John Magaro on 'First Cow' Frontier Boot Camp and the Emotional 'Many Saints of Newark' Set

The actor recalls working with Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, on the 'Sopranos' prequel: "His father is smiling the biggest smile up there in heaven for him because he’s just remarkable."

John Magaro doesn’t mind being “that guy,” but he’s once again proved that he’s a name to be reckoned with after delivering one of 2020’s best performances in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. While the casting choice seems obvious in hindsight, Reichardt was initially reluctant to cast the Ohio native in the lead role of Cookie until Todd Haynes, Magaro’s director in Carol, endorsed the idea to his friend Reichardt.

To play the role of an early 19th-century frontiersman and cook in Oregon Territory, Magaro had to attend a frontier boot camp to learn his character’s knack for making “oily cakes.” With the help of a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie’s doughnut-like pastry turned their pop-up business into an overnight success.

“Luckily, we were able to do this kind of frontier boot camp a week before we started shooting. We stayed in the woods and cooked over open fire with the tools we would’ve had back then,” Magaro tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So some of the people… were lucky enough to get a fresh oily cake that I actually made, but most of them were probably terribly stale, day-old oily cakes that were probably like a doorstop or something.”

In 2012, Magaro broke out as the lead character in David Chase’s feature directorial debut, Not Fade Away, which co-starred Chase’s The Sopranos star, the late James Gandolfini. In 2019, Magaro and Chase reunited for The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel that Chase co-wrote with fellow Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner. Set in the '60s and '70s, Magaro plays a young version of Steven Van Zandt’s Silvio Dante, while Michael Gadolfini, James’ son, plays a teenage Tony Soprano. The experience was as emotional as one might expect, and Magaro remains impressed by Michael's performance as Tony. (The film is currently slated for a day-and-date release in March as part of Warner Bros./HBO Max's new distribution arrangement.)

“It was emotional, but in the most beautiful sense of the word. I’ve known Michael Gandolfini, James’ son, for several years. And by the way, he earned that role,” Magaro insists. “It wasn’t just given to him because he’s Jim’s kid. David was saying, ‘I saw all the tapes. I saw all these kids and he’s it. And it’s not just because he looks like him. He’s just fantastic.’ Watching him play that part, I mean, I know how tough that had to have been for him… but he rose to the challenge. He fucking kills it. He’s so, so good, and I cannot wait for people to see it. His father is smiling the biggest smile up there in heaven for him because he’s just remarkable.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Magaro also discusses the paternal relationship he has with Chase, rewatching The Sopranos to prep for The Many Saints of Newark and The Big Short’s improvisational set. (Side note: Magaro is pronounced with a hard ⟨g⟩.)

I last saw you in Overlord and The Umbrella Academy, so I didn’t immediately recognize you in First Cow. Your beard and wardrobe really disguised you, and your character is completely unlike most of your other characters. Have you heard similar sentiments about being unrecognizable as Cookie?

(Laughs.) I’ve heard things like that throughout my career. I’ve sort of become “that guy,” which I don’t mind. One of the fun things about doing this job is being chameleon-like. Before I worked in this business, when I was simply a fan, I always found it interesting to watch actors do that. So I’ve been fortunate now to have the chance to do that. I grew up in Cleveland, which sort of rides the cusp of the Midwest and the East Coast. So there were things in my experience that were more New York, and then there were other things that were more rural. So I like being able to dive into different aspects of where I’m from.

Since you have the vibe of a New York actor, are people surprised when they learn you’re from Cleveland?

Yeah, even while I was growing up, some people would be like, “Where is your accent from?” So people have always thought I was more East Coast. I think that’s just a function of having a mother who’s Jewish and a father who’s Italian-American. There’s a cadence and there’s a musicality in the way Jewish and Italian people speak that just lends itself to sounding a little more East Coast. So, yeah, I constantly, constantly get that. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “You grew up in Brooklyn, right?” or “You grew up in Jersey, right?” And I’m like, “No, I’m actually from Cleveland.” (Laughs.) So, yeah, it’s constant.

How did First Cow come across your desk?

Basically, my agents sent me the script. They were like, “Check out this script called First Cow.” And because of the title, the literal phrase “first cow,” you’re like, “Well, what’s this about?” And then I saw it was Kelly [Reichardt]. I had seen Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women at that point, and I thought she was already doing pretty incredible things with film. And then, I read the script for First Cow and I was just blown away. The script is very, very much like the film as not a lot changed. It was such a clear vision on the page from her and Jonathan Raymond that you could really start to picture what it was going to look like. So, right after that read, I knew that I wanted to be involved with it. So my agents pursued it for me, but Kelly was a little uncertain at first because, like you said, a lot of my work has been more New York kind of guys, the loudmouthed, sometimes nebbish-y guys. But I did this short film called One Armed Man, which is based on a Horton Foote play, and it was directed by an actor-director named Tim Guinee. It takes place in East Texas, and it’s about a guy who worked in a cotton gin, lost his arm, and then he goes back to get revenge on the cotton mill owner. So he was a very quiet, developmentally-arrested kind of guy. So Kelly saw that and I guess she then felt like she had faith in me playing Cookie. So she was kind enough to offer it to me at that point, and that’s how it happened.

