Sam Elliott Is a Space Cowboy
by Paul Fischer
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Often known as Hollywood’s western hero, Sam Elliott gets to play a cowboy of sorts again in the Chris Weitz epic fantasy The Golden Compass, and as Elliott confided to Paul Fischer in London recently, he’s having the best time looking forward to reprising the character in the next two films.
Paul Fischer: Why this particular piece and what was on the page that made you say yes?
Sam Elliott: Well I think the script was very intriguing and it was Philip Pullman’s book that were very intriguing in their own right. That said and done, Chris Weitz laid a line of shit on me, for the lack of a better a word, because he wanted me to play this part and he laid it on pretty heavy. He called this character classic, iconic, laconic American cowboy, and that’s all those things that have worked to get me to do a job for forty years. When I refer to the shit, I mean, it’s a term for an endearment, you know, it’s not a negative, it’s not to be taken negatively. He laid it on heavy, he wanted me to play the part. I’m an actor, I’ve been doing this for forty years and to be forty years on the other hand of forty years and have somebody still wanting you to play a part is a great thing.
PF: Are you contractually obliged to do all of them?
PF: Wouldn’t you want to?
SE: Yeah, I would want to anyway. They aren’t going to make a deal with any actor without tying them up for the bulk of the [series].
PF: Were you familiar with this character because the character sounds like you…
SE: I wasn’t. I wasn’t familiar with the character, I wasn’t familiar with the books, I wasn’t familiar with Pullman. I have the greatest respect for him as a writer and personally I have started a personal relationship with this guy and I have a lot of feelings for him.
PF: So you read all of the books?
SE: I read all the books the first time through in about a week and for me that is huge. That is voracious reading for me because I am not a voracious reader. I read these books when we were in negotiations and trying to work this deal out. Once I got into the second book and I remember sitting in my kitchen and it was like what happens in the second book in this one particular scene just reduced me to tears. I called my agent the next morning and I said “Don’t let this thing get away. Don’t play hard ball with these guys because I really want to go do it.”
PF: Have you seen a second script or is there another one in the process?
SE: There is one.
PF: Have you read it?
PF: You know what happens?
SE: I know what happened in the book and then theoretically they are going to hold close to the book like they did with this one.
PF: I was told that they shot something at the end of this movie that they did not use. Were you involved in the new scenes and reshoots?
PF: Will the scenes be part of the next movie?
SE: No, they didn’t shoot something for this movie that they are going to put in the next movie.
PF: The stuff that is cut out, is cut out?
SE: Exactly, that is the heartbreak of it. If there is anything that can kill a bee in the bonnet in any movie, but that is the nature of the beast. It is not a sequence that I’m involved with so [laughter] it doesn’t mean that’s why I don’t care if it was in the it is that I can’t voice an opinion on it. I never saw the scenes.
PF: Because they cut those scenes they had to add scenes to help the flow of continuity. Weren’t you involved with those new reshoots?
SE: I did an added scene.
PF: Was that when your character decided to go and help Lyra?
SE: It was the scene with me and Iorek. I’m trying to decide if I want to tell you this.
PF: We’ve already seen it.
SE: It is the scene with Iorek and I after Lyra was captured…I look at that as a connective tissue. I look at it as an important piece. It talked about these guys and their history, it talked about how Scoresby felt about this girl. Initially it was the bear’s fault the girl got away and it wasn’t the case. Scoresby dropped the ball as well.
PF: Have you seen the movie?
SE: Yes. I saw it last week for the second time. I saw it seven or eight weeks ago in New York.
PF: How had it changed?
SE: It is like a different film. The first time I thought “Hmmm, they’ve got a lot of work to do,” but fortunately they have incredibly deep pockets and a huge band of people and some incredibly talented studio people that worked well at that point. They pulled it off, I think they pulled it off It is a shame that it can’t just go like a well-oiled machine. They shoot the movie and it all just falls into place but that’s not the nature of the beast, at least not with these CGI things.
PF: Do you find the CGI stuff frustrating?
