EXCLUSIVE: Peter Fonda Back in the Saddle in ‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’

(l-r) Peter Fonda as Edward Johnson and Bill Pullman as Lefty Brown in THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN. ©A24/DirecTV.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—This year marks the 50th anniversary of the making of the seminal ‘60s counterculture classic, “Easy Rider.” To mark the occasion, the film’s producer, co-writer and iconic star Peter Fonda expects that he will get back on a motorcycle. Never mind that the scion of the American acting dynasty is fast approaching 78. Fonda, as you quickly discover in person, is ageless. He has a schoolboy-like charm, a wry sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge about subjects ranging from camera lenses to guns to, of course, motorbikes.

Though the two-time Oscar nominated actor and filmmaker (son of Henry, kid brother of Jane and dad of Bridget) was last seen coasting through the Florida Everglades with “The Walking Dead’s” Norman Reedus on Stormin’ Norman’s other TV show, “Ride with Norman Reedus,” Fonda says he doesn’t ride anymore. Except for this year and next, which will mark the half-century since the freewheeling film about two drifters (Fonda and the late Dennis Hopper) exploring America by motorcycle came to symbolize freedom and youth.

Meantime, Fonda, who counts filmmaking as only one of his many passions, stars in a new film called “The Ballad of Lefty Brown.” Written and directed by Jared Moshe (“Dead Man’s Burden,” “Beautiful Losers”), the Montana-set Western is a coming-of-age story for a 65-year-old sidekick (played by a bearded and grizzled Bill Pullman). Fonda plays the Treasure State’s newly elected U.S. senator Edward Johnson, who (SPOILER ALERT) bites the dust early in the film, but not before he mercilessly hangs a rustler on his ranch. The bulk of the film centers on the title character trying to track down his politically powerful friend’s assassin. Though Fonda’s screen time is minimal, his character casts a shadow throughout the rest of the film as the challenge to bring the killer to justice in the wide-open spaces of 1890s Montana ensues. Kathy Baker (“Cold Mountain”), Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Tommy Flanagan (“Sons of Anarchy”), Diego Josef (“Message from the King”) and Joe Anderson (“Hannibal”) also star.

Fonda spoke about taking on the role, returning to Montana (where he owned a ranch for decades), a hair-dye disaster on his previous Western, “3:10 to Yuma,” riding with Reedus and more.

Q: What was the process of getting on board?

Fonda: I fell in love with the script. I’d lived for 32 years on a ranch in Montana. I understood the area. I know what it feels like, smells like, how dry and windy and harsh it can be and, at the same time, how awe-inspiring it can be. With that, I didn’t have to try and find anything in that. Instead, I got to look at history of it—what Jared’s writing about. But I saw what happened after the first 13 pages and wondered about it. But everybody talks about (my character) for the rest of the film. That’s what’s good about is that you don’t expect (the twist). There’s shooting going on and I got the rifle out there and I hang a guy. Phil says, “That’s a pretty good start to your career”—hanging this kid.

I flew in from Hawaii to Bozeman, Montana where there’s a four-hour time difference. It took me a long time to get there and, basically, I had to get to work right away. I had to (shoot all my scenes) in three days. I kept telling myself, “I’m going to get whacking and I designed this way of getting whacked.” But the horse wouldn’t stand still so I wasn’t able to do it the way I wanted. But that was OK because everything else worked perfectly, and I thought, “I wonder what it will be like when (other characters in the film) will refer to me.” I don’t know why, but that became interesting to me. When I saw the film, I saw all these guys where we had this backstory. It’s not that they speechify about the backstory but you get these little tidbits, and you realize all these guys knew each other.

Q: Was there ever going to be a flashback with your character?

Fonda: No.

Q: Writer/director Jared Moshe said you and he discussed at length the type of gun you would have that you end up giving to Lefty.

Fonda: I said to Jared, “I have to have this Henry (a repeating rifle) so I can give it to Lefty.” It’s a real presentation. For the rifle that is used on me, I told him, “you need a High Wall or what is called a falling block.” This was going over Jared’s head so he told me to write it down—an 1881 Winchester falling block. This has a peep sight, a long octagon barrel. This is an assassin’s rifle. It isn’t just a guy who’s stealing horses and trying not to get caught. He’s dragged me out there. So, I said, “I want to see that guy with a peep sight up there.”

Q: There’s a scene in which Kathy Baker aims a gun at Lefty, and he says something about her holding a shotgun and she needs a rifle to strike him from that distance. I don’t recall something like that being pointed out in a Western before.

Fonda: In “3:10 to Yuma,” up on the stage, I had a sawed-off side-by-side (shotgun), just as Lefty uses. I would tell everyone this, “Each one of these barrels is kicking out nine 30-caliber balls, so that’s 18 30-caliber balls spread out. That’s hard to duck when there’s 18 coming at ya.”

Q: Speaking of “3:10 to Yuma,” that film came out a decade ago. What do you recall from making it?

