Awards season is in full swing, and the indie drama First Cow is already receiving some attention, having won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Film and with three nominations at the Gotham Awards (Best Feature, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay). Set in the 19th century in the Pacific Northwest, the film follows Cookie (John Magaro), a skilled cook who has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory, where he crosses path with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) and the two form a business collaboration that involves the participation of a wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview, actor John Magaro talked about the thrill of awards recognition for the film, the appeal of the script for First Cow, why Cookie felt like a daunting character, the clear vision that filmmaker Kelly Reichardt had for telling this story, and what it was like to have a cow for a co-star. He also talked about joining The Many Saints of Newark and how scary it is to tell a story in the world of The Sopranos.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on First Cow and on the acclaim and the awards recognition it’s already starting to receive. It’s very cool, anytime a smaller film like this breaks through. For you, how does that feel, when you make a smaller film like this, that’s character-based and not big and flashy and loud, and yet it also can catch the attention of people?
JOHN MAGARO: That’s such a thrill. It’s somewhat shocking. When we got the Gotham Awards nominations, which we got a few, that was shocking. I didn’t expect it because, like you said, oftentimes it’s hard for a small film like this, and at times, you feel like an underdog almost. And we were so early in the year, and obviously this has been a crazy year. It was just a surprise that people were watching it and responding to it. That’s a real joy and that’s always the hope, with any film you make, but especially a film like this, where it was really handcrafted and almost homemade, if you can use that word for a film. It was really, in a lot of ways, bare bones. That’s the way (director) Kelly [Reichardt] seems to like to work. She has this great community around her, in the Northwest, around Portland and the Oregon area. It’s this family. So, when people respond to that and it gets some recognition, it’s just big joy for everyone involved.
Often, as award season starts and nominations come out, you start to cross paths with the same group of actors. What was it like to see your name alongside Riz Ahmed, Chadwick Boseman, Jude Law and Jesse Plemons?
>MAGARO: Yeah. The Gotham Awards are such an amazing group. They have a very specific type of film that they recognize – films that oftentimes don’t get recognition – so it’s really great what they’re doing. They assemble such an amazing group of people who are their nominees and each of those people – Chadwick, who I had the great fortune to work with briefly on Marshall, and what a tragedy, but what a wonderful man he was, and Jesse was fantastic, and Riz, and Jude. All of these people are such actors’ actors who have such tremendous respect for the business and people who watch and truly love films. Anytime you’re included with such great talent, it’s just a huge honor, in the most cliche way you can say it. It really is an honor just to be nominated. It’s really exciting
When this project originally came your way, how did a movie like this read on the page? Did you get a pretty good sense of what it would and could be, or did you have a lot of questions?
MAGARO: I’d be fascinated to read some of [Kelly Reichardt’s] other scripts. I’ve seen her other films, but I haven’t had a chance to look at the other scripts. This script was so clear on the page, and oftentimes, that’s not the case. It’s not the type of film that’s dialogue heavy. The dialogue is used very economically. It’s very sparse. But the visuals were painted so beautifully on the page, in the exact same way she paints the visuals on the screen. It was just amazingly clear and captivating, and really took you on the ride. I haven’t had a script like that in a really, really long time. As soon as I finished reading it, I was really hoping to be able to be a part of it. I’m so glad it worked out. She just had such a clear vision. I think that’s what it is. Kelly had a clear vision, from the beginning to the end, of how she wanted this film to look and feel, and the story she wanted to tell, and she was able to put that down on the page.
Is this a character that you also immediately understood and felt that you could bring something to? Was he someone that you connected with right away, or did you need to do anything to get you to that place with him?
MAGARO: On the first read, there was a distance to it. When I read the script for the first time, I try to step away from it, although I think it’s impossible for an actor to totally step away from it because you know what character you’re looking at, so you automatically start to hear a voice associated with it on. But this felt like a tall challenge. Typically, I’m not cast as a Western frontiersman. Although Cookie is the antithesis of the typical Western hero, it still felt daunting, in a way. I felt like I could bring something unique to it. I was hoping that Kelly would trust me, and she did. I think she wanted to go away from that typical Western archetype, so that gave me sense of comfort and a sense of freedom to explore it. With any character that I do, I feel like it’s a slow burn, as it comes to life. It takes a few weeks and a few reads and a little research. I was cooking, as I was getting ready to start shooting. That slowly helped me fall into the rhythms of Cookie. But it was an exciting challenge and I always love to take that on. And then, once you get there on set, having the chance to bring it to life is the ultimate reward.
