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.
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.
"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."
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.
"Horses are massive. They're incredibly dangerous if you don't have respect for them. Or even if you do have respect for them, things can still happen. My character, Bill Pickett, in reality, died after a horse kicked him in the head. These black cowboys back then in the middle of the 1800s and onward, right after slavery, having done the hard work for hundreds of years, cultivating land, some had to do the hard work of breaking horses, because that was the difficult job. They became expert at breaking horses and cowboying. They became so good at it, stories of them travelled and became famous.
"Then white writers took these amazing characters and turned them into white characters in books and screenplays. That was the beginning of the Western genre on film, completely erasing the contribution of the African American cowboys who really existed, which is why this movie is important because it's saying, 'This was left out, and it can never be left out again, because we were there'."
The Harder They Fall isn't the first telling of a western tale from a black perspective by director Jeymes Samuel, having directed short film They Die By Dawn back in 2013. What was it like working with him on the making of his feature?
"Yeah, he did the short film, They Die By Dawn, and I gather this is the continuation of that process for him. He's been living and breathing this project for 15 years. He knew the characters, world, and lines inside out. For me, playing Bill Pickett, I think I could have played this part without doing all the hard work and research, but I didn't want to do a disservice to the mission. And the mission was to be a part of changing things, to be a part of making history and contributing this piece of storytelling that's necessary to the larger world. So, my job with a director who knew the world inside and out was to get out of the way. When a director is very specific, whether it's his, her, they's first film or 100th, you trust, you get out of the way, and you deliver."
The film opened to audiences at the BFI London Film Festival this year, before it arrives on Netflix next month. What's it been like to see the response it's receiving so far?
"To be honest, there are so many wonderful actors in this and every one is being respected for the totality of the work in this project. I think that's because all the characters are important. It's important to put these kind of images on the screen. I'm excited for the little kids of colour across the entire world who are looking at a new version of a Western that they didn't know could exist, but absolutely did."
Now the film has been released, looking back now, what has been his fondest memory of the project as a whole?
"It's completion. Having finished this particular film, in that particular year, where COVID was threatening to shut us down every single day. It was the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. We didn't know at any given moment if the producers were going to come and say, 'We're shutting down, we're losing actors, they've got other projects'. The fact that we completed this movie was the shining moment for me because at that point, I knew it's in the can. Now it was just up to the editors and post to shape it and deliver."
At this point we turn talk to short films, of which Gathegi has some experience, starring in and also writing and directing his own, Bad Chemistry. It's not a film ever intended for wider release, more as an experiment to see if he could tell a story. As such, he has great respect for the short film medium.
"I believe a short film primarily serves as a calling card for any one of the creatives. 'Hey, this is the calibre of work that I'm capable of doing. Can you please give me the necessary money, so I can do it in a feature?' That's what a short film does. It also gives a platform for storytellers who don't have a lot of resources. I love going to short film festivals and discovering new talent, because that's where you'll find incredible and visionary people who just need resources, a shot, connections. I think, for that reason, they're important.
"I love storytelling and that extends beyond just acting. I love writing stories, producing stories, and directing. I have yet to prove it to myself as a director on the feature front, but directing that short film... it's far from perfect, but that feeling that I had, pulling it off... We shot it in a day and a half, lost our sound guy the second day, we had no money, and I wrote it the week before. We put it together really fast just as an exercise to see if we could do it, but that entire process, me being on a set with actors, filled me up to 10, and very few acting jobs that fill me up to 10. Directing is something that I have to do, but I learned you can't fuck around