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Wyatt Russell Was Born to Be a Movie Star

Not too long ago, the ‘Folk Hero & Funny Guy’ star — and yes, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn — was tending goal in an international hockey league. Then the family DNA took over.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Recently, Wyatt Russell became the proud owner of a garden. The plot occupies the northern edge of his drought-tolerant side yard, surrounded by a chain-link fence and head-high hedges. The garden has shrubs and bushes, cedar chips and flowers. It’s a young man’s successful attempt at landscaping. It’s not done yet, either. "This was, like, a mud pit a month ago. I didn’t finish it, but this was all going to be decomposed granite patio," Russell says.

We’re seated on either side of a fire pit, outside the unpretentious bungalow on a Silver Lake hill that Russell shares with his girlfriend, actress Meredith Hagner. Russell has a languorous surfer’s drawl: He sounds a lot like the stoners and layabouts he’s made his stock and trade in his short film career. But he’s more attentive than those characters — and, in all likelihood, a far more impressive amateur gardener. He recently laid the soil and the plants together with Hagner. Hence his concern for the yard: This was a couple’s project.

"That’s the no. 1 thing on my mind right now, my garden dying," Russell says. There are more pressing issues to attend to: There’s a film production with a multimillion-dollar budget that relies on his making it to the airport on time this afternoon. The 30-year-old actor is going to New York for a few days to promote Folk Hero & Funny Guy — the charming indie road movie, out Friday, that marks Russell’s first leading role. Then he’s off to London to shoot Overlord, a J.J. Abrams–produced World War II movie about Nazis, and maybe zombies. Russell’s starring in that one, too, alongside Jovan Adepo, most recently of Fences; in true Abrams fashion, the particulars are under wraps. Russell will be out of the country for three months, so he’s stressing about the yard. "We’ve got a house sitter, but I don’t want to be like" — here he puts on a pedantic, entitled voice — "Water the plants every other day. So I’m going to suggest" — gently now — "If you want to, water the plants once every two, three days."

Russell stands a gangly 6 feet and change, blond and appealingly unkempt. He squints exactly like his dad, who is Kurt Russell; some undeniable portion of mom Goldie Hawn’s DNA works its magic across his face. He’s just finished packing three months’ worth of clothes into the two large, red suitcases that now sit outside his front door, but he’d probably be wearing this outfit — a hole-ridden 1977 Rose Bowl tee, gray sweats chopped above the knee, flip-flops and trucker hat — even if he had his entire closet available. Russell smokes an American Spirit, grabs another. He’ll futz with this one, unlit, for the remainder of our time together. In his sweats, gesturing with his cigarette, Wyatt Russell looks and acts more like a former athlete than an in-demand Hollywood actor or the son of celebrities, even though he is both of those things.

He gives this impression because he is still fairly new to acting and not all that far removed from being a professional athlete. If Russell had his way, and had his body cooperated, he might be living in Holland playing hockey right now. But then he tells me a story about dingy European house shares and festering goalie equipment and repeated tears of groin muscles. Russell never thought he’d be an actor. But his second-choice career, he’s realizing, just might be a whole lot of fun.

Two of his three dogs — a husky named Snowman, and a hound named Kas — stroll aimlessly. (Bowie, a schnauzer, is inside.) Russell likes it here. "L.A. is a great place to live if you’re being successful," he says. "My girlfriend and I are doing well. It’s a great place to live when you’re doing well. When it’s not going well," he chuckles, "it fucking sucks."

Unsaid, but acknowledged: It’s going unusually well for Wyatt Russell these days.

Aside from a few early performances — as a surly youth in Kurt’s Escape From L.A., another surly youth in Kurt’s Soldier, and as the Artful Dodger in a middle-school performance of Oliver — Russell didn’t bother with performing as a kid. "I never wanted to act," Wyatt Russell insists. "I never wanted to do anything with film, didn’t care about it. It wasn’t something I ever aspired to do at all."

Wyatt and Kurt Russell (Getty Images)
Wyatt and Kurt Russell (Getty Images)

His dad, though, was convinced Wyatt would would turn out to be an Acting Russell, eventually. "There was a thing that we used to say," Kurt Russell tells me, a little conspiratorially. "The dirty little secret in our family was that the best actor in the family was a hockey player." Wyatt, not even 10, was in a single brief scene in Escape From L.A., as a kid in a jail cell watching Snake Plissken, but Kurt saw enough to know that his kid had the goods. "We put him in the corner, and John Carpenter said, ‘Now, when Snake walks by, you look at him, but you’re not afraid of him.’ Wyatt said, ‘OK, I got it.’ So I walked by as Snake Plissken and I watched him slip right into a character he knew he was playing. And he just eyeballed the shit out of Snake Plissken. I looked at that and said, ‘Yeah, he knows what’s going on.’"

