If you’ve seen the Coen Brothers awesome movie True Grit, then you saw Barry Pepper’s great work as Lucky Ned Pepper towards the end of the film. However, if you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil anything in this intro other than saying True Grit is a fantastic movie and Pepper literally disappears in the role. Of course, as a fan of this very talented actor, this didn’t surprise me as he’s been doing great work for years. Check out his full resume.
Anyway, before True Grit got released, I sat down with Pepper for an exclusive interview. While I usually like to post interviews before a movie gets released, I decided to save this one till after it had been playing for a little while. During the interview he talked about how he got involved in the movie, what it was like to work with the amazing cast, and the Coen Brothers. In addition, Pepper recently wrapped on Terrence Malick’s next movie (which stars Ben Affleck) and he told me how he got cast and how he never read a script. He also said that he still doesn’t know what the movie is about and described the unusual way Malick worked. If you’re a fan of either the Coen Brothers or Terrence Malick, hit the jump to either read or listen to some great stories:
As usual, I’m offering the interview two ways. You can either click here to listen to the audio or you can read the full transcript below. We started out talking about True Grit and towards the end we got to Malick.
Finally, True Grit is currently playing everywhere. It’s definitely worth seeing in a theater as it’s one of my favorites of the year.
As I sit down he shows me what looks like a notebook of some kind…
Barry Pepper: This is my journal from the film. I always keep a journal.
Collider: That’s actually kinda cool
Pepper: A year later, you gotta try and remember all the things that took place when you’ve done two or three films since. It’s nice not to be too boring.
Now have you kept a journal on all of your projects?
Pepper: Yeah. Well since, probably, [Saving] Private Ryan which was 12 or 15 years ago now. ‘98 was when we finished I think. I think ‘97 we were shooting.
See this is excellent because you’ve had a long career already which obviously is gonna keep on going and I would imagine in 20 years you can look back on these journals and all of a sudden have an amazing book.
Pepper: Yeah and also too, it shows sort of how you’re progressing and how you thought what was the key to it all back and then and how those things shift and change. You know, you work with different actors and filmmakers and directors, and you learn from the best of them and make notes of what works for them. You know a guy like Jeff, I don’t know if you could kinda give his style a title but he’s just got this sort of easy-go-lucky kind of style about him and sort of water off a duck’s back personality that is just infectious on a film set, it goes out like a ripple effect. Everybody’s havin’ a great time working with him and being around him even though the conditions could be really arduous and it’s snowing and you’re up in the mountains and he’s just kind of like this kind of light on the set. And he really sets the tone, whereas all of my early film experiences it was always wrestling with this really intense method approach—methodology in my approach to finding my character and sort of really becoming kind of reclusive and hermit-like in my intensity and just desperately trying to find the character and also not lose it, just trying to stay hyper-focused. And then you work with a guy like him and you see how effortless and enjoyable [he is].
It’s interesting you mention this because I heard the way Daniel Day-Lewis prepares, or why he only takes so many roles is because his method of getting ready, I’ve heard, is very intense and very focused, especially on set. Obviously he’s a very respected actor—
Exactly. I think that it’s interesting you mention this because I don’t necessarily know what the right or wrong answer is, I think it’s whatever makes you comfortable.
Pepper: Yeah sure sure. And it’s really results, you know it’s a results oriented business. But it’s just the—you’re causing yourself undue pain and suffering through your process (laughs), it’s just always interesting to watch other actors and how they approach their work. Not that I’d change my methodology, it’s just that through watching a seasoned veteran like Jeff bring so much joy and pleasure each day, and that’s something that he learned from his father Lloyd on film sets as a young boy, in watching him on film and television sets, Lloyd was the same way—he just saw it as an absolute blessing to be doing what he was doing for a living, that every day was a holiday. So I’m not saying that his approach to his character work is any less intense, it’s just that he doesn’t exude that. It’s not like everybody has to know about it, like if he’s playing somebody who’s fluent in Japanese and so he decides to learn Japanese, he’s not gonna tell you about it all day long, “Oh I had to do this and I had to do that” or stay in character to the point where it’s just sort of obnoxious to be around.
