'First Cow' Director and Star on How to Portray a Bromance in the Wild

Kelly Reichardt-and-actor-John Magaro
Matthias Nareyek/WireImage; Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and actor John Magaro chat about their sweet drama exploring the friendship between two men in a remote trading post in the Oregon Territory, and why headshots don't matter much ­— except when casting a cow.

Kelly Reichardt's First Cow has some of the things you'd expect from a 19th century frontier drama, like brutish men fighting over limited resources. But at the center of her story is a pair of outsiders — Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) — whose gentle personalities seem at odds with the ruthlessness of the world around them. Reichardt and Magaro reveal how this unexpected take on a sweet friendship came together, what's involved in casting the perfect bovine, and the lasting effects the experience has had on them.

What was your first impression of each other?

JOHN MAGARO It was over video chat, Skype or something like that. Now I guess we're all used to that, but then I think we were still novices. I had seen Kelly's work before, so I was a fan already and I loved the script. And we just chatted about the film and her ideas for it. She saw a short film that I did, and I think that helped.

KELLY REICHARDT Yeah, and a feature. And I also knew Todd Haynes had worked with John, and so it was kind of a formality, but it just helps to obviously hear someone talk and talk to them, just to see who they are as a human.

MAGARO I have to say, as an actor I find it nice to talk and chat. Because I just find the audition experience is such an odd, unnatural thing, and I imagine for a director to have to base their whole opinion on a two-minute audition, it must be difficult.

REICHARDT It was. You're reading with a casting director with a white wall behind you and a video camera. It's impossible, yes. But you know, if a person just has a good headshot, John, you can tell it all in the headshot.

MAGARO Then how did I get cast? I have a terrible headshot. (Laughter.)

REICHARDT No, I'm kidding — the headshot is the worst thing. I don't think anybody does that anymore. There's Google images now. But I do remember thinking, "John Magaro has beautiful eyes, very soulful eyes, this will all work out." Scott Rudin, who produced the film, had worked with John a lot. So John had a lot of fans in his corner before we ever spoke.

MAGARO So that's the lesson for other actors: Don't be an asshole and burn bridges, because your relationships matter.

John, what was your first impression of Kelly and Jonathan Raymond's script?

MAGARO Jonathan Raymond and Kelly had a really impressive way of writing, it's very unique. I don't think a lot of folks are doing that right now. It's just beautifully fleshed out on the page. By the end of it I was really moved by it. I saw the beauty and loved the character and loved his innocence. I thought that was something that you don't often get to see. It's a total departure from the typical Western hero — kind of the antithesis of that. I thought it was going to be a challenge for me because it's unlike a lot of the other things I've done. It's an era which I haven't really had the chance to explore, it's a type of person that I haven't had the chance to embody before.

How did the two of you work together to find the character?

MAGARO Kelly is really generous with her materials, with what she is working with and what's inspiring her. So she sent both Orion and I a lot of material, a lot of books. She sent me these cookbooks that were kind of Lewis and Clark cookbooks, and I started cooking my way through those and found that really helpful, just to find the quiet and the rhythms of cooking. And beyond that, we would talk about things. When we got there, we were trying to find Cookie's voice. She really helped me discover that so it didn't become a typical Western, Southern-Western guy. It became its own voice, especially since Cookie has traveled all over the place in the Northeast and in the South. He traveled across the country.

The chemistry between the two main characters is so key to the story. Kelly, how did you know you had the right pairing with John and Orion?

REICHARDT You don't really know because they're not together till they're together, and we don't really rehearse. I was really doing my homework with them separately. But the first day they came, we put them through April Napier's costume time machine and they got into their Cookie and King-Lu outfits. And I remember Chris Blauvelt, the cinematographer, taking some Polaroids of them in the parking lot of our production office, and I felt such relief just looking at them together, like, "OK, this will work." And then we sent them off on their camping trip. In lieu of rehearsal they went off with this survivalist and learned some camping skills in the rain.

John, what was the survivalist weekend like?

MAGARO This guy — he's a reenactor and he lives in Idaho — took us into the woods outside Portland for three nights, and it was raining pretty much the entire time. He taught us a bunch of skills. He taught us how to trap animals, how to skin a muskrat, how to forage, how to cook with the stuff we would've had. And Orion was making cordage and rope and all different things. It gave us a chance to learn those skills, but also it just gave us a chance to get to know each other.

Sounds like you learned a lot of new skills for this film.

MAGARO Yeah, yeah, I think we all did. I don't know how valuable they'll be living in a city …

REICHARDT You're milking a cow in Brooklyn right now.

MAGARO Yeah, that might be the next stage, urban farming. Get a cow in my backyard. I'm sure the neighbors would love that.

Speaking of the cow, she's such a major part of this story. How did you find the right one?

REICHARDT It was headshots of cows. Well, really, first it was body shots, for figuring out the different characteristics of different cows. We settled on a Jersey cow, which has the big doe-y eyes and is smaller in stature. Then, after that, I got a bunch of videos of cows and headshots of cows, and Evie was quite beautiful. And I needed a cow that wasn't too dark because we're going to be shooting her in dark night scenes. She has a beautiful face, so she was a standout. It was very shallow casting, really, just that face. And then the animal trainer started working with her to get her comfortable being on the barge.

This depiction of masculinity in this era is so unique in how sweet these two characters are. How did you approach that part of Cookie's personality?

MAGARO I think that goes back to the script. It was really clear, it was on the page, and that made it easy for me. There didn't have to be many discussions because I felt like it was very, very evident from what he said, how he chose to be sparse with the way he spoke and the way he was more observant — even the way he deals with animals. You can see there's a gentleness to him. So I really just let the script guide me.

REICHARDT It's weird because John in person is just a raving …

MAGARO Yeah, a rage-a-holic. (Laughter.)

Did you learn something on this film that you'll carry on to your future work?

REICHARDT This was way more manageable because it was the first time we ever shot five-day weeks, and so having a day to think in between, to reflect on what you just did and what you're doing, as opposed to [how] usually I can never look at what I just did, just press on, press on, press on. So that to me was a huge thing. But I find a lot of what you learn on a film doesn't necessarily translate to future work. I mean, even the things we learned on Certain Women about filming around animals, it's just like we have to immediately relearn it when we're shooting around the cow. It's like, "Oh yeah, we have to slow down and become quiet."

MAGARO What was nice about this job was the peacefulness of the set. Not only were we outside, but Kelly has worked with these people several times, so there was a kind of familial bond there, and it kept things not chaotic. Too often sets are just chaos and it feels like things are constantly going off the rails. And as an actor on those kinds of sets, it's hard to, at times, stay focused and not lose your composure in the mad rush to get things done. I guess if there is something to take, even though it tends to get broken down when the chaos hits, it's that peacefulness and that joy of making something like this.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.