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“I Was Never a ‘Go With the Flow’ Guy, No Matter If It Was Hip or Not”

In a wide-ranging conversation on ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast,’ ‘Fate of the Furious’ star Kurt Russell discusses the different strategies for marketing movies, how he avoided the pitfalls many other child actors fall into, what it was like meeting Herb Brooks and making ‘Miracle,’ and his passion for winemaking

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kurt Russell has had a successful Hollywood career for virtually his entire life, and his most recent film, The Fate of the Furious, hits theaters Friday. On the latest Bill Simmons Podcast, he sat down with Bill Simmons to talk about his road to success and much more.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Some Movies — Like ‘Fate of the Furious’— Don’t Even Need Marketing

Bill Simmons: [Fate of the Furious] is a movie that doesn’t really need to be promoted because it’s probably the most reliable franchise we have right now other than Star Wars. Through all your years of doing different movies, is there a right way to promote a movie? Is there a magic formula?

Kurt Russell: I’m of mixed feelings about it. I’ve done where you go out and promote it to death. I’ve done it in my past, probably to my own detriment, where I just didn’t do anything.

You’re always dealing with white noise and trying to rise above it. If you have a great movie that everybody just loves, somehow it comes out of that projection room and the word starts to get out there. And then there are other movies, you can promote them until the cows come home and nobody wants to see it. I think that what you do is you kind of hope that the one that the studio is choosing is the one that works, and they have to do their best.

Simmons: Event movies, comic book movies, franchise movies, those seem to be able to promote themselves.

Russell: They have millions and millions and millions of dollars. If you put millions and millions and millions of dollars into, I don’t know, Moonlight, would you have a movie that goes out there and [makes] $500 million because it’s really good? I don’t know.

And then there’s a George Lucas theory, the binary theory of filmmaking which I also happen to believe in, which is the minute [the audience] hears the title, understands what it’s about and who’s in it, they’re either going or they ain’t.

Simmons: Did you follow what happened with Get Out like two months ago? I thought that was a really effective marketing strategy.

Russell: Yeah, well, I don’t know if it was a strategy or if it was just what they had to do, but the movie found its way.

Playing Herb Brooks in Miracle

Russell: Miracle was a mediocre screenplay. You were watching two things, you were watching a coach, and you were watching a group of young men. The group-of-young-men aspect of it was really pretty good. But we already knew their story. The one man, we didn’t know that story, and we didn’t know the man.

I had the opportunity to meet Herb Brooks because he was coming out to Vancouver, where we were living because our son was playing junior hockey in Canada, which is a religion up there. And Herb was coming out to scout. One of the things he was doing was scouting goaltenders, and Wyatt [Russell] was one of them. So when we met we spent the first hour and a half, two hours talking about Wyatt. And there were all these Disney guys around and they finally started kind of looking and Herb and I said, "Yeah, we gotta get down to some business here."

So I’m thinking, I said, "Well, was that the most fun year of your life?" And he looked at me and was like, "Well, are you an idiot?" Because I didn’t know the story, I just knew what was in the script. And he looked at me and he said, "Are you kidding me?" I said, "No, I don’t know." And he said, "It was the loneliest year of my life."

And I remember looking at [director] Gavin O’Connor and saying, "We have some work to do." And was able to get a lot from Herb, his dilemma. Here was a man who had three national championships, a future in the NHL, and he was putting it all on the line for a concept that nobody else was buying into. It was tremendous. He wasn’t just Simon Legree, whipping the boys going "more, more, more, more." It had to be put into context. There was really nothing in the screenplay about what the coach was doing behind the bench. So it didn’t matter. We had to work on that.

I love that movie. It’s also one of my favorite performances because I got the greatest accolade I’ve ever gotten out of that, which was when we went and had the premiere, Herb’s grandson, who’s like 3 years old at the time, [says] "Papa!" And he was pointing at me, and I said, "That’ll do it for me."

