mustache and long hair. So this was a point of difference rather than trying to emulate anything.
C&I: It must be a thrill to work alongside living legends like Bruce Dern or Kris Kristofferson. But can it also be a tad intimidating?
Hemsworth: It is. And I think that’s what forces you to be on your game. You know, when I get intimidated or nervous or anxious about something like that, I kind of retreat into the work, and I make sure that I know what I’m doing upside down, backward, around the top. So that I don’t get caught with my pants down, so to speak. Because these guys are legends, they’ve been there, they’ve done everything, they’ve seen everything. I’m not there to kick up a huge fuss, but I want to make sure that we’re all doing the best job we can by making sure that I’ve done my homework.
But you know what? Ultimately, those fears go away very quickly because they are wonderful human beings. They’re not only great actors. And it’s great to stand with them and talk to them, and ask them about the old days, old directors, and the craziness of those times and what they went through. You know, that’s a real blessing, and it’s part of the job that I really love.
C&I: Actors sometimes talk about what they learned from working with other actors.What do you think you learned from working with Bruce Dern?
Hemsworth: Dern’s whole approach is incredibly loose. And I think that’s what I learned — when you’re working with someone like that, you need to go with him, and bounce with them. And if you’re not up to speed, you very quickly get left behind. I mean, it was a different thing on Westworld. Westworld was very specific, and there’s not a word in there, or a line in there, that isn’t supposed to be in there. And if you try to change things, it very quickly gets stopped. Whereas Bruce’s approach and the approach in this film was a little more freeing in terms of how do we get around this, and where are we going now, what can we create here? So that was really cool. And it was really cool to see the playfulness he still has a veteran. As a veteran, he still has this glint in his eye where he starts to make a joke, and he’s laughing at you, and he’s laughing at everyone else. It’s infectious. Yeah, it was a joy.
C&I: Speaking of Westworld: Is there anything you can tell us regarding what will happen in Season 2? Or would it being saying too much to even say your character will indeed be back for Season 2?
Hemworth: [Laughs.] I can acknowledge that. But other than that, I know nothing. I literally know nothing — I haven’t seen anything, any scripts or anything. Hopefully, I’ll start getting it soon. But, you know, the nature of that show, and also its strength, is in its secrecy. So you wouldn’t want me to tell you anything. And I wouldn’t want to tell anyone anything and spoil their viewing pleasure. Because it’s like a beautiful little secret that’s unfolded, isn’t it? When you get taken by surprise when you’re watching a TV show like that — that’s good stuff.
C&I: Getting back to Hickok: What was the most difficult or challenging scene in the film for you?
Hemsworth: Well, the hardest thing was one of the scenes at the start, where I’m in the bathtub. It was literally my first day, and we were out in the hills, and it was freezing, and I had to sit in the bathtub. And because we were out on this farm, they had no way of heating the water in time, so I was sitting in a cold bathtub for about two hours all up, I think. [Laughs.] And you can see in some of the shots, my chin’s shaking and I’m just barely managing to get my words out because I was so cold. It was horrible. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t wish that day on my worst enemy.
Here is a clip from Hickok.