But Wyatt’s first love was hockey. "My mom was working in Toronto," — that’d be Goldie Hawn, sometime around 1991’s Deceived — he recalls, "and my dad took me to a rink to kill time, and I fell in love with it. That was it. And so when I came back here, he put me in a league and I started playing. My brother played hockey before me, when Gretzky came [to the Los Angeles Kings], and my brother was like my idol, so I wanted to do everything Oliver did." Wyatt, an Angeleno bitten by the hockey bug, would spend the next two decades chasing that feeling.

The Russells lived in Santa Monica until Wyatt was 15. "And then I moved to play ice hockey in Vancouver," he says — meaning he, Kurt, and Goldie up and moved to Vancouver. Mom and dad consulted with Wyatt’s coaches, and with Los Angeles Kings players and staff, who told them that all roads in high-level youth hockey led through Toronto and Vancouver. "So Goldie and I talked about it," Kurt says, "and the truth of the matter is he deserved it. He deserved it because he was working hard at it and he had talent." (While there, Kurt took his role in Miracle, the movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, in part to acknowledge his son’s passion, per The New York Times.)

Hockey is a nomadic sport; after four years in Vancouver, Russell moved to Chicago, and then to Toronto. He spent two years at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, improbably a Southern hockey hub, playing alongside current Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot. (Russell worked toward a philosophy degree while there — good training for what he calls his "lovable stoner, philosopher guy" roles.) "Then I played pro hockey in Germany for a couple years and Holland for a year," he says plainly.

In Europe, he dabbled in the local culture, or what passed for it in the third-tier towns he traveled to. "You’re not getting paid a lot of money, and you’re put in shitty social housing with, like — I lived with a heroin addict named Harm," he remembers. "That was the life experience, watching somebody shoot up heroin while you’re eating potatoes he made." But it was exactly what he’d been looking for: a chance to play hockey and see some strange parts of the world.

Why hockey? "I liked it because it was, as purely as you can get, based on your numbers," says Russell. "If you have good numbers, you’re gonna move up. If you’re the best goalie in the league every year, you’re gonna move up. If you have the lowest goals-against average and the highest save percentage, you’re gonna move up. So it’s simple that way." It was attractive, he explains, precisely because of how different it was from the lives his famous parents led. "It was a goal to attain that was not subjective. As a young kid, I liked it because my parents were these people who, in a subjective world, were seen as successful, and were successful in their own rights. I wanted to do something that I could be successful at in my own right. [Hockey] seemed like a really good thing to do because it was easy to say, ‘Well, I’m good at it, you can just look at my numbers.’" Even the goalie mask helped. "No one could see my face," he says. "It was just numbers."

The end of Russell’s hockey dream came in his mid-20s; his body wasn’t built for the pounding a goalie takes, and the overnight bus rides didn’t help, either. After a series of groin issues and a broken hip, he found himself convalescing in Groningen, in the Netherlands, where he saw one version of his life flash before his eyes: "All of a sudden you’re 33 and you have no money and no marketable skills — besides playing hockey," he imagined. So he had to find a new job.

The family business, so long ignored, started calling to him. He watched a couple of movies a day for the six months he was recovering, boning up on the films of Walter Hill, Mike Nichols, early Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Akira Kurosawa. Making movies "wasn’t something that my parents put a lot of stock into in terms of what’s important in life," he says. But growing up near the business did have its benefits: "I saw the life that you can live if you’re good at it and you stick around long enough and you make enough bad movies if you get the opportunity to," he says. It looks cynical in print, but in his yard, Russell sounds realistic and measured. Maybe even hopeful: "It provides you a good life," he says. "And every once in a while you make a good one that people like."

And so ended Wyatt Russell’s grand, filthy European adventure: with a busted hip and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. At first, things went great. "The day I came back, May 10, from Egypt on vacation with my teammates, I auditioned — it wasn’t an audition as much as it was, ‘Are you any good?’ — for Captain America, for some part that I’d never get in a million years," he recalls. "But I read it. I went in and I just, yeah, read the fucking lines. How hard is it?" He didn’t get the part, but the casting director was complimentary. Eventually he booked a part on Law & Order: Los Angeles and a small role in Cowboys & Aliens. "I was like, ‘This is fucking awesome,’" Russell says, laughing. "This is going to be easy."

