Edi Gathegi on re-educating the Old West with The Harder They Fall

Edi Gathegi, star of The Blacklist, StartUp, X-Men: First Class and the Twilight saga, talks to us about being part of an all-star cast in The Harder They Fall - which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival this year - the importance of inclusion when it comes to re-telling history in film and literature, and the 'built-in education' that comes with this new and necessary Western.

Photo Credit: Diana Ragland

The Harder They Fall, the new western thriller from Jeymes Samuel that boasts an astonishing cast that includes Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and Delroy Lindo, bulges with the untold stories of real-life African-Americans from the Old West.

Those characters include Rufus Buck, Trudy Smith, Cherokee Bill, Bass Reeves, and another, Bill Pickett joined me for a recent chat about the making of the film. Of course, by Bill Pickett I actually mean actor Edi Gathegi, but it's his character name that appears on screen as our Zoom chat begins. It's a double confirmation I have the right man, who takes the time to talk having just arrived in Romania on a family trip.

Before we chat about The Harder They Fall, I first ask him what brought him to acting in the first place?

"I got into the business of acting purely by happenstance. I've always been a performer and a storyteller from my childhood days, but I didn't know it was a profession until I was in college. I fell into acting class accidentally to get through a depression that I was going through, and I found it was a craft that needed to be studied and respected. That sent me on the journey of continuing my education and then ultimately turning professional, which has a lot to do with luck meeting persistence, because as every actor will tell you, it's a war of attrition. The biggest key is not giving up."

Not giving up has seen Gathegi star in television shows such as The Blacklist, Justified, Startup, and soon will be seen in Apple TV's For All Mankind. He's also appeared in features such as X-Men: First Class, the Twilight saga, and Caged, which brings us to The Harder They Fall.

"My elevator pitch is, it's an all black Western for Netflix with an all-star cast. Set in 1891, it's a fictional story that repurposes real historical figures. I believe that is the secret sauce, because there's a hidden, built-in education. If you find the movie entertaining, which you undoubtedly will, and you have your favourite characters, everyone does, and it's never the same ones, now you have the wonderful task of reading about them and educating yourself on the real figure. I think that's a wonderful way to begin this new phase of the inclusion conversation."

The white-washing of histories is something that has become more recognised and called-out in recent years, especially in film, and this one is a long-overdue step in redressing that imbalance. It so happens that Bill Pickett was one of the few black movie and rodeo stars in the 1920's, but since then it's taken 100 years for a Western like this to come along and further explore these stories.

Bill Pickett

"One of the great things about this project is, because the characters are based on real figures and been repurposed into this revenge tale, you can use the real historical truths of your character and then create the gangster version of it. So, that was a really fun way to begin the work process, arming myself with everything that there was to learn about Bill Pickett.

"He's one of the most famous cowboys in black culture, the first black cowboy movie star. He invented the technique of 'bulldogging', which he learned from watching a bulldog take down a bull by biting its lower lip and bringing it down to his knees. He saw a bulldog do that and thought, 'Shit, the bulldog is smaller than me, maybe I can do that'. So, he did, then everybody lost their mind and he became famous. He's a historic figure that not a lot of people know about, and hopefully now people will learn about him. Same as all the other characters in this, they all existed and they all have incredible stories."

Bill Pickett 'Bulldogging'

The inclusion conversation that Gathegi mentions is relevant to so many periods of history re-told in film and literature, and particularly pertinent in the Western genre. It became clear just how much so when he came face to face with the practicalities of making a Western.

"You know what, there's nothing like the practicality. The horses were real, the town that they built had real buildings with real props, and when you're working with practical elements, it goes a long way to ground the actor in the reality of what it was like back then. And it was hard work. There's a lot of elements; cold days, hot days, sun, getting up on a horse the first few times. If you're not a proficient horse rider, it could be quite a terrifying thing. One of the cast members got thrown off their horse on the first day, got back on, and never got thrown off again, but that's the lesson you have to learn.