Interview: Barry Pepper (True Grit)

Interview: Barry Pepper (True Grit). By Simon Miraudo.

Barry Pepper’s role in the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic western True Grit is a small but pivotal one. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is on the hunt for the man responsible for her father’s death, with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) by her side. She discovers however that the guily party, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is not the imposing gangleader rumour had led her to believe. That position belongs to ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (yep, played by Mr. Pepper himself), Rooster’s gun-scarred nemesis with a frightening ability to reason logically. His performance is one of the film’s highlights. This would come to no surprise to anyone who recognised him under the layers of all those prosthetics, and was familiar with his body of work (which includes Saving Private Ryan, 25th Hour and The Three Buriels of Melquiades Estrada – we won’t hold his Razzie award winning turn in Battlefield Earth against him). Ahead of True Grit’s DVD and Blu-ray release, we spoke with Barry about working with the Coens, donning all those fake teeth, and his role in Terrence Malick’s mysterious new film.

SM: I like to open most of my interviews with the same question: was there any film or filmmaker you admired growing up, that inspired you to get into acting?

BP: I guess that since we’re talking about westerns, for me, it felt like The Good The Bad and The Ugly in ’66 raised the bar for the western genre and I have always been a diehard western fan. So films like Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, and characters like Tuco, played by Eli Wallach in The Good The Bad and The Ugly, always captured my imagination and really galvanised the genre in my mind’s eye.

SM: That is a great character. You play ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper in True Grit, so as a fan of westerns, were you familiar at all with the original before you found out the Coen brothers would be remaking it?

BP: I hadn’t seen the original film, and in hindsight I feel fortunate not  to have even known that Robert Duvall had played the original ‘Lucky’ Ned. Because I think that I would have been hardpressed to not be informed by his interpretation. I’m such an admirer of his, that I was glad I was able to reinvent the character before seeing what he had done, or before seeing the original film. I don’t really believe the original film did the novel justice; I think it certainly showcased John Wayne’s versatility as an actor, his humour and his vulnerabilitty, but I believe that when you see the Coens verison of True Grit, you’ll recognise why they wanted to do a faithful retelling of the original novel. Its such a briliant book, by Charles Portis.

SM: Absolutely, and with the character of Mattie Ross you can definitely see the difference there. Well, the Coens, these days, are pretty much as close as they come to Hollywood royalty. I’m sure the demand to star in one of their films is enormous. So how did you get involved with them on True Grit?

BP: They sent me the script and I’m not sure they originally thought of me as ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper, so I put a character together in full costume and I sent in some film to them – I filmed it and sent it in to them – and they enjoyed what I put together. Then they called me and offered me the part, and asked if I would read opposite these four or five girls that they had narrowed down in casting Mattie Ross, and one of them included Hailee Steinfeld. We went in with the Coens and Jeff Bridges, we read out the script and had a great day.

SM: I have to ask this, and I’m sure I’m the first person to ask you as well, but did the fact that his name also ended in Pepper catch your eye? Did it act as a sign that, ‘Hey, maybe I should get involved in this?’

BP: (Laughs) No, I thought that was a kind of fun coincidence. I think him being a Pepper was easy for me to come up with the characterisation because I’m very connected to my own roots and my ancestors and I try to keep their spirit alive in how I raise my own family. One of my passions is woodworking and blacksmithing which I do using some of my grandfather’s and greatgrandfather’s tools; things like that instantly connect you to your past and you instantly recognise that you’re standing on their shoulders  – and the way things were done only a few generations ago were quite remarkable; pack water and chop wood, and that’s sort of where the ideas for these characters begin. You start there – they were very hard scrabbled pioneer people living in dirt floor log cabins and outhouses and no running water – and in the novel it describes these charactrers in great details, so we had this fantastic source material to work from. So yeah you begin there and you start looking at all the pictures of the period in your research and you see the men of that period – cowboys, outlaws, ranch-hands – they were all very lean and sinewey, hard-scrabbled pioneer stock of people. We really wanted to capture that visceral look. So I went on a very intense diet and workout regiment before the film to drop a lot of weight and get lean, and then you develop the costume and the props and the prosthetic transformation that I went through each morning, it was a really great great adventure from the beginning.

