Kodi Smit-McPhee (‘The Power of the Dog’) on being in Peter’s shoes: ‘It’s a really great feeling’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kodi Smit-McPhee is earning dozens of accolades for his enigmatic performance in “The Power of the Dog,” and the young star just earned his first Oscar nomination. The actor plays Peter Gordon, a sensitive young man who is tormented by his uncle.

Smit-McPhee spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery in December about finding the physicality of Peter, working alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and what it’s been like to be recognized for his work. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: So much of the story hinges on what’s going on in Peter’s head a lot of the time, but so much of it goes unspoken, is mysterious. How do you go about getting into that frame of mind and conveying that without sort of giving anything away and also really dancing that fine line that that character’s on? 

Kodi Smit-McPhee: I mean, I guess it all starts with how you just as an actor are so attracted to a role like that when reading the script or the novel, because it is such a challenge and I’m one throughout my career, I tend to approach things in a very underplayed manner anyway. Directors are usually telling me to turn up the volume or turn up the energy a bit, which I’d rather because it’s either going to be turn it up or down. So for this, I really got to bask in the glory of underplaying something so subtly and really internalizing everything. So if anything, I really flourished with that challenge but at the same time, there was a huge amount of territory that I got to explore in the guidance of masterful filmmaker Jane Campion to really achieve what we see on the screen. All of the habits and the tics that Peter has, whether it’s in the way he talks or the way he moves, those are really dialed in with the help of Jane and the people that she works with. 

GD: And this being set in the American West, 1920s Montana, it’s not your first Western film. You were in “Slow West” a few years ago. Did any of that experience translate here and help you get into the setting and into the character? 

KSM: If anything, just a parallel to it is that “Slow West” being my first movie that I shot in New Zealand, I was always blown away with my experience there. It’s such a beautiful place. The nature is astounding visually, and the people are just fantastic. I always wanted to get back there to shoot something, ideally something that I was extremely passionate about, and it just so happened that this came along. So I’m very grateful for that. But in terms of any parallels between the two jobs, even though they’re in the same genre, they’re so, so far apart from each other. I mean, we don’t even have one gun within “The Power of the Dog,” and yet it’s still considered a Western, which I think is beautiful. One very delicate and the other very, I guess, quirky and violent. 

GD: Was there any other preparation besides what was in the script and what was in the book, research into the era, into ranching, your character studying medicine? What were those kinds of preparations? 

KSM: Absolutely. I mean, I always love to dive into the deepest avenues of research when it comes to my character’s interests and the life that they had before we find them in the script, and even after, the trajectory in which they go further into the future. So yeah, there was quite a bit to pull from with Peter. But I think a really beautiful part about him is that he flourishes in isolated territory. He’s somewhat of a hermit, and he doesn’t mind that. He doesn’t want to change that. His courageous spirit is unwavering in the presence of judgment and whatever anyone thinks of him. So, I loved all of those elements about him. If anything, I relate to those things. I may not want to be a doctor, but I’m one that’s just been so greatly curious about the universe and many different subjects. So we have that in common. But yeah, I guess in terms of the ranching and things like that, because he had to look like an amateur or a rookie, I just didn’t really do anything. I just kept it natural. I’d ridden horses before, but that was such a long time ago, and it’s nothing like jumping on a bicycle again. So I had to relearn that, and that was a beautiful experience. There was some more of the delicate stuff that he does with great patience, which was a challenge for me, creating his notebook and the flowers, which I learned.

Mainly, though, the amount of energy that I put into Peter was mostly just reinventing who I am and completely cutting away, cutting the ties between my habits and my impulses, whether they’re physically, mentally or the way that I talk, between Peter. I worked with a body coach, a movement specialist, to become more limber and adopt this new delicate way of walking and running and stopping and thinking. I always played with the comb in my own time, and I guess the lisp was something too. Originally, again, I was underplaying it, and Jane really wanted me to turn it up and to take it to a whole another level, which I thought, “Oh my God, am I doing too much here?” But every one of those thoughts is really just your ego and its defiance. It’s somewhat of a fear-based ideology and in the presence of Jane, you just have to keep surrendering to those, which is a lovely feeling to put your complete trust in someone who’s leading you to something so rewarding. 

GD: And the relationship between Peter and Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is so interesting and complex, and there’s so much under the surface there. Was there a lot of rehearsal and what was it like developing that relationship? Because it plays like this really careful dance that these two are engaged in. 

KSM: Absolutely. That dance that we talk about, it’s so clear in the book and in the script, and I guess it’s one of the things that’s so beautiful about it, and not just between Peter and Phil, but between all four characters. Much like the rope being intertwined in Phil’s hands, we’re doing the same thing. But yeah, specifically my awareness and character development on the relationship between Peter and Phil, it’s this amazing dynamic of walking a fine line between them eventually having something more than this kind of dominance battle that seems to be somewhat of a relationship or sensuality, if I may say, brewing between them. But that’s just another layer of ambiguity that this movie drags you into in terms of leading you down all of these different avenues of your own judgment, which feeds into you just not knowing where it’s going to go, because at the same time that they’re growing this sense of appreciation for each other, there’s still this underlying tone. They’re battling to make each other more vulnerable and they tend to be on par throughout.

