I’ll call it now: Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is the best film of the year. Sure, it’s March. Sure, no one has seen Venom 2. But here I am, on the other side of your computer screen, making the case for First Cow. I was lucky enough to see it at the New York Film Festival last fall, where I wrote that First Cow is “a sleepy, open-hearted, easygoing film about men trying to make due with what they have and what they can get.”
First Cow is about two men, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), friends living on the edge of society in 1820s Oregon. They’re social outcasts, bound to each other in friendship and generosity. Cookie is well, a cook, as well as a gifted baker, and King-Lu is a businessman. And then, of course, there’s a cow (Evie), the first cow in the Oregon territory—and if you’re two men looking to make a living selling baked goods, sooner or later you’re going to need milk.
Reichardt’s films (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women) are often studies of the natural and the unnatural, of isolation and love. First Cow explores a world on the edge of civilization, a place in which history has not yet happened. Or is happening in real time, and thus maybe––maybe!––could be altered in favor of the have-nots. It’s a film about closeness, as well, both literal and figurative. Shot in a 4:3 ratio, the viewer is granted access not only to its characters but to the type of oozing and endless forest that seems practically mythological at this point in time.
At the helm of First Cow (besides, yes, obviously, the cow) is John Magaro. Magaro is a character actor of great sensitivity and charm, the type of performer who makes perfect sense in both Carol and Overlord. Though I’ve long admired Magaro’s work, his performance in First Cow is revelatory. He is introduced to the viewer as he flips an overturned lizard back on its stomach, a small moment of grace. Cookie is one of the most gentle characters committed to screen, a man so keenly sensitive to the ever-changing world around him. If I think about the way he speaks to the cow––okay, enough.
I was lucky enough to speak with Magaro recently about his experience working on First Cow and his search for honesty in his work.
I saw First Cow at the New York Film Festival last fall, and my reaction to it was like how people watch action movies. I was gripping the seat the whole time.
I could not believe how tender it was. Watching it unfold really stunned me.
Thank you so much. Have you watched her other work?
At the time, I had only seen Certain Women, so I sort of knew what I was getting into, but First Cow was one of the films where I was pretty blind going into the festival as to what it was about.
I mean, there’s not a lot to reveal as far as the plot.
It’s not a traditional, plot-driven movie. Kelly often equates it to landscape film. It’s kind of its own animal.
How did you come to the project?
I got a call or an email saying, “Read this script.” I knew of Kelly. I knew Night Moves and Meek’s [Cutoff]. So I knew of her and I loved her. Loved her style, really liked Meek’s. And once I read the script, the only thing I could equate it to was Meek’s. Kelly does such a cool thing, her and Chris Blauvelt, our cinematographer, where she plays out so many scenes from a distance. You get to hear the settlers just talking in the distance, and the whole scene plays out [like that]. So I was picturing something more in that vein. [First Cow] comes in a lot closer. You’re really living in the aspect ratio. It feels much more…
Intimate, and it retains that quality of quiet and patience that she has in her other work. So I was really excited by the prospect of it. I think she had talked to a few people, including the casting people, and Todd Haynes, who I worked with on Carol, who’s very close with her. And she was, I think, a little uncertain and then she saw this short film I did called One Armed Man. Tim Guinee directed it, and it’s based on a Horton Foote one act set in East Texas in the early 1900s. I play a similar kind of character, very quiet, outcast-type of character, but violent, more aggressive. [Kelly] saw that and she said, “Will you join us?” And, of course, I was happy to join.
What was the shooting experience like? I imagine you were out there in Oregon, but was that town outside of the fort built up too?
We were staying in Portland. And they have a lot of great state and national forests around that area. So we went to some of these protected forests and were able to shoot in there, where there are untouched trees. So much of that area has been logged. As you’re driving by, you’ll see these newer trees, maybe 100 or 50 years old. These trees we were under were thousands of years old. They haven’t been logged. So we got as close as you could get to what Cookie and King-Lu would have been experiencing.
