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Bill Heck on the Romance at the Heart of Buster Scruggs

Picture a cowboy. Some of you might see John Wayne, walking across a saloon like his legs are made of tin. Some of you might have conjured up Clint Eastwood, the tail end of a smoke clinging on to the corner of his lip, a dirty poncho draped around his shoulders.

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Or the more romantically inclined might see a ruggedly handsome young man in denim and boots, the kind of man who's seen hardship and cruelty, but somehow kept it at bay. Bill Heck fits firmly into that latter category.

In "The Gal Who Got Rattled" a the fourth segment of the Coen brothers' stunning new anthology western The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs - Heck is superb as Billy Knapp, a cowboy leading a wagon train towards the pacific northwest.

Seeing a vision of his own twilight years manifested via his older, gruff compatriot Mr Arthur (Grainger Hines), the quiet, deliberate Knapp yearns to settle down. 

That opportunity presents itself when a young woman on the wagon train (Zoe Kazan) comes to Knapp for help after her brother dies. Their romance may be built from necessity but it slowly and touchingly builds towards something truly lovely.

Alongside a long-standing theater career, Heck has popped up in guest roles on TV shows from The Leftovers to The Americans, but The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs marks his highest profile film role to date a and a sure sign of even bigger things to come.

We spoke to him about working with the Coens, his first experiences on the film festival circuit and getting hair tips from James Bond.

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How much of the whole of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs did you know about before you started?

I only got "The Gal Who Got Rattled" before the audition, so I only knew that much going into the whole endeavor. But I had the rest of it a good two months before shooting started.

So, I kind of had a sense of the thing as a whole but it was still a really marvelous surprise to experience it fully.

Bill Heck

Part of me wishes they could have made a whole movie out of "The Gal Who Got Rattled".

I'm sure they could if they'd put their minds to it, right? But you're not the first person I've heard say that, and it's sort of a lovely thing to hear, because it means you want to spend some more time with these people, I guess.

But I do love how it affects the thing as a whole. It sits you down for a little longer than you're expecting up to that point. And I feel like it's a nice turnaround for how that all threads together.

Zoe has a lovely theory which I would mangle if I tried to give it in its entirety, but it's about how each piece sort of gives permission for the next one to exist and sort of sets up your expectations and allows for the tone that you're about to encounter. I think it's interesting how you have these smaller parts that come along and somehow you're still ready for a bigger story.

And I think the end, as awful and tragic as it is, would be less impactful if you weren't already kind of placed in a headspace where mortality was in your heart.

In terms of sad endings for characters in the film, it's up there. I mean, poor Harry Melling gets it pretty bad.

Poor Harry.

Was it a different challenge for you to tell this lovely romance but in a truncated version where there's more onus on you to give the audience a sense of a whole story?

Yeah, well, the Coens are so fuckin' economical and so precise that I didn't feel like I was being sold short or anything, in terms of what I needed in order to tell the story. Everything was in place, in a way that we all felt really well taken care of.

Bill Heck

Is there a sense of comfort, as an actor, being in the hands of somebody like the Coens? Like, there's it's highly unlikely that this is gonna turn out to be crap.

Yes. Enormously so. It comes from a few different sources. First of all, it's also terrifying, because you're like, "Holy shit, this is my chance to have this experience, and I had better fuckin' meet it".

But that sort of quickly goes away. It sounds a bit mundane perhaps, but it's because they're so intensely prepared, maybe more than any artist I've worked with before.

Every detail is considered and discussed and taken care of by the time you get to set, so the only thing left to do is to do what you're there to do: just play. It almost feels like a rehearsal.

And the language is so rich and sick that there's a lot you could do with it and a lot of different ways you could go with it potentially, so you get to mess around with that a bit. I've been on sets where you feel, as the actor, like you're getting in the way. 

On the Coens' set, you feel very much a part of the whole, and you realize, you recognize, that they're so precise and prepared, you get there and you realize that your invitation is part of that preparation.

