It’s not that I’m no bullshit or anything like that, but I just try to be genuine with people and kind of wear my heart on my sleeve a lot of the time to be honest.
What sets Ivan Kavanagh’s Never Grow Old apart from other Westerns is its intimacy, inspired casting, and novel setting. It’s not every day that Ireland, with its lowering grey skies and wintry pallor, fills in for 1849 Oregon, which is where the remote “California Trail” frontier settlement of Garlow is set. This is where Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) put down roots to scrape out a living. He’s an Irish immigrant, a local undertaker and carpenter, struggling to feed his French wife (Déborah François) and two angelic children, with one more on the way. Business has stalled in the small town ever since fire and brimstone Preacher Pike (Danny Webb) and his “temperance league” shut down the saloon/whorehouse, keeping its citizens dry and chaste. Then a stormy night brings a trio of murderous outlaws (including John Cusack’s Dutch Albert) to Patrick’s doorstep, and they set out to remake the town in their own image: a den of violent, above the law, drunk debauchery. Patrick is quickly awash in business burying the dead—burials aren’t free, after all. Blood money or not, Patrick tolerates murder and profits from it, corrupted by the corruption. Until he doesn’t…
Good acting is pervasive here. Hirsch, a fine actor who has consistently upheld his part of the bargain since his first feature, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, as a kid is expectedly in great form—throwing the anchor, exuding a quiet intensity with a slow-turning wheel towards heroism.
Hirsch has a string of other projects on the horizon, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2019. Anthem reached out to him in Bulgaria where he’s currently on location shooting Alessio Jim Della Valle’s American Night.
Never Grow Old is now playing in select theaters and available via OnDemand.
So you’re in Bulgaria right now.
Yeah, it’s pretty wild. It’s pretty cool here. The weather is kind of all over the place. One day it’s really cold, one day it’s really hot.
What are you filming out there?
I’m working on a film called American Night.
Very cool. I watched Never Grow Old yesterday and I was very impressed. If I can take you back for a second, it’s been well over a year now that you were in Connemara in western Ireland shooting that one. What do you remember?
I think one of the things that I remember first and foremost is the cold. We also shot in Luxembourg and it was actually even colder there. All the scenes were outdoorsy and farmy. Even the buildings back then were ramshackle so there was really no escaping the cold. But I sort of felt like it added to the brutal feel of life that the characters would’ve felt back then. It’s the brutal way of life that they endured without all of our modern technology and central heating. Then the other thing was the challenge of doing this Irish accent that the director and the script wanted and demanded me to do. I worked with a really talented vocal coach named Brendan Gunn and we spent a long while working on the accent before the filming and just kind of stayed in it on set. It was about keeping the continuity of the accent through the shoot to make it feel more second nature as opposed to being self-conscious about each sound.
Speaking on that, I checked out your Larry King Now appearance from years ago where you talked about having had a vocal coach in your preparation to play Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde because you wanted to emulate the sound and cadence of Marcus Luttrell, the real life NAVY SEAL who Mark Wahlberg portrayed in Lone Survivor. You had interacted with the guy on that set. It felt right. So you sometimes make the choice to go there on your own.
I do. I’ve always had fun doing voice work for characters. Not every character I’ve played have that as a necessity so it’s not something I do all the time, but when I do do it, I have a lot of fun and try to do it as thoroughly as possible. Especially with American actors, it’s kind of the Hollywood joke: We’re the worst at doing accents. Everyone is always like, “The Brits and the Aussies—they’re the guys that come in and do all the accents and nobody ever blinks an eye,” but as soon as an American does an accent, it’s like hold the record, bbbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrip! I think because I was aware of that going into it, I worked a lot harder on the accent than perhaps I normally would have. I really went out of my way to make sure that I did the best job that I was capable of doing.
Never Grow Old is interesting. It feels very familiar, but unfamiliar at the same time.
Yeah, the setting and the locale—the fact that we shot it in Luxembourg and Ireland. Even though they match with parts of the California Trail, the environment is different. Most Westerns will have a dusty town with the tumbleweeds blowing and the cactuses in the background. This doesn’t really have that feel. Even a lot of the wardrobe consists of darker, dirtier clothes than people are used to. The way that the cinematographer, Piers McGrail, shot it is much darker. So there are those familiar Western aspects like you said that you kind of demand out of the genre—otherwise it doesn’t feel like a Western—but then there are these other new elements where you’re like, “Woah, that’s a little heightened.” Even having an Irish protagonist. There are different little things. Ivan Kavanagh himself is an Irishman. I like what you said about taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar at the same time.
It dawned on me afterwards that I saw Ivan’s previous film at the Tribeca Film Festival.
That’s right. Obviously, very different films because The Canal is horror to begin with. What actually surprised me about Never Grow Old comparing the two is how much more confident Ivan seems as a director this time around. What’s he like?
He’s really meticulous. Ivan is very confident, but not abrasively confident. There’s a quiet gravitas to him, a quiet confidence. He’s very intelligent and quick-witted. He has incredible attention to detail. I think that’s what I was really struck by. His mind is so sharp. He was so, so tuned into performance from everybody, all the time. He just felt like a guy who was really in control of the film and of the way he was making scenes. One of the things that I was really impressed with too was how much effort he put into the casting of the film other than John Cusack and myself. He handpicked and cast every single part and I think that really shows. A lot of the supporting parts were just awesome and so well cast.