And then for the fort and for the little town. Again, that was near park land, but they let us build, you know, a little ramshackle town around the fort. It was on…I don’t know what that land was. There was like a winery across the street. It was a patch of grass, and they covered it with mud and they built that whole fort.
How did the immenseness of the natural world inform your performance?
We were really lucky that primarily the first week was [filmed] in sequence. So it was Cookie arriving with the fur trappers and all that stuff, that wandering sequence, and we were out in the woods doing that. The deer would come up and they would be right there. Like, we could touch them. Like I said, it’s an untouched forest, so the deer have no fear of humans. They’ll come right up to you. It really helps set the tone and the mood, and it’s also just a peaceful way to work. It was really quiet and you can just listen. A lot of times sets can be very stressful. So it was just very relaxed and nice.
Kelly’s work lives in stillness.
Yeah. A lot.
In a really beautiful way. And I was wondering if the nature of it being a period film and having the costumes and being outside in the world is difficult to balance with that stillness.
Obviously, a movie set is a very unnatural thing. You have very modern equipment and modern people milling around with these things that are not from the 1820. So, that’s the unnatural component to it. But Kelly and the producers were able to make a set as peaceful and as close to that experience as you might be able to achieve. It also helps to have good people around, and she has worked with a lot of these people before. So, it’s almost like a family on set. A lot of her keys, her costumes, hair, makeup, production design. They’re either people she’s worked with [before] or that the producers have worked with so it’s very tight knit. And that keeps a healthy atmosphere on set. Everyone’s sort of there to make the best thing possible and do their job.
It’s such a tender film. And I also think the way it portrays sort of tenderness in masculinity is not something you see a lot of––
If ever! [laughs] Almost every other male character in this film is so brutish compared to Cookie. Even King-Lu is, to some extent, harsher. How do you, like, hone that sort of softness?
I mean, look at me. [laughs] I’m not the most masculine version in the world. I don’t have Marvel knocking down my door to play the next superhero. That’s one of the things that drew me to this—anti-hero is the wrong word because Cookie’s not an anti-hero. But he is an anti-Western hero. You know, the typical Western, John Wayne kind of Western that we think of, or Clint Eastwood or whatever. It’s a very masculine, very aggressive, rugged, self-taught, jack of all trades, whereas Cookie is none of that. Yeah, he’s a good cook, but that’s about it. And he’s extraordinarily gentle.
I think the gender roles in Westerns are pretty well-defined. There’s the woman who’s either the whore or the lady whose husband has died and she’s living out on her farm or the damsel in distress. And then the men are the rugged ranchers who are masculine, providers and protectors. She deconstructed these Western tropes and made this pioneer man do this [nesting]. Whether it’s a queer relationship or not, it doesn’t matter, but they do take on the roles in the household: King-Lu is the hunter/gatherer and provider, and Cookie is the nester. It [subverts] the genre. Making a man be this gentle spirit was an intriguing way to approach the Western.
I keep calling it “queer-adjacent.”
Yeah, I mean, I have my thoughts on that, but I don’t think it matters at the end of the day. I do think it can live in the queer movie space. There is deep love between the two men and it’s a necessity for the two of them to have that love and that connection, because they are so isolated and have nothing else and no other human connection, which is so vital. So it is what it is. I think that’s what makes it intriguing and that’s what makes it unique as a Western.
One of my favorite shots in the film is when King-Lu goes out to chop wood, and you’re sweeping and then you go out to get the flowers.
I loved that. That was a fun sequence too, because it is so quiet. Nothing happens! He introduces me to his house, and then we start building a home and it’s very simple. I don’t think there’s a lot of coverage in that. I think it sort of plays in the one [shot] where I come in and out of frame. Sweep, get the rug, and he’s out chopping some wood.
Totally without dialogue, just presumed.
Just life. It’s just life. That takes a tremendous amount of bravery and Kelly has that as a filmmaker.
I have to ask about the cow. I gotta ask about Evie.
Well, that’s the title. That’s the main character.
No, it’s you! But you have to be the conduit for her.
What about the cow?
How is she? Is she nice to work with?