It was not quite that easy. Russell had talent and he had pedigree. But he still had to learn how to act. He went a year and a half with no roles. "And I go, ‘Oh fuck, it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,’" he says. Acting is not hockey. It "requires another part of your brain that I really hadn’t exercised that much before," Russell says. He was wrestling with ambition, too. "[I] got more nervous as the things that I wanted became apparent," he says. He was playing tight — a cardinal sin for a goalie. "You walk into an audition room and you’re like, ‘I’m not gonna get this part, everyone’s glowing,’" he says. "So I started to go against that, to have a beard and grow my hair out long."

He took smallish parts in independent movies and sought out interesting directors. "They make the movies, they tell the stories," he says. "I’m a cog in that wheel. You’re a bigger cog or a smaller cog." He played the good guy in Jim Mickle’s cannibal flick We Are What We Are, and then the really bad guy in Mickle’s retro thriller Cold in July a year later. "I remember the other actors coming up to me afterwards being like, ‘Jesus Christ, that kid’s gonna be a star,’" Mickle tells me. "We get our movie stars from jeans commercials and really slick CW shows and shit. So it’s really hard to find those guys who are regular, all-around American guys — who have any kind of talent or experience. That’s what [Russell] continues to bring."

Russell parlayed that regular-guy-ness into two small roles in two big movies: as Zook, Channing Tatum’s sentimental football bro in 22 Jump Street, and as Willoughby, the bong-ripping pitcher in Everybody Wants Some!! "I remember in rehearsal — it’s so funny, a lot of these stories I can’t tell, because that movie was just too much damn fun — Wyatt basically came up with his character," explains his costar Glen Powell. "He, like, steals the whole movie with just a few scenes. I remember him talking to Rick [Linklater] about music and who this guy is. And you just saw Wyatt constructing this guy, literally off of nothing."

Last year he starred in "Playtest," his own episode of Black Mirror, as yet another free spirit — this time a backpacker who winds up in a horrific video-game-style simulation. He was nonchalant about the whole thing, says Hagner. "[When] I have a big scene, it’s like an hour of long-distance phone conversation," she says, laughing. "He had that huge scene where he’s crying and shaking and he was like, ‘Yeah, today was good! Now there’s a great hockey game on.’"

Wyatt Russell in ‘Black Mirror’ (Netflix)
Wyatt Russell in ‘Black Mirror’ (Netflix)

Kurt credits that easy grit to Wyatt’s hockey training. "That experience is probably what Wyatt will always refer to as he goes on in his acting career," he tells me over the phone. "Because it’s gladiatorial. It’s black and white. You either win or you lose. There’s no excuses, there’s no distractions," he rumbles. "You go play, and if you’re not playing well, you’ve got to find a way to play better. It allows him, I think, to walk in any room to talk to anybody, and he’s been to a place as a young man that very few people have been to."

It is abundantly clear that Russell’s parents are nothing but proud; it is also true that he is in a very different stage of his career. "My parents were fucking huge movie stars, and I didn’t come from that world. I came from a small hockey world," Russell says. His parents were a long way removed from having good advice for a young actor. "‘I don’t know,’" he paraphrases. "‘I haven’t auditioned in a hundred years. I have no idea! Go out and do the best you can. I can’t help you.’ Same goes with my sister [Kate Hudson]. There’s a level. It’s different."

"They never gave me advice at all unsolicited, thank god," he says, laughing. When pressed, Wyatt says, Kurt was … curt. "‘You’re your own person, you’re gonna do your own thing, here’s the thing that helped me and that I think helped everybody that I worked with,’" he summarizes. "‘Know your lines, backwards and forwards, know the tone of the movie, show up to work on time, and don’t be an asshole.’" (Kurt confirms: "Yep, that’s pretty much it.") Wyatt Russell, I can attest, is not an asshole. Jim Mickle says he’s good at remembering his lines.

Folk Hero & Funny Guy, Russell’s newest movie, started as a Kickstarter project from writer-director Jeff Grace. (It will see a theatrical-and-VOD release this Friday.) Russell plays Jason Black, the titular folk hero: a necklace-and-floppy-hat-wearing ladies’ man who takes his buddy Paul (Alex Karpovsky), a struggling comedian, to open for him on tour. Russell plays the guitar and sings songs he wrote live; friendships are tested; dueling Springsteen impressions are tossed out. It’s familiar territory for Russell, only amplified: Jason is goofy and wise and a hippie, but he’s also kind of a creep. (It’s fun to watch Russell and Karpovsky joust over Hagner’s Bryn, the third point in their not-quite-love triangle, with the knowledge that Russell and Hagner wound up together.)