So that is a permission, of sorts, to have your own experience and to feel part of it. And they're interested in your feedback and what you have to say, so there's good conversations. But also, as you say, they're so fucking good.

Like how are you gonna mess it up? Who are you gonna be, to be the one to mess up a Coen Brothers movie, right? I think the second night we were there, in Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, I was just in my hotel room and it was all still new, and I was still kind of nervous, and The Big Lebowski just happened to be on TV.

So I just sat and watched the whole rest of the thing. And I was like, "Oh, okay, yeah, I'm gonna be fine."

I'm guessing there's no actor in the world who doesn't want to be in a Coen Brothers movie.

No actor I want to know.

It must have been quite an experience, just getting the part.

You know, actors talk about getting the role and shouting, and going and having drinks, and being like, "Yeah!".

And celebrating, and calling their family and stuff. I've never been one to do that. I was raised in the Midwest and I've always been a little more reserved as far as that sort of thing goes.

I got this phone call and I just shouted. I threw myself onto the bed and "Ahhhhhhh!" So yeah, it was a nice bit of news.

What was your experience like seeing the whole thing for the first time? 

It was sort of in two parts. I was in Milwaukee shooting a new film this summer, and they sent a link. I was like, “Oh, I don't want to watch it on my computer."

But then, I was about to enter an arena that, frankly, was pretty new territory for me, so I thought maybe it was best if I was prepared with some knowledge about what I'd gotten myself into.

I hooked my laptop up to the big screen TV in the hotel room and I don't know if it was the protections on content distribution or something, but when it was that big it was like one frame every three seconds.

Just wildly jerky. I was like, okay, I can't do that. Even maximized on my laptop, it would still jerk. So I kind of minimized it and sort of watched it with one eye, and just skipped ahead. I couldn't do it. It was all wrong. 

Technically, I saw a decent amount of it that way. All it really did was whet my appetite. And then the first time I saw it large was in Venice. They've been really great about taking me along to all these things. So I saw it in Venice, and it was ... forgive me if I'm going on about this.

Bill Heck

Not at all!

Netflix and Annapurna had brought everyone together for dinner at Harry's Bar in Venice, up in this private room that overlooks the Grand Canal.

There was this massive thunderstorm, so we're all huddled up in this room and drinking amazing wine, eating pasta, and there's maybe, I don't know, 20 of us. 20, 30 people who are there for the first time to sort of send this baby on its way.

Thunder and lightning cracking. And then we get a call that the power had gone out over on the Lido. This massive, massive, movie theater.

So all the A Star is Born people are there in dark. And we don't know if our screening is even gonna happen. So we all hunker down to wait to make sure, we were about to leave. So we just sort of stay to see if things get going again and drink more wine. 

Finally, we pile into these water taxis. Tim Blake Nelson's absconded with a couple bottles and some glasses, so we're doing this 25-minute ride from the main part of Venice over to the Lido across the lagoon, drinking amazing wine, lightning is cracking above the city. It's like 11:00 PM by the time we even get into the thing.

And there's just this charge in the air. I mean, it was absurdly romantic.

Then, you get in this big theater, and you stand in front of all these people and you're like, here's the movie. And it's fucking beautiful. I mean, you've seen it.

It's a gorgeous-looking movie. The whole thing was just wildly surreal and romantic, and bizarre.

What were your experiences like on set? I was reading earlier on that it was one of the first movies since one of the old Gary Cooper ones that actually had a whole wagon train.

Right. The name is escaping me now. I think it might have been The Oregon Trail, but don't quote me on that. I believe it was a Jimmy Stewart movie, but also don't quote me on that. That had the full-on wagon train.

And they had to build all these from scratch. Because they just are not around. They're huge. As far as the experience of shooting it, that absolutely lent to a sense of rarity, and just sunk us all into the experience even deeper, I think.