She’s a fucking diva. [laughs] Oh, my God, her demands? No, she was great. She was lovely. Kelly has told me stories—they auditioned, or I don’t know, looked at headshots. Like, I don’t know if it was a picture on an iPhone or if it was actual headshots or—
A glossy 8 ½-by-11.
Yeah, like they’re wearing four different looks. The casual, the professional…But she found this cow, Evie, and they trained it, you know, so she could be around smoke machines and lights and all that kind of stuff as well as being on the water, because it had to be on the raft.
But she was so calm and she just hung out and took it easy. It was very easy to milk [her]. Some of my favorite stuff was when I got to sit there and have those beautiful speeches with her. One of the best scene partners I’ve ever had actually. I mean, she was wonderful. She since retired from acting and now has a calf named Cookie.
She’s gonna cash in on this.
Yeah, if they have a Kelly Reichardt Comic-Con type of thing.
Would be kind of amazing.
Like out in rural Washington or something.
“Meet Evie the Cow!”
Did you get to try any of the cakes?
Yeah, I made that!
I was [frying] those in the oil. We did this little frontier camp where we learned how to make those as well as the clafoutis. We really figured out how to do that.
What is cooking to this character? You don’t see a lot of cooks on screen. It’s a great food movie.
Yeah, if they [show] cooks on screen, it’s like they’re at a three Michelin-star restaurant. “He’s the chef at the Plaza,” or it’s like Chef, the movie. Most of what we see are chefs. Now Cookie, you know, he’s a cook. That’s a skill. That’s all he does. He lost his family when he was a kid. He had to find a skill of some sort. Somehow he got an apprenticeship in Boston with a baker and learned this stuff. And then for whatever reason, he goes out west. Cooking for him, I wonder, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a passion, or if it’s just a way to get by. It gives him something to offer people because he has nothing else to offer. He’s not going to be trapping beaver. He’s not going to be hunting. Foraging and being able to cook something that might be a little tasty for these brutish men provides him a reason to be there. I almost feel like he’s a cook out of necessity.
I saw this last fall in the context of films like Parasite and Hustlers, and I thought about First Cow in the context of these like “we gotta get one over on all these guys” types of movie.
Isn’t that just capitalism in a way? If we were going to do a film study of capitalism, this might be like the most basic form of it. This is, you know, basic capitalism and its life. And, unfortunately, a lot of what we’ve realized about capitalism, a lot of times it’s, “Well, I’m going to get mine while I can get it.” I don’t think these guys are nefariously doing that, but they’ve got to make some money, they got to feed themselves. They do have goals. They do want to get out of this environment. So to do that, they plot an illegal activity, but one that makes sense for them. Also in Cookie’s gentle nature, it’s a victimless crime. No one should get hurt doing this. No one should suffer from doing this.
It’s never clear what exactly the men at the fort who have the cow would even want the milk for besides…to have it.
Something that doing this film made me realize is how much basic stuff in cooking comes from milk. We live now in a world where we know there are alternatives to it, but back then if you wanted butter, you had to get milk. If you wanted confectionery stuff, milk. In your coffee or tea, milk. That would have been a very valuable resource, especially for a cook.
The way the milk even looks in the movie is very pure. I’m thinking of the shot of the girl carrying it in a bucket through the mud.
If we get super esoteric about this stuff, you can talk about like the cow is Mother Nature and this is the mother giving this, and Cookie is the lowly salamander and King-Lu is the owl up in the tree. But milk is also like their gold, in a way. So Kelly makes it look as appetizing and as beautiful as possible. To them, it’s what they have. It’s the resource.
I also saw it as a type of Garden of Eden. Being tempted…
There’s so much packed into it.
You could do a whole semester analyzing it, I’m sure.
Sort of a dream. I’d love to talk a little bit more about your career in general, because you work. You work so much.
You know, people tell me that. I feel like I could be working more, but people say that. I grew up in Cleveland; I come from a very “you work, you work, you work” [type of background]. So I always feel like I could be doing more. Oftentimes, I feel like I’m being lazy when I’m not working.