SE: No, it is just the work. Frustrating on some levels, of course, especially when you are trying to relate to someone who is there and have to pretend that somebody is there, but we are in the pretend business so that is what we do.
PF: Before this and Ghost Rider had you tried any fantasy?
SE: Hulk had some green screen in it.
PF: How did Pullman help you develop your character?
SE: Somebody talked about a book that he’s writing or has written recently—a prequel to Scoresby and the Bear but we didn’t talk much about that kind of stuff. Pullman from the beginning got on my band wagon and encouraged me. And said that was the right guy and so forth. It is kind of invaluable. It is one thing for a director to want you to do a part, but to have a writer say that they have this vision of Scoresby and you’re the guy to me that is, you can take it as daunting. I don’t want to let him down. I don’t go that way, I just look at it as total encouragement.
PF: Can you talk about your experience working with Dakota?
SE: It as just an amazing experience down every road. She’s an incredible kid. She’s sweet, she’s bright, she’s not precocious, she’s fearless in terms of an actress. I’ve worked with a couple of young girls in my career, in a movie in Off the Map and a movie called Prancer and there were two young girls and both were skilled and they were both fearless. Whatever it is, they’ll try anything. If you’re smart enough to communicate, and tell them what is you want, they’ll give it to you. There were two reasons why this movie will work for me and she’s number one and then the dæmons were the other reason.
PF: Have you ever worked with any boy or girl actors who actually were horrible? Because you never hear the stories of the kids that were not good, you always hear like “oh they were great”.
SE: W.C. Fields is a classical, and Kirsten Dunst or whoever it was and it’s true, I’ve worked with precocious little pains in the ass. They’re there. But I’ve worked with many older pains in the asses, there’re actually more.
PF: What about Chris Weitz? How surprised were you that he’s never made this kind of movie before?
SE: I think Chris was in deep. In deep water. Deep water will ground you if you can’t swim. Chris Weitz couldn’t swim.
PF: Were you surprised he was able to…
SE: Not surprised because he’s a very bright guy. Chris was on and off and on again, on this project. He was going to do this movie, and he was going down to, who’s the guy doing The Lord of the Rings?
PF: Peter Jackson.
SE: He came back and quit. Quit the movie. And they hired another director. They hired some guy who didn’t see eye to eye with anybody, the studio didn’t want him and they ended up, you know, went back to Chris, and Chris came back on again. I’m glad he did, I really like Chris, I like Chris personally a lot. He’s a very nice man. You know, Chris’s got a long way to go, he’s got a long, long road ahead of him, I can’t imagine.
PF: What’re you doing at the moment?
SE: Nothing, this is my life. It’s my mom’s 92nd birthday, she’s all alone in Portland, Oregon, and I’m here in London.
PF: Let me ask one more thing about Dakota…a lot of this movie is right on her shoulder because she’s the main character. So did you sense any pressure from her?
SE: No, she’s totally clueless to it. I think her mom maybe knows… watching the evolution of both of them in terms of their savvy factor or quotient have changed like night and day. The thing is, here’s this single mom raising this incredible kid. Their world is going to change, I’ve been telling them that for the last year long before I saw any of this, an inch of this thing, while we were working. They should just enjoy it while it lasted. What she’s got, she’s very much into school and her friends at school.
PF: How selective are you with what you take on?
SE: I’m picky, very picky. I wanted to be an actor since I was nine years old and I figured that was only one way to ever have any longevity and that’s to be careful about what kind of work you do. You can work for money, do a lot of whatever comes your way and not have any kind of a yardstick to measure quality by, and people, you know you’ll make a lot of money if you’re lucky, and people will get fed up and sick of seeing you and that’s it onto the next one.
PF: Would you like to see westerns to come back as a…
SE: I have a lot of vicinity for that, I’ve always taken great offense to anybody in Hollywood have them tell me that there’s no market for American western, I’ve always just said bullshit, get your head out of the sand and look around and see what has worked time and time again. If we start making good westerns, people are going to go see them. Unfortunately it’s all about the dollars these days, it’s not about making a good movies, it’s making movies that are making good money. If they’re doing the second movie, I’d love to do it.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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