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!’
“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.”’
Eventually people will get it and say, ‘Oh, there was a method to this guy’s madness.’
“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.’”
“I just think he really loves acting and that’s what makes him different,” Gunn adds. “He’s not interested in the accolades and money isn’t the most important thing. He loves the craft and the fact that he’s able to wake up every morning and do this for a living. He just might have more integrity than any actor I’ve ever met, and I love him for it.”
Russell’s enthusiasm for his job is indeed boundless. The word “lucky” comes up often over the course of a 90-minute conversation in Santa Monica, and he measures a movie’s effectiveness, both as a participant and an audience member, based on whether he senses the actors are having a ball. (By his reckoning, both the recent “Moonlight” and “La La Land” passed with flying colors.)
The “Guardians” gang is back, with a few newcomers in the Marvel Studios sequel. From left: Yondu (Michael Rooker), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).(Marvel Studios)
Chris Pratt, left, reprises his role as the intergalactic adventurer Star-Lord/Peter Quill, with Michael Rooker as Yondu.(Marvel Studios)
Zoe Saldana returns as Gamora.(Marvel Studios)
Vin Diesel once again supplies the voice of Groot, although he’s of much smaller stature than the first film.(Marvel Studios)
Dave Bautista is back as the hulking Drax the Destroyer.(Marvel Studios)
Bradley Cooper returns to give voice to the diminutive warrior Rocket.(Marvel Studios)
Nebula, played by Karen Gillan, also returns in the sequel.(Marvel Studios)
Canadian actress Pom Klementieff, right, joins the Marvel universe as Mantis, with Drax (Dave Bautista).(Marvel Studios)
Marvel newcomer Kurt Russell plays Ego, the estranged father of Star-Lord.(Marvel Studios)
Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) have words.(Marvel Studios)
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) prepares for a showdown.(Marvel Studios)
From left: Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are ready for action.(Marvel Studios)
Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in full batle gear.(Marvel Studios)
Drax (Dave Bautista) confronts an enemy.(Marvel Studios)
From left: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”(Marvel Studios)
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.”