Wyatt Russell: Meet 2018’s Hot Nazi-Fighting Beach Bum Hero
Take one look at Wyatt Russell — the shaggy blond hair, the Southern California drawl, those blues eyes, that beard that sometimes fluctuates between handsomely masculine to Father-John-Misty bushy — and you can see why folks might want to cast him as a stoner heartthrob. To be fair, he does not necessarily have a problem with that. “Look, man, smoking weed is great!” the 32-year-old actor says, chuckling. The publicist sitting 10 feet away from Russell looks up from his phone for a second, shooting him a look that veers between friendly and dude-what-the-fuck-did-you-just-say-to-a-journalist? “I live in California where it’s legal, so, like, I can say that?” Now both of them are laughing. For a second, it’s like Willoughby, his breakthrough joint-rolling baseball player from Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, has just entered the building and taken over the interview.
“But I mean, I totally get what you’re saying,” he adds. “What I want to do, however — and maybe this sounds too hippie-ish, but whatever — is to find roles where the same magic you feel when you’re high is there even when you’re not stoned. You know, whether you’re bumming around a beach or, like, fighting monster Nazis.” (More on that last non sequitur later.) He strokes his hirsute chin. “It’s a good way of looking at life, too. Dud taught me that.”
“Dud” Russel’s amiable, if admittedly dim, ex-surfer who joins a Free Mason-like fraternal order on AMC’s early-fall dramedy Lodge 49 (and who does not toke up, the actor is quick to point out, “though, like, you could not be faulted for thinking that he did”). The brainchild of novelist-turned-TV-producer Jim Gavin, this idiosyncratic character study follows a SoCal lost soul as he stumbles into a decidedly chill local branch of an international secret society, filled with fellow misfits like a New Age kook who runs a marijuana dispensary, an ex-cop who fronts a surf band and a plumbing company’s sales rep named Ernie (played by Brent Jennings) stuck in a mid-life crisis. Quirky is too mild a word to describe the show’s ambling, rambling ’70s-cinema vibe (“[They] are probably the least aspirational characters on television,” the show’s co-producer Peter Ecko admitted to Variety). And if we stick with the show’s slow-burn narrative, it’s because Russell gives his character an almost guileless, go-with-the-flow charm and poignancy.
“I’ve learned to love the little moments because of him,” he says about playing the goofy hero of this oddball sleeper-hit show. (It’s already been renewed for a second season.) “Someone had given me the script, not as a potential job but just to read. Then I got a third of the way into it and found myself going, ‘Wait, who the fuck wrote this? It’s like a Pynchon novel!’ Which, you know … I tried to get through The Crying of Lot 49 a few times and still haven’t finished it, so I was a little daunted. But it was dense and funny and good enough that I wanted to meet Jim. Once we all sat down and talked, things just sort of fell into place.”
And thus Russell fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming a leading man on a TV show, right? He laughs for a long time. “Riiiight. Now you must be the one who’s high,” he jokes.
The offspring of Hollywood royalty — he’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and blessed with both their genetic dispositions — Wyatt appeared in small parts in his dad’s movies, “just stuff where they need a kid and I’m already standing there.” (His character in Escape From L.A. is referred to on his IMDb page as “Orphan Boy.”) But initially had no desire to be in showbiz. Not at all. Not even a little bit.
“Yeah, I was pretty put off by it, if I’m being honest,” he says. “When you’re young, you don’t have that filter that says, ‘This person has good intentions, this person is trying to use you for something.’ You can’t distinguish between the folks coming up to your mom and dad, both of who are famous, and wanting something from them. I always watched their reactions to people who approached them, to gauge what the situation was. I mean, fame didn’t affect how they planned family vacations or how they drank their coffee in the morning. But growing up, my entire idea of show business was: Strangers acting like weird assholes to my parents. No, thanks.”
Still, when Russell was in his early twenties, he played a dopesmoking teen in his childhood friend John Stahlberg’s movie High School (“it was like Reefer Madness as a PSA”) as a favor when an actor dropped out. Then the film ended up at Sundance, an agent happened to notice the film and started telling Russell that he, too, could have a lucrative career in the moving pictures. Russell did what anyone would do: He decided to hightail it to Europe to play professional hockey in Germany and Holland.
“It was not the N.H.L. but I got paid to play hockey, so yeah,” Russell says. “Loved it, had an absolute blast. Then I got hurt when I was 24, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I reached out to that guy who I’d met at Sundance — the guy who’s been my agent for years now — and said, ‘Right, so remember when I said I wasn’t interested in acting. Do you think you might be able to send me out for some stuff now?’”
A few small parts and some very lean years later, Russell found himself walking out of an audition for “some TV thing I knew I wasn’t right for, couldn’t care less about,” and once again questioned why anyone would want to do this for a living. Still, there was one more potential gig on the books, and even though he’d more or less made up his mind to get off this dancing-monkey merry-go-round, Russell kept the appointment.
“I walked in to the room and thought, I’m just gonna tell this guy the truth,” he remembers. “I said, listen: I like the acting part, I think I’m good at it, I enjoy doing it … but I’m horrible at auditioning and I don’t even know if I wanna do this anymore, maybe this isn’t for me, sorry to waste your time. And this guy just casually goes, ‘Ok, well, come back tomorrow, I hope you are actually good at this because I really like you.’ It completely disarmed me.” The man was Jim Mickle, a filmmaker who was adapting the Joe R. Landsdale crime novel Cold in July; Russell went back the next day and they talked for hours. He’d end up casting Russell as a killer in this Lone Star neo-noir, and suddenly, everything changed. “After that experience, this thing that had been torturing me wasn’t like a job anymore,” he says. “It was something creative, fun, fulfilling. It was something I wanted to do.”
He credits Mickle and Linklater, who’d tapped Russell to play the resident philosophical, Pink-Floyd-enthusiast pitcher for his college comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, for making him realize that “you can be an actor and still stay true to yourself. With Rick, he was constantly asking us to bring our own lives into the mix and put them into our characters, to make it personal. And because of that, for Lodge 49, I realized that I didn’t have to be, like, Spicoli, or the Dude, or Matthew McConaughey. I could do my own thing.”
He’s happy that he’s hitting the upward curve of what calls “the really fun part” of his career, where he’s finally able to, say, head up a Twin-Peaks-meets-Big Lebowski TV show one minute and do an urban thriller (the upcoming Woman in the Window) or a Black Mirror episode (“Playtest”) the next. And thanks to a high-profile gig in the J.J. Abrams-produced horror movie Overlord — in which Russell plays an explosion expert sent into occupied France in 1944 and encounters some gnarly Nazi-created super-soldiers — may be officially edging into the leading-man chapter of his career.
“It’s not set in any sort of WWII that you would see on the History Channel,” he says. “It’s an old-fashioned soda-and-popcorn movie that gets twisted and fucked up. Very fucked up. But the fact that I get to do those now, to make the sort of things I used to go see when I was a kid on Friday nights …” His eyes go wide. So does his grin. He doesn’t look like a stoner. Russell just looks insanely happy.
This feature originally ran in Rolling Stone’s 2018 “Hot Issue.”