John Magaro stars in the latest Kelly Reichardt film “First Cow,” which is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2020. His work as Cookie, a sensitive baker living in 1800s Oregon, earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Gotham Awards.
Magaro recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about working with Reichardt, the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu (Orion Lee) and the huge critics’ reception for the film. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the transcript below.
Gold Derby: People say that it’s difficult in the business to work with children and with animals, and you are sharing the screen with the titular first cow. How was your experience working with her?
John Magaro: Well, that’s an udder lie.
GD: There ya go.
JM: My two favorite scenes were the scene with the baby in the bar and the scenes at the cow. So we defied that cliche. No, but Evie, she’s just an amazing animal. Those were some of my favorite scenes to film, those scenes at night where it’s just her and me sitting there talking and there’s just something about being next to an animal that size. It almost puts you at ease when they’re so peaceful and calm and it was a fast bond, mostly motivated by bribes and treats, but it paid off in a really lovely moment when we come out of Chief Factor’s house, which is Toby Jones, and Evie starts nuzzling up against me, which was unplanned, but after a week of feeding her treats and getting to know her, she seemed like she was connected. So it was nice.
GD: That is nice, yeah. Well, speaking to how you got involved with the film, Kelly Reichardt’s status within the independent film world was, I imagine, one of the draws for you to do the film and I’m wondering how she lived up to any expectations you might have had just from working with her.
JM: I’ve been a fan of Kelly’s for a while. So when I got to read the script, I was pretty sure it was going to be something I wanted to be a part of but then just on the initial read, rarely do you get a script that’s so fleshed out and so clear and the vision is so precise and it also is just so beautiful that it brings you to tears by the end on just a read from the words on the page. So yeah, I knew I wanted to be involved with this. On the initial read, I also saw it almost more as a “Meek’s Cutoff.” I was surprised how intimate it became in the shooting, in the style that Kelly and Chris Blauvelt, our cinematographer, chose. Obviously, I think that it was a pleasant surprise.
Kelly, there’s a reason she has such respect in this industry and among independent film followers and fans. She a professor at Bard of film. She has a supreme knowledge and a true appreciation of cinema in all its forms and it shows when she works. She comes in with a vision that’s extraordinarily clear. She can motivate a team. She creates a warm and collaborative set and that’s why I think people continue to go back to her. A lot of our key people involved on the crew and production end, as well as actors like Lily Gladstone and other people continue to go back to her because she is just absolutely amazing to work with and inspiring.
GD: Well, speaking to the set, much of the film is spent in the woods, in the wilderness, and I’m curious whether that whole process of working with your hands and living in that environment was something that came naturally to you or if you had to work to really get into the mindset of this guy who was living off the land.
JM: Yeah, I’m more of a city guy (laughs). My camping experience is middle school Jewish summer camp, where it was very cushy. So no, not that I’m against camping, but I just haven’t done a lot of it. Yes, this was a new experience for me. I do really enjoy cooking. That is a way that I basically unwind and meditate most of the time. So I do have an affinity for cooking. But this cooking is a very different type. This world is a very different thing. So we were really lucky. In this, we had a brief kind of Lewis and Clark frontier boot camp type thing where Orion Lee and I went out into the woods outside of Portland for four days, three nights, something like that and got to set into that world and our skills where I was cooking and using the tools and we were hiking and foraging and skinning roadkill and making cordage and making traps, all these things. I think it was nice to have those experiences beforehand so we felt a little more comfortable because Orion is also a city boy, too. So it made us feel a little more comfortable stepping into this world where you kind of have to be a master or a jack of all trades in a way.
GD: And the character you play, Cookie, we gradually learn more about him and his past as the film goes on. We do kind of get a sense of who he is right off the bat, just from the way he interacts with other people and with animals especially, and his sensitivity. But how did you find your way into who Cookie really was, inherently, during that prep work?
JM: Yeah, so much of it is on the script. Like I said, Kelly and Jonathan Raymond painted a really clear picture. Not a lot was changed from the script to what we see on the screen. So instinctually, you see that this limited speech he has and this more reactionary way of operating, that automatically starts to get your mind going into that direction, and then you notice that the only one he really opens up to is a cow. That’s probably the most he talks ever, so then you understand his connection with nature and animals. Then for me personally, to get that rhythm, I asked Kelly to send me some stuff, just things that were inspiring her. She sent me some music, some artwork, some books. But for me, the most helpful thing was she sent me these cookbooks from primarily the Lewis and Clark expedition, what they ate during that journey and for a month or two, I forget exactly how long I had before we started, roughly a month and a half, I found myself cooking my way through these books and with that style of cooking and baking, there’s just tremendous patience and quiet to it and precision and doing that day after day for a few weeks just kind of let that quiet and let that weight wash over me. So I found that coming into the performance. And then I said this before but the final component is being in that wilderness, this untouched, unspoiled forest of Oregon. There’s just something about it that’s so awe-inspiring that you can’t stop from being quiet. It makes you just sort of sit back and take it in.
GD: Well, one of the key elements of the film that I think people have really responded to is the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, played by Orion Lee, and they form such a close bond. What do you think it is that they see in each other that makes that bond feel so natural?
