Kurt Russell on ‘The Hateful Eight’ and Skateboarding with Charles Bronson

Kurt Russell on ‘The Hateful Eight’ and Skateboarding with Charles Bronson

We caught up with the Hateful Eight star to talk about his penchant for Westerns, working with Tarantino, and that time Snake Plissken startled four badass guys in East St. Louis.
December 22, 2015, 5:00am

Illustration by Elizabeth Renstrom

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way. I am not impartial on the subject of Kurt Russell. I grew up with his Disney comedies, fixated on his 1980s John Carpenter flicks, and avidly followed his career throughout adulthood. For the last 30 years, his scruffy, sweat-beaded mug has watched over me from a dozen different bedroom walls (first on the German poster for 1981's Escape from New York – Die Klapper-Schlange ["The Rattlesnake"] – then on the slightly more fanciful Italian art for 1997: Fuga da New York). It's a one-set-of-footprints-in-the sand scenario. Kurt's always been there for me.

So I accepted my assignment on Kurt's latest press junket, to support his role in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, as an existential conundrum. I would get 15 minutes in a swanky hotel room with my idol. Even with self-imposed restrictions (no politics, no family matters), that still left me with a six-decade career to work with. What could I possibly ask the man in a mere 15 minutes? Friends plied me with advice.

"Make him super uncomfortable."

"Call him Kirk."

"Ask to sit on his lap."

From a lifetime of watching Russell interviews, I knew he had the ability to shift his public charm into overdrive. I hadn't, however, counted on just how much Kurt Russell enjoys discussing his career. When I introduced myself and took a seat, he was already off and running, as if we'd just returned from a commercial break.

"You gotta understand, you make movies for as long as I have, you do as many movies as I have, you work with as many people as I have, you really find yourself feeling fortunate for all of it. I mean, the life I have... just knock on wood." He knuckle-rapped the coffee table with a studied, movie-star grace. In film, there have been three Kurts: Action, Comedy, and Drama. This was a fourth Kurt, the polished, veteran interviewee. I could feel the riptide of that charm sucking me down, even as I watched precious seconds whiz by on my recorder.

"Aside from that, you have your favourites," he continued. "And right up there with anything ever, for me, is this experience of Hateful Eight, creating a character that I wanted to try to be memorable with. Getting to do that with Quentin? Yeah. But how about getting to do that with Quentin in his prime? I'll take that. How about getting to work with the other actors, and they're all in their prime? Yeah, I'll take that. I mean, I love working with any of them, but all of them at the same time? All of them in their prime? Oh, oh, I'd love to do that! 'How'd you like to do that when you feel you're in your prime?' Well, that might be a surprise, but yeah, I'd like to do that. Now it's time to just let it rip, have the most possible fun..."

"But you've been letting it rip for 50 years."

"Oh, no, you'd be surprised," he said. "You'd be really surprised. I did Bone Tomahawk before this. Loved doing it. Wasn't allowed to let it rip. That's not the way the director saw it."

"I just watched Bone Tomahawk last night," I said.

"I like Bone Tomahawk. It's just..."

"It's a hell of a movie," I blurted out, truthfully. Bone Tomahawk makes an interesting, slower companion to The Hateful Eight (and can rival any Tarantino film in brutality). In the film, Russell's cannibal-hunting sheriff sports a scruffy silver beard, looking more like Santa than ever. I flashed back to the lap question.

"Me too. And I'll take a lot of responsibility for it. But if you want to talk... 'Were you allowed to rip?' No."

"It's a quieter form of ripping," I offered.

"That's exactly right. By ripping, I don't mean bombastic. I mean the whole movie being done in a certain way, with a certain atmosphere. There are many, many things about that to really enjoy. And I loved the outcome of it. Could it have been a lot better? In my estimation, absolutely. As it was, I'll take it. Because movies like that just don't get made."

As we spoke, the clean-shaven Russell absently stroked the slackness of his neck, much the same way some men stroke their beards. At 64, he no longer resembles the firm, sweaty heroes of his youth. And yet, he seems entirely comfortable with playing (and being) his age, a contentment consistent with his whole career. There was a point, in the mid-1990s, when Russell stood poised to become an A-list action-film hero. But after the commercial failures of Escape from LA and Soldier, he veered back towards more eclectic roles. In 2015, Rocky and Han Solo (a role Kurt auditioned for) still totter along; the former Snake Plissken seems entirely at ease with the saggy dignity of older men. We had just a few minutes left. I felt I should acknowledge his status as the world's most durable child star since Mickey Rooney, a child stardom first sprung from a lost world of television westerns.

