Kurt Russell knows from experience that any film by director Quentin Tarantino is a major cinematic event. So there was no way the veteran actor was going to turn down the invitation to be a part of Tarantino’s latest project, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
It’s an intuition that only comes with six decades of experience in the movie business. A lesser performer might have turned down the part as too small. Russell, who has spent his time as leading man, is now in a position to pick and choose the projects that interest him. And his instincts paid off in a career-punctuating coup. He is now part of the movie that took the Cannes Film Festival by storm.
“I love Quentin’s style,” Russell says, flashing the trademark smile, blue eyes and powerful jaw that have been watched by movie audiences for decades, in one hit after another. “This film is a love letter to Hollywood. When I was doing it, it reminded me of me and my dad and my friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I grew up in that world.”
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which opens July 26, has earned a wave of adulation and Oscar buzz for Tarantino unlike anything since Pulp Fiction, which debuted 25 years ago. The film captures a year on the cusp between old Hollywood and new: 1969. It was the hottest film at the festival, and one that ignited Academy Award speculation for next year.
Tarantino was hailed at Cannes for showing his softer side in this fantasy about a vanishing world, even while living up to his reputation for bloody violence with his depiction of the Manson family murders. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood focuses on a pair of Hollywood buddies: fading television star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who sees a new Hollywood leaving him behind; and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double and best friend. When Rick discovers that director Roman Polanski and his new wife, Sharon Tate, have moved in next door to his house in Benedict Canyon, he’s convinced he can revive his career by talking his new neighbor into putting him in one of his movies.
Russell, who has plenty of tough-guy roles to his credit, characteristically dove into his part as a stunt coordinator. “I worked with so many stunt coordinators when I was a kid that I had dealer’s choice about who to base him on,” he says. “He’s a real conglomerate, although this guy happens to be a car guy.” In one scene, he has to intercede when sparring between Bruce Lee and Cliff gets out of hand.
In two earlier films by Tarantino, Death Proof and The Hateful Eight, Russell was the star. But in this new movie he took on a smaller role for the chance to work in Tarantino’s take on Manson-era Hollywood. He’s in good company. The all-star ensemble cast includes Al Pacino, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, and such Tarantino regulars as Tim Roth and Michael Madsen.
“For me it was a quick-hit kind of deal, three days altogether,” Russell says, reclining on a couch in a photo-shoot location in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades, not far from the home he shares with longtime partner Goldie Hawn. “But anytime you work with him, it’s just fun. Working with him is a prime example of why I love this work. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing.”
Russell has appeared in more than 100 roles, and you won’t find many shy violets or introverts among the numerous characters he’s brought to life. You imagine him charging through burning buildings to save a child as the veteran firefighter in the hit Backdraft. Or as the driven coach in Miracle who pushes his overmatched hockey team harder and harder in the 1980 Olympics to take down the mighty Soviet team in an upset for the ages. Or as the growling bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth with a mustache the size of fat veal chops, in The Hateful Eight, who threatens to put a bullet in anyone who gets in his way. At this point in his career, there isn’t much Russell hasn’t done onscreen. He’s portrayed cowboys, firemen, handymen, helicopter pilots, truck drivers, coaches, cops, crooks, journalists and therapists. In the Marvel hit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 he even played a living planet (who can take human form). He brings more than a half-century of film history and audience goodwill to any role he takes on.
Russell has been bringing his own brand of confident cool to film for decades, and his fans may have trouble wrapping their heads around the notion that the perpetually youthful actor is 68. He’s spent almost 60 of those years in front of a camera, from his days as a childhood star to his modern-day films by Tarantino.
In person, Russell hums with upbeat energy. His smile is charming, and his handsome, square-jawed, leading-man mug remains boyish, though lines now encroach on those notably blue eyes that hide behind a pair of black-rimmed Oakley glasses. His thick mane of hair, more salt now than pepper, reaches down to the collar of his pink, linen shirt.
“I’m probably 15 pounds too heavy now,” he says. Despite his self-assessment, he still has the confident physicality of an athlete in repose, a nod to his days as a very talented baseball player.
Russell is a true rarity in the world of acting: he’s been a star at every stage of his career, starting as a young boy, and he’s worked steadily and constantly, with a nearly uninterrupted body of work that continues to this day. He was the lead in a network TV show at age 13, a star of popular Disney comedies in his teens and 20s, and is still busy in film—appearing in 23 movies over the past 20 years.