Simmons: You nailed what my review would have been of that movie if you had asked me. Mediocre script; you were great in it.

Russell: It’s a mediocre script, but it’s not a mediocre movie.

I’m not laying something on the writers, I think they wrote the basics. But there were some things that we needed to change, like you do on all movies. There’s nothing different about Miracle, in terms of that; in terms of working on a script. But in particular, you needed to know what Herb had at stake, so that every time you’re with Herb, you didn’t just want to get back to the guys. So that it wasn’t just "OK, got it, Herb! You want to win. Got it." No. You gotta understand what somebody is putting on the table that they may lose for their entire life. That was fascinating.

A very weird thing happened. I’m a pilot, and I was flying on the day that Herb was killed in his car accident. I was flying from Muskoka to Los Angeles. I looked back to the time; I found out the time he died. I was almost directly over him when he had that car accident.

Simmons: What?

Russell: It was very bizarre. I’ve never told that story before, but I looked on my log book and worked it back, and I was within a four- or five-mile range at 28,000 feet. It was bizarre.

I wish he would have seen that [movie], I wish he would have been able to see it.

How Russell Navigated Being a Child Actor

Simmons: I’m a child of the mid-’70s, when all we had on was Gilligan’s Island and you were Jungle Boy on Gilligan’s Island. How old were you as Jungle Boy?

Russell: I was 13.

Simmons: So you’re one of the rare cases of the child actor who actually became the successful adult actor.

Russell: Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, because I think a lot of [other child actors] just found another life that they preferred. I think that some of them were really good actors and they just decided to do something else. I just never looked at it one way or the other, I just always looked at it as playing a part. I never felt like I was a kid playing a part. I didn’t go about it that way.

Simmons: Do you understand some of the dangers of when somebody becomes famous or well known as a child actor?

Russell: I understand it well. I’ve watched it. I’ve lived it.

The dangers have been documented that have happened to many of those young actors. It just wasn’t my future. It wasn’t what I was interested in. I wasn’t interested in it for a lot of the reasons I think perhaps made life difficult for some of those people. But it’s not that I didn’t experience the same pressures, the same realizations, the same difficulties. I just kinda dealt with it differently.

There was a phrase one time, which was "Go with the flow." That was just not me. I was never a "Go with the flow" guy, no matter if it was hip or not … sometimes to my detriment, but that just wasn’t my look at life.

Russell’s Big Chance, Which Is Different From a Big Break

Simmons: So, Elvis was your big break, you think? I remember watching that as a kid.

Russell: It was my big chance.

Simmons: Your big chance?

Russell: Your big break is always your first job, which in my case was Our Man Higgins. I had a chance at Disney, when I went over there to do Follow Me, Boys!, that was the motion picture break. And working with Elvis Presley [on] It Happened at the World’s Fair when I was just 10 years old. That was an opportunity. And then playing him [in the 1979 film Elvis]was such—

Simmons: Was he still alive when you were filming it, or no?

Russell: No. It was written when he was still alive. Then he died. It added a degree of difficulty to it. Because there was this sense of, "Gee, it’s only been 18 months since Elvis died and they’re already doing this." That’s sort of the way things were at the time. You didn’t jump on that. It was bad form. But this was already in motion.

There’s a really nice man, an actor, Treat Williams. He and I were down to the last "Who’s it going to be?" I remember Treat one time … said to me, "If you get this, are you going to actually do it?" And I said, "What? What do you mean?" I said, "What about you?" And he said, "I don’t know." And I said, "Why? What do you mean?" And he said, "Come on. I don’t know, you’re playing Elvis."

Simmons: Elvis was like, the biggest star.

Russell: Yeah, and I had never thought of that. I was like, "It’s just a job." But I had confidence in doing it, I had actually kind of fooled around in my life thinking about Elvis, doing [the imitation] on the bus with ballplayers. But when you’re going to do it seriously, it’s a whole different thing.