How does your experience seeing the final cut of the film compare to your experience reading the script? Did you feel very different things, seeing it all together instead of just reading it?
MAGARO: That’s always a tough one. It’s tough to look at it objectively because you’ve invested so much in it. The script was so clear, and while we were working and making it, we were in this beautiful environment and these amazing woods outside of Portland, and a lot of them have now been destroyed by these fires, which is just awful. There was a moment on set when there was a First Nation man doing Tai Chi and Cookie has just injured himself and he wakes up in a daze, looks out, and sees this man doing this mystical dance. I remember watching the playback, and I don’t watch playback really, but I turned to Kelly and said, “This is really a magical film.” I’d never felt that way before. So, I had a sense of where it was going. When I saw it, I think it just all came together. To see it with sight and sound and so much life put into it, it was really exciting.
When you do something like this, that is a period piece, and you’re working in these environments and dressing a very specific way, do you get lost in that while you’re on set, or is it ever, is it hard to ever get fully lost while there is still a crew that’s standing around?
MAGARO: I think it’s hard to get fully lost in it. You’re trying to be in the 1820s, and everyone has their cell phones out between takes, there’s one of those giant heating things to keep people warm, and the wardrobe people are asking if you need hand warmers, so there’s an unnatural component to it. What we were so lucky with was that we were in these untouched forests. Just being out there in these ferns and among this unspoiled foliage, it put you at ease and it was just relaxing, in a way. I think it helped the whole vibe of the set to stay calm because oftentimes sets are just inherently chaotic. This just kept everyone chill. We also had a great production design team who made the little town that we go through and the wardrobe helped transport you back into the time. You’re fighting the unnatural modernity, but then you have these beautiful components around you that help you sink into the world a little bit more.
Was it harder to get into the mindset of all of this to start the shoot, or was it harder to come out of the project and get back into the mindset of like modern life?
MAGARO: I don’t know. I try to have ignorance to that, otherwise I’d be wrapped up in anxiety and not be able to work or get back to my real life. I’m almost like a zombie in a haze, where you walk into it and to try not to think about all of that stuff. What I was doing beforehand, besides reading some of the materials, was just cooking a lot. Kelly gave me these books, this Lewis & Clark: Adventures in Cookery and this food journal of Lewis and Clark, and I just found myself cooking my way through these cookbooks. Something about the way those recipes are, they’re very slow and it takes a lot of time to make them. There was something about sitting in that silence while you wait for these things to cook that helped me step into Cookie’s mindset a bit more. When I left [the movie], my wife and I went on a vacation. I sometimes do that. That helps me leave it behind. Most of the time when I’m working, it’s different enough from my real life that I need some sort of escape after. We went to Thailand, after this, and we went scuba diving and stuff like that. It was a total 180 from our life and from that life, to reset the mind a bit. That was a great luxury, which nowadays we don’t have.
When you make a movie that’s called First Cow, I would imagine you figure that you’ll be working with a cow, at some point. What’s it like to actually work with a cow? Do any mishaps occurred? Does anything particularly funny happen, when you have a cow around, since you can’t really train a cow?
MAGARO: Yeah, although I think they tried to. She learned how to ride a raft, which was impressive and she looks very regal. That’s unnatural for a cow. They aren’t often put on rafts. The biggest mishap is, while you’re milking cow, you’re bound to get some pee splashed on you, which I did, a couple of times. Luckily, no poop splashed on me. Evie was so calm. There’s something about having an animal of that size close to you. If they are calm, it almost puts you at ease, and she was so sweet. She would nuzzle up. I was the only one who was allowed to give her treats, besides the trainers, so her affection towards me was totally from me bribing her, but it worked. There’s a moment when we go out with Toby Jones, who plays the Chief Factor, and he’s showing his prized cow to the captain, and she starts nuzzling up against me, which was unexpected, but came from a week of us being in the field, getting to know each other and me giving her treats. She just expected that I had treats for her, so she started nuzzling and made that beautiful moment when I had to push her away. She’s great. She’s since retired from acting. She’s on Cameo and she’ll give you a birthday greeting for 25 bucks, and she has a calf named Cookie.
It seems like an experience like that could either be a disaster or it could turn out like it did, since you just don’t have control over something like that.
