Interview : Jillian Bell and Anna Kerrigan talk Cowboys

Cowboys is the sophomore feature film from writer/director Anna Kerrigan, featuring a stellar lineup including Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn, Treme, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Workaholics, Rough Night), Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Leftovers, Hereditary) and newcomer Sasha Knight.

A troubled but well-intentioned father (Zahn) who has recently separated from his wife (Bell) runs off with his trans son (Knight) into the Montana wilderness after his ex-wife’s refusal to let their son live as his authentic self.

It’s a thoughtful, timely reflection on family dynamics, ever-changing perspectives towards identity and mental health and the lengths our love will take to us – no matter the cost. I had the privilege of interviewing Jillian and Anna about their approach to the characters and ethos of Cowboys, which is now available on VOD.

The movie is such a joy, even though it deals with some heavy subjects. I think it deals with them delicately and kindly, which is a pleasure. 

Jillian, I’m curious about your feelings towards your character. I read an interview with Anna where she discussed rural communities such as the one Cowboys is set in, and how our preconceived notions of what people in rural communities are like can be very different from reality. Although your character struggles with coming to terms with her son’s identity, I don’t think she’s a bad person. 

Jillian: You nailed it. I think I was saying before that when I read the script, I was sort of like, “oh, she’s the villain”. But as I continued, I realised there’s this beautiful arc, and she’s layered. She’s not just this one thing that we would all project onto this type of person, so I love that. I wanted that to translate to the performance as well, so I always wanted there to be a fine line between whether she’s a good person or a bad person – we don’t know. Maybe she’s just a person who’s really flawed and has made a lot of mistakes and wants to be a good parent, but is protective of her child in a way that is not helpful. And that’s what my touchstone was for that character.

Anna, what was your approach to how you wanted to humanise these characters who are dealing with not only their own struggles but the struggles of those around them? I feel Jillian’s character really takes on the burden of other people’s struggles more than she needs to or should.

Anna: My experience with people in Montana, LA or anywhere is that we’re all complex creatures, and we carry with us so many preconceptions and judgements. As it pertains to gender identity, there’s ideas of what type of woman you’re meant to be, and the woman that Sally thought her daughter – who turns out to be her son – is supposed to be. And I think we really need to focus on ourselves and our own journeys, and we get very hung up on other people’s journeys as a reflection of our own.

That was something I thought about a lot with the movie. When I write, no character is fully formed. In the first pass, they’re broader, and then as I go through they develop and become more complex. I knew that as much as you can write something on the page like that, you really need dynamic humans who happen to be actors to play those roles, to bring their full selves to it as well. When I spoke with Jillian about the role of Sally, she just understood her in a complex way. Like you said, she’s not a villain, but I think a lot of people were very quick to assume that upon reading the script. Not that I met with anyone else, Jillian [laughs].

With Steve as well, he was able to navigate this character who has mental health issues, and to a degree that’s part of why he’s so fun. But he crashes so hard, and he has trouble really being part of the community and being accepted himself.

Joe and Troy are both, in their own unique ways, outsiders in their own community. I’ve seen the film described as a modern-day Western, and it certainly does have a lot of the trappings of the Western genre, but subverts a lot of what you’d expect from such a film. These are outsiders for sure, but not as we’re used to.

Anna: Right? One thing I’ve talked about before is, who are the modern day outlaws? It’s not someone who just robbed a bank. I mean, now I’d call that person a hero. Kidding [laughs]. But really I think it’s about, socially, how do you fit in or not fit in? These are the people who are the most ostracised.

Yeah, absolutely. I’m such a fan of any approach to genre that tries to find how to mould into a more modern world.

Anna: I think there’s something about Western tropes. You don’t really have to be a cinephile who love western cinema to know the tropes of a Western; they’re so ingrained in us through everyday culture and everything that we see. So it’s fun, and there’s a common language already. It makes it all the easier and more inviting to support that.

Jillian, most audiences would know you as more of a comedic actress. But I was speaking with Steve (Zahn) earlier and he said that he doesn’t feel that matters – just because someone’s known as a comedy actor is irrelevant to their ability. I’m curious to your approach to taking on a role like this which is perhaps a step outside of what you’re typically used to.

Jillian: Well, I feel like with Brittany Runs a Marathon, that was my first time kind of dipping my toe into that pool and seeing if I like the temperature. Is this a thing that I can excel at, or just feel safe in and feel safe to explore it? I had such a wonderful experience doing that film. It was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had, but it was fruitful and rewarding and wonderful for me.

When I read this script, I thought it could be another opportunity like that in that it has less of the comedy. I mean, it still have moments of levity, but it’s certainly more a dramatic role for me. I thought it was scary in a way that excited me and I was hopeful about it. And that’s the right combination. So I said to Anna, “please let me do it”. And she said “yeah!”.

Cowboys is now available on VOD.

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