Totally. I could stay on this tangent for the whole interview
Pepper: It is fascinating, because you find your own hybrid I guess is what I’m saying. You go, “Okay I’m very much more like Daniel Day-Lewis in that sense of the method, I really enjoy that process.” And yet, when I look at Jeff and I work with someone like him or Tom Hanks or others that I’ve worked with that are just sort of that “keep it simple” sort of approach, and they bring a lot of light and joy to a film set, it does make you reflect on your own process.
I definitely have to ask you, you’ve worked with numerous filmmakers, numerous actors
Pepper: I just finished a film with Terrence Malick
Oh believe me sir, we’re getting into that. What I was gonna say was, with the Coen brothers, in the film community they’re “The Coen Brothers”, everyone knows them. They are so well respected, revered, and worshipped with film nerds, and with just the general public.
Pepper: Well I guess I’m a film nerd, because every actor has them on their wishlist of “must work with” filmmakers.
Exactly, 100% worthy. My long-winded beginning was going to—
(I was wearing a American Flag t-shirt with the words Made In China beneath it)
When you find out that they’re interested in possibly working with you, are you jumping up and down? Could you sort of talk about A) what was your reaction and B) how did they find you to come to this role?
Pepper: In answer to the first part of the question: you know you go and work with other directors and they hear that you’re about to go and do a Coen brothers movie or you just finished a Coen brothers movie, it doesn’t matter who the directors are they’re like “Oh I love those guys” and “I love their movies.” Terrence Malick, just working with him after having done this, he asked about it or I had mentioned it or something, it came up in conversation and he said “Oh I can’t wait to see that movie.” And here’s a director that is considered this auteur, this genius, for many of the same reasons and he’s just also an equally tremendous filmmaker in that pantheon of filmmakers like the Coens are, and yet he’s enamored by the Coens’ work and their filmography.
So I think that’s pretty incredible. I mean I never even got a script for the Terrence Malick project it was just “where do I show up?”, and the same for these guys. Although I had to fight for this role, I mean “Ned Pepper” it sounds like typecasting, but no they didn’t—I don’t think they saw me as the character, you know for obvious reasons, so I put myself on tape in character. I created a character based on the script ‘cause I had never seen the original film, I didn’t know that Robert Duvall had played Lucky Ned originally. I hadn’t read the Charles Portis novel, my head was like deep deep in the sand on this one, but the script was so incredible, what I came to realize [was] and absolutely faithful adaptation of the novel. And so I just kind of pulled what I could from their descriptive of Lucky Ned’s character and did an audition on tape and sent it in. My wife was the cinematographer that day, she stood in for Roger Deakins (laughs). I live on the ocean so it was kind of tricky to get a take without sea lines and seagulls chirping and barking and squealing in the background. But yeah they saw that and they offered me the job, and then they asked me to come in and read opposite the five girls that they had narrowed it down to from 15,000.
That was when I met them and I met Jeff, Jeff was there and myself and Dakin Matthews who plays Colonel Stonehill. And then these five girls came in one at a time to read like 8 pages of dialogue that they had to have memorized. And Hailee was, yeah she was just 13 at the time, she’s still 13 so she might’ve been younger but—no she would’ve been 13, yeah. And here she is and we’re reading opposite Jeff Bridges and the Coen brothers, and totally unphased. Just a remarkable young professional and with poise and strength and sort of the courage to not stammer and lose her lines, but 8 pages is just really daunting for a 40-year-old actor let alone a 13-year-old actor. ‘Cause you don’t wanna screw it up, you know it’s come down from 15,000 to you five and you want that job so desperately. And when she left it was unanimous, she really owned the day. The other girls were really good too, but she was just kind of the cream that rose to the top. And like they said in the press conference, you know she was able to handle that very specific dialogue that Charles Portis created. And then it was sort of off to the races, just like Jeff said. We sat down with the brothers, because Rooster had shot Ned in the face the last time their paths had crossed in the backstory of the book, we sat down with this Oscar-winning makeup artist, Christian Tinsley, who had worked with them on No Country, and I think he won his Oscar for The Passion of The Christ, it’s something that he had created a prosthetic thing that he had revolutionized the make-up industry with.