SM: I can imagine. Much of the film is about legends, and the way they can sometimes spiral out of control. That’s so for Rooster’s identity, and that’s absolutely the case for Tom Chaney, who’s not the terrifying, invincible killer he’s rumoured to be. And the same goes for Ned Pepper, who’s actually a fairly reasonable man when you come to meet him. Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney’s presence is felt throughout the film, even though you only come into play in the final act. So did you feel you had to acknowledge that in your performance, or did you have to ignore it, and play ‘Lucky’ as if he was oblivious to the reputation he had?

BP: Well, reading the novel, you go far more into the character of ‘Lucky’ Ned than was able to be represented in the screenplay and in the film. So you’re asked to deisgn a character that reveals all of that backstory in a very brief window of screentime. What I love is the fact that Rooster and ‘Lucky’ Ned were nemesis’s with this fantastic history. And a year before our film begins, we cross paths and Rooster shot Ned in the mouth; one of the many times that ‘Lucky’ Ned earned his moniker – he survived it. The film doesn’t explain the origins of ‘Lucky’ Ned’s past or his look or why he has this big scar on his face and why he has all these broken teeth. And so that was fantastic to work with the Coen brothers in that sense, and that they and [Producer] Scot Rudin embraced that back story and when I asked them if they could do this prosthetic look and utilise that, they were very supportive of it. It was an hour in the makeup chair every morning to create this prosthetic and all these broken teeth, and it really helped me inform the sound of the character; I assumed his jaw had been broken by the gunshot and so that was how I created the voice. They brought in an Oscar winning makeup artist by the name of Christien Tinsley to put on this makeup. It was a tremendous process.

SM: Interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about what Joel and Ethan are like as directors? Because when we see them at awards ceremonies or in interviews they’re wickedly funny, but they also seem a little shy, so it’s interesting to think of what they’d be like on set.

BP: Well they’re very much like that on set. I think to a large degree directing is done long before you ever step foot on the set. They cast so meticulously and appropriately; their screenplay and their storyboards are so finely crafted as well as the costumes and makeups and prosthetics and props and it informs you of all you need to know. So, on set, the direction is respectfully unobtrusive. The last thing you really want at that stage is a lot of direction; you want to be so fully immeresed in the character and the imagery of the piece and the environment, and the director can just focus all of their energy on covering it as beautifully as you’ve conceived it in your mind’s eye. I have such a tremendous respect for them and directors like them that are working, and they have an attuned ear for the precise delivery of a line. Both Joel and Ethan really enjoy the music and the timing and delivery of dialogue; it’s a unique gift that they offer actors. It’s very subtle delivery, and the intensity elicits a wonderful variety of emotions for the audience and often it’s a subtlety you didn’t really see yourself, and they’ll come up to you and offer you something really interesting and irreverent in a simple phrasing – those little gifts that they offer you, it’s usually an oddity.

SM: I understand you’re in Terrence Malick’s next film; not The Tree of Life but his untitled project with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. Now he’s a notoriously private guy, and his films are always shrouded in secrecy. Can you tell us anything about that movie, or your character, and working with Malick?

BP: It was an extraordinary experience. He’s a very lovely man and just an absolute joy to work with. The experience was really like nothing else I had been involved in, in the sense that there’s much more freedom to create a character than you’re generally used to. In fact, when he first hired me, he called me and asked if I would like to be involved in the film. And I said, ‘What is it you’d like me to bring to this character? What is the character?’ essentially, and he said, ‘He’s a lovable and esteemable man, that I expect you to be, and I’d just like you to be yourself. And whatever in the dialogue that doesn’t intersect with what is on your own heart and in your own spirit, then don’t say. I only want you to speak with what comes from your heart, and silence will not be held against you’. It was much like … my sort of way of explaining it – it was much like floating down a river. If you’re opposed to that sort of process, that free-floating style, it will be very difficult for you. If you can just let go and float down the river, and just go with the flow, it’s an incredibly enjoyable experience working with him.

True Grit arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia on June 9, 2011.

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