‘First Cow’ ‘gives the loneliest of us hope,’ say the film’s stars

 Actors Orion Lee and John Magaro star in "First Cow"
Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro star in Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.”
(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

In Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” survival in the 1820s Northwest takes the form of a felicitous friendship between itinerant baker Cookie and Chinese immigrant King-Lu. For their portrayers, John Magaro and Orion Lee, respectively, that meant living like frontiersmen and trusting the vision of their acclaimed director. Over a video call that found Lee at home in Perth, Australia, and the New York-based Magaro having just put to sleep his 7-month-old daughter, the pair spoke to their experience making a movie steeped in the past but with a timely message about the sensitivity of human connection.

Before shooting, did you two talk out how Cookie and King-Lu viewed each other?

John Magaro: Kelly leaves an element of mystery about exactly the nature of their relationship, so we trusted each other to have our opinions and that element of mystery. I’m happy we never set that in stone.

Orion Lee: We just knew we were going to go on this journey together. It wasn’t this immediately effusive bonding. It was a quiet getting to know you.


But Kelly Reichardt did set you up with a survivalist as preparation. What was that like?

Magaro: He’s more of a reenactor. He lives primarily in the Lewis and Clark era. We were in a farm outside Portland for three days or so. We took on our roles. I did the nesting and cooking, and [Orion] the hunting and gathering. I would cook meals, we went foraging, and Orion had fun skinning muskrats.

Lee: I was a bit nervous. I’m from the U.K., we don’t really do this sort of thing, like Americans going deep in their character. [Laughs] But when you’re living in that day and age, you have to work all the time. And in the film, they’re always doing something.

John Magaro and Orion Lee play strangers turned friends turned business partners in Kelly Reichardt’s richly atmospheric “First Cow.”

March 4, 2020

Does filming in nature like that help as well?

Lee: It was beautiful, but as King-Lu, I kept thinking, what’s coming around the corner that could eat or harm you?


Magaro: I loved it. Every day we were in these forests that were pristine, untouched. Sadly, a lot of them have been burned by these insanely terrible fires that are becoming too normal.

What kind of costar was Evie, the cow?

Magaro: She’s a diva. [Laughs] She splashed on me a few times.

Lee: When a cow that big pees, it’s a waterfall!

Magaro: It hits the ground and it’s all up in your face! But she was great. There’s something about being next to an enormous animal like that, who’s so calm. It really puts you at ease in a way. Just this life force. I haven’t spent a lot of time around livestock. I’m a city guy. She’s since retired. And she has a cat named Cookie.

Lee: I was farther away, so I never really got to see John working with Evie but seeing it onscreen, I was like, “Oh my gosh, King-Lu would have been so jealous!”

Speaking of seeing the movie, what were your foremost reactions to the whole film?

Magaro: It wasn’t a clean, tidy ending. I think that’s what struck me most about it. If you get to share it with people, you get to really explore those unanswered questions. Sadly, I don’t know if that gets to happen if you’re watching it alone at your house, but these are the times we live in.

Lee: It does creep up on you. I was feeling that actually reflects friendship. When you first make a friend in real life, you don’t know you’re making a friend. It’s not like, say, love, where it’s like, “Wow, all I want is you.” It’s like, “Hey, how you doing?” And then time goes by, and you reach a point where, if that bond breaks, you miss it. And the movie has that journey. That’s the special magic that Kelly brings to her work.


To your minds, is the movie saying anything particular about such bonds?

Lee: Both of them operate fine as loners. But they did both feel lonely, and in a gung-ho, macho, kill-the-beaver world, they didn’t quite fit. When two lonely people meet, and they have a lot in common, they survive better.

Magaro: Friendship has been told in a lot of ways on film. What I think Kelly offers in all of her films is an outsider’s perspective. I think that’s because she is kind of an outsider to the film industry. So to tell a western with the antithesis of the typical western heroes, very sensitive and very alien, who are outcasts in this rough world and yet still find each other, it gives the loneliest of us hope that there is somebody out there who can be your friend. And we need that.