Kurt Russell has brought his tough-guy persona out of retirement. It took Tarantino to do it, the actor tells James Mottram
These days, it seems that any actor who has survived a few years in Hollywood is dubbed a veteran. So it's rather humbling when you meet a genuine old hand like Kurt Russell. While he's still a sprightly 54, this former child-star has made films in each of the past five decades, is old enough to have acted alongside Elvis Presley and Jimmy Stewart, and auditioned for the role of Han Solo.
His father, Bing Russell, played the deputy sheriff in Bonanza for 14 years, but Kurt is modest enough to resist the temptation to call himself a star. "I was always a hired gun," he says, "somebody who just worked from project to project to project, so even though I worked all through those decades, it seems like the experiences are always the same. It seems like it's been the same ever since the first day I've worked."
Once upon a time, Russell was Hollywood's go-to guy for rugged anti-heroes, most famously as the embittered Third World War veteran Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's apocalyptic Escape From New York. Now, starring as the scar-faced psycho Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino's new film Death Proof, he's back where his die-hard fans want him: lean and very, very mean.
Aside from his formidable turn as a corrupt LAPD officer in 2002's Dark Blue, with recent family films like Sky High, Miracle and Dreamer cluttering his CV it's been a long time since we've seen the grizzled Russell of old. "When you think of Kurt Russell, you think of the characters he played in the John Carpenter films, like Snake Plissken," says Tarantino, adding Russell's scientist MacReady from The Thing and his all-action Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China to the list.
"He hasn't played those characters in a while – instead, he's done a lot of heart-warming movies. I remember opening up the newspaper and I saw the ad for Dreamer, with a little soft focus and a profile shot of Kurt and Dakota Fanning, and I thought, 'When is he going to be a bad-ass again?' Stuntman Mike is the bad-ass!"
The character trawls bars in search of female prey to mow down in his muscle car. As a youngster living in Los Angeles, where his family moved from Massachusetts when he was four, Russell used to race cars. "It was a big part of my life when I was young," he says. While Russell was burning rubber, millions were getting to know him as a fresh-faced Disney rascal in films like Superdad and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
He made his first film, with Elvis, 1962's It Happened At The World's Fair. His transition to adult actor was made smoother by the fact that he was also a bit of daredevil on screen.
"Back in those days it helped greatly if you could do things physically," says Russell. "It opened up lots of opportunities for you. Oftentimes, they didn't have enough to pay for a stuntman, so if you could do it, you got more opportunities than not."
He cites two of his more recent successes: the firefighter drama Backdraft and the Western Tombstone, in which, as Wyatt Earp, he took a horse through a plate-glass window. "I was never a Jackie Chan type, where stunts were what I did. As an actor, if there was a stunt, I did it. So it opened up the opportunity for Quentin to use me a great deal more than he originally thought he'd be able to."
About the only thing Russell hasn't done before is star in the type of exploitation movie that Tarantino is reviving here – though he certainly was a fan. "I went to 'grindhouse' theatres and saw some. It was just part of the movie-going thing at that time. I was the right age and the right audience." This might well be why Russell was rather vocal at the press conference in Cannes, when Death Proof was shown without Robert Rodriguez's zombie flick Planet Terror. Originally, under the title Grindhouse, the films were designed as a double-bill complete with fake trailers, but after this bombed in the US on its release in April, the decision was made to split the two films. The Death Proof shown in Cannes, and to be released in the UK, is around 20 minutes longer than its Grindhouse version.
At the time, Russell said, "These movies are going to go out there by themselves and they'll live their own life, but my prediction is that, 20 years from now, you'll want the Grindhouse experience." Russell now rather backs down, claiming that he prefers the longer cut of the film. "The Grindhouse I'm talking about, that I want to see, that years from now people who like these efforts will want to see, is this movie, and all the ads, all the promos, and the full version of Planet Terror. It'll be a long, long night. But for those who want it, it'll be spectacular."
It's no wonder, with comments like he made in Cannes, that Russell views himself as a Hollywood outcast. He says that it was his Libertarian beliefs that caused him to move to a ranch outside Aspen, Colorado, where he lives with the actress Goldie Hawn, his partner of almost 25 years. Russell first met Hawn when he was 16 and they were working on The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. She was a dancer and he was dumbstruck by the blonde bombshell five years older than he.
They didn't meet again for almost 20 years, on Jonathan Demme's 1984 period romance Swing Shift. Starring in the film as lovers, with Russell's five-year marriage to actress Season Hubley coming apart at the seams, it didn't take long before life began imitating art. They've been together since.
With Hawn also previously married, to the singer Bill Hudson, their natural instinct was not to walk down the aisle again. With one son, Boston, from his marriage to Hubley and another, Wyatt, from his time with Hawn, if one needs any evidence of how Russell is as a father, one needs look no further than his relationship with his stepchildren, the actors Oliver and Kate Hudson. The latter named her first child Ryder Russell Robinson partly in his honour, and, in 2003, the family started a pro-duction company, Cosmic Entertainment, together.
If his life with Hawn sounds idyllic, it has not all been smooth sailing. In 2004 it was rumoured that Hawn was getting close to the cricket star Imran Khan. Likewise, Hawn has hinted in the past that she never asks Russell about any infidelities. "It's just the way I try and keep myself feeling happy," she said.
Arguably the secret to their stability, aside from moving away from Hollywood, is that Russell and Hawn gave up touting themselves as an on-screen couple. They last acted together exactly 20 years ago on Overboard, a trite little comedy that saw Hawn play an amnesiac rich-bitch convinced by Russell's carpenter that she's his wife.
At the time, it rather derailed a career that had seen Russell go from being Emmy-nominated for his Elvis in Carpenter's 1979 TV movie of the same name to impressively playing Meryl Streep's lover in Silkwood five years later. After Overboard, however, Russell was no longer first choice. He lost out on the role of Bull Durham, which Ron Shelton wrote for him, to the studio favourite Kevin Costner.
So it's something of a surprise that Russell and Hawn are preparing to work together again, on Ashes to Ashes, a film Hawn has written and is planning to direct. Evidently influenced by Hawn's own Buddhist leanings, the story sees a woman lose her husband then follow his spirit to India. "I did write quite a bit of the latest version because she asked me to take a hold of the character that was the main guy," he says. "So I made some changes to the script and to the character, and she really liked it, and three days later she asked me to play the part."
'Death Proof' opens on 21 September