Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee has made his name with a series of exceptional genre films, breaking through Stateside in 2009 starring opposite Viggo Mortensen in the post-apocalyptic thriller “The Road.” Next, he fronted a pair of unconventional horror movies, first the vampire drama “Let Me In,” then the stop-motion masterpiece “ParaNorman.”
Now, at just 18 years old, he’s headlining the critically acclaimed Western “Slow West,” opposite Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn, ahead of his leap into superhero territory with “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Simply put, Smit-McPhee’s star is on the rise.
In director John Maclean’s “Slow West,” he plays young lover Jay Cavendish, who courageously abandons the luxury and safety of his Scottish homeland to reunite with his one true love on the American frontier. In his quest to find her, Jay comes across a mysterious outlaw (Fassbender) and a dangerous bounty hunter (Mendelsohn) who will change his fate.
Smit-McPhee sat down with SPINOFF during the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss the past, present and future of his career, including that time he almost played Wolverine.
Spinoff: I really love this movie. I’m a big Westerns fan. I’m actually curious about the title, though, “Slow West.” What does that mean to you?
Kodi Smit-McPhee: “Slow West”? I wonder. I never thought about it so deeply. I think it’s really a work of art, and it could mean so much. And I think it’s the essence of the story itself. I think in the time that western America is building, it’s a kind of slow time. I’m not sure. That’s a great question.
Because, based on the title, I expected it to be a slow-paced movie, and it’s not! It’s almost jaunty.
Yeah, when I read the script and saw that is was called “Slow West,” I was expecting a slow Western movie. And then I’m reading it, and I’m like, “Jesus, this is unique! This is crazy.”
As an Australian, how much were Westerns a part of your growing up?
I get this question a lot, not just about Westerns but about movies in general, and I really have a huge passion for art itself. So I realize I’m kept myself a little unprofessionally absent from the industry. But in a way that I wanted to as well. I just ignored a lot. But I think the Western genre holds so many great characteristics as a whole. And the way that John [Maclean] has pulled those strings into something new that we can enjoy as a Western is something that I really appreciate.
I was halfway through the movie before I realized no one on screen was American. It was a Scottish director, it’s shot in New Zealand, which I did not know at the time. But it feels so American–
Totally! I know. Someone just asked me before if I feel all right that this is an American film. And I was like, “Oh, right. Oh, my God, yeah. It’s totally fine.”
We want to claim it because it’s beautiful, but is that OK? We’re gonna call this ours.
Of course. I felt a little bit of tension with John at Sundance because so many people would ask questions about the Western world, and I was like, “I never thought of that! You’re brave, pointing the finger, kind of.” But he’s done it with so much balance in a way that I think people can forgive the thing.
It’s really lovely, because “Slow West” is very aware of the genre but taking it in new places in a way that’s respectful to its heritage.
Yes, respectful and new are aspects of art.
Speaking to that, I think Maclean’s perspective on the Western is very much focused through your character, where Jay sees the West as a romantic place and so so do we. How much of that were you aware of reading the script and working on the film, just how much your character’s perspective would inform the visuals?
I loved and I really felt the presence of these two worlds merge. And not just physically, but emotionally too. You can feel this pure vulnerable blind immature loving entity moving with all the force of the universe moving into the complete opposite, dark, desolate, gross, violent tragedy. And I think it’s amazing to see those two equations sum up through the whole movie in a really great balance.
Speaking of balance, you and Michael Fassbender have this “Odd Couple” dynamic in the film, it’s a bit alpha/beta males, or he’s the cynical one, he’s the romantic. How did that develop?
I think it developed pretty naturally, but I’m sure it stemmed from our roots that we really faced and wanted to make sure they were in the right place. Because obviously, coming into a film, you’re shooting different things and all out of order, so we wanted to have our roots correct.
So I think that was established in a lot of preproduction areas where we started Skyping, but also when we were in New Zealand we had the ability to all work together, Michael and John and I. That’s where we kind of met each other’s point of views [in rehearsal], but as I said I think that’s something just through the fluidity of the script, that just naturally happened in that way. So I think that’s an admiration to be sent to John for sure.
What was it like working with Fassbinder, not just as an actor but also as your executive producer?