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

"I think one benefit of coming from the kind of family he does," Grace tells me, "is that he understands how to relax in front of the camera. That’s something you can’t train." Mickle, Grace, and Powell all say he reminds them of Jeff Bridges, straddling that line between laid-back cool and engaging quirk. (Russell cites Bridges as a mindful, mellowed-out role model, too.) "I think the magic of a movie star is someone you’d wanna grab a beer with," Powell explains. "And I’m not sure that’s Wyatt. I think Wyatt’s a guy you want to sit and have a cigarette with, and talk about the problems of the world." This, he is quick to note, is a good thing. "He really has an old-man quality to him," Powell elaborates. "Old Man Russell. When you talk to Wyatt, he’s almost like a hundred-year-old man you’d find on top of a mountain in Nepal."

Then, of course, there’s the comparison closer to home. But the job of the leading man has changed since Kurt Russell and Jeff Bridges held the belt. A movie star is made from intellectual property these days, not from off-kilter charm. "I hope he never does a Marvel movie," Mickle says. "He can do leads, he can do characters, he can do ensembles, he can stretch genres. That seems like where he’s heading."

Russell’s next projects are big ones. Overlord, which has been rumored to tie into J.J. Abrams’s Cloverfield movies, teams three relative newcomers — Russell, Fences and The Leftovers actor Jovan Adepo, and Son of a Gun director Julius Avery — with Abrams, Hollywood’s busiest shepherd of science-fiction universes. In August, he starts filming Lodge 49, an upcoming AMC series about a surfer named Dud who joins something like a Masonic lodge. He’s becoming more comfortable with being The Guy. It feels sort of like hockey again, Russell strapping on his pads and stepping up. Only he’s not the masked-up goalie anymore, sitting back and reacting. "Look, there are moments where it’s like, ‘I’m the star player, I have to show up and I have to score tonight,’" he says. He loves anonymity, but he wants to make big and interesting movies. "I think the biggest thing is: Don’t take it too seriously, for anything you do," he says. "It’s just a movie. Some movies are more important than others, but it’s still a fucking movie."

For now, there aren’t a lot of paparazzi photos of Wyatt Russell on the internet, a function both of his relatively minor fame and his reluctance to hit the town. The photos that do exist are taken with one or both of his parents. (Mom! Dad!) Photographers still follow Goldie Hawn around, not Wyatt. But there is one shot of Russell that makes me laugh, so I ask him about it.

He’s strolling on a Hawaiian beach with Hawn and Hagner, wearing above-the-knee swim trunks and a weather-beaten Sturgill Simpson tee. Retro concert merch is popular among the group of actors who star in superhero movies, a stylist-assisted way to signal rebellious personal style. But Sturgill? The voice of New Country? That’s a specific pull.

Wyatt Russell, it turns out, is extremely down to talk about Sturgill Simpson. "I’m a big fan," he says, "because he makes great music, but also because of the way he is, the way he engages with his art. Sturgill Simpson went out and made a fucking R&B album. He started off with a country album and moved to psychedelic country or whatever the hell people want to call it. Just because it was the things he wanted to do." Russell becomes more animated here than at any point during our two conversations. "He’s going to make the record he wants to make. He’s gonna sing the songs he wants to sing," he says. "He’s going to do it as best as he can, and he hopes that you fucking have a great time listening to him, but he’s not gonna shove something down your throat. He’s not gonna try to be someone he’s not to make money. He’s not gonna do anything that’s going to compromise his integrity so much."

He could talk about Sturgill Simpson all day, but now Russell needs to leave for the airport, to catch his flight and start becoming a movie star. As I’m getting into my car, Russell drives past me in a comically large pickup truck. It would be a more natural fit in Austin, where Russell owns a home, and where he thinks he might wind up down the road. But for now, he says, "L.A. is home to all the practical things in our life." So here he is, driving this dark gray behemoth down a street full of Los Angeles–sized cars. He waves and barrels down the hill into Silver Lake. He’s picking up dog food and then he’s heading to the airport, to New York and Europe and the rest of his career. Fame awaits. Until then, he has his house on the hill. It’s got a really nice yard.