Interview: John Magaro (‘First Cow’) on Evie, shooting in the Oregon wilderness and how the film exists in the world of queer cinema
Need it be reiterated that this has been an incredible drudge of a year? It feels as though a kind of Interstellar-esque time dilation has been at play: the days have trundled forward at a snail’s pace, yet weeks and months have disappeared in the blink of an eye. It hasn’t just been a bore — Coronavirus has proven an existential test for much of the film industry, not least for the independent artists who form our collective undergird.
The last major film festival not to be disrupted by the crisis, of course, was the Berlin Film Festival, where we reviewed Kelly Reichardt’s quiet study of male companionship on the American Frontier, First Cow. It has been roundly acclaimed by critics since it debuted at Telluride late last year and, despite a March release shattered by Coronavirus, has since accrued four nominations at the Gotham Awards, including a well-earned Best Feature nod.
One of the other nominations awarded to the film is a first Best Actor nomination for its leading man, John Magaro. He puts in a career-best turn as Cookie, one of the more antithetical Western protagonists recently committed to celluloid. We spoke to him about the film’s disrupted release, serenading cows with gentle soliloquies, and why First Cow’s central relationship is more than just “brotherly love.”
Jack King: Hi, John! First thing’s first: how does it feel to be nominated for your first Gotham Award?
John Magaro: It was a total shock and surprise. To have people recognise our film, first of all, was just a wonderful feeling. It almost felt like we may’ve been forgotten, being cut off by this terrible [Coronavirus] crisis. It felt like we may just, you know, be lost to the ether. But it’s amazing that people have found it, I hope more people continue to find it. The Gothams are a really great and special award, so to be recognised with those other talented fellas, it’s… really, really an honour.
I mean, the film has had such a long journey — it debuted at Telluride back in 2019, as I recall. What’s it all been like, since the disruption with COVID, the film going to digital, and the usual circuit being so upheaved?
Well, y’know, it’s been a very strange experience. But if there’s one film about patience, it’s this film. I think Kelly [Reichardt] has that, in the way she tells her stories. So maybe it was poetic for us to be put on this journey: like you said, it started over a year ago. Sometimes you have to trust the universe. And maybe the timing worked out in this way because it works better now. But yeah, it started back in Telluride, and it was kind of an afterthought, but we certainly got love there. So that was nice. And then we did a couple of other things, like the New York Film Festival, so it was kind of these fits and starts. Then March came, and everything just stopped. But thankfully we’ve been included in the awards chatter. So it’s strange, but it’s really nice, and I’m happy that more people are finding it.
Of course, it all worked out in retrospect, but when everything imploded back in March, which just so happened to coalesce with the release of the film — that must’ve been devastating.
I mean, I was actually working at the time, and maybe that helped. We got shut down on March 13 when everything just stopped. Yeah, you know, I’m a bit of a pessimist, or maybe a realist, or whatever you want to call it? So I tried to temper my expectations — I was always aware that this was a small film, so I’ve actually been surprised that it has been enjoyed by so many people.
Well, it’s a Kelly Reichardt movie, though, I mean —
Kelly has a kind of niche audience, at this point. I mean, she’s absolutely brilliant and at risk of sounding cliched, I would say she’s a genius filmmaker, and I think more people should watch her work. So, you know, she’s kind of a unique case. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that her work isn’t necessarily for everybody. But she is excellent, and she has a point-of-view, and she has a supreme respect and appreciation for film. When you watch her films, you can see that.
Absolutely. What was your favourite film of hers before First Cow? Not to put you on the spot.
I loved Certain Women.
Oh yeah, of course. I mean, just, yeah.
I thought that film was just stellar. I mean, they’re all beautiful, but Certain Women is the one that I really love.
It’s a great pick. So, regrettably, I’m going to be the next person to talk to you about the titular cow. Something I’ve not seen you talk about are the sort-of soliloquy scenes, where you’re talking to Evie — I’m assuming, as cute as she is, it would be a sort of frustrating experience.
It’s odd! I think the bigger the animal, the easier it is to work with them. She was just so calm, and was so easy to work with — if we ever had to do another take, it was because of me. But I’ve said before, and I guess this is how I’ll keep saying it: those were some of my favourite scenes to shoot. There was just something so peaceful about being next to her — I mean, it’s kind of hard to describe, but being next to a creature that large and calm, it just puts you at ease.
You’re actually milking her on camera, right? I would presume there’s no trickery there.
Yeah, yeah. Luckily you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to milk a cow —
— so it comes pretty naturally!
But I think there’s something spiritual there, right? And, like you said, calming.
Oh definitely, I think so. Y’know, it really brings you together with the animal — so yeah, I really loved those moments. I was excited to shoot them, and when we did them, they were just really magical. And she’s since retired, and she has a calf now named “Cookie.”
Ah! Oh, that’s just the best news I’ve heard all week.
It’s not even a calf anymore, it’s more like a full grown cow!
I love that. Maybe we’ll get a Second Cow soon, with Cookie the Cow. When it comes to family and friends, she must be the first thing that everyone asks you about, right?
Not everyone has seen it, but the ones who have seen it, yeah — but she’s the titular cow, for God’s sake! [Laughs.]
