To a generation of TV viewers, Vincent D'Onofrio is best known for his game-changing role as Detective Robert Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Outside of his part in the classic cop drama, though, D'Onofrio is legendary for his haunting, star-making turn in Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War drama, Full Metal Jacket, as well as scene-stealing performances in blockbuster movies like Jurassic World and The Magnificent Seven.
For his latest film, The Kid, D'Onofrio stepped behind the camera to call the shots as director. A gritty Western which combines a fictional coming-of-age story with the real-life feud between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, The Kid stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett, Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid, and Chris Pratt as a vicious thug chasing down his niece and nephew, who are on the run and don't know who they can trust.
While promoting the home video release of The Kid, Vincent D'Onofrio talked to Screen Rant about his love of Westerns, getting to make his own mark on the genre, and combining historical domain with a fictional story. He discusses his philosophies on acting and directing, and shares his thoughts on whether or not audiences will ever see him reprise his iconic role of Kingpin in the MCU.
From the outside looking in, The Kid looks like it was born out of the Antoine Fuqua remake of The Magnificent Seven, what with the presence of Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, and yourself. Is that really how things went down, though?
We already had a script for The Kid by the time we started Magnificent Seven. I was already talking to Ethan about because I've known him since before Mag 7. I always wanted Ethan to play Pat Garrett. The script was finished before we did Magnificent Seven, and I was casting during the filming of Magnificent Seven.
Is that when Chris Pratt got involved?
No, I had asked Chris before!
He's so ruthless and mean in this movie, it's really a different side of him than we've seen before.
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to play that part myself, but I preferred not to. When we were putting the movie together, they wanted to be a package deal where I would have to play a part. The actor in me said there's only one good part available and the rest of the parts suck! So why would I want to play any of the other parts left but the good ones? (laughs) But then I thought, I'd rather direct the good ones. Then, one day, I thought of Chris, and I thought, Chris needs to play this kind of negative force. He's always such a positive force. The minute I mentioned it to him and sent it to him, he loved it. He was actually doing one of the Marvel films, and they released him for, like, five days to come in and shoot. We shot him in five days. The casting was pretty cool. My daughter is in it. And Jordan Schur's son is in it. The producer's son, Jake.
He's incredible, the true heart and soul of The Kid.
He was the first kid I tested for the movie, and then I went back to him. I wasn't even sure whether his father really wanted him to do it or not, but I went back to Jake, because Jake was the least Hollywood-type actor of the bunch of kids. He's a very interesting kid. He reads a lot. The movies he does watch are not typical for kids his age. The kid already reads Bukowski. I definitely wasn't reading Charles Bukowski when I was his age! I knew he understood story. He was the most honest actor. I just went back to him and asked his dad if he could do it. He said yes, and we just let him do it! It was kind of a family affair, you know?
It's so rare, today, to see, really, any kind of Western. In another era, before blockbusters, nearly every big action movie was a Western, but now they're so infrequent. I imagine a lot of actors love Westerns, because they're kind of Shakespearean in their grandiosity, and the characters are so interestingly well-spoken, but also rugged and down to Earth.
How is it when you're acting, writing, directing, a Western. What's the mindset you adopt? How do you get yourself in that frame of mind where you're comfortable in this setting?
Well, I mean, you're American, right?
Yup, New York!
It's everything we grew up with. It's everything you just said, basically. That was very well-put. As an actor, it's everything you've learned about storytelling, in its most basic form. In Westerns, although the characters can be complicated, the stories themselves are these American sagas. The ones that I like, anyway. They're the American sagas. They're these Americana stories. I've seen some great foreign Western films, Australian films that I've liked a lot, but I always go back to the American classics. This was sort of my shot, taking a very low-budget idea of a coming of age story for that kind of classic sense, and doing it in the way that you're allowed to make a Western these days; with blood and extreme circumstances. Extreme emotional circumstances. I thought, that was the whole idea of The Kid. It was nothing more than that: you get a bunch of good actors in there, let them turn themselves inside out for a very classic story. I thought the combination of those things would be kind of cool.
When you're doing something like this, with a mix of historical domain characters and original creations, do you feel a greater or lesser obligation to be as true to the history as possible? These Western figures are so legendary. I feel like, even if you wanted to, you couldn't be completely accurate, because so much is just lost to the ages.
You're right, but the coolest thing about Garrett and William Bonnie (AKA Billy the Kid) was that they spent a lot of time in New Mexico. They also, for the early part of their lives, which was not very long for Billy, but for the early part, from teenage years, they hung in the same circles. They traveled to the same places. Especially when Billy started to get in trouble, Garrett really wanted to be a Marshall... To this day, those U.S. Marshall's, and Garrett was one of them, they formed, basically, how you go to collect criminals from state to state. A lot of those things they figured out are still used today; the mechanics of how you do it. Pat Garrett was really into the technicalities of being a lawman.
That's so fascinating.