So yeah, there was quite a lot of thought behind that. Again, putting our complete trust into Jane and having an amazing amount of time with her to dial all that kind of stuff in. I believe it was two weeks before filming that we had that. Sometimes it was just Jane and I to talk about the more secret agent aspects to Peter that no one else could know. And then for the surface level stuff that was shown, the show of Peter, that’s what we did with Benedict. And I guess it’s a fine line also to not want to dial anything in too much so that you don’t have the freedom to explore on the day. So we kind of tiptoed around what it became. So it still was fresh to us. 

GD: And in the midst of filming this, there was a COVID shutdown, as many other productions experienced and there was a period of uncertainty. Once you came back to filming, was it challenging to kind of get back into that rhythm or was it actually kind of a relief to be back and completing the film? 

KSM: It was a bit of both, to be honest. I mean, I can’t speak on behalf of others, but for me specifically, I just made a mental note to keep Peter alive within me and remind myself of just his essence, just to keep him there. Because usually when a film is done, I really have this feeling of unplugging and just letting everything go, the anticipation of it being edited and coming out. all of that worldly stuff, but all of the psychological stuff of the character and the development of it, I just let it all go. But we had to kind of keep it alive and keep that fire there. So that was new, but it was easy to me. And if anything, I think much like Jane, if I may speak on behalf of her, it gave us this ability to kind of mentally go through everything that we’d done and come back rejuvenated with new notes and new direction and new impulses that we may not have discovered while in the momentum of shooting. It was almost like going to reshoots, but we hadn’t even finished yet. 

GD: One of the things that’s most interesting about Peter is that we see him at first, he seems shy and sensitive, and yet, there’s also a sense that he kind of knows himself and is comfortable in his skin in a way that other characters aren’t, who may present much more aggressively. 

KSM: Absolutely. I love that about him, and I try to adopt as much of that into my own personality as I can, moving forward after playing him, because it’s a really great feeling to be in his shoes. To completely accept who you are and to not care about what others think is so empowering. I spent a lot of my life kind of worrying about the way that people viewed me or the way that I sounded, or the way that I looked, or the things that I was interested in. It was only when I fully embraced who I was as an artist, as a person, and love myself that certain things started to manifest for me that I really wanted for myself. And also, to be fully understood by others. That’s what happens when you fully embrace yourself. So I absolutely loved taking it to the fullest of my own potential in the shoes of Peter. In terms of how it serves the story, I think it’s so lovely because when you’re reading a book, a script or a movie, even if you try to have no judgment about it, everyone is representing some certain archetype. It’s kind of like the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons where you’re working out who’s the guy that’s going to have the mask pulled off his face. And for this one, it kind of forces you to do that with every character. In terms of this sense of impending doom coming your way, you’re trying to work out, how is it going to end? Who is it going to hit? And I just absolutely love how Peter in many ways is the last person who we expect to be so powerful. Yeah, I love that. 

GD: The film has been extremely well-received this fall since it’s been showing at festivals and finally releasing in theaters and now on Netflix. You won the New York Film Critics Circle. This morning we are recording this, Critics Choice nomination, also. So what has that recognition been like? I mean, you’ve been acting for a while. You’ve actually gotten Critics Choice nominations as a younger actor. So what is this recognition that the film is getting, what’s that been like so far? 

KSM: Honestly, it has left me speechless, but if I can try and put it into words, I mean, I’m ecstatic. I feel absolutely humbled. I feel a great sense of relief in this certain chase that I feel any creator has or any kind of endeavor, whether it’s to do with their personal life or their career. We tend to feel like we’re chasing something a lot of the time, and often we’re told that the chase never ends, that we’re chasing something, that it’s just going to be that. But I’m so fulfilled and so satisfied to realize that people are really seeing me for my potential and what I’m worth through the privilege of playing this character and being in a Jane Campion film. It feels amazing.

I mean, it’s just been a lot of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, dedication and passion. I know all those words can be very cliche and thrown around a lot, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I’ve been doing this since I was eight years old. My dad got me into it, so it’s something that was not only close to me, but it’s a family story. It’s a family journey. As much as it’s been so many years to get here, I look back and it’s gone in the blink of an eye. So it’s really showing me the value of time and what passion and dedication can do, and consistency, and choosing the right jobs, being picky, sacrificing other ones for the things that really speak to me and what I think will speak to an audience. Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to say about it, but it’s hard to put into words. I guess at the end of the day, I’m just absolutely humbled. 

GD: And as you mentioned, you’ve been working in the industry for quite a while now and you’ve made that successful transition from childhood into adult roles now. How was that over the course of your career kind of evolving throughout as you’re growing up and your characters start growing up? 

KSM: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s a defined challenge for many child actors, going from a child and transitioning into an adult. But for me, I mean, if I may say, I feel like I was lucky in the sense that where I kind of broke through with “The Road,” “Let Me In,” and even pre-dating that, here in Australia with “Romulus, My Father,” a lot of the subject matter and the themes are quite dark and quite heavy and already quite mature. I mean, if anything, in a reverse sense, people and critics and interviewers were always asking me how I was dealing with such adult themes and did it affect me and things like that. But no, for some reason I felt the same way as I do approaching those themes now as I did back then. So it was just about me leading the way and being picky with the material that came in. Again, only going into things that spoke to me and I think would stick with an audience and always had a good message about them and great people to work with. So those things, I think, made the transition for me a lot easier. I mean, I don’t think a lot of people get that privilege sometimes. It’s a lot more challenging for others and in different themes and different categories to make that transition. So I can only be grateful for that. 

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