“He’s the great underrated American actor,” says writer-director Ron Shelton, a longtime friend. “He’s doing some of the best work of his life right now,” Shelton says. “He doesn’t get credit for his sheer range, which is breathtaking. Just getting through the ups and downs of a long career—you look at his filmography and there’s nobody with this range of stuff. I mean, he’s played Santa Claus.” Robert Towne, the legendary writer of Chinatown, once dubbed Russell “Hollywood’s best-kept secret.”
John Carpenter, who launched Russell’s leading-man career with a string of films in the early 1980s, adds, “There’s a charisma to him. You like him immediately. That’s just who he is.”
Ron Howard, who directed Russell in Backdraft, was himself an actor trying to make the transition from childhood work to more age-appropriate roles, and understands just how difficult it is to create a nearly lifelong career as a star. “There aren’t many actors with his longevity; that’s not easy for anybody,” Howard says. “There aren’t many guys who start as kids and become leading men. He’s smart; he understands script and story. He’s chosen interesting projects and he is very choosy. When he brings his honest self to roles, he’s specific, organic and incredibly watchable. Plus he’s always been a strikingly good-looking guy.”
Russell doesn’t take himself so seriously. The number of times his characters have been turned into action figures—nine—is the kind of thing that makes him chuckle with pride. Occasionally, Russell will jump up to act out a story, such as when he mimes the false modesty of a stage actor he once saw take an extended bow, his least-favorite part about working onstage. “It was nearly impossible for me,” he says. “I find it horribly embarrassing. Just run the credits, ya know?”
Given the length and breadth of his body of work, Russell shakes his head in bemusement at his own continued enthusiasm for getting in front of a camera. “Actors who have done it a long time—I’m convinced we have some kind of condition,” Russell says. “After a while, you think: Haven’t you done it enough? But there’s something you don’t get anywhere else, that you keep coming back for, that gets you excited about doing it.”
Russell also gets excited about smoking the occasional cigar, in and out of character. His Snake Plissken puffed cigarillos when he couldn’t find a cigarette, a running joke in Escape From L.A., the sequel to the 1981 classic Escape From New York, in which the entire city of Manhattan has been turned into a prison, and the ever-surly Plissken is sent in to rescue the president of the United States. In Tombstone, Russell plays reluctant lawman Wyatt Earp, calmly lighting a stogie while running a card game in the lawless town. In The Hateful Eight, his character’s smoke of choice is a briar pipe, which he puffs enthusiastically while chained to his prisoner, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Russell’s personal enjoyment of fine tobacco tends to take place when cigars come out at celebrations. “I like taking the time,” he explains. “It’s nice to stop and have a cigar with a drink. When someone offers, I usually say yes.”
Despite his camera-loving looks and talent, Russell wasn’t ready to say yes to acting from the start. It was baseball that originally called to Russell. His father, who died in 2003, played minor-league ball and coached Kurt in Little League. Young Kurt played shortstop and second base in high school, then moved up through the California Angels’ farm system to Class AA. He was leading the Texas League in hitting when a runner collided with him while Russell was turning a double play. He tore his rotator cuff in the shoulder of his throwing arm, an injury that essentially ended his baseball career at 23.
“I was looking forward to a future in baseball,” says Russell. “What I love about baseball is that it’s black-and-white in the statistics. They tell how everybody is doing every day. I loved that. To change from that daily understanding of yourself to something else was tough. I was a good ballplayer. I was moving up the ladder quickly. The higher I went, the more sense it made. It took a while to adjust to not identifying myself as a ballplayer. I couldn’t put ‘actor’ on my passport for a long time.”
Russell made his movie debut at age 12, kicking Elvis Presley in the shins in It Happened at the World’s Fair. He quickly racked up a string of guest appearances on network TV series and wound up playing the title character in “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters,” a network western, at the age of 13.
“Kurt was the star,” said Tarantino, speaking before the placement of Russell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017. “It was the only western show where the boy was the star. You had to have a cowboy guy to beat up people from time to time—and who he got as a costar was Charles Bronson!”