Fonda: It was great and I had this great white beard, but I didn’t have all that white hair so they made my hair white. I remember taking pictures in the makeup chair, and I sent it to friends of mine around the world, who’ve sailed with me. Ten or 15,000 miles—that’s a lot of sailing. They all asked me what’s on my head, what kind of hat is that? It was an all-day even to (put that wig and makeup on).  The next morning, I got up and my hair was slightly tinted lilac. I called (Cathy Konrad), the producer, who was the wife of the director (James Mangold), told me the insurance couldn’t cover me if I drove to the set. I’d shot my first film as a director in New Mexico, so I told her that the insurance doesn’t take effect until I get in the car from the hotel.

I had this ’78 6.9 (450SEL) Mercedes-Benz, that was built to go 140 miles an hour, easily. I took a picture of the speedometer and sent it to her. She said, “I didn’t need to see that.”  I said, “I can go down to Miami and play bingo with a bunch of lilac-haired old ladies, and win enough money to get you an extra day of shooting.” I was so pissed off, so they said, “How about shimmer lights?” And it got enough (of the lilac color) out. Then they wanted to darken the beard, and I said, “Whoa!”

Q: You didn’t have to worry about that on “Lefty Brown,” right?

Fonda: No, I had my full white (beard) going. Jared was and he showed me pictures of Bill, and I thought, “It’s Gabby Hayes.” I had all this white going on and I’m supposed to be a senator? But it was alright, except my wife didn’t like (the beard). Tommy (Flanagan, who plays Tom Harrah, an alcoholic U.S. Marshal) told me that he was in the car with Bill Pullman, and he never dropped character the whole time.

Q: You filmed “Lefty Brown” during the month of September, so it wasn’t that cold, right?

Fonda: I have something to show you (he pulls out his cell phone and shows a picture of his 82-foot wooden sailboat). That’s in the tropics—23, 26, 22. Twenty-three degrees, 26 minutes and 22 seconds. This was taken in Hawaii, but I’ve been all over the South Pacific. The Hawaiians originally came from the Marquesas Islands.

Q: Of course, you’re no stranger to the Western genre.

Fonda: Yeah. “Easy Rider” was a Western. I wore spurs.

Q: Do you still own a ranch in Montana?

Fonda: Nope. Here’s what I say today, “I never want to see the snow again. I don’t want to see the mountains again. I don’t want to see 41 below zero without the wind chill factor. I don’t want to have to blow snow away to make a quarter mile track to get out. I don’t want to see the dust blowing through the logs of my house. But, if there’s money in the bank and film in the camera, what time do you want me there?”

Q: You’ve got a couple of things coming up: the Netflix Original film, “The Most Hated Woman in America” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” series. Have you finished shooting that?

Fonda: Yeah. I finished my gig there. And working with Melissa Leo in “The Most Hated Woman in America,” was so delicious. I got to play this street evangelical. I never thought anyone would cast me in that kind of role. And playing with Melissa, who’s a fabulous actress, was great. Whenever you can play with a good player, it lifts you up, and I had a blast.

Q: How was it shooting your episode of “Ride with Norman Reedus?”

Fonda: (laughing) I cursed through that whole ride. I love Stormin’ Norman. He sent me a bow that’s so quiet.

Q: You rode through the Florida Everglades at night. What were you thinking?

Fonda: You know I have a little bit of knowledge about shooting. They had a minivan so I said, “If they open the side, they can get a side breaking shot, and out of the back, they can shoot straight on.” They never shot from the side, though, so it’s all straight on. At night, it’s just two headlights. I was (moves about two feet away) this far away from the back of the minivan, saying “Condoms don’t prevent minivans, ya know?” (He laughs.) I hated the motorcycle. I swore and cursed at that Triumph (Thunderbird Storm). Afterwards, I said, “Let me just come over and do some ADR (post-production voiceover) work, and we can throw it in there, where I’m not cursing.”

Q: It looked like you were having a good time.

Fonda: I’m an actor. And we were eating that alligator meat at Joanie’s (Blue Crab Cafe). Afterwards, they asked me if I liked it, and I hated it.

Q: What else is coming up for you?

Fonda: I was supposed to shoot in Cuba this year but now, of course, you can’t (legally) do it. But you can, if you go through Cancun. There are a bunch of guys in Cuba called Harlistas Cubanos—Che Guevara’s son is one of them—who make their own (bikes). They’re like “The World’s Fastest Indian.” They do all their own stuff. I thought that is a perfect way to ride around the island.

Q: What do you ride now?

Fonda: I don’t anymore. I will next year because it’s the 50th anniversary of shooting “Easy Rider,” and 2019 is the 50th anniversary of (its theatrical release).  I don’t know what Sony’s going to let me do, or not do.

I wasn’t even aware when it was the 30th anniversary in 1999, and then in 2009, we went to Milan for a film festival, where they were showing the film. We went to Singapore for the 40th anniversary. So, (in 2018 and 2019), I’ll be back on but it will be a panhead (Harley-Davidson), which I’m used to riding, or as close to a panhead as I can make it look.

“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is now playing in select theaters. It also is available for purchase to view through DirecTV.