The Real Gwyneth
The actress and Goop founder talks to Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee about daring, her drive, and why living well is the best revenge.
COUNTRY STRONG: If you want to borrow Kurt's timeless cowboy style, start with one big, rugged piece that you can comfortably, convincingly wear for the rest of your life—like a heavy plaid rancher's shirt, or a coat with a shearling collar, or even a suede M65 jacket that matches your horse. Any one of them will make you look at home on the range.
For many years, Kurt Russell refused to put the word “actor” on his passport. “I used to write ‘writer,’ ‘ballplayer’—anything but ‘actor.’ I couldn't do it until I was about 40 years old. I just couldn't. I was, ‘That's not what I am.’ It was stupid, because I'd been starring in television shows and movies since I was 11. It was just me.”
Russell's contrary streak has led him down a fascinating path over his 54-year career. He has zigged and zagged in ways that often seemed to defy logic. “Someone said,” he notes, “‘Your career looks like it's been handled by a drunken driver.’ And I laughed and said, ‘That's true!’ Because that's the way it looks.” And yet it's a path that has made him, at 65, wealthy and successful—and as in demand now as he's ever been. Quietly, but also in plain sight, he's become one of his era's most beloved and respected actors. And it had to unfold like this, he says: “If I'd had a different career, I don't think I'd have been very interested.”
Are there any lessons to be drawn from such a unique life? Perhaps a few. Not rules, so much. Just signposts and stories that might help us understand how one very singular man found his way.
In 1980, when he was 29, Kurt Russell's adult career was beginning to gather momentum. But as he and director John Carpenter were preparing for his role as Snake Plissken in the dystopian Escape from New York, Russell remembers, they faced a dilemma.
“Snake Plissken,” says Russell, with perhaps a little pride, “was the first character that I can think of where he had no social redeeming value. A lot of the male stars of that time, if they were going to play a role where they seek revenge, that was their social redeemability—they showed the wife and kids getting burned in the house by the Mafia, or whatever. Or, if it was a Western, some terrible thing being done, and now it's time for payback. We didn't do that.”
Plissken, a cynical self-serving criminal, was just going to do what he did, and if you needed him to have a good reason, you'd have to imagine it for yourself.
So the studio was already nervous, Russell says, when it learned of his decision to have Plissken wear an eye patch.
“I remember being in the room and talking about this stuff,” says Russell, “and they said, ‘There's nothing likable about him—why are we going to pull for him?’” Russell realized that he needed to say something to bring them around. “I tried to figure it out while I was talking, and I wasn't coming up with an answer that was very satisfactory to me or anybody else. And finally I just kind of blurted out: ‘You're going to like him because I'm playing him!’”
It seems Russell was correct. The movie was a success, extending and deepening people's perception of what Russell could do, and Plissken is now an iconic figure.
A few years later, Russell even discovered some objective validation for his faith in his own likability. The producers of the science-fiction movie Stargate chased him to anchor the film, overcoming his reluctance by doubling his biggest payday to date, and when he asked why they'd been so set on hiring him, they told him about their research: “They said, ‘Oh, well, we ran a questionnaire around the world.’ They wanted to find someone who was likable because the part, as written, was not. And they said, ‘You know the only star out there who has zero unlikability? Kurt Russell. Zero unlikability!’”
“Now, this was a long time ago. That number may have changed significantly.”
Kurt Russell spends much of his time at a vineyard north of Santa Barbara, creating his own Pinot Noir, and he concedes there have been times that he's been reluctant to leave. “I was just loving life,” he says. “Sometimes I think I just want to do that.”
