By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Kurt Russell is a Hollywood action icon. Having established characters like Snake Plissken in the “Escape” franchise to RJ MacReady in “The Thing,” Russell adds yet another swaggering antihero to his credits in the form of Crunch Calhoun in the art heist comedy “The Art of the Steal.”
As Crunch, he plays a third-rate motorcycle daredevil magnetically drawn to feats of insane tricks and a semi-reformed art thief. He also is the sidekick to his stepbrother, Nicky, an alpha male type, who convinces Crunch to join him in a potentially very lucrative heist of a historic book. There’s very little love between the half-siblings, but they both know enough about art to pull off a con that could be their big score. With a odd assortment of accomplices, the brothers attempt a score that most thieves wouldn’t dare try, all the while being pursued by an abrasive Interpol agent (Jason Jones) and an ex-art thief (Terrence Stamp) that is supposed to be helping him track down the criminals.
Russell, still ruggedly handsome and fit at 62, recently spoke about taking part in this first film by director Jonathan Sobol, what he looks for in script and his surprising new extracurricular activity with longtime love Goldie Hawn.
Q: What appealed to you about this project?
Russell: I thought it was clever and by clever I mean it took what I felt was a con men and art heist movie and combined it with a sting movie. To have a sting movie, you have to have the audience involved. I love it when the writer has the acumen to put together a screenplay that gives him the feeling that he’s earned the right to point the finger at the audience and say, “Alright, so you’ve gotten jerked back and forth a few times and you can’t say that it’s been done dishonestly but you’ve got three seconds to answer, who’s doing what to who?”
Q: Is it a risk to put that responsibility on the audience?
Russell: When people talk about taking risks and making movies, I often chuckle to myself. What’s risky is when you put your brains on display. When you’re laying yourself out there as a writer/director to be criticized for how smart you are. I’ve read a lot of scripts over 52 years and this one was clever. So the question is, how do you pull that off and who’s the director who can pull it off? When it’s the same guy who wrote it, you often run into a lot of problems. They’re generally the first person to bail out on themselves. I’ve seen that a number of times. It’s shocking when you see the very guy who wrote it bail out of his story because he just doesn’t know how to do it instead of saying “Look, here’s what I’m trying to do. Can somebody here help me do it?” You go, “I can. I just want to know exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”
Q: Speaking of the writer/director, how was it working with Jonathan Sobol?
Russell: What was great about working with him was that he put together a cast that almost to a man—and woman—said, “I get what this is. You might have to get me on track every once in a while, because you’re the captain of the ship.” As long as you have that person who’s not afraid to make decisions and take responsibility for that, then you’re free to tell me how far do to go in a scene or do this or do it that way. You keep taking the chess piece and moving it all along the board and moving it to the end and say, “That still works.” That’s a good one.
Q: That sounds pretty basic.
Russell: It sounds simple but it’s pretty complex when you’re doing movies that are shot out of sequence. You’ve got actors working on different days who aren’t there to double check (the plot logic) and you’ve got to remember to tell the actor that you’ve done this instead of that. So a lot is put on his plate and I think it’s our job as actors to do as much as we can to clean the plate, but put all the best ingredients in it for the director to choose.
Q: Did it matter that this was his first feature film?
Russell: If this were his fifth movie, it would be different— better in many ways but probably less raw. It would not quite have an energy that you always want to keep in your movies. It’s always a fun thing to imagine getting better but keeping that raw energy that comes with youth and ignorance and exuberance and not being afraid is important. I appreciate John and his screenplay and what he was doing. I thought it was impressive that he was laying himself out there and saying, “I think this is funny and kind of sharp. What do you think?” It’s the kind of thing that you don’t often get to do.
Q: There’s a scene with you and Matt Dillon where he steals from a little girl and you yell at him about a robber’s code. Is there a code you operate by in your job?
Russell: Yeah, I’m sure there is. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it to make it interesting for you but there are some codes. My code is very simple and goes back to what my dad said to me years ago. One of the early jobs I got, I was maybe 10 years old and my dad said, “OK, you’re getting paid a man’s salary Now do a man’s job.” That was it.
Q: Were there any heist movies you were thinking about while making the movie?
Russell: Oh I could go back. I’m not a cinephile. John is much more knowledgeable than I am. We did have conversations about different things. What’s interesting to me about the point of view of making them is I made another movie and when you’re making the movie and when you see the end result, it’s nothing exactly like when you’re making it. It’s what you hope you might see. When I made “Vanilla Sky,” I had similar conversations with (director) Cameron (Crowe) and Tom (Cruise). I said, “Now guys, I’m just confused about something here. If you got Kurt Russell and he’s telling Tom, ‘Don’t jump,’ don’t we want the audience to agree with me?” You get down to funny stuff like that, but Tom kind of looked at me like, “I’m not sure,” and Cameron was like “If he’s right. We’re sunk.” So you have to be on your toes with these kinds of movies.
Q: What I like about this film is the characters are so surprising. Katheryn Winnick’s character, Lola, trusts you guys.
Russell: All I’ll say is my favorite relationship in the movie is Lola and Crush. What I love about it is with Lola, without blowing the end of the movie, the assumption is that she’s taking advantage of this old guy. It’s just a given. We all just go in thinking that. That assumption is what makes it work. Without that assumption, there’s no game to play. So when I read this, I said, “I want to meet this guy because he understands things. He understands things that the audience are walking in with.” They’re walking in with their baggage. It’s great and it’s really fun to play with. So that’s the kind of thing that you’re literally spending millions of dollars on and hopefully coming up with something great based ultimately on that understanding, and yet that relationship is a real one.
Q: What was it like working with Matt?
Russell: I just thought he was such a good choice and the way he embraces that stuff. There are very few actors who know how to do that. He’s just really good at it. He’s an interesting actor to work with in general. Kate (Hudson), my daughter, worked with him and said to me, “You’re going to like working with Matt. He’s an interesting actor.” And I did. I was just impressed with the way does what he does. I don’t know if I can understand those characters as well as he does. There’s something he’s able to actually grab onto there that I wouldn’t know how to find. When you’re reading a script, you have a tendency to play every role in your mind, because you’re trying to understand every character. Then you walk in the room on the day and you realize, thank God I don’t have to know everyone’s lines. That’s a load off, and then you realize you don’t have to do anything but watch everybody. I just think Matt was perfect casting for this character. I think he did a perfect job.
Q: Looking back on your career, what role do you most regret turning down?
Russell: You turn them down for different reasons. You regret that the reason existed, I suppose. To be honest with you, part of my problem in the business is I don’t hold onto that stuff for very long. From my life, there have been probably 10 of those and I’d go see the movie and think, “Why didn’t I do it?” But there are things that I didn’t do that I wanted to do and then I go see those movies and I came out thinking that they were better for the person that was in it than I would have been.
Q: You and Goldie Hawn have been together for more than 30 years. What’s the secret to a successful relationship in Hollywood?
Russell: Staying romantic. Valentine’s Day is my actual anniversary and so I have a big day planned. I’m going to go to this place called the 1880 Union Hotel in a little tiny town called Los Alamos (Calif.) where I’m opening up a wine saloon. We’re opening up the wine saloon section of that hotel. I’m taking Goldie and they’re having a big dinner there, an eight- course meal, and part of the meal is beef from my ranch and my wines. I’m really heavily into my wines now. I love making wines. I love making pinots and chardonnay and we have this great place now to showcase our wines. I’m getting more and more into wine. I really really like it.