Friday, December 30, 2022

Chaske Spencer on Western mini-series The English

 “As an actor that happened to be Native American, I had to sit on the sidelines for a long time, waiting for something like this”

The Up Coming

By Sarah Bradbury

December 15, 2022

The English is the new miniseries from writer-director Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman, Black Earth Rising), which first premiered at this year’s London Film Festival and has now landed on BBC iPlayer. It follows Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), who tumbles into the Wild West looking for vengeance for the death of her son and becomes an unlikely travelling companion of Eli Whipp, a member of the Pawnee Nation and former cavalry scout who has enemies on both sides.

Both invoking and playing upon the tropes of a Western, there’s much to admire in the series’ breathtaking cinematography and references to the rich history of films from the Golden Age of the genre, from John Ford to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Stunningly executed yet still boldly violent and bloody, it walks a tightrope between being very stylised yet also viscerally involving. Beyond the vast, dusty landscapes, rich textures, colours, costumes and brazen brutality, though, it’s the performances and shared chemistry between Blunt and Spencer as Locke and Whipp that cut through the tension built by Hick with sizzling electricity to keep viewers hooked. Both are endlessly watchable in their roles, delivering the to-and-fro of their dialogue with wit and panache and bringing a delicious push-and-pull factor to their character’s interactions, like magnets attracting and repelling one another, each one both drawn to but unsure if they can trust the other.

The Upcoming had the pleasure of speaking with Spencer about his own love of Westerns growing up, how contemporary issues also infused his character and how phenomenal it was to work with Blunt. He also shared how the story can have relevance to our own destabilised world today and that, as a Native American actor, he’s often had to wait in the sidelines – until now.

Hi Chaske, lovely to meet you, For those who haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, what can they expect from The English?

A lot of action, a lot of adventure, a lot of Wild West, a lot of horses and probably some tears – bring some handkerchiefs!

It’s very much within the Western genre, but it’s also playing with its tropes and bringing something fresh. What stood out for you when you read Hugo’s script? 

When I read it, I felt very excited to start filming. And the layers of Eli… I was blown away by how many layers this character had, he’s just so multi-faceted, he just fascinated me. And when I read it, actually, I knew I could do the role, but it also scared me too, because, “Can I? Can I do this shit? I hope so…”. But Hugo had laid the groundwork and the roadmap; he’d given me a lot of the information and where he wanted to go in – movies that inspired him as a kid watching Westerns. And once I got into that world – his world, The English world – it was very easy. I grew up with Westerns. I’ve seen a lot of Westerns and a lot of people have, they’re just a fun genre, so I knew exactly where to pull from. I knew what he was talking about.

How did you see the character of Eli? He doesn’t say much, but it’s clear there’s so much going on underneath that restrained nature. In some ways, that must be more challenging to play than when you have a lot of words to work with. How did you figure out who he was and how to portray him?

Well, I took all the information from the history, so that helped me out a lot. But at the end of the day, I had to make it my own. As a child, I grew up with a lot of vets – Vietnam vets and stuff – from the baby boomer generation. So I grew up with a lot of guys like that. Plus, I knew some vets who had gone over to Afghanistan and was fortunate enough to meet and talk with them in my past. And I just pulled from that, because I can only take history so far. And that’s where I started making it my own. And I just kept seeing him as an ex-Vietnam biker, strolling through the West on his Harley Davidson, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. That’s how I felt he was. I know it doesn’t really apply to what Eli is, but that’s what I brought in, because that’s how I felt he was and I felt like he should have those restraints. And, also, it’s a double-edged sword with that type of character because, obviously, I’m a pretty animated guy! So I had to tone it down a lot. But it was also comforting to know that I had a limit; I have a little area that I can’t go out of. When I work, usually the first couple of weeks, I’m nervous: I’m trying to figure out everyone’s working style, the director, my costar – we’re just trying to figure everything out. And I’m usually in character a lot during those [weeks] from the beginning. But once I get that pattern down, and when I feel comfortable, then I can kind of play around with it. And I would say that it didn’t take me that long to find that character once we started filming, because we’d been prepping for so long, and I had this guy down months before. I’d even say during the audition – I kind of knew where he was just from the breakdowns – so when I went in to audition it felt very comforting to have that restraint, in a way. It was a fun character to play. I mean, he’s the ultimate badass, you know? I wish I could be that! But it’s fun to pretend to be.

Emily is one of these extraordinary actresses who could so easily have been typecast but continues to choose fascinating roles and make them her own. And there’s so much chemistry between you two on screen, particularly the scenes where you have this amazing dialogue. What was it like working with her? Did having an extended rehearsal period help to make sure that chemistry was there?

Oh God, working with her was phenomenal. I loved working with her, really, she was so much fun. I’d known Emily Blunt’s work before I got to meet her, and I’m a fan of a lot of her movies. I really liked her work in The Girl on the Train. I was working on another film years ago, and I went to go see that by myself, and she blew me away. I think I was on Woman Walks Ahead, and I ended up talking with one of the actors about it, saying, “It’s phenomenal, just watching that movie blew me away”. And then finally getting to meet her and working with her – it was the best. What I’ve always admired about her is that she could easily take the road less travelled. And yet she doesn’t. To me, she’s like this character actor trapped in this leading actress’s body; she finds these characters, and she just gets them. And, with Cornelia, watching her work and watching her piece it together – I definitely took a lot of tips, I never told her that, but I definitely watched her enough to where I could say, “Okay, I see how she’s doing this, I’m going to steal that, I got to steal that from her”. She was so supportive. And the chemistry –  it’s great when you work with nice people, who are just about the work, and you still have fun. And I think our chemistry had a lot to do with just knowing we had these amazing characters and knew what the stakes were with them. Because if we just phoned it in, you would see it, and it would be horrible. So, working with her, I liked it because she ups the game. And working alongside her – I’ve never had an easier job. You’re talking about what you had for dinner, where you went out to dinner the other night with your friends, and you just go right into dialogue, and I like that. Because I’ve been on projects where I’ve had to maintain my energy to stay in that character. I’m not a method actor, but to try to keep in that vicinity. With this, it was already there because we worked and rehearsed so much that we could turn it on really quick. And it was fun – it made it fun. It was just little ideas and things we threw at each other about doing some of those scenes. When I got the job, we talked a lot about our own lives and where we could relate to our families, movies we liked, working on The English and what we brought to the table and how we figured these characters out. I love working with people like that because it gets down to almost like math – it’s kind of mathematical, placing everything where it should be. And at the end of the day, when you finish some amazing scenes with your scene partner, you feel really good. You want to go home with a happy smile on your face – or it depends on the scene: if we did something really sad, you go home and have some tequila I guess!

Like many period pieces, the show hits on issues that remain relevant today, such as dimensions of race, of identity. And, in the case of your character, perhaps those are not accepted by either the country they’re living in, nor by their own community. Would you say a lot of people will relate to in the series, despite it not being set today?

I think so too. I want to tread really lightly on this part, but I would say that The English, to me, reflects today’s instability and that, really, you don’t know what’s going to happen. In a Western, it’s very brutal, and there’s no certainty and – I don’t think it’s just my country, I think it’s happening all over the world – we’re in a place of uncertainty, and it’s quite terrifying, actually, if you really think about it. I don’t want to bring a big cloud over, like you should watch The English and think of that, but I think the audience could relate to the scary part of a Western, the instability, the you don’t know if you’re gonna make it to tomorrow. I don’t know if we’re exactly there in the world, but I know we’re in pretty scary times of, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen: what’s gonna happen over in Ukraine, what’s gonna happen here in this country”. Anything could happen, and it’s quite unnerving and it can be anxiety-inducing. I think The English kind of captures that – the instability of that, of just not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow. And I think that we in this world are kind of there right now. And I hope things work out, because we got a good thing going; this place is pretty amazing. And I’m not just talking about the country, I’m talking about the world right now – we could blow it if we’re not careful.

Each scene, if you paused it, could be a photograph – the aesthetics are just incredible. However, it doesn’t shy away from brutality either, straddling this place between being very stylised, but also being very engaging and visceral. What was it like working on these sets? And when you watched the final product, did the way it looked really strike you?

Oh, yeah, it always strikes me because, when I see what I read on the page, it’s never what I think about on the screen. In fact, I’m always blown away when I see the end product. I knew it was going to be gorgeous, just because of the locations we were shooting in and the time of day we were shooting. And when I finally saw it all piece together – it’s beautiful. I saw it on the little screen because they sent it to me, because I had to watch it all before we started going to press. But when I saw it on the big screen… I think it should be seen on the big screen. It’s such a beautiful movie. That first opening shot in the hotel when we first meet Cordelia and Eli’s tied up – it’s just gorgeous. It’s like out of George Stevens’s Giant, or John Ford. You see a lot of that in the cinematography. I could tell when we were shooting, I knew it was gonna be beautiful, but I didn’t know how beautiful it was gonna be. They blew me away.

It plays with a genre that has a long history to create something fresh, and one of the things that stands out is the casting and particularly the inclusion of Native Americans, who, in the past, were overlooked. In what ways does this take on the genre feel more contemporary?

You know, I’m not the first Native actor that’s done a lead role like this – there are a few of them, but it’s pretty rare. It’s rare. For years, as an actor that happened to be Native American, I had to sit on the sidelines for a long time, waiting for something like this. And, finally, a character comes out like Eli in The English. I knew it was an homage to the Westerns of before, to the Man With No Name in the A Fist Full of Dollars to Paul Newman in Hombre, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. I could see in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid – I could see where the blueprint was being made for this character. So it was a fun character to play. It’s just like when I was a kid, going out in my backyard and playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. That’s all it was. I think I leaned over to Hugo and said, “We’re like kids who get really expensive toys. But we never leave the sandbox, you know?” We’re just there, and that’s fine. It’s fun to work with my kind of people. We’re just big kids with big toys. And we’re here to entertain.

Was there an aspect that you loved the most? You were already au fait with riding a horse but there was a lot of that, then there were the costumes, the hair…

Well, right when I put on the wardrobe and they shaved my head, I really became Eli. We were in wardrobe fitting, my head was shaved, then we put the big coat on and, oh my God, my walk changed, my voice dropped – I became Eli right then and there. It’s like, “I know this guy”. It helps when you get the wardrobe. And right before we’d go on set, I would get hair and makeup and get all set up, and I would blast Creedence Clearwater Revival or Bruce Springsteen just to get in that Americana mode, and it just changed everything. Music really does affect how I work as an actor. Like I said, my walk changes, my voice drops a little bit – that’s what I love about doing roles like this. I wish I was like him!

Finally, can you tell us what you might be working on next? ,

I’m working on Marvel’s Echo. That should be out next summer. I hope people see it, I really enjoyed working on that film too. And all I can say is that my character is a disco guy…

Sound like quite a contrast! Thank you so much for your time.

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