And we sat down and started to talk about—cause I had created a sound, this way that Ned spoke because I figured his jaw had been busted when he had been shot, it’s just something that I thought would be interesting. And so his teeth were all busted up and broken from the gunshot, and his upper-lip was all cut and sort of roughly mended back together and his beard had grown over it, it was fantastic. So we sat down and just kind of created that and then got together with Mary Zophrees, costume designer, and started looking at different woolen chaps and hats and everything. That was just a fantastic process because, like Jeff, for me the skin of the character’s so important—that’s why I rarely ever will audition without a costume, at least in some form. That’s why it was so advantageous for me to be able to put myself on tape because I was able to do it in full costume and full character. Actually bring Lucky Ned to the screen as opposed to Barry Pepper showing up in some office cubicle with a handi-cam. It’s just so ridiculous, generally, the audition process. It’s just so uncomfortable. So yeah, and then it sort of evolved from there, it blossomed to where everybody was just sort of throwing ideas into the pot. Like Josh and Jeff said in the conference, you’re informed also too by what the other characters are doing and thinking and feeling about your character, and just the interaction and it just starts to come to life.
And that was what was so cool about the process was getting to see Jeff create, you know who I consider to be The Dude forever and always, see him evolve and create and morph into Rooster Cogburn and leave any trace of his former self behind. And same with Josh and same with Matt and Hailee. You know being there at that early stage and getting to see everybody formulate their characters was just something really special to witness. You know Hailee too, you know she says she’s been acting since 8 but I mean not on a film set like this. None of us, well not none of us, but I certainly hadn’t and so I even had a bit of nerves comin’ onto this one not knowing what the Coens’ style was, you know this sort of two-headed director dynamic. And so for her to show the kind of poise and professionalism that she did in creating that character was just awesome, and it was a tough shoot for her. I’ve done a lot of films with the environment, or like that really cold and miserable and really long, but for her she’s 13-years-old, she’s way up in the mountains and it’s snowing, she’s got my cold leather boot on her neck and she’s getting thrown around and shot at and ridin’ horses and drug through rivers. And yeah, she really showed us all a thing or two about true grit.
You obviously worked with Terrence Malick which you mentioned, how did you get to that role and could you just briefly talk about the experience of working for him and the Coens in such a short period of time?
Pepper: Yeah, well it was just a phone call that I received that said, “Terrence Malick would like to offer you a role in your next film”
Did you think it was a prank at the time?
Pepper: (laughs) Yeah, right, where do I send the check? Like I say, I didn’t read a script or anything I just said “absolutely”, which I’ve never done before, although I’m sure I would’ve done the same for the Coens if that was a similar situation. There’s just certain filmmakers that—I think everybody feels the same way about him. But I honestly couldn’t tell you what the film is about, because I’ve never read the script. I was not issued a script. I will leave it at that, because that’s probably about as much as I’m allowed to talk about. But I think that I’m not saying anything beyond what’s already very commonly known about him is he’s just this absolutely “in the moment” filmmaker, like chasing the sun for his light, you know no lights and no script, and just asking you to really invest yourself in creating a character that intersects with your own heart and your own sensibilities. It was an amazing, amazing experience. But here I am working with Ben Affleck, and I have no idea what his role is in the movie, because our two characters never meet. We aren’t aware of each other in life, so therefore if I’ve never met you there’s no need for me know what your storyline is, right? Or you just would never be aware of it, so therefore why fill yourself with information that’s unnecessary? So for me, it was extraordinary. But I really look forward to talking to you about it, when it does kind of see the light of day
In 3-4 years when he’s done editing it?
Pepper: You know, I heard it may turn around in a couple of years so
We’ll see, we’re all still waiting on Tree of Life.
Pepper: (laughs) Oh I thought that that was supposed to come [out]?
It’s coming out in May. But he’s been done for a very—you know he’s been tinkering with it for a very [long time]. No one has seen it, and he’s already working on his next film, so that tells you something.
Pepper: Yeah well that was the next film.