Wading through ‘Deepwater’ of Kurt Russell’s career

From Disney star to ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ the actor talks about a lifetime spent on screen

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Kurt Russell is a Hollywood rarity.

He’s a kid actor turned childhood star who became an adult star and then never went away.

Since making his acting debut in 1962, Russell has done TV, Disney films, action movies, comedies and dramas. He’s been a steady presence through 10 U.S. presidents, and has starred in big hits and cult classics from “Escape from New York” to “Big Trouble in Little China.”

Meanwhile, his long-term relationship with Goldie Hawn has stretched 33 years, and he’s never been tangled up in any gossip rag brouhahas.

Ask Russell, and he’ll tell you he beat the odds.

“There’s not a whole lot like me around,” he says, sitting inside a seventh-floor suite at the Ritz Carlton during this month’s Toronto International Film Festival while promoting “Deepwater Horizon,” which opens Friday.

“Fifty five years? Come on,” he says. “When I was 11 I was starring in films and TV shows. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I get that. I think what I’ve done differently is I’ve pretty much played different people every time. That cost me a lot of money, but it also kept me going.”

Review: ‘Deepwater Horizon’ pays tribute to lost lives

Russell is sucking on a throat lozenge to stave off a cough that’s been ailing him for five days. He’s wearing a gray button-down shirt, untucked, and blue jeans.

Black frame Oakley glasses with orange accents cover his eyes, and his deep gray hair looks like an ocean wave cresting atop his head. One piece of hair dangles down to the middle of his forehead and bounces around as he moves his head. He retains his boyish good looks, even at 65.

That puts Russell at retirement age, but if anything he’s picking up steam: Next year he’ll appear in two massive franchise films: “Fast 8,” in which he’ll reprise his “Furious 7” role as a shadowy government agent known as Mr. Nobody, and “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” in which he’ll play the father of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill.

The roles piled up unexpectedly for Russell who, after starring as Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 exploitation riff “Death Proof,” took a few years off from acting.

“I was doing something I really liked doing: I was making wine,” says Russell, adding a casual, “my life is great!” for emphasis.

In addition to the wines — GoGi wines, which he describes as “serious Pinot, Pinot made for Pinot drinkers” — he was selling beef off his ranch in Aspen to local restaurants. And it kept him plenty busy; from 2007 to 2015, Russell appeared in only two movies.

He never stopped reading scripts, but nothing was catching his eye. Then “Furious 7” got him off the ranch, and he filmed S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” back-to-back with Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”

“And then all of a sudden I was working again — like, a lot,” says Russell, son of actor Bing Russell. “But I unashamedly say I’m an actor. I make my bones by acting, so I’m going to go to work.”

It was then that “Deepwater Horizon” came along.

The movie is director Peter Berg’s telling of the 2010 oil rig explosion that caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For Russell, it had elements of “Backdraft,” his 1991 firefighter film, and “Silkwood,” his 1983 drama which was set against the world of nuclear energy.

He plays safety inspector Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell in the film, and was drawn to telling the human story of the disaster.

“When I read the script, I recognized (the incident), but I didn’t know 11 people had died. I only knew the ecological disaster,” he says. “And it struck me, like, what the hell is that? It’s now more important to know an ecological disaster is happening than a human disaster? Where are we here?

“I felt a surge of responsibility to tell the human side of the story, which, for me anyway, has a much greater value.”

The news that Russell would play the role of Quill’s father in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel hit the internet before Russell was officially offered the part, and he was quizzed about it while he was doing press for “The Hateful Eight.” “They might as well have said something in Chinese,” says Russell, who had never seen “Guardians” and was clueless about the Marvel Universe. “I thought, ‘I’m so not understanding what you’re talking about.’ ”

Regardless, he took the role, which puts him back in the Disney family, where he worked for 10 years as a child. (Marvel is owned by Disney.) Russell, who was born in Massachusetts and raised in northern Los Angeles, was once such a key cog in the Disney machine that his name is written on the final memo Walt Disney penned before his death in 1966.

Looking ahead, Russell is circling “The Barbary Coast,” a TV project directed by Mel Gibson that he would star in alongside Kate Hudson, his daughter, whom he raised with Hawn. Russell’s sons, Oliver and Wyatt, are on board as producers.

“I haven’t done TV in 40 years or something, and it’s so different now,” says Russell, who starred in “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters” in 1963-64 and also played roles in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Fugitive” and “Gunsmoke” in the ’60s and ’70s.

In terms of his career, “I’ve always tried to be someone that does a good job so that when a director saw a movie he’d say, ‘You know what, that guy would be good for this,’” the one-time minor league baseball player says. “There’s never been any grand plan. That would have been a massive failure.

“I just did what I wanted to do, that’s the only way I know how to say it. It sounds arrogant, I guess, but I don’t know how else to look at it. I did what I wanted to do.”

He leans forward in his chair and flashes that cool Southern California smile.

“Ever since I was a kid,” Russell says, “I always liked putting on a show.”


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Kurt Russell over the years

Defining Kurt Russell roles from the 1960s on:

1963: “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters” — Russell stars in the title role in this Western series about a family’s journey from Kentucky to California in 1849.

1971: “The Barefoot Executive” — He stars with a chimp who could predict TV hits in one of many films he cranked out for Disney from 1966-1975.

1981: “Escape From New York” — He teams with director John Carpenter for this look at a future-dystopian New York (in 1997!); Russell revisits the character in 1996’s lesser “Escape from L.A.”

1986: “Big Trouble in Little China” — In Carpenter’s cult classic, Russell is Jack Burton, a tough-talking truck driver who winds up over his head in a fantasy Chinatown underworld.

1987: “Overboard” — In Garry Marshall’s romantic comedy, Russell and real-life partner Goldie Hawn make cute playing opposites who attract.

1991: “Backdraft” — He heads up a team of Chicago firefighters in Ron Howard’s hit.

1993: “Tombstone” — Russell plays Wyatt Earp in this Western that’s considered a modern classic.

1997: “Breakdown” — A taut thriller where Russell plays an average man forced to fight back when his wife disappears during a cross-country road trip.

2004: “Miracle” — He stars as Herb Brooks, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach who led his team to a dramatic gold medal.

2007: “Death Proof” — Quentin Tarantino finds the greasy underbelly of Russell’s charm; the two team up again in 2015’s “The Hateful Eight.”