"You've done two of the four westerns that came out in 2015. Which is probably a record."

"Yeah! Right!" He cackled. "To do 50 percent of all of a genre in one year, you're right! It's like, 'Hey dude, lemme see that on your resume, Jack!'"

"As a kid, I used to hear about The Travels of Jamie McPheeters," – Kurt's breakthrough 1961 TV show, the titular character of which I share a last name with—"but it's been years and years since I've noticed anyone mentioning it. Although there's a Sugarfoot joke in Arrested Development..."

"I didn't do Sugarfoot."

"I thought you were on Sugarfoot for an episode."

"That's just one of those internet things. My dad did. I didn't."

"So do you ever hear about Jamie McPheeters, ever, from anyone?"

"Ah, you know. Once in a while. Very rarely. I like it, because I like Dan O'Herlihy..."

"Yeah, you can't find it anywhere. So I never actually saw an episode."

"Oh, it's a cool idea. It's a 12-year old kid, his father going west from Kentucky, and the father is a drunk – he's a doctor, but he's a really bad drunk – he's a great guy, and in fact, the son is more the father to the father than the father is to the son. Very loving relationship. Great book! And the television show kind of held fast to it."

"It was one season, but it was a long season, right?" I asked.

"Yes, it was. Twenty-six [episodes]."

"And half those were with Charles Bronson."

"Thirteen of them were with Charlie," he confirmed.

"He was a scary-looking guy!" I replied. "In House of Wax, he's terrifying. And you were, what, ten?"

"I was 11 and 12. I really liked Charlie. Charlie Bronson was... he was a very disliked man in many corners. He was a guy that did mean things. But I liked Charlie. I got him a present one time. Which he received, and went straight to his trailer, and the whole crew was like, 'Aw, Kurt. He's just an unhappy guy.' And I was like, 'It's OK.' And then about a half hour later, [I hear] 'Kurt, Charlie wants to see you.' Went over to Charlie's trailer, knocked on the door, I'm thinking, What the fuck did I do wrong? He opens the door, he looks at me, and he goes, 'Um, nobody's ever given me a present before, so thanks.' And he shuts the door.

"My birthday comes up about two months later. He found out, I don't know how, and bought me an awesome Makaha skateboard. He got himself one, and we used to skateboard together on the MGM lot. One day the first assistant comes to me and, he says, 'Kurt, you can't skate around here. Insurance. They don't want you to do it.' I said, 'Oh, OK, sorry.' So then Charlie says to me a couple days later, 'Where's your skateboard?' I said, 'Well, they told me I couldn't skate.' He said, 'Hey Kurt, grab your skateboard.' And we go up to the president of MGM. He walks right by the secretary, opens the door, and says, 'This is Kurt, I got him a skateboard for his birthday. We're gonna be riding them all over the lot. Just want to let you know.' Turns around, walks out. That was that."

We both chuckled. I eyed my notes with futility. There were so many questions I'd never get to ask the man. Did he shock more Disney fans as Plissken, or with his soulless portrayal, six years earlier, of sniper Charles Whitman? How did he learn of Walt Disney's last written words? Has he ever met Bill Cosby? Will the Fed finally raise interest rates? Does he like the Cro-Mags? Could I, in fact, sit on his lap? The publicist stepped in and tapped her wrist. I bargained for one final question about Snake Plissken.

"There are rumours that when you were on set, at night, in East St. Louis, that you came around a corner in full costume, and – I've heard very different versions of this – that you ran into a full-on 'street gang'..."

"Four badass black guys. They weren't locals. I don't know what they were. First of all, East St. Louis, at that time of night... it was like a bombed-out area. Nobody. Zero. Empty. But I was in that gear. I had a machine gun, eyepatch, long hair – this was 1980, and long hair was very much going away then. And that gun had a laser top on it, nobody had that. And I went way down, turned to the right, I had the walkie-talkie in my hand, the rifle in my hand, wearing the gun, and I had my eyepatch on and I'm getting ready to go, getting ready to be Snake. I come around the corner, and there's four black guys. Just walking this way towards me. They can see light coming from somewhere, and they're probably curious as to what it was. I came around the corner and I just stood there and looked at them. And it was a quarter second later they looked at me and went, 'Whoa whoa, whoa. Easy, man. Easy. We're walkin', we're walkin.' And I remember thinking, This guy works."

My time was up. I eyed that inviting lap of his one last time. I'd never get another chance to whisper all my hopes and dreams into his ear like Santa. There was nothing to stop me.

But then Kurt stood to shake my hand farewell, and the moment was gone.

The Hateful Eight opens in cinemas on Christmas Day.