[IMG:L]The notorious and enigmatic legend Jesse James is one of the most riveting and admired outlaws chronicled and referenced repeatedly throughout American history. The infamous criminal robbed, terrorized and killed people in the 1800s, leaving a sensational legacy behind. Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford illustrates the life, betrayal and demise of an iconic hero portrayed by Hollywood icon Brad Pitt.
Pitt makes a smooth transition to embody the charismatic, violent rebel that everyone wants to be like–and wants to be with. While Jesse James symbolized freedom, his ever-increasing notoriety for his brazen acts slowly converted his fearlessness to utter paranoia. Although he was wanted ‘dead or alive’ across the country, he was ultimately betrayed in private by his own gang member Robert Ford. Casey Affleck brilliantly stars as the dubious, backstabbing coward Robert Ford alongside Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker and Sam Shepherd in this psychological-western-drama.
Hollywood.com attended the Toronto International Film Festival’s exclusive press conference with Jesse James‘ stars Pitt and the oft-underrated Affleck. Ironically, life imitated art as Pitt took the spotlight with reporters, leaving Affleck a bit in the dark.
Hollywood.com: Although it’s set over a hundred years ago, this film sharply comments on celebrity culture and the mythologizing that goes on with famous people. Is this what attracted you to play Jesse James the character?
Brad Pitt: Not completely what attracted me–and I don’t even think it’s the main point of the story; but I do think it’s an aspect of it, certainly. Getting into the story I was surprised to see how much a tabloid quotient of media was alive and well at that time. It was still operated by sensationalism and complete fabrication beyond the facts. It’s curious to see that not much had changed besides quantity.
HW: Did you see Jesse James as not just vicious, but perhaps psychopathic?
BP: The film picks up in the last year of his life. He was certainly coming from a place of great paranoia. Most of it justified. I would argue that paranoia consumed him and was responsible for a lot of his erratic actions.
[IMG:R]HW: Your onscreen facial expressiveness sharply conveys how, as an actor, you embraced the fraught character of Robert Ford.
Casey Affleck: How to gauge those things wasn’t always easy and I guess I came to it through a lot of conversations with Andrew [Dominik], the director] about what the character was feeling. He had an intuitive understanding for all the characters and I relied on him as a guide sometimes. Sometimes I’d have my own sense of what he was feeling, and take it from scene-to-scene.
BP: You made a great point. It’s about the degree of difficulty of the role. I hope that’s understood because it’s so complex. There’s a lot of us who have known Casey for many years, and have been fans of him–and have known him to be much more than the parts he’s been able to play. So, we were really happy to see him win this opportunity because it was a coveted roll working with Andrew [Dominik].
[IMG:L]HW: When people hear ‘Jesse James’ they automatically think of the ‘Wild, Wild West’. Do you consider this movie a Western?
BP: It’s probably misleading as far as the [Western] genre as we understand it; and probably better to say a psychological drama. Andrew has called it more of a gangster film at some point. It’s hard to come up with one category, or package, that I think accurately describes it.
HW: Did you ultimately get into the whole Jesse lore, and do you have any memorabilia at home?
BP: No. The nice thing for me–which I was surprised by–I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me, doing something related to where I grew up. I still see the Missouri crawl come up on-screen, and quietly it gives me a little bit of pleasure; and it’s just nice to have some sort of connection to the place that shaped me.
HW: In studying this violent character, why do you think Jesse allows himself, at the end life, to be shot so easily?
BP: This is well documented in the book. This is the thing that historians argue over. Because there were two curiosities about this last moment. The fact is: He gave the gun to his would-be assassin; the very gun that would kill him days later. That he took his gun belt off the moment that would become the assassination [pauses]. The two theories are that he had full knowledge of what Robert Ford, or the Ford brothers, were capable of–and were after–and was taunting them…and was going to ‘take them out’ at a later time. And, it was a bad gamble…and a gamble he lost. The other argument is that he was unhinged and he was weary of this life on the run, and it was actually a puppeteer suicide whether it be unconscious or conscious.
[IMG:R]HW: You won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for playing Jesse James. How do you rate the importance of awards?
BP: I wouldn’t even begin to be able to rate the importance. I was really surprised and remain surprised. I just didn’t expect it. This has been a long road, this film and it was an honor for us to unleash it in this great city [Venice]. I had friends unleashing films. It was just a nice time for us. Listen, to have this happen, I can try and play it down, but it’s great fun!
HW: With so much rich material, were there any scenes that were cut that you miss?
CA: No, not really. You just kind of have to trust the person who can save the thing and labored over it. There are scenes that I liked.
HW: What kind of new skills did you learn?
BP: I had a really nice advantage being from the same area. The cadence and the temper of how people relate there, at least what I understand today, I drew from. The dialect I drew from. I was comfortable with horses. I did a little quick draw. I was ready to go!
–Additional Reporting by Lisa Collins and Brigid Brown