One such moment: when he was first approached in 2013 to appear in the seventh installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise. He didn't jump at the chance. He didn't think the character they'd originally proposed for him (“a lieutenant arriving with his Special Ops team”) was interesting enough. But a trusted friend pressed him to reconsider, and after the filmmakers proved open to his ideas about who this character could be—someone mysterious and anonymous—he found himself in one of the world's most successful movie series. He has just reprised the part in the forthcoming Fast 8. Right now, his career seems to be on a roll, one that started with his performance as a brash and stubborn bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. This month he appears as the gruff moral center of Deepwater Horizon, the gripping true story of the BP oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. “I always appreciate those guys whose job is really, honestly dangerous,” he says. “And they know it, but they really don't show it.”
At the moment, though, the role he seems most excited about is as Chris Pratt's long-lost father in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—a father who is actually a planet (Ego, the Living Planet, to be precise) but at times takes human form. “I've never played anything like that,” he says. “I mean, that's a great thing to be able to say at my age.”
Recently, at Comic-Con, a clip from the film was shown in which Ego attempts to clarify how a planet could have fathered a child. “Yes, Drax,” he was widely reported as saying, “I made a penis.”
But Russell is keen to correct the record.
“That's an incorrect quote,” he says. “I go, ‘Yes, Drax, I've got a penis.’”
He can recall that day at work well. “We did eight versions of it. The line was, ‘I've got a dick.’ And then somebody from Marvel world or whatever said, ‘You should cover yourself and say “penis,” too.’ So the director said, ‘Let's do one with “penis.”’ So, I did one with ‘penis’ and that's the one they used.”
In fact, this dilemma remains unresolved. “I can't decide which is funnier,” says the film's director, James Gunn. For the moment, it's “dick.”
Kurt Russell's big successes as a teenage actor came in a series of forgettable, modestly charming live-action movies for Disney, like The Strongest Man in the World and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It wasn't the most fashionable place to be making a name—“I remember one time being told that I had been referred to as ‘Disney's little Nazi’”—but in that world it made him a star. One Disney press release at the time noted that after Russell's previous film, he received 40,000 pieces of fan mail.
As such, Russell got to know the company's boss and founder, Walt Disney, surprisingly well. “He was a cool guy, great guy,” Russell remembers. “He reminded me a lot of my grandfather.” Disney taught Russell about filmmaking, taking him round all the departments in the studio. They would also play Ping-Pong together, and Disney would show Russell forthcoming movies and ask his advice. Russell thinks he knows why: “I had no problem giving him my honest answer.”
He really valued your opinion?
“He did. I could promise you that's true.”
One of the unfinished movies Russell was shown was Mary Poppins. Disney asked Russell what he thought.
“I thought it was okay,” he told Disney.
“You wouldn't tell your friends to see it?”
And Russell remembers Disney, there and then, getting a pen and paper, declaring, “We need some penguins!” and summoning the animators.
You think your opinion really changed ‘Mary Poppins’?
“I have no doubt. I have no doubt about that. There were other movies, too. I was a perfect audience for him in that regard. Now, is there any credit to be taken there? None, absolutely none. What I got to witness was a genius at work, okay? What I knew, in those instances…I knew my opinion mattered.”
There is a strange coda to Russell's Walt Disney experience. After Disney's death, Russell was invited into his personal office and was shown what he was told was the very last thing Walt Disney had written before his final illness. Just two words: Russell's name.
“I have no idea what he was thinking,” he says. “I always joke, ‘It took Kurt Russell to kill Walt Disney.’”
The movies that Russell mentions most often, and with the most pride, come from the early part of his adult career—particularly his trilogy of films with director John Carpenter, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. But it was a few years later that he found his commercial magic touch. Movies like Tequila Sunrise, Tango & Cash, Executive Decision, and Breakdown might not echo through the ages—their titles alone sound as if they've been rescued from a dusty time capsule—but they were all sizable hits, and they showcased Russell's easy ability to play men who, whether rugged or sardonic or feckless or heroic, had something you couldn't help but warm to. It wasn't flashy or obvious, but somehow he made these movies better. And so, after Stargate in 1994, Russell began to be paid like the big star he'd quietly become. Or as he puts it: “I joined the big parade there by pulling the lottery chain.”