JM: I mean, on the surface, the most basic thing would be the need for connection. They both are aliens in this world. King-Lu, primarily because of his ethnicity, is never going to be accepted into that world and Cookie because of his way of being, not being macho, not being tough, not being outwardly alpha, being passive, these are things that are going to make it hard for him to be accepted into that world. So they’re both looking for a connection. But at the real core of it, I think you could say they’re almost soulmates. These are people who, for whatever ethereal reason, are drawn to each other. Thankfully, King-Lu is more gregarious and draws Cookie in because I don’t know if Cookie would. He obviously helped him in the beginning because of kindness and care for a fellow human. But King-Lu is the one who kind of coaxes Cookie along to begin to open up more. The relationship may start out of necessity, but it grows and develops into something that is supremely profound and deep and meaningful and I think that’s why people have been responding to the movie, to watch such a genuine friendship in such a tough, turbulent world survive.
GD: Did you and Orion do any kind of special prep work to make sure that the two of you were very comfortable with each other?
JM: The boot camp was kind of it. Unfortunately, with independent films, you don’t really have a lot of time. So we showed up about a week before we started shooting and thankfully, we did have that that frontier camp or whatever you want to call it, to get to know each other a little bit. It certainly wasn’t enough time, but we started to understand each other’s rhythms and understand how each other was, and fortunately, we’re watching the friendship develop onscreen. So over the weeks of filming, we continued to get to know each other. We continued to bond. We continued to become friends. So not only are you watching King-Lu and Cookie’s friendship developing, you are, in a way, watching mine and Orion’s friendship develop.
GD: Also, Toby Jones plays a pretty fun character in this as Chief Factor, who owns the cow. What was he like, someone who’s been in the business for quite a while now, playing off of him as an actor?
JM: I mean, Toby Jones is remarkable. We’ve watched him for years deliver stunning performances, hilarious performances, heartfelt, beautiful performances, vulnerable, everything. He commands respect and you know as an actor, when you step on set with them, I think one of the first things we shot was where I give them the cake and he delivers this beautiful speech about London and watching it, you’re watching a master work. The way he delivers that on the first take, you see why he is Toby Jones. So it was really a gift to have him on set. It was too brief, but getting the chance to play off of him with a lot of fun.
GD: Well, you mentioned earlier you’re kind of a city boy, but the film is set in the 1800s but considering how much the film is set in nature, I think it’s a bit easier to sort of transport yourself there and I’m curious just how conscious you are when you’re doing period pieces like this of contextualizing yourself within the time period and whether you just immerse yourself in that world and almost go full method with it or if you’re just able to switch back and forth and walk off and be on your cell phone or something.
JM: It’s hard to say because I don’t know if I’m fully aware of it. That’s almost a better question to ask someone else who’s observing me. I like to think I can switch, but I also know that there is an element that I hang onto throughout the entire shoot. There’s just a component that you keep with you constantly and you do operate a little bit differently no matter what, or I think I do, no matter whatever job I’m working on. But you just sort of dive in. Maybe I do put blinders on in a way and I try not to think about it. I just try and be immersed in it and go on the journey and see what happens. That’s a terrible answer but it’s really hard to answer. I’d be curious to hear what other people would have to say about how I am. But I really don’t know.
GD: Well, “First Cow,” it’s already showing up in these end-of-the-year critics awards, top 10 lists and certain awards and you received a nomination from the Gotham Awards for Best Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Feature. Orion Lee is in the Breakthrough Actor category and the screenplay is nominated. What was your reaction to hearing that news of not only your nomination, but of the film already really making a big splash in such a big way?
JM: It’s been really nice because it’s been such a long journey for us. We played Telluride two years ago now, because it was a year and then it was canceled this year and then we came out in March and then we had a pandemic, which has been terrible, so we got pulled out of the theaters and maybe I’m a bit of a pessimist, but obviously we were very proud of it, it’s a beautiful film, but we kind of let it be. What happened had happened. So to see now it starting to get recognized, it’s amazing. I think especially for Kelly, it’s deserved. But yeah, I was shocked when we got the call and we got the four nominations, the categories we were up for at the Gothams and then for me especially, I was really shocked just to be included in the company of such tremendous actors. It’s cliche, but it is an honor. It’s just really soul and heartwarming to see people respond to the film in this way, because it is a film with a lot of heart and a lot of care that’s been put into it and I think Kelly has been under-appreciated for far too long and I really think she deserves it. There’s so many other films out there that are absolutely brilliant but I do think Kelly’s been overlooked a lot in the past. So it’s lovely to see her being recognized, especially with all the effort and care she puts into it.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in the last minute or two here, I have to say, this is one of those movies that features food that really just makes you want to try it yourself. I mean, we have Cookie making these biscuits and everyone who tries them is just so rapturous about how amazing these biscuits are. So, simple question while we finish here, were they as good as advertised?
JM: Well, I’m going to say this, it’s been funny to see these articles come out, recipes for the oily cakes. This has become a thing, Twitter feeds, I mean, it’s funny. It’s surprising, but I get it. I’m a big fan of watching things and then getting the food that you see on the screen because there’s something about that. It makes you hungry, you want to connect with the film in that way. Now, the oily cakes on-set, so when I’m making them, I am making fresh ones, so those ones, I imagine, were pretty good. Those probably tasted OK, but most of the people were eating things that had been sitting around probably for three days. So they had to sit there and eat them and act and even Toby had a few of those and he makes them look amazing but I can’t imagine they were very good. Now, me, I never ate them on that day. I didn’t touch those ones. I did have one when I made them at the frontier camp we went on. When I made them then, I tried them and they’re good. They’re like a beignet, in New Orleans, kind of like a Cafe Du Monde beignet, maybe mixed with a funnel cake, but it’s dough and sugar and milk, and fried, so how could it go wrong?