Kurt Russell can sum up his 55-year acting career in one word: “Brandy.” Not the alcoholic beverage. Russell makes his own wine. He’s not going to betray his beloved Pinot with another drink. No, “Brandy,” the 1972 hit song, the one with the parenthetical (“You’re a Fine Girl”) in the title, the song about the whiskey-and-wine-serving barmaid, a “fine girl,” who makes the mistake of falling in love with a sailor whose life and lover and lady is the sea.
Russell sings “Brandy” in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” as a way of explaining why his character, Ego the Living Planet (more on that name later), hasn’t been around much for his son, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. Ego calls “Brandy” Earth’s greatest composition, a line that, thinking about it, makes Russell laugh (and Russell is a man given to great laughter) loud and hard.
And then he relates the song to his career. And because this is Russell talking, the explanation is insanely detailed and delivered with enthusiasm and takes more than a few left turns. But here’s the gist:
“A lot of the movies I did, that were misunderstood at the time, live in that world of ‘Brandy.’ That level of humor. ‘Is this cruel but funny? Or not cruel at all but kind of cool? No, they don’t seriously think “Brandy” is the greatest song ever written, do they? Nooooooo!’
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“Well, I want all those feelings in there. I want to run the gamut of having people say, ‘Oh, my God, yes! Finally somebody realizes that “Brandy” is the greatest … song ever recorded’ to snickering, ‘Oh, that’s funny. “Brandy.”’
“And I’ve spent my whole career making movies that run that fine line. And sometimes they’re out of whack with what’s going on out in the world. If you’re doing ‘The Thing’ the same year ‘E.T.’s’ coming out, you are not in step. ‘Big Trouble in Little China.’ We did so many things in that movie that had not been done at the time. That’s ‘Brandy.’ It all falls into the ‘Brandy’ world. Can you make them laugh but also have them say at the same time, ‘But I kind of love that song’? And not let the fact that it may not be the most successful commercial venture at the moment stop you from saying, ‘Do it.’ Because eventually people will get it and say, ‘Oh, there was a method to this guy’s madness.’”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” writer-director James Gunn describes Russell as the “most famous cult actor in the world,” which, for Gunn and many of his contemporaries, gives the 66-year-old a supreme coolness and cachet. Russell’s movies usually turn a profit, but few have been huge hits, and fewer still earned Oscar nominations. (Russell himself has never been recognized by the academy. He’s not even a member. His awards rap sheet is criminally small: A Golden Globe nod for “Silkwood” and an Emmy nomination for his title turn in “Elvis.”) But forget all that, Gunn says. Russell’s films – “Escape from New York,” “Death Proof,” “Hateful Eight,” “Stargate,” “Tombstone” (it’s a long list) – remain more relevant today than those of many of his peers.
Russell’s enthusiasm for his job is indeed boundless. The word “lucky” comes up often over the course of a 90-minute conversation, and he measures a movie’s effectiveness, as a participant and an audience member, based on whether he senses the actors are having a ball. (By his reckoning, the recent “Moonlight” and “La La Land” passed with flying colors.)
Russell wasn’t immediately sold on doing the “Guardians” sequel. For one thing, he hadn’t seen the first movie. And he has generally avoided sequels throughout his career, though he did parachute into the last two “Fast and the Furious” movies, his government agent character essentially providing the same function as, say, M in the James Bond series.
“There’s a lot of criteria that needs to be addressed before you sign on,” Russell says, giving some weight to Gunn’s likening of working with the actor to “wrestling a playful bear.”
“With sequels, it’s like: ‘Rocky I, III and V,’ ‘Star Wars 2, 4 and 7.’ I don’t know. I probably have the numbers off. But what I do know is that you don’t want to be in the one they didn’t like.” Which means he needed to understand the motivations behind a character named Ego the Living Planet, a shape-shifting mass that gained sentience and assumes human form when it suits his purpose. “First, you have to consider his name. Now, I’ve seen some people with some pretty huge egos,” Russell says, again laughing with great pleasure, “so putting that self-assurance across was easy. But you have to downplay the power because, for him, that’s nothing. He’s done it for millions of years. What needed to be there was the sincerity in the father-son relationship. Because that’s what an audience can understand.”
There are limits though to catering to the audience. Russell has been adamant in his disdain toward career tribute offers from film festivals and organizations (“That’s really dangerous … I don’t want to get lost in that”) and has long told the Hollywood Walk of Fame that he wouldn’t accept a star before his longtime partner and love, Goldie Hawn, received one. Then, to his horror, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce invited them to a star ceremony together. “Already, I’m going, ‘Uuuuugh, geez,’” Russell says. “I’m fully prepared for it to be the most embarrassing moment of my life,” and to illustrate the point, he gets up and hides behind a chair. “That’s what I used to do when I was a kid. I’d see the publicity guy come on the set and I’d go hide in the rafters. The crew would be like, ‘I haven’t seen him.’ And then they’d leave and I’d go back to work. Because that’s what’s fun, the doing, not the talking.”