I could see that [Fassebender being in charge] was completely prominent. When I walked into the room for the rehearsal process, I saw [he and Maclean’s] relationship together. Of course they had worked together on short films prior. But it was very much like a business ethic type professional point of looking at it. I grew to appreciate that so much because he’s a lead in this movie. He still has to think and do everything as an artist.
You didn’t feel at all intimidated?
I’m like, “Shit! I’m on set with the producer every day.” [Laughs]
He will fire me if I slip up!
Yeah! It’s so funny. I want to make that transition one day and to I don’t know whether it’s producing or directing, just being behind the camera in some way. Because that felt cool having that there.
So, I had a geek-out moment realizing Rory McCann is in this movie. Of course he played The Hound on “Game of Thrones.” Do you watch the show?
I watch it every now and then, but it’s not something that I immerse myself into it or I would literally just watch it all the time.
It sucks up your life. It’s true.
Because I love “Lord of the Rings,” and I love medieval stuff, and spiritual things. Yeah, it’s pretty perfect. But Rory McCann is such a great guy and so talented as well! He would play piano and come to set with this little Scottish guitar — and seeing such a little Scottish guitar on such a big man!
I can’t even — you need to watch the show because it will blow your mind further.
Yeah, it was really interesting [because on “Game of Thrones”] he’s such a beast, a killing beast and then you see that he’s just a beautiful person. He likes singing his songs. He likes a drink. It’s so funny he’s really the softest man on the inside.
So, let’s change gears if you don’t mind to “ParaNorman.” Recently LAIKA auctioned off a lot of their archive, including puppets, props and concept art from their movies. I was wondering do you own any of the pieces?
Oh, my gosh, wow. I do. It’s so amazing, they gave me an actual “ParaNorman” figure at the end of it. As you know they have so many of them, so I just got one of them. And with that they gave me his faces, like some of his different faces — like, one’s smiling, and then a cute face. And they were just magnetic 3D-printed pieces.
So you have the actual puppet and can switch up his expressions.
Yeah. It’s amazing. And I always have that on my desk. And what else? They just gave me a lot of the commercial memorabilia like stickers and it was my firs time being in an almost franchise movie. Something so big on billboards and stuff, so it was new to me. And it was a great experience.
Referring to another film in your past [“Let Me In”], they’re going to make “Let the Right One In” into a TV show. What are your thoughts on that?
Really? Really?! [A huge smile stretches across his face.] Where? When? How? What?
It’s in the works with the showrunner from the “Teen Wolf” series.
Really! What! That’s crazy. That’s so crazy. I didn’t know that at all. That’s my thoughts. Um, whoa. That’d be awesome. Yeah, and that could totally work. That’s what I’ve always loved about the story itself is that it’s an ongoing story, and [with “Let Me In” –the English language remake] we just came into it at one point. So it really is a story that is existing eternally. And they can touch on wherever they want.
That’s is going to be so cool to watch. Really. I want to see what they do with that. I’m actually so inquisitive. Wow. And “Let the Right One In” had a different European-like [feel], it had a naked sense to it. Whereas when it came to the American screens, [director] Matt [Reeves] translated to the American audience. But they still live in such a beautiful way, and I love that.
So when you got “X-Men: Apocalypse,” did you call Fassbinder immediately?
I actually have done the opposite. I haven’t said a word to anyone [I know from the movie], Nicholas Hoult, who I worked with on “Young Ones,” Michael Fassbender, and Tye Sheridan I know a little bit. I just met up with him before the film. But yeah, it’s going to be really cool. I’m just going to roll in and be like, “Hi! We’re in such a different environment now.”
I wondered if you’d called to ask for help on your German accent.
Oh, my God, of course. No, as soon as they told me I was just flipping out. I know when they get my agent and my manager on the phone, I knew I’d gotten a job. And I knew that I’d only done one audition so, I was like, “OK. This is my day.” I was tripping out.
When you do something that big, do you even know who you’re up against to win that role?
Yes, actually. Sometime you’ll straight up be in the room and be like, “Oh, God. I know that actor. I know that kid. He‘s awesome.” But then you’ll also be like, “I need this job!” [Laughs] So it’s such a weird industry to be in, but this process was really quick and I’m so grateful for that. I thought it would be something much bigger. But I had a meeting with Bryan [Singer]. Then I just did a little audition and that was it.