That period ended with a movie you probably don't remember, called Soldier. Russell would earn his top salary ever: “15 million bucks,” he confirms. He played a near-emotionless robot warrior. A fairly taciturn one, too. “I think I have the record,” he says. “Divide 69 words by $15 million. I don't think anyone will ever top that—$278,000 per word, or something.” (Just over $217,000, in fact, by his word count, but still pretty good by the sentence.)
Afterward, he pulled back—not, he insists, because the offers dried up: “There were a couple I turned down that were really, really big—$20 million.” But money wasn't a sufficient lure. “I had enough,” he says. “I just said, ‘I've got the things I want—I don't need this.’ My wife and I, my family, can live our lives pretty much the way we want to. From time to time I'll do something, but it'll only be because I want to buy something, I wanna do something, or I wanna work with somebody.”
In the mid-1980s, Goldie Hawn, his partner of 33 years, got Warner Bros. to buy Russell a Harley-Davidson for the extra work he did on Swing Shift, the misfiring movie that had brought them together. “Used to love to take Katie [Hudson, Hawn's daughter] for rides, take Goldie for rides—we just loved it. I knew there were dangers so I was extremely, extremely careful about how I rode it. But I didn't ride defensive. I didn't ride scared. I rode aggressively defensively, to make myself aware.”
Russell, who self-identifies as a libertarian, gave up bikes when helmet laws came in: “As far as I'm concerned, there's only one reason to ride a motorcycle and that's to feel the wind in your hair. The American that I am in my mind says I'm not hurting anyone by not wearing a helmet. And taking that away from me is like saying, ‘Okay, there's no point in me riding anymore because it's not the experience I'm looking for.’ I can't ride a motorcycle and have the feeling that I've been told what to wear—it really, really ruined it for me.”
But he was also becoming aware that he'd accrued a number of dangerous hobbies. At the time, he was also on a speedboat-racing team with Don Johnson, and he knew the fatality rate for participants was not insubstantial. And he had also begun to fly airplanes. There was, he realized, a lot of voluntary risk in his life.
“Goldie said to me, ‘Honey, I'm going to ask you something: Flying an airplane, is that fun for you, or important?’”
Russell recognized that this was an interesting question.
“And the boat,” she asked, “is that fun?”
He told her that, yes, the boat was fun. He loved doing it.
“Is it important for you?” she asked.
And he really thought about what she was asking him. And he realized something.
“Important is worth dying for,” he says. “Fun is not. That's me, that's Kurt to Kurt—just because it's fun, it's not worth dying for.”
So he gave up the boats.
And carried on flying.
“Airplanes,” he says, “I knew that was important to me.”
In 1979, 37 years ago, Kurt Russell was nominated for an Emmy for the TV movie Elvis. (He lost.) In 1984, 32 years ago, he was nominated for a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actor in Silkwood. (He also lost.)
And that, pretty much, has been it.
He knows that it has become a kind of cliché to say that he is under-appreciated. “There are some specific reasons for that under-appreciation thing,” he reflects, “and I'm responsible for them. Did I play the game correctly? You bet I didn't! I did not. I didn't go to the events. I didn't say the right things to the right people.” He laughs. “I said the wrong things to the right people.”
Does it sting that you've never had any Oscar recognition?
“No,” he replies, pointing out that he's not even a member of the Academy. For Russell, there are more valuable kinds of recognition.
“Most of the movies I've done, people have had a good time with,” he says. “Some of them I've done they've had a great time with. And then some of those movies that I've done are not just going to stand up, they fall into the category of: Yeah, a hundred years from now, there will be some moviegoers that will look back and say, ‘Well, look at that guy…. I mean, that was a hundred years ago, but he knew what fucking time it was. He knew what he was doing.’”
CHRIS HEATH is a GQ correspondent.
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