Of course, of course. So, I read elsewhere that you and [co-star] Orion Lee went on this three-day trip into the Oregon wilderness prior to shooting…
Yeah! Before we started shooting, Kelly and I were talking, and she mentioned that she did a kind of boot camp, frontier thing for those folks on Meek’s Cutoff, so we started discussing if there was a way for us to do something that would cater towards what we were doing, in the 1820s, and our roles in that society. So our production found a gentleman who lives in Idaho, and he reenacts the era. So he joined us for three nights, four days, something along those lines, in the woods. We basically set up some tents, and a camp that would be the kind of camp you’d have on the trail. We got the cooking equipment and the utensils and the tools we would have been using. He was loving it, this was like a vacation for him, but we were city folks trying to figure it out. It was really great: Orion and I hadn’t ever met, so it gave a chance to, first of all, bond. Second of all, get each other’s rhythms and understand the way each other sort of worked. Also to fall into our roles a bit, because during this boot camp, you know, I began to cook, I would cook our meals, I made oily cakes, I made the clafoutis. [Orion] was foraging, and he learned how to trap and skin muskrat — which tasted terrible, but we ate it!
Sounds like it! Get up to any kind of fun mischief while you were camping?
Well, Portland is notorious for rain. A lot of the time we’d find ourselves kind of huddled under the tent because it would just start raining. And pretty much every night it would pour down, all night long. So we would just have to hunker down. When you have that kind of weather, it just leads to a lot of quiet.
The film reflects that quiet stillness, of course. Much of which comes through in your performance as Cookie, who’s about as far away from the John Wayne Western archetype as you can get. You had relatively little to do in the role — quite a lot of domesticity — but you get a lot out of it. How?
It starts with the page. The writing is so wonderful. John Raymond and Kelly put together a fabulous script that gives you a perfect jumping off point. If you trust that and just lean into that, then you’re pretty safe. You know you can trust Kelly. Like I said, she’s brilliant. So I found it to be a real gift to be able to just listen and just let the language wash over you and be totally present. I find too often in the work nowadays, especially if we’re working in a more modern piece, it’s a lot of just: speak, speak, speak, speak. Directors even push for that, which I think can be a mistake a lot of the time. Most of the time, the greatest performances, or just authentic human experiences, are the silences, and the pauses in between speaking. Kelly allowing us to do that was a real gift. It was a challenge as an actor, a lot of times people want to fall into just, you know, saying something clever or witty. First Cow lends itself to this era of pre-pre-technology, pre-industrialisation, where you have so much time — it’s pretty much you, and the wind, or the rain.
Well, the world really elevates the importance of companionship, right. The Lion’s share of the dialogue goes to King-Lu (Orion Lee), and it’s just Cookie listening to him wax eloquent about the world. How did you guys conceive of that relationship before you went into the film?
Well, you know, there wasn’t much talk, or conception of the relationship. Again, I think that’s rooted so much in the script? There wasn’t a big discussion about it, I think. Instinctually we knew where it was, and where we were going with it. We just showed up and did it. It just sort of happened.
Yeah, sure. I took away from it that they’re more than just “brotherly friends,” or whatever…
Oh, if you’re talking about that, that’s… y’know, everyone has been telling Orion and I, and John Raymond, and probably everyone else, different opinions on that. I have mine. I do think there’s more than just a friendship. I mean, these are two people who need each other. They have a deep companionship and a love for each other, yeah, they’re all that they have. But I don’t think it’s just out of necessity. I think there’s a lot more to it. But, y’know, I like having each person who views it inform their own ideas.
Absolutely! I think interpretation is important — but I also feel slightly vindicated that Cookie himself agrees with me. I will just say that.
Maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but I will say, I think that this film could exist in the world of queer cinema. I think there’s an element of something there, and I think it’s worth looking at.
It’s been described previously as “queer-adjacent,” and I quite liked that.
I think that’s very accurate! It’s nice to see that kind of relationship in 1820. As you mentioned before, Cookie is the antithetical Western hero. Kelly and I went for that, you know, she wanted to break down that masculine stereotype of the West, that in the West was just this “ultra-macho” person. So to bring someone like Cookie who was so alien to that world, into this rough, rough world. I haven’t seen that on film.
For sure. One of the things I took away from First Cow is that it re-historicizes the American Frontier, in, like, complete contradiction to the way Hollywood has depicted it throughout history — the way that Hollywood has kind of hyper-masculinized it.
Yeah, I think it would be doing the past a disservice not to acknowledge that this also existed out there, it did, there’s no denying it. And those stories need to be told, too.
I totally agree. What’re you working on at the moment?
So, now that we’re in the COVID world, I’m working on a thriller. I guess you’d say it’s a The Shining-ish kind of thing. Every movie nowadays is just four people on set… it’s strange, it’s strange. I was telling you I was working on that film back in March. We had four days left and went back and finished that off, so that was my first experience with COVID. Then we had some stuff to finish on a film that I did for Warner Brothers, called Many Saints of Newark. We had four days on that. Now this is the first time I’m doing an entire production with these COVID protocols. You know, it feels sort of like getting your sea legs, because it’s a very new world for everyone — and it’s just, it’s hard. But when the mask comes off, and the camera rolls, we do our thing.
First Cow is currently available on Showtime and to stream On Demand.