So you didn’t have to put yourself on tape or read in front of her?

I don’t think Kelly really does it that way. I think she does that sometimes, but I think a lot of great directors operate off of a gut instinct, especially if you’ve already done a lot of work that they can watch on tape. I think they can garner a sense if you’re going to be capable or not. I had also worked with Todd Haynes, who’s a very close friend of hers, and I think he was able to be like, “The guy’s not crazy. He’ll be fine. He’s okay.” So I think that helped. The audition process is a necessary evil, but I also think it’s very artificial because you’re almost set up to fail in that situation. It’s a really strange process and I get why some directors don’t want to base their decision simply on the audition.

Once you were on set, what stood out to you as far as the way that Kelly works?

First of all, Kelly has the film in her head from probably well before the beginning. She knows exactly what she wants it to look like. She hears it. She hears the voices. So you can put your trust in her completely, and that’s what we did. So I showed up and just started rolling with it. You sort of let the words wash all over you and just trust the script. Also, she’s pretty much worked in the Northwest for most of her canon, and the people who work around her have become like a family to her. When you go up around Portland and work with them, it’s like you’re stepping into their family, and in turn, you become part of that family. So each day, you’re building a relationship and trust, and you just feel super comfortable going for it. Also, we were out in these beautiful woods of Oregon, and a lot of them have now been destroyed by these horrible fires. But it was just a magical experience. There’s this beautiful scene where Cookie has injured himself and as he’s lying in bed, he looks out the window of this cabin and sees a First Nation man doing tai chi with this sort of mystical halo around it. When I went and looked at the playback of it, I turned to Kelly and said, “Wow, this is really going to be a magical movie.” I’ve never said this on a set before and I’ve never really felt that way about any scene before. It was just undeniable when I saw that shot. I still didn’t know how it would be received at the end of the day. I’m pretty terrible at guessing those kinds of things, but I just knew it was something special.

The attention to detail was rather on point. Granted, there's a film crew around you, but did you still feel immersed in that era?

Yeah, we were totally immersed in it. Luckily, we were able to do this kind of frontier boot camp a week before we started shooting. We stayed in the woods and cooked over open fire with the tools we would’ve had back then. I got to bond with Orion Lee, who plays King-Lu, so that was really nice. Also, the DP, Christopher Blauvelt, who’s so brilliant, is the third partner in the scene when it’s Orion and I. So you don’t ever feel inhibited or put upon by the crew. It just feels like connective tissue throughout. Besides a beautiful location, even the sets they built just transported you. When you see that fort or that little village that we walk through, that was all basically built and created. It was truly like stepping into 1820.

Every time I see this period reflected on-screen, I’m all the more grateful to be born during modern times, excluding 2020 of course. Since you lived it in a way, do you feel the same, or did you find some upside to early 19th-century living?

I totally agree with your statement. That was hard, hard living. We complain about everything.

“My Wi-Fi is down!”

(Laughs.) “My internet went out. I have to change a lightbulb.” We complain about everything. They had to schlep by foot across the country with basically a couple pairs of clothes and one pair of boots, maybe two if you’re lucky. And they did so through snow, rain, mosquitoes and bugs. It just sounds terrible. and when you get there, it’s just as terrible. It’s muddy, cold and wet with no food, or bad food. So, yeah, it really makes you appreciate what we have, but there also is a peace that comes with that simplicity. When we have those scenes where it’s King-Lu and Cookie just sitting in the cabin and talking as the rain falls outside, the economy of language and the slowness, there’s no desire to pick up your phone and respond right away to a text or an email. It’s less anxiety-inducing in a lot of ways, and it’s less stressful. There’s a peace to that.

There’s something so satisfying about watching people enjoy food or drink on-screen. “The Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld comes to mind, as well as Ratatouille and David Costabile’s meth lab coffee on Breaking Bad. I also can’t forget about the imaginary feast in Hook. So First Cow is certainly another example of that.