I imagine it's one thing standing in front of a green screen, and going, "Right, that's the Incredible Hulk standing there, and that's Iron Man there", as opposed to being fully kitted out with an entire wagon train there in front of you?

Yeah. It was extraordinary. We were already staying in a smaller town out in Western Nebraska. And then we'd drive maybe 30 minutes out.

Most of that bit was shot on two adjacent cattle ranches, that were each like 35000 acres wide. So there's just endless wilderness.

And so we get to base camp, a half hour from town, then we drive, get in a transport van, and just take these nauseating rides to location each day.

So we rarely were ever in any place where there was evidence of other civilizations. It was blissful. It was September, so it was moving into fall.

We didn't have a lot of bad weather at all, but weather was changing. We got really hot days, some really frigid days. And it meant that the cloudscapes were endlessly epic, which you can see in the movie. It added to the whole sense of beauty. Words fail.

How are you with the horse riding? Is that something you are accustomed to?

I studied abroad in undergrad, a lifetime ago, about an hour's train north of London, just outside of Grantham. I took an equestrian studies course, once a week, for a semester. So I learned 20 years ago and that was the last I had ridden.

And then when I got to the audition, I did the scenes, and Joel's like, "So are you comfortable on a horse?" I was like, "Yeah, yeah."

You're not gonna say "no" in that situation, are you?

No! So, I get the gig and I'm like, "Can they bring me in for some training?" So, they actually brought me out to Santa Fe, where they shot most of it, about a month prior to shooting, just for a couple of days, and I hunted down a stable in Brooklyn.

It came back surprisingly quickly. I connected to the experience in that regard. I knew I was gonna like that part of it but I loved that part of it. It really opened something up inside of me.

There was an article in the English press about Russell Crowe and his bond with his horse from Gladiator, and Liam Neeson feeling the same about a horse he rode in a film. Did you have any experience like that with your horse?

I think I did more than the horse did maybe.

That's usually my experience as well.

I definitely did not have as much time with my horse, T, as Russell Crowe had with his horse in Gladiator. I'm only riding on maybe three of the scenes.

So the horse was very good to me, we got along, but it spent most of its time with much more adept riders than I, and it knew it. I felt very bonded, but I gave T his space when he needed it.

I've been following your Twitter feed, and your co-star Grainger Hines' as well, and I've noticed there's been a lot of pictures from the set. It looked like you guys just had such a lovely time out there. Was it hard then to wrap?

Yeah. I can really only speak for myself, I think, but, yes, we were really in it by that point. I've known Zoe before.

Of course, you guys were on stage together, right?

Right. Yeah. We did a production of Angels in America here in New York, seven or eight years ago now. So, we had that going in, but we were definitely closer during this time. Zoe, Grainger and I, we'd go away for the week. We took trips to Mount Rushmore.

And we'd go find a watering hole together on the weekends. It was very much a family sense. It was the last part they shot, so I think most of the crew, and maybe Joel and Ethan were not too terribly sad that it was coming to an end, but we were like, "C'mon, chapter seven!"

They'd just been stuck out in a glen with Tom Waits for a few weeks.

I could watch that dude pan for gold for like 20 hours straight, I think.

It's weirdly compelling, isn't it?

It's the finest way to pass the time.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your character. There's that western stereotype of the hardened man of the plains, but I loved how Billy Knapp just totally subverts that. He's so gentle even down to how his romancing of Alice is so hesitant and lovely. Was it intentional to flip this frontiersman on his head, so to speak?

Not in that literal of a sense. I guess the paradigm I was working with was a little bit in knowing that he existed as a contrast to Mr. Arthur [Grainger Hines' gruff, weathered cowboy] and he was nearly on his way to becoming something like Mr. Arthur, who certainly fills that iconography.

All the stories deal with death, obviously. But also, I feel like each one, in its way, touches on a kind of courage that's required to meet that reality, or to make your way through the world until that reality finally hits.