To make a long story short, those particular Western mythological guys are actually easier to track through history than anyone else. Maybe Jesse James, but there's still a weirdness on how Jesse James and whether he was killed at all. But these guys are very easy to track from town to town, state to state, event to event. I was able to take a big leap, a big creative leap, because I was putting a boy in between them in this story. We followed their routes historically, we followed their events historically; but with a little bit of fiction in between.
Westerns are so ripe for stripping back the mythology, but then they're equally ripe for building it up, in a way. Like, these are mythological figures, even though they were just guys who shot each other.
Westerns are interesting. A lot of people don't like Westerns. These days, when you make a Western, a film like that, the film that I made, it came from my heart, the writer's heart, and my friends, who participated: the wranglers, the stuntmen, all these guys who worked for years. All those friendships and loyalties. A movie like that comes from the heart. It was interesting, to me, that all the bigger critics, like the L.A. Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, those types of critics gave it good scores, real love letters. Then, the smaller indie companies hated it! I should have expected it; it's made for an indie price, but it's not designed to feel like an indie movie.
Yes, I can totally see that.
The reviews made a lot of sense to me. I was happy it got good reviews from all the right places, because now I can make another. I'm in the process of making another one now, because of that. That was good.
You don't often direct. What is it that makes you go, "alright, I'm gonna call the shots on this one?"
As my friends and I get older, our conversations aren't just about acting anymore. We change. Now we talk about storytelling and how we tell stories. We even approach our characters in a more academic – if you want to say – not the emotional aspect of it, but we talk about what we do as storytelling. We talk about directing. We talk about writing. We talk about what we think we can get away with and how we can help each other. I have friends like Dax Shepard, Ethan, I can just go down the line of who's directing now. They want to keep directing because of what we've evolved into. We're still actors, but there are more extensions of ourselves. None of us are saying we're necessarily going to be great at it, because none of us thought we were going to be great at acting! But we do it because it's what we feel like doing. We want people to enjoy it as much as they enjoy or have enjoyed, at times, our acting. That's why I think I'm going to keep making them. If I can get my budgets, I'm going to make them more often, unless they throw me out of the director's guild.
Do you think you might ween yourself off of acting and focus solely on directing, or would you make room for both?
I think I have room for both. I think acting is pretty much just fun for me. As you get older, you get better, and getting better at something is so adorable (laughs). It's such a celebration. You see your friends getting better, and you're getting better. It's hard to walk away from it. You've learned so much. You're learning more now, because you're older or, I don't know, more open minded. You take less drugs than you did when you were a kid... I don't know what it is, but something happens. I'm still excited about acting.
What are some of your favorite Western movies?
I always found the harsher ones... But the classic ones... The ones that were quite emotional but were still kind of soft because of their age... Like The Searchers. The Searchers was a very heavy story. I remember, when I was a kid, feeling very uncomfortable about the girl being in her situation... And the fact that John Wayne was playing a straight-up Indian-killer. He didn't come across as a "good guy." He came across as a killer, you know? That always stuck with me. The Searchers. It always stuck with me. Then, you know, Sam Peckinpah. Any Western where the morality was not so black and white. In a lot of Peckinpah films, the good guys are criminals, you know? It was all kind of gray. There are a couple of Clint Eastwood films that I just enjoy to watch because they take me back. Unforgiven is the one everybody always mentions, Gene Hackman is one of my favorite actors. There are a couple of Clint Eastwood films that I thought were made so inexpensively but told their story so well. When he was making Westerns, he did quite a job.
You mentioned Sam Peckinpah, and something just occurred to me. A lot of Westerns, in general, are about the grown-ups, the men. The women and kids kind of stay inside for most of the movie. "Go inside, I'll take care of everything." One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The Rifleman, which is the exact opposite. Was that show an influence on The Kid?
Well, not in a thought-out way like you just said, but... The truth is that I grew up with two very different male figures in my life. I grew up with my father, who eventually left my mother, and then my stepdad. My father was a crazy manic who couldn't be trusted. My stepfather was a hardcore firefighter, did three tours in the South Pacific. Straight-up guy. Treated my mom really great. He got me off the streets when I was a kid and taught me a trade. I spent a lot of time with both of those men. They were polar opposites, and yet I learned a lot from both of them. That's where the boy thing in the movie came from.
That's incredible. I've got time for one last question before I let you go, and I want to switch topics to something a lot of people have been speculating about and wistfully daydreaming about. Um, let me phrase it this way: what do you think the odds are that we're going to see you as Kingpin again?
First off, I have to say, I don't know anything. The actors are going to be the last ones to find out. So you can't say what I'm gonna say next without saying what I just said first.
I think it would be silly for it not to happen, for it to be that I would not play Kingpin again. I think, considering all the great minds, Jeph Loeb, and the guys who run the film stuff and everything... Just from another artist's point of view, I think it would be silly. I can only hope that the odds are good. That's a completely uninformed answer.
The Kid is out now on Blu-ray and Digital.