Yeah, we want to eat. That’s about as primitive and as basic as it gets. We have to eat to sustain ourselves, and we also know that eating, in a lot of ways, has become communal. It’s a shared bonding experience. Like I said, I grew up in an Italian/Jewish household where sharing a meal is almost everything in both cultures. That’s where you connect with your family. That’s where you build memories and experiences. And much like in our movie, when Chief Factor (Toby Jones) eats the oily cake and says, “It tastes of England,” food can transport you to those memories. If I have a great stuffed rigatoni or an Italian wedding soup now, I remember my dad, who’s passed. I remember his recipes, and it takes me back to those warm meals from my childhood. I think that’s why we connect to it. And I am so utterly guilty of eating right after I watch some food on, like you said, Ratatouille or “The Soup Nazi” episode. There’s also an Always Sunny episode where they eat Philly cheesesteaks. The same goes for The Sopranos where they’re eating a big Italian meal. When I’m watching those, I will either go out and get that thing right after or I want to be eating it while I’m watching that thing. I’d watch The Sopranos and have a bowl of pasta and some gabagool, or whatever.

Did you actually learn to make the oily cakes? Did you also milk the cow?

I made the oily cakes in the frontier boot camp, and I made the clafoutis at the frontier boot camp as well. On the day that we shot the handing-out-the-oily-cakes scenes, which I think was all shot in one day, the art department basically made a whole bunch of them. So we would hand them out because we didn’t have the time to make them all, but then, if you watch the scenes, I am making a few. So some of the people in that line were lucky enough to get a fresh oily cake that I actually made, but most of them were probably terribly stale, day-old oily cakes that were probably like a doorstop or something. (Laughs.) And yes, I did milk the cow. Every time, I milked the cow.

While doing research, I noticed a picture of you next to Steven Van Zandt at the Not Fade Away premiere. Do you think David Chase saw you guys together at some point and started playing with the thought of you playing young Silvio Dante in The Many Saints of Newark?

How David Chase’s mind works, if someone can crack the code, they’ll get all the treasure. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know what made him think it, but he thought it and I was lucky that I had that relationship with Steven for several years. When we did Not Fade Away, he was our music guru. I didn’t play drums before that, but Andy White was my actual drum teacher. He was a great drummer, who’s now passed. He taught me how to play drums and how to sing those rock-and-roll songs. But Steven recorded our tracks. He produced the tracks, so we spent a lot of time together. (Laughs.) So maybe that helped me understand his mannerisms a little bit better, but I’ve also formed a tremendous bond with David. I don’t say this lightly, but he’s become a mentor and also a father figure to me. So having the chance to go back to Many Saints and spend that time with him in that world was just a wonderful gift.

Did you rewatch The Sopranos, specifically Steven’s performance, during Many Saints prep, or is there too much risk of impersonation that way?

No, I did. I went back and rewatched the series to look at him. The Sopranos had a very specific tone that balanced dark comedy, a very unique style of dark comedy that I haven’t really seen in other shows. Other shows do a version of that, but The Sopranos has a very unique approach to it. And that tone is in Many Saints too. It has that exact kind of comedy, that kind of style and the esoteric comments that David makes at times. That’s all there. So I found it helpful to go back and watch the series just to immerse myself in that tone and be prepared for the path we were going to go down.

Was it an emotional shoot as one might expect? Of course, James' son, Michael Gandolfini, played a younger version of Tony Soprano, while you played the son of James' character in Not Fade Away.

It was emotional, but in the most beautiful sense of the word. I’ve known Michael Gandolfini, James' son, for several years. I did a film that Harold Guskin, one of James’ acting coaches, directed called Down the Shore. He’s since passed, but it was originally called Kiddie Ride before they changed it to Down the Shore. That very small indie film was my first time working with James, and Michael had a little cameo in that. He played a snot-nosed kid on a ride and he was a little chubby kid. He had to have been 9 years old at the time, maybe younger. So I hadn’t seen him in years, and when David told me he was going to play Tony… And by the way, he earned that role. It wasn’t just given to him because he’s Jim’s kid. David was saying, “I saw all the tapes. I saw all these kids and he’s it. And it’s not just because he looks like him. He’s just fantastic.” So when we finally saw each other again, I was so happy to see him. Watching him play that part, I mean, I know how tough that had to have been for him. He also hadn’t watched the series until this movie. This was the first time he watched the series. So, going through that, I can’t imagine what that was like for him, but he rose to the challenge. He fucking kills it. He’s so, so good, and I cannot wait for people to see it. His father is smiling the biggest smile up there in heaven for him because he's just remarkable.

The Big Short is one of my favorite films of the last decade, and I particularly loved how the entire ensemble got at least a few moments to shine. But, at the time, people had yet to really see Adam McKay do something so wildly different from his existing work. When you were filming, did you and your castmates say things like, “Can you believe that the Anchorman and Step Brothers guy had this in him all along?”