And so I feel like while Billy Knapp is definitely vulnerable with Alice especially, more so than your stereotypical wizened cowboy, it's just the kind of courage he's discovered from himself.

The thing that allows him to survive this unforgiving wilderness where he spends most of his days is his endeavor to take care of other people. I think that's just a lovely way to come at it, to see what it's like when a man very gently refuses to be cowed by a archness of the world. 

I lose patience with films and TV shows where the first reaction when people discover a mutual attraction and five seconds later they're in bed.

It's lovely to see something where it takes them a while to even tell each other their names. 

Yeah, right? It's so born of a practical necessity from the beginning. I don't think they're gazing across the plains at each other from the beginning all doe-eyed.

They both have identified a need in their lives that their survival requires and see the opportunity in one another or the possibility for the opportunity of that survival with one another. 

There's something very un-romantic about it in some sense. But they discover they like each other. In some way, that's more moving to me than a love at first sight, heady romance kind of thing. It's sort of like the need for each other comes first. And then yeah, then they discover they can love each other.

It reminded me of when I was doing The Merchant of Venice in the park with Al Pacino, years ago. He was playing Shylock and he went and spent some time with some Orthodox Jews over in Brooklyn.

This one gentleman had been married for 30 years and it was essentially an arranged marriage.

This man was talking about how it took 10 years for he and his wife to fall in love. And then they did, and they're just crazy about each other now. That's beautiful. 

That feels more realistic: romance blossoming out of something unromantic. That really gets me. 

Yeah, me too. It's because you're not being misled by your heart. The heart can be really unreliable.

Bill Heck

So, what have you got coming up next?

I just finished a radio show, believe it or not. Marvel is doing a Wolverine podcast, a 10-episode radio series.

They've already done the first season and I just did the second season as Gambit. That was a ball. And I've a screenplay that I'm developing with my wife, that a woman wrote and came to us with.

It's oddly enough, another anthology film. But the similarities sort of end there. 

I've noticed from on-camera interviews that your own personal style has a little western flair. Is that a long-standing thing or an influence from Billy Knapp?

Yeah, I've leaned into denim/plaid/boots for the Buster press gauntlet because it's appropriate.

You should see the storm of prairie-esque dresses Zoe has been sporting. They're amazing! But I've been attracted to that feel for a long time. I never really thought about it too hard, it's just quietly wormed its way into my sale-rack wardrobe.

Maybe it took seed growing up in the desert in Phoenix, a Wild West theme park nearby, dressing up as the Lone Ranger for three Halloweens straight, and reinforced itself going to undergrad theatre training at the University of Evansville in southern Indiana, newly exposed to Shakespeare, Shepard, country music, beer and bourbon. 

Working my way into the professional world, I found myself often cast in troubled southern roles for whatever reason and felt connected to that world of loneliness, open skies, hard work and whiskey again. 

I love the western genre but my attachment to the aesthetic more likely stems from my roots in the desert combined with a midwestern sense of repressed politeness my family moved to the Chicago suburbs when I was 10 that was then fostered through my professional experience.

The quiet cowboy, a fantasy from when I was a boy that never really went away. So yeah, I guess I like my Levi's. [Laughs]

Bill Heck's favourite grooming products

Mane n Tail Shampoo

Mane & Tail shampoo

I don't have a lot of loyalty when it comes to product as I honestly either don't pay much attention or am annoyed that I have to bother.

That said, I have baby-fine hair that requires serious help if I want it to be anything other than entirely limp, so I've invested some focus in that realm. Currently using Mane & Tail. It's a horse shampoo, the trend continues!

Magic Move - Hard by Supremo

Magic Move - Hard by Supremo 

I was doing Cabaret on Broadway and discussing the endlessly fascinating topic of thin hair with Sam Mendes, the director.

He told me Daniel Craig preferred the aforementioned item for 007. I figured best not to argue with Bond, and goddammit Bond was right. Haven't looked back.


Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.