I was part of your roundtable interview years ago for Prince Avalanche in New York City.
You described getting into that character in a really honest but humorous way: “It was about exploring parts of myself that was more juvenile and manboyish.” How did you approach Patrick with Never Grow Old?
I started watching a little bit of documentaries on Irish immigrants and period pieces on YouTube—blow them up on my TV—just trying to get into the mindset of the harsh way that life would be. Also, it was about taking the experience I had making The Autopsy of Jane Doe playing a medical examiner because I deal with dead bodies in that movie as well. I went to a real morgue on Jane Doe and saw dead bodies. I remembered and knew the weight of doing that job and how it automatically gives you a personality. In a certain sense, it’s really dark and there’s a lot of death and it’s glum, but in another sense, I felt like it would make Patrick an even more loving person. It’s like he appreciates life in a very deep way. He loves his kids. He loves his wife. There’s a certain solemness to him—maybe not solemn but a certain weight. He’s been weighed down by the experience of dealing with all the bodies and his job is very hard. It’s a harsh land to live on. It’s cold and brutal. It’s brutal dealing with horses and the carriage and all the woodworking that he would’ve done. For me, it was really important that, even though Patrick is a humble man, he was really tough. I talked to Ivan and we put a really intense eyebrow scar on me to give the sense that maybe there had been an accident with his carpentry when he was younger and in training. It was to give a tough edge to him so that when we watch him you didn’t get the feeling it was me clean shaven, off The Girl Next Door 2 or something, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
In the film, John Cusack’s character says, “I look into your eyes and all I see is fear.” Later on, he says, “I don’t see fear in your eyes anymore—just hate.” That about sums up Patrick’s transformation and personal journey. I love how that was written.
Yeah, it’s interesting because it starts with love, then goes to weakness to fear to resolve to anger. We sort of see the evolution of him towards courage and morality. It’s a little bit Yoda. [In Yoda’s voice] Fear turns to anger. Anger turns to hate. Mmmhhhh! [Laughs]
This is unrelated, but when I interviewed André Øvredal for Jane Doe, he told me that Martin Sheen was attached to that film for a long time before he dropped out due to a scheduling conflict. Then Brian Cox stepped in. I don’t know if you had already been cast when Martin was there, but does a change-up like that, which is not uncommon, greatly affect your feelings about a project you’re involved with?
For me, I was super hungry to try that genre. I was super hungry. When I was sent that script, it was so awesome. I texted a journalist that I know named Eric Kohn [the chief film critic and deputy editor of Indiewire] and asked him, “What’s this guy Andre like, really?” and he said, “You have to watch Trollhunter.” So I watched it, and it was amazing! I was blown away and saw so much talent. I knew Jane Doe was going to be awesome. I was always super fired up about working with Andre. As for the genre shift, I wanted to do it well. It was one of those things where, if we’re gonna try and make a scary movie, let’s make the best one that we possibly can, and that was Andre’s point of view as well. It’s pretty amazing how that film has gained in stature, even in just a few years. People went pretty wild for it. I think it just really scared the shit out of people.
I actually saw Trollhunter at Tribeca as well.
Oh my god! You see all the cool movies at Tribeca!
Let’s spin it back around to Ivan for a moment. You guys also worked on The Disassembled Man together, which is not out yet. You obviously made a connection.
From our first Skype call, which was actually about The Disassembled Man because then he decided to make Never Grow Old first, I just thought he was so intelligent and personable and we could be totally honest with each other. I had a huge respect for him. He’s got a great mind and a great eye and sensibility. I hope to keep working with him in the future. I would love to do that thing where a director works with the same actors over and over again. I would love to do that. I’ve worked with so many great directors now, I’d love to have repeats. I would like a Ang Lee repeat.
You’re immensely talented so it’s not surprising that people want to work with you. You also create deep bonds. You went to Haiti with Sean Penn. You lived in John Goodman’s home for a year. Again, you’ve done back-to-back films now with Ivan. Are these the type of bonds that are tough to come by in the business from your experience?
I’ve been in this business for so long that—I don’t know… It’s not that I’m no bullshit or anything like that, but I just try to be genuine with people and kind of wear my heart on my sleeve a lot of the time to be honest. I genuinely like people and sometimes we get along. I think I have a natural curiosity for people and a natural affection for people. I get along with people. I like people. I like talking to people. I’m not like my character Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. I don’t enjoy going outside and doing lots of stuff by myself. I really enjoy company and being with other people.
As you said, you’ve worked with some of the greats out there: the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn, Ang Lee, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone, David Gordon Green… I have to ask you about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What struck you most about working with Quentin Tarantino?
He’s really a master. It’s an awe-inspiring experience every day working with him. He’s kind of like everything you’d wish he would be like. He’s like that and more. He’s in command of every aspect of filmmaking. It was pretty incredible. It’s almost a cliché to say this about Tarantino, but he truly loves making movies. He loves it! He just loves making movies and he loves movies. I feel like that passion radiates not only to me and the other actors but to everyone on the crew. It’s fun to make a movie with someone that so clearly loves making them, and everyone is happy to be there and excited about what they’re doing. It’s a special experience.