MAGARO: Everyone loved that cow. I’m surprised Kelly didn’t adopt her.
In what ways did Cookie most challenge you, as a character? Were there ways that you felt he most stretched you, as an actor?
MAGARO: The greatest stretch of this role, which I loved being able to do, was being able to live in those silences and not have to say anything. That’s sometimes a challenge. Also, in the way that we tend to tell stories nowadays, where they’re very quick and there aren’t many pauses and there’s constant cutting, to be allowed the freedom to just let the words come whenever they came, and to sit in the silences and not say everything you’re thinking, was a scary thing at first, but it was probably one of the most liberating challenges I’ve ever had, as an actor.
What was it like to be a part of a film like The Many Saints of Newark? Is it very daunting to tell a story that includes such a well-known and loved character like Tony Soprano, even if it’s a different part of his life than we’ve seen before?
MAGARO: Yeah. It’s crazy. I would imagine the people who went to the new Star Wars, or anything with such loyal fans who are almost religious about it, there’s this huge pressure and I know every single one of us in that movie was feeling it as we were making it, and we’re still concerned about it, as it’s sitting there waiting to come out. I’ve only heard good things from David [Chase], and from the people at Warner Bros. and New Line, so I hope they’re right, but of course, it’s scary. We live in this world now, where people are looking for anything to criticize, so I’m sure we’re gonna get some of that backlash. But if people can put that to the side and go on this new journey with us, I think it’s gonna be really rewarding. You have Michael Gandolfini, Jim’s son, playing Tony, and what I saw was just an absolutely brilliant performance from him. I can’t imagine the challenge of having to step into your late father’s shoes, and he did it with such grace and such courage that I was blown away. I’m excited to share it with people. It’s a very unique thing. I think it still has a lot of the humor and fun of what The Sopranos was. I’m a crazy Sopranos fan. Every Sunday night, I would watch it, when I was growing up. I get where the people who are worried are coming from, but I think it’s gonna be really great.
Have they given you any idea about when we might see some footage, like in a trailer?
MAGARO: I don’t know. With what’s happening right now, everything’s so crazy. They say [it will be out in] March, but with things getting worse and so many people, at times, not taking this thing seriously, I hope things start to get better, sooner rather than later. If things start to get better with COVID, maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see something, in the early new year, but I really don’t know.
Without giving anything away, what can you say about your character and how he fits into the story?
MAGARO: It’s so funny, I’m not allowed to really say who I am, but I think it’s very clear and it’s out there in the world, so I think everyone has figured it out who’s paying attention. He’s somebody who’s very much in Tony’s life. You get to see his connection to both the worlds of Johnny Soprano and Dickie Moltisanti, and how he bridges the gap with Tony, who ends up taking the reins in the series. That’s where he functions in this world. I gotta leave it at that.
You’ve done film, TV and theater, and you’ve worked in a variety of different genres. When did you start to feel confident in what you could bring to a project and what you could deliver once you walk onto the set? Are you someone that gets nervous at the beginning of everything you do?
MAGARO: I don’t know if I have ever felt confident in what I’m doing. I’m just blindly stumbling around here and have been lucky enough to keep a seat at the table. But in seriousness, I think it’s like any job. You start a job, whether it’s as a writer, a teacher or an actor, and that just comes with experience. Someone said that it takes about 10 years to feel like you’re a master of your craft, where you really feel like you know what you’re doing, and I’d say there’s a component of that while I’ve been doing this. The first 10 years I was here in New York working, it wasn’t scary. It was nerve-wracking because you feel like a stranger in this business, but you learn. As long as you stay aware and you wanna learn and you wanna better yourself, there are opportunities to do that. And then, at around 10 years, I started to feel a little more like, “Okay, I get this a bit more.” I was also learning film, as I went. I was a fan of film, but I grew up in Ohio, around Cleveland, where there was no film production. There was nothing like that. My friend George and I would go around with our home video camera and makes silly little movies, but there was no concept of how film was really made. So, for those first years that I was doing it, a big part of it was just learning the craft of filmmaking. Once there was that comfort of knowing it a bit more, it makes it easier to relax and trust yourself in front of the camera, but I’m still learning. Any smart or good actor is constantly learning, as they work.
First Cow is available to stream at Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and various VOD.
Sometimes movies try to be serious and the exact opposite thing happens instead.
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