Russell kept acting through his high-school years, with guest appearances on everything from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to “Gilligan’s Island.” He also became a regular in Disney family films, including The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (where he met Goldie Hawn). After the injury that ended his baseball dream, he became one of the studio’s biggest box-office stars of the 1970s.
Disney kept him busy, but it was John Carpenter who made Russell a star in maturity. Carpenter was brought in to direct after Russell had been cast to play Elvis Presley in the TV miniseries “Elvis.” Russell needed to portray the rock ’n’ roll star from his early teens to his Las Vegas comeback in 1970. “As I watched and directed him, I realized, he can do anything,” Carpenter says. “He can play anybody. He’s a mimic, and a genius at it.”
Russell followed that Emmy-nominated breakout with a complete change: as the gravel-voiced, one-eyed, anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. The role, with which he is most often identified, led to The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, all by Carpenter. “It was John Carpenter who gave me the chance to play characters in a number of movies, to establish myself,” says Russell. “My career would have been completely different without him.”
Early in his career, when Russell started bringing home serious paychecks as a preteen, his father told him, “You’re being paid a man’s salary, so you should do a man’s job. Know your lines, be ready to work.” To which Russell adds, “Really, that applies to anything in life.”
Russell’s work ethic, says Shelton, is “old school in all the good ways.” Howard says: “He’s looking to make the scene fucking great. That is leadership in my opinion.”
For all of the major films with which he’s been associated, the list of films in which Russell was almost cast (or seriously discussed) is nearly as impressive. In the 1970s, Russell spoke with filmmaker George Lucas about playing either Luke Skywalker or Han Solo in the then-untested Star Wars. He was involved with the planning of Bull Durham with writer-director Shelton, as the two swapped stories about their days in minor-league ball. But when Shelton pitched the film, he found that financing was contingent on Kevin Costner playing the lead.
“That was close; that was a lot about me,” Russell recalls. “But Costner was hot at that point. It’s just part of the game. That’s the one I think it would have been the most fun to do. It all balances out.”
Which is the message he and Goldie Hawn have tried to drill into their children, both from their marriage and her previous one, as the kids have come of age and launched themselves into acting careers. “What were we gonna say? No, don’t do this?” Russell says with a laugh. “Because they’d say, ‘You guys look like you have a pretty good life.’ ”
Russell and Hawn have been involved for 36 years—they became reacquainted in 1983 while working on Swing Shift, and they appeared together as warring, polar opposites in the 1987 comedy Overboard.
“Goldie and I did try to make them understand that you have to do it for the work, because you want to, and not to create great wealth. Does it create fun? Yeah. If you enjoy the work, the process of acting, and you do it for that reason, then you can have a great time. It doesn’t get old. It’s great work, if you can get it.”
So far, that hasn’t been a problem. Kate and Oliver Hudson, Hawn’s children from her marriage to Bill Hudson, have both had solid launches to their careers. Kate has been a star since she received an Oscar nomination for Almost Famous. Oliver has had a string of movie roles and starred in the network sitcom, “Splitting Up Together.” Son Wyatt Russell emulated his dad by choosing professional sports (hockey, rather than baseball), until an injury forced him to refocus on acting. He just finished starring in the second season of AMC’s “Lodge 49.”
When he talks about Hawn, Russell just smiles. “If you’re lucky enough to have someone like Goldie Hawn come along and feel the way she feels, you’re just lucky,” he says. “Thirty-six years have gone by in a flash. I’m still in love. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to pay attention and work at it.”
When it comes to working at it, Russell has plenty of things to keep him busy. There are his grandchildren, his airplanes and his various properties and hobbies, none bigger than GoGi wines, his wine brand from Santa Rita, California. The wine—produced at Ampelos Cellars, and made by winemakers Peter and Rebecca Work—includes a Chardonnay called Goldie, and the GoGi brand pinot noir, an homage to Russell’s love of Burgundy, fostered by trips to France.
He has no specific movie plans lined up, but given his body of work you know he’ll be appearing on the big screen again soon. Acting still excites him, still calls to him. There’s no telling when a tempting script might pop up. “I get excited reading something,” he says, that confident smile coming so easily to the face that has looked down from the big screen, again and again and again. “That’s what brings me out. It’s what always has. When I’m in cahoots with someone, I enjoy it. It gives me a sense of ease. I’m going to have fun today.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.