Can you tell us about the audition scene?
Yeah, I can totally tell you this. They got me to do –which I really liked – -one of Alan Cumming’s scenes, where he was explaining the scars on his body were from archangel Gabriel. And they just had me do it in the accent. So I think that was really smart. I didn’t know if it was going to be in the actual movie, as like a moment rebooted. But it wasn’t.
How much is effects makeup, how much prosthetics?
I obviously can’t say a lot, but there’s not a lot of prosthetics. I think they tried to stay overall, just because it’s X-Men and such a big following, they tried to keep it pretty traditional as much as they can. And even with the stories, they intertwine with Mystique being my mother and Azazel — so you know they can touch on that. I think people are going to be very happy. I’ve read the script and I think they know what the fans are expecting, and even fans of Nightcrawler. So, I’m very happy.
So you’ve seen the script.
I have. It was very top-secret for a long time. And then I was literally on the plane going to get a makeup test next to the writer. He’s like, “I’m finishing it right now.” And I’m like, “Great! I can’t wait to read it. Seeing as we’re a few weeks away from filming and I don’t know what the fuck is going on!” So yeah, I read it before I came here. And I’ve only read it once, so I still have quite the way to go with my research. And I really want to give to the audience what they expect. That’s my duty for sure.
Are you looking back at the Alan Cumming stuff?
Yeah. Usually I wouldn’t pull from things that have been done [before], like “Let the Right One In,” I didn’t look at that when I was doing “Let Me In.” “Slow West,” I didn’t look at other Westerns because I just wanted to be in the moment of those characters. Seeing as this is something so different, I’m kind of researching everything from when Nightcrawler himself was created as a character. So seeing everyone’s take on it, what people have liked to keep about him, and then what they’ve liked to take away from him. I’ve followed his journey of evolution and the kind of story that’s evolved for him now, which is running away from the suffering that’s being in the circus and his freakish looks, and finding God, and faith. Those are all things that I relate to as a person. So I’m doing so much research definitely — on Alan Cumming’s take, on the comic books, on even the cartoons. I love the cartoon — I forget what it’s called, but it’s a really nostalgic old -school one. So cool, I’m just watching all the episodes, soaking it all up. It’s all out there.
What are you allowed to say about “X-Men: Apocalypse” at this point?
Really nothing. It’s all so top-secret. So, just the fact that I’ve got it. We know that [Nightcrawler] is young and that they’ve brought back Tye Sheridan and all these other characters, and that they’re connected to Cyclops and young Jean Grey and this and that. And I think that’s all there for the X-Men fans to play with. And if they have enough knowledge on the Marvel Universe, they can pretty much pick it up from there.
Is there anyone in this cast you’re particularly geeking out about?
Um … Hugh Jackman. I’ve just crossed his path many times, and I actually at the start of my career got [cast as] a young Wolverine. And then I was like, “No, I have to do ‘The Road.'” So this is really meant to be.
So you were almost an X-Man before?
Yeah, I really was, which almost destroyed it for my Nightcrawler.
Which X-Men movie?
I think it was “Origins” [“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”]. There was a scene where they were showing how young Wolverine was made. So it’s almost meant to be that I didn’t get that one.
Well, now that you’re on a huge upward trajectory, do you want to share any of the movies that you went up for that you didn’t get? I always find that interesting.
Yeah, that is a really interesting question. I think “Fault In Our Stars,” [the Gus role that went to Ansel Elgort]. There’s been a lot of — like, really when you’re in LA you realize everyone goes in on these things. And it’s only when you audition a bunch of times, and you see that there’s layers to it that they’re thinking about you. But most of them, like “Divergent” and a bunch of other big things that have come out I just did one audition for them … I have a great admiration for all these films. I haven’t had an opportunity to get or play in, but I’m a great believer in the now.
Sure. Well, you’re doing fine! Which is why it’s curious to explore in those parallel universes —
Exactly. It literally is. It’s all parallel. It’s crazy.
“Slow West” opens Friday in limited theatrical release and On Demand.