I did have my experience working with him for a couple of weeks to draw on. Which had happened 17 years earlier. But that was primarily what I got to draw from. And then I had a lot of material given to me. Because I didn’t know much about Elvis Presley.

Simmons: You had to sell the charisma?

Russell: It just was different. It’s not the original.

Simmons: The scowl?

Russell: Well, you don’t do that. You can’t do that.

Simmons: The faces?

Russell: No, that’s not the way to go about it. Bill, you don’t want to do that. That’s the wrong approach.

Simmons: Tell me what you do?

Russell: You understand the human being. If I’m going to play you, I’m going to find out things about you. I’m watching you, the way you sit.

Simmons: I’m sitting comfortably right now.

Russell: You and I are different people that way. But if I’m going to play you, I’m not going to play you like I’m doing right now.

Simmons: I’m going to sit back.

Russell: Well, now you’re doing me. That’s you playing me! But I’m just telling you how I would do. You get to understand the human being. What I’m understanding about Elvis is that Elvis, in a way, learned to play Elvis Presley. He wasn’t that. When you see him early in his life, he’s quite different than he became five, six, seven, years later.

Taking Four Years Off to Make Wine

Simmons: You took like a four year break from ’07 to 2011. Was it a retirement or a sabbatical?

Russell: No, I got interested in wine. I’m doing Death Proof with Quentin Tarantino. He’s my favorite filmmaker. I think he’s the Orson Welles of our time. I think he’s great. And he’s a blast and he’s brilliantly talented. And I’m doing Death Proof, having a ball, playing this Stuntman Mike character, just having a ball. But I’ve always wanted to make wine. A friend of mine was talking to me about it at the time, and saying, "If you’re going to do this, you need to get going on it." I said, "Yeah, I do. I just don’t know how to do it or what to do."

Now I’m sitting there with Zoë Bell strapped to the hood of the car for three weeks, and we’re going to be doing this scene. And I’m driving and she’s sitting there and we’re talking. And behind her, I was just off the side of the road with the walkie-talkie waiting for them to say, "C’mon." Hopefully, they’ve shut down all the roads because we’re going to literally be doing 90 to 100 going down this road. And the camera car is in one lane, you’re in the other, and there’s no room for anyone else coming the other way.

As I was waiting, I was looking at this vineyard, daydreaming, thinking, "I’d love to own a vineyard; I’d love to make one." The next year, I met the people who owned a vineyard in Santa Rita Hills, California. Because I wanted to make a Burgundian-style pinot noir.

Simmons: Oh, wow. You’re getting supertechnical on me.

Russell: I just knew what I wanted to do. But I had no idea how to do it. … A man named Greg Gorman, who was an old acquaintance, who was a great photographer … introduced me to Peter and Rebecca Work, who own Ampelos Cellars and Ampelos Vineyard. Ampelos Vineyard was the vineyard I was looking at when I would sit on that corner. So now I’ve had the opportunity to start making wine with that vineyard and those people. And Peter in particular took me under his wing, and I became a kind of wine apprentice. They help teach and continue to teach me and help me reach some of the goals that I want to reach, in terms of winemaking, and my GoGi wine. GoGi is my wine.

My wine has taken off. I make a really good high-end pinot. They have my wine at the best restaurants around Disneyland, Disney World, Shanghai Disney. It’s all over Los Angeles, San Francisco. It’s all around. My wine is growing, and I’m very proud of it. Nowhere on it, other than on the back, is my name. This is not a situation of a celebrity horribly slapping a name on a bottle and making a claim. Anything that has to do with wine, I love it. I preferred the fun that I was having doing that to the screenplays I was reading.

Simmons: I’m stunned by this. I had no idea.

Russell: Yeah. If you like, pinot, go for GoGi.

Simmons: I love pinot! Pinot is my favorite!

Russell: OK. My pinot is made for pinot drinkers. … This is going to sound like a commercial in five seconds. But if you like pinot, Bill, that’s the deal.