So are you always seeking to like fill time?
Not always, but when I’m not, I feel guilty. Like, I feel like I’m not doing anything, you know? I feel whatever my Jewish guilt or whatever it is.
Yeah, I’m familiar with that one.
I feel like, “Oh God, I’m wasting away.” But I try to keep busy.
You’ve worked with a lot of auteurs.
I’m lucky. I don’t know why that is. I’ve been lucky to work with some really great directors.
How do you move from project to project? Are you seeking out things that are really different from each other?
Really, at the end of the day, it’s the script. Sometimes it’s the people who are involved. You know, if there’s somebody you really would like to work with and that comes across on the paper, that’s intriguing right there. But for me, it mostly is the script.I’m not looking necessarily for, “I just did this and I need to do a comedy movie,” or like, “I just played this gentle character and I need to be some aggressive asshole,” or whatever. It’s like, you read something and if it hits you, and you feel like you can offer an interesting take on it, then I try and go for it.
And that’s hard, because a lot of times things are not that great. You get a lot of material, and you read a character and you’re like, “I’ve seen this a million times and I don’t know how I can do this any different or any better than anyone else.” So those I find trouble motivating myself to go after. But if I feel that kernel of interest, then usually I’ll start to like navigate down the road of doing it. And as far as being on set, it’s not like I have like, “Oh, this is the comic hat, and this is the dramatic hat.” I always try and live the situation and live in the moment. Let whatever you feel about the page or the scene wash over you and take you where, hopefully, you should be going. Hopefully that works for the story and the character.
Is there a kind of role you haven’t done yet that you want to? You’ve already worked in all sorts of genres.
There’s tons of roles that I would still love to do. There’s so, so many. That’s something that evolves over time. Especially as you change and as you get older, the things that are important to you change and your life situation changes, whether you get married, have kids, or whatever it is. I think it changes the kinds of things you want to try and want to work on. It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been here doing this. The things I wanted to do have since changed now that I’m in my mid-30s. So yeah, you just sort of let it go. Trust the universe of it and all that kind of hippie-dippy shit.
Do you feel at ease moving between mediums?
I don’t really believe there is a way to do theater, there’s a way to do TV, and there’s a way to do film. At the end of the day, it’s all acting, it’s all performing. And it’s all storytelling. And my most favorite theater is when it’s not projected to you. And it doesn’t feel like “theater acting.” I don’t really believe that it should live differently. And the same goes for TV. I don’t think it should be heightened just because it’s TV.
I’ve had the fortune in theater to work with a director, Richard Nelson, who does these beautiful plays that The Public has put on. His style is very conversational, sitting there and talking. There’s nothing that I love more than watching an honest moment from a performer. So I like that, and I try and do that in my work.
First Cow was full of honesty, and I found it so absorbing and disarming. Is there a movie like that for you, or something in recent memory that just totally disarms you and takes you in?
I mean, there always is. Every year, there’s something new that that takes you in. What keeps this fresh for me is you constantly see new actors, and even old actors, who do something new. You get to see an incredible honesty in them. And it doesn’t matter that you could be watching something like Game Of Thrones. Even though that’s heightened, I can point to a scene between Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage in this heightened, outrageous world where they say goodbye to each other at the end of the last season where it felt supremely honest and had humor to it and was nice. I don’t believe that because you’re doing a Marvel movie or you’re doing a Kelly movie, that it can’t live in an honest and surprising way.
Do you see a lot of movies in general?
Yeah, I wish I could watch more. Life gets in the way sometimes. When it’s award season, I try and knock out a lot. I saw those and the Indie Spirit stuff, but I wish I could go to the theater more. As we get older and we have bills to pay and we have obligations, it makes it harder to do that. I’d also love to be able to get to the theater more. That’s another one that’s hard. [But] we live in a world now where it’s even easier, because you have Netflix and Hulu so you can go find a little gem that you missed and and watch that from home.
Meek’s Cutoff was that for me on a night in, and then I get to be like, “Oh, wow, this is really something.”