Daniel Craig, star of the upcoming Universal Pictures and Dreamworks release based on the Platinum Studios comic book, “Cowboys & Aliens,” loves western movies. “I just wanted to play a cowboy for a long time,” he told CBR News at a recent press day in Montana. “I’ve always watched them. I’ve always seen them.” Speaking with journalists in front of the picturesque country and a cattle drive, the actor said that wish fulfillment made the part much easier to play. “You choose the costume, the chaps go on, the hat goes on, and you kind of just give it your all. I’m just lucky to be given the chance to do it, as far as I’m concerned.”
In the film, Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a gunslinger with a mysterious past and an equally mysterious alien device attached to his arm. The mixture of traditional western and alien invasion appealed to him when he read the script. “[It] actually took me somewhere else when I read it,” he recalled. While the title could easily precipitate a very different film, Craig noted that “we’ve done an authentic western and tried to bring… well, there’s a great bunch of actors in this movie, but some real characters together that deal with this incredible thing. When the shit hits the fan, hopefully you’re caring about them.”
When we first meet Jake, he has no memory of his life, but is quick to violence when pushed. He is the film’s hero, but he also wears a black hat. To Craig, it fits perfectly for the tone of the film. “In all good westerns, the good guy is always a little bit questionable because he kind of has to make moral judgments,” Craig explained. “There’s an instinct within him, which is about survival and killing.”
Another instinct Craig used was that childhood sense of play which helped him deal with extras standing in for the aliens. “They can move quick, Christ all mighty,” he laughed. “Ultimately, you’re plugged [in] to your imagination as an actor and that’s part of the job and we laughed about it.” Reportedly, the supporting players were football players dressed in costumes that vaguely approximate the aliens. The look was completed with tennis balls attached to their heads. “You kind of have to see the absurdity of it,” the actor continued. “But you’re giving your faith over to some really technically brilliant people in Industrial Light and Magic and having total faith that they are going to be able to make it real and you’ve got to give them the reactions. If you don’t give it to them, they’ve got nothing to work off. In spite of the fact we were giggling about it, we had to commit to it as well.”
That commitment leads back to the characters and their late 19th century point of reference for the alien encounter. In one scene, Jake and Olivia Wilde’s Ella escape from one of the alien flying machines. Once safely away from the aliens, Jake has a very basic human reaction: “We were just flying.” Craig believes those sorts of moments were essential to the mixture of genres. “[We’re] trying to base everything in reality, therefore the reactions are going to be kind of as real as they can be and then, hopefully, there’s some humor comes out of it because it’s like, ‘Fuck. What the fuck just happened?'” Craig said. “These people are [in] 1870. I imagine people in the west weren’t really thinking about life on other planets.”
Returning to more earthly concerns, the film represents the actor’s first time on horseback, though he admits every actor claims on their resume that they know how to ride. “I had been involved with movies before that had no money to pay for horses or only on the day,” Craig said. “They stick you on a horse, and you’d sort of pretend and hope you don’t fall off, but [on this film] I got the chance to ride a lot. I can’t talk [about] how fantastic that was. It was just great to learn and realize actually I know nothing [of riding]. Every day is a bit of a learning process.” By the end of production, co-star Harrison Ford bought both his and Craig’s horses. It is just the sort of thing the actor wished he could do. “If I had a patch of land, a patch of grass, I would have bought my horse.”
Striking the balance between cowboy movie and alien movie was never far from the actor’s mind, but he thinks keeping all the camp within the title freed the production up to try a different approach. “We all agreed about that and that was certainly one of the reasons I did the job. It was kind of a risk, but you have to go for it,” Craig said. The actor noted the obvious way a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” could play out with laughs every time something extraordinary happens. Instead, they found their humor in a different place. “I think it’s funnier to get people reacting in a real way,” he said. “Then it becomes funny because of the situation as opposed to sort of bullying the audience into laughing.
“It was funny, the first time I saw ‘Blade Runner,’ I saw it double bill with ‘Outland,'” Craig recalled. The 1981 Sean Connery film is set on a mining colony somewhere in space, but plays out in very much the same fashion as a “local sheriff keeps the peace” style plot from an older western. It also plays the story straight and serious. “[The genres] blend,” the actor added. “They do blend and they always have. For Chrissakes, Han Solo’s a cowboy.”
As the session drew to a close, Craig was asked what fascinated him so about the westerns of old. “Well I suppose, I got the political westerns of the ’70s that were using Vietnam as a backdrop,” he answered. In that decade, filmmakers used the western — often thought of as the American genre — to criticize the presence of troops in South East Asia. “The fact is that it was, let’s be honest, it was a genocide that took place, there’s no real getting round it and a lot of that is kind-of fascinating; to my people as well.”
Craig also admitted he would pursue another western if the opportunity came up. “Maybe one without any aliens in it,” he joked. “They’re amazing stories. There’s always a major moral argument within a western. They always [have] life or death decisions, therefore, [the drama] is heightened. Plus: riding a horse, wearing a hat, carrying a gun.”
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens in theaters Friday.