Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt and Dane DeHaan co-star with newcomer Jake Schur.
When we last saw Vincent D’Onofrio riding tall alongside Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt, they were Wild West heroes in director Antoine Fuqua’s well-received 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. Now they’re reunited for another western: The Kid, a fresh take on the oft-told story of lawman Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid.
The big difference this time is, D’Onofrio — the impressively versatile character actor whose varied resume includes Full Metal Jacket, Men in Black, The Newton Boys and TV’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent — is the one in the director’s chair. And while Hawke once again a good guy, Pratt is not just bad, he’s downright dastardly.
According to the official Lionsgate Pictures plot synopsis: “A young boy, Rio (Jake Schur), is forced to go on the run across the American Southwest in a desperate attempt to save his sister (Leila George) from his villainous uncle (Pratt). Along the way, he encounters Sheriff Pat Garrett (Hawke), on the hunt for the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan). Rio finds himself increasingly entwined in the lives of these two legendary figures as the cat and mouse game of Billy the Kid’s final year of life plays out. Ultimately Rio is forced to choose which type of man he is going to become, the outlaw or the man of valor, and will use this self-realization in a final act to save his family.”
The Kid opens this weekend in theaters nationwide. A few days ago, we had the welcome opportunity to talk with D’Onofrio about what it was like to work with old friends and new collaborators while mixing historical fact and fanciful fiction in a new western bound to please fans of both traditional westerns produced in the 1940s and ‘50s and more recent sagebrush sagas like, well, the Magnificent Seven remake.
Cowboys & Indians: It been said that every director, deep in his or her heart, wants to make at least one western. Do you feel like, with The Kid, you’ve crossed off an item on your bucket list?
Vincent D’Onofrio: [Laughs] I totally get what you’re saying. Making a western, this western thing, is something that’s been on my mind for a long time. Actually, I’d written another script that I wanted to shoot, a western, years ago. But it got tangled up in lawyers, and it just never got done. So then I started to think about a coming of age story. Because I was watching a lot of French films about young kids. And I thought it’d be kind of cool to think of a coming of age story that was not so typical. And then I thought, hey, I could combine the two. So I came up with the idea of putting a fictional boy in the true, factual story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And, yeah, then I was able to make my Western.
C&I: You and Ethan Hawke have been friends and collaborators for quite a few years now. Did you have him in mind to play Pat Garrett from the very start of the creative process with scriptwriter Andrew Lanham?
D’Onofrio: I’ve always wanted Ethan to play Pat Garrett. Always. Yeah, to me, he’s the ultimate Pat Garrett. When you know somebody as well as I know Ethan, and then you’re reading about Garrett and how he was — I couldn’t help having Ethan in my mind. [Laughs] He had to do it. He was not gonna get away with not doing this part. He had to do it.
C&I: What was there about Dane DeHaan that made you think he’d be so effective as Billy the Kid?
D’Onofrio: Well, I knew Ethan, I knew Chris — and my daughter [Leila George] is also in [The Kid]. See, there’s a certain style of directing that I do, and these people, they know me really well. And I knew that it was important that whoever was gonna come in had to fit in with everybody else, in this kind of family. And they had to be good. And they had to also be open-minded, and ready to work the way that I work. After I had a couple of conversations with Dane, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I told him that I get very involved, and very hands-on with performances. I told him I want to trust my actors, and I want them to trust me. And, yeah, he was just up for it. He also knew that we had to move very quickly. We had 20 days to shoot a full-out western. There was no messing about. And Dane, he doesn’t mess about. He just comes in ready to go. And full-on in character. It was fascinating to watch him work. He was very, very good.
C&I: You also cast Chris Pratt as the villain of the piece. Not exactly typecasting, right?
D’Onofrio: I’ve always been interested in Chris’ career, and in the way he goes about doing things. I think the guy’s very talented. And, yeah, I kind of knew that he would be excited about playing the bad guy. Because he’s such a superhero, you know? And I also knew that if he said yes to doing it, that he was ready to actually go all the way with me. Because he knows me really well. And he knows my style of acting, and what I like about performances. And everybody, all these guys, we’re all kind of very keyed into each other. So I knew that if he said yes, he was really gonna show up. He was doing another film at the time. And he came in for five days, just in character, and ready to just go all the way with it.
C&I: Of course, the movie wouldn’t work at all if we didn’t believe the young actor cast in the title role. Because, really, we’re seeing everybody — Garrett, Billy the Kid, everybody — through his eyes. Was it difficult to find someone as effective as Jake Schur?
D’Onofrio: Almost impossible. Really. Because the kind of acting that kids are taught to do at young ages is not the kind of acting that I needed in my movie. And so, I met Jake early on, because he’s the son of one of the producers, Jordan Schur. And then I went on, on my own, looking for actors. Jake was, I think, like, 11 when I met him. And the truth is, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jake. I knew that Jake had never done anything before. And I started having these long talks with him about it. And put him through a couple of acting exercises at the offices. Finally, I just asked him, “Would you like to do this? Do you want to do this? Would this, all of this, even though it's really hard work, be something that you’d want to do?” I asked him, and he said yes. And so, by the time we went around to making the film, he was actually turning 14. And it was the perfect, right age. The thing is, when he turned 13, I told him, “Just in case, don't cut your hair. And learn how to ride a horse.” And he did both. He was the best rider of everybody on set.
C&I: The problem with many westerns that are made these days is, well, you simply find it hard to believe that the people on screen are really in that period. And it’s not just a matter of whether they can ride horses. You can’t help thinking that these are 21st-century people playing dress-up, pretending to be 19th-century characters. But you’ve managed to avoid that sort of thing in The Kid.
D’Onofrio: Well, first off, number one — you sort of have to cheat. And how you cheat is, you pick the type of people that you know could play that part in that time period. That’s the first thing you do. That’s even without the homework, or without them doing any research. There are some people that have qualities about them that allow them to look as if they’re back in another time. They don't have aspects of their personality that make them difficult to accept as anything but contemporary people.
But also, there’s a trick to acting. If you’re human while the camera's rolling, we're gonna buy it. It doesn’t matter where you are, or when the story’s taking place. We're gonna buy it. And so, it was important that all of these actors — every one of them, my daughter, Jake, Ethan, Dane, and Chris — turn themselves inside out while portraying these parts, so that they come across as human. Because we didn’t have a gigantic movie. We had a small movie. And the one thing we needed is for the audience to listen to them while they were speaking, and relate to them as fellow human beings on the earth, you know? [Laughs] That’s the best explanation I can come up with.