(Laughs.) Well, we didn’t know when we were making it. We didn’t even know the tone or what it was going to be, because we were all kind of isolated. It was Brad [Pitt], Finn [Wittrock] and myself doing our thing. Then it was all the other guys doing their thing, and then there was Christian [Bale] doing his thing. So our paths crossed very rarely on set. We would hang out after shooting sometimes, but we rarely talked about the work. We would just blow off steam and have a good time. So, no, we didn’t know, but we did know that Adam is so incredibly smart and so amazingly politically savvy. I don’t think people at that time realized just how brilliant he is. Like you said, they knew him from Anchorman, Step Brothers and stuff like that, but if you go back to his SNL stuff, he was already writing politically-charged sketches and things like that. Even Talladega Nights skewered red country or red American culture. So he always had perspective, and it was amazing that Paramount and Plan B had the faith in him to execute it. I think we always felt it was going to be good, but when we saw the final cut, everyone was blown away.

Since Adam likes to improvise a lot, is there anything of yours that made the final cut?

There probably is. (Laughs.) It’s been some years now, so I can’t remember. But, yeah, we improvised a ton. He’s such a cool guy and he’s very loose on set. As long as you’re present, taking risks and going along for the ride, then he’s pretty happy. We did so much every day. We were constantly throwing out new things and trying different things. There were almost too many to remember.

As you just mentioned, you worked a lot with Brad, and then, the two of you worked together again on War Machine. I’ve also talked about this with Scoot McNairy, but Brad has always been good about providing more opportunities to actors he’s worked with and trusts.

Yeah, Brad is fantastic. Besides being one of the biggest movie stars in the world, he’s just a good guy. He’s a guy who grew up in Missouri, and you sensed it. He came from nothing and he’s worked his way up. Being ridiculously handsome is a nice thing to have, but he’s also immensely talented and has great taste in films. He’s surrounded himself with such an amazing team at Plan B: Dede [Gardner], Jeremy [Kleiner] and Christina [Oh]. And I think they like to work with people they’ve worked with before. Because we had that history on The Big Short, it helped War Machine, which also had some improv. So having a shorthand on War Machine definitely helped us. I’m so glad he won last year for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Much deserved. When you go back to 12 Monkeys and Fight Club, he’s done some amazing work as an actor, and I think it’s about time that he was recognized for it. I’m really happy for him.

One of 2018’s most pleasant surprises was Overlord. You touched on this point earlier, but was this film another guessing game in terms of how it would turn out?

Yeah, it’s mostly a guessing game for me, and I think that’s okay because it’s not an actor’s job. An actor’s job is to be present. An actor’s job is to play their part. I shouldn’t be sitting around trying to guess if a film is going to be good or not, especially when I’m not in the editing room. It’s completely out of your hands, and you have no idea. The tone of the world could change, and for some reason, people may not respond to that movie the next year like they would’ve responded the year before. So I try not to think about it. What I do know about Overlord was that it was a fun time. We had a really, really fun time making it. It was a bunch of guys playing soldiers, but with zombie-type things. You can’t have a bad time doing that. Tibbet was such a loudmouthed asshole, who’s also a hell of a sniper, but he kind of had a heart of gold, too. I never saw myself getting to play that kind of character, so having the opportunity to play that guy was really fun. I’d like to play him again if I could.

Whenever another remake or reboot is announced, commenters will often complain about wanting something new and original. And yet, they don’t seem to support original films like Overlord, which was primed for a sequel.

Yeah, I wish it would’ve done better. They could go all the way to Berlin, but it’s probably not going to happen.

Returning to your hype man, Todd Haynes, what comes to mind the most when you reflect on Carol?

(Laughs.) The cinematography, really. They shot that on Super 16mm — actual film stock. Everything’s pretty much shot digital now, and I remember when Todd told me that. After I got cast, I had a meeting with Todd, and he said that [DP] Ed Lachman was going to shoot it on actual 16mm film. I’d seen 16mm and experienced it, but it was in college and through rinky-dink 16mm cameras. So, once I saw the camera department working with this beautiful old camera, you knew that Carol was going to look amazing. I didn’t do a ton in Carol, but you just knew it was going to look absolutely beautiful. And I think that quality helps transport you to that time period; it immerses you in the world that Carol is in.

As far as your career, do you now feel like you have the wind at your back?

In my heart, I’m kind of a pessimist. Like I said, I grew up in Ohio. That’s a city that’s used to disappointment. (Laughs.) It’s also a humble city, and I do consider myself a humble person. I just want to keep working. This whole journey for me has been a climb up the ladder and while each step has hopefully moved me forward, it’s all motivated by hard work. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t necessarily feel any wind — a wind against me or a wind pushing me forward. And with what’s happening in our world right now, and the uncertainty in our industry, it’s a really frightening time with movie theaters closing and people out of work. It’s hard to say, but I also have a sense of hope. We are starting to get back to work, but until this pandemic is beaten, which is obviously the most important thing, it’s hard to say where the wind is going to take me or anyone else.

First Cow is now available via digital and on-demand.