Jesse James is not the typical hero in this film, is he?
Well, I think those are the questions the film is asking. Was Jesse James a Robin Hood or a criminal? Was Robert Ford a coward or was he the real hero of the story? As the film shows, Robert Ford was acting on behalf of the Governor of the state of Missouri, whose economy was failing because people were avoiding a place that was still so completely lawless.
Was it this new take on the subject matter that appealed to you about the film?
It sounds over the top, but every single part of the movie was appealing to me. The original book by Ron Hansen is beautiful and I thought the script was the best adapted screenplay I had ever read. The language was just gorgeous too and I thought the character of Robert Ford was heartbreakingly tragic. I also wanted to work with Andrew after I had seen his previous film, Chopper, where the performances just jumped off the screen.
Did you actively pursue the role of Robert Ford?
If by ‘actively pursue’ you mean, did I go to a lot of auditions? Then, yes [laughs]. It was clearly a role that a lot of actors would have liked and Andrew’s reputation sort of preceded him.
The relationship between Ford and Jesse James, which is at the center of the movie, is an incredibly complicated one.
Robert Ford idolized Jesse James. He was a hero of his from comic books and he wanted to be like him in a very childish way, without any sense for what that meant or who Jesse James really was. As for Jesse James, Ford came along when he was at the end of his career. His gang was falling apart; he was sick; he’d been shot several times and he was looking back on his life with regret. In Robert Ford, I think he saw somebody who reminded him of why he had done all the things that he’d done and made him feel like the hero that he’d always wanted to be.
You’ve worked with Brad Pitt before on the Ocean’s films, but this must have been a very different sort of experience.
Brad is exceptional because he does movies like this, which are ambitious and risky, and he gets paid nothing for them, which he really doesn’t have to do. As an actor, he made everyone around him better. It’s very hard to play a character like Jesse James because he’s partly defined by his own myth: other characters are supposed to be afraid of him, in awe of him, so he has to be larger than life. If you don’t carry that weight, if you don’t have that presence, then the movie just collapses on itself like a house of cards. But Brad delivered that. He made it easy for people to be in awe. He made it easy for people to be scared of him. He wasn’t afraid to be mean. He wasn’t afraid to be violent and vicious. He also wasn’t afraid to turn on a dime and be sensitive and insecure and vulnerable. He was also there on set every day before I was, which made me look bad.