Even though he is only 17 years old, Kodi Smit-McPhee could certainly be considered a seasoned actor. Breaking out in 2009’s “The Road,” Smit-McPhee has shown ability to act beyond his years in films like “Let Me In,” and the upcoming “A Birder’s Guide To Everything.” His latest indie venture, “The Wilderness of James,” which is a story about a boy exploring a city and new people in the wake of the loss of his father premieres at this years SXSW festival in Austin. I spoke with Smit-McPhee about dark themes in his movies, the difference between working in indies and studio films, and a quick fascination with sharing the same name.
Publicist: Cody, You’re on with Kodi!
Hey Kodi! How ya doin’?
(laughs) Good, dude. I’m gonna interview you today.
Oh…that would be awesome.
So I’m going to start off a little dark, if that’s okay with you.
No problem. I’m used to it.
For such a young actor, a lot of the films you have done have had some dark themes in them. Does getting to act in those types of films appeal to you?
Definitely. I always try to choose quality stories that pull strings within me or ones that I know will make an audience think or go to different places. I think most of the dramatic stuff is in that area. I just love the feeling of being able to go there within a movie and not having to obviously go there in real life. Then everyone in the audience gets to go on that emotional adventure. I’d definitely like to spread it around. I want to do some comedies and stuff part of the time.
Kinda staying on the same thing, I’ve noticed that in “The Road,” “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” and now “The Wilderness of James” your character has had a parent who has died. Is that difficult to tackle? Where do you draw your inspiration for that?
Interesting thing you picked up there. It’s such an interesting thing, acting…literally having to pull something out of nowhere that you’ve never experienced before. Especially horrible things like that. Really it’s just the same kind process every time. I just read the script as much as I can and I try and choose all of the information out of it as possible and try and get as much thoughts from my character out of the script. From there, I’ll create the character myself and start pulling things out of the box. I think it’s within just knowing the character so well and jumping in and out of it that you can go to those places. It’s just after getting the wisdom of the character that you get that freedom.
Were you able to use anything you learned in those previous movies to help understand James as a character?
James is a very different character. I’ve never really played one like it. All of my characters have been inside themselves and thinking a lot, but James is that times a million. He’s really created a world for himself and it’s just about him going about his normal life while trying to live this crazy one that he’s created. The film also captures Portland and the vibe of Portland so it’s a real mixed feeling. It’s cool.
In the film, James has a morbid fascination with death that we see. Did you take that as a way of him coping with the loss of his father? What was your take on that?
Definitely. I think what’s happening James’ life is going extremely deep and I think it may happen all around the world when people deal with these things. I think he took on that horrible vibe of what he saw his father do and that was his only way of dealing with it. Being obsessed with death and keeping that with him, because that’s all he knew of his father, kind of. It’s the last thing he left behind. As he says in the movie, that’s his wilderness, not his own. So James needs to move on. So that’s what its all about. How he dealt with it and how he let go.
Along those lines, he has sort of a rebellion in the movie. He’s hanging out with some people who probably aren’t the best influences. Do you think that continues on the theme of not having the best coping skills?
Definitely. I think after that happened to him when he was younger, it had an extreme domino effect on his life and how he interacted with people and I think he got extremely comfortable within himself.
What about building James as a character? I know you said that you like building your own characters. How much input did you have on building James?
What was prominent in the script was that it was extremely explanatory of James’ thinking and it really gave me a lot to think about. I think the script described him really well and then when I got to talk with (director) Michael [James Johnson] and got to talk about his point of view on the character and I was grateful that he let me do my thing with the character and take it to different places.
What about the relationship with Evan Ross’ and Isabelle Fuhrman’s characters? One of them isn’t really the best influence on James, but James also seems pretty isolated. How did you see those characters interacting with and impacting his life?
I think that it’s a mirror image of real life. It shows you have to go to different places out of the box to then come back and change things. It just shows how he starts leaving the house and following the sound of the wilderness. Exploring Portland with those kind of character misfit characters. I think it’s really showing that life was trying to get him back on track and that was the only way to do it. To let him be himself.
You’ve brought up Portland a few times. A lot of times you’ll hear people describe cities as characters in movies. Did you feel that way about Portland?
Oh, absolutely. I totally think Portland was such a big character in the movie. Even just when I’d have meetings with Michael…I’d only been to Portland once, for “The Road,” and we were shooting in totally different areas so I didn’t get the feel of real Portland. Michael had such a love for his hometown and he would always explain it to me and I was like “Man, I can’t wait to get there.” It’s one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s such a cool, young, hip town and I totally think it played a big part in the movie.
Did you ever get the feeling that James was in over his head, so to speak? Like he was taking on things that he shouldn’t have been doing considering his age?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think obviously after what happened to his dad…that’s an extremely serious thing, but he then created a whole negative vibe within himself and created a cockiness and a thing he had to portray every single day of his life…just going deeper and deeper within the rabbit hole until he hit a wall and he has to split off and go through his town and meet crazy people to be free and go back to being normal. That’s awesome that you picked that up. I totally agree. He created a horrible, cocky characteristic for himself.
I think the scene that sticks out to me the most is towards the end of the film where you’re having this really emotional scene with your mother in the film, Virginia Madsen. At this stage of the career, do you enjoy having these roles where you’re in every scene and you have the responsibility of carrying the emotional weight of the movie. Do you see that as a challenge? How do you approach that?
I always see those little parts in the script as like…you get a feeling of like…that day is going to be something different within me and that’ll be a bit of a challenge but it’s kind of like you can only control it within the moment. I think that’s what all acting is about. Once you get the wisdom of the character, and once I know it so well…and usually you do those things at the end of the movie, once you’ve been on the whole journey with the character. We did that by the end of it and I knew James so well and I was so ready for that moment. I do like that. I never really think of that as holding the emotion upon my shoulders but just another moment that will connect things together and have people feeling a lot of emotion. I really like that.
The last couple of movies of yours have been smaller independent films. On the horizon looking forward, you’ve got a lot of bigger budget studio movies coming up. I’m sure you like them equally, but what is the difference between the approaches for those two types of movies?
They definitely are two different kind of worlds and processes. I feel like indie films, the process itself is always really fresh and finding itself and always such a fun, kind of youthful adventures. It’s usually a first director, or shot in a small town where every one knows each other. There’s always quality stories running through the veins of indie films. But also, there’s some really great studio films out there. The first studio film I did was “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and that was definitely a different experience. There’s so many people and it’s everything times a million. It’s also the same great people and great experience. I love both and as long as there’s quality stories between both genres, that’s totally cool with me.
I saw “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” at Austin Film Festival in October. I liked it, I thought you were really good in it. Is there anything that sticks out to you about that film? Was it one of the first films that you felt that you were in charge of emotionally? Or what was that like for you as a milestone as an actor?
“A Birder’s Guide to Everything” was exploring different bodies of characters I could do. Also, working with Sir Ben Kingsley was insane. That was amazing. I think that was a film that reminded of the nostalgic “The Breakfast Club” and “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me.” I love those films so much. So to kind of create one of those in a new generation was a really cool thing to do. I think that character was something I’ve never played before. Kind of nerdy, still vulnerable and something horrible happened in his life as well. It’s about growing up and dealing with things.
You’ve been acting for most of your childhood and you continue to do so. Do you think that there’s a key to transitioning from child actor, to teenage actor where you are now, to eventually going on to be an adult actor? Or do you think it’s a natural progression?
I think it’s a bit of both. It’s obviously natural because we’re going to change and the roles have to evolve and change with you. It’s always a little bit of a tough transition but it’s really about the team and choosing quality things that are smart to do. It’s kind of a game to switch to the transitions. But I think I’m really happy with what I’m doing and I think the transition worked out really great and I’m still changing and doing different things. I still have to show people my comedy and I’m really enjoying myself.
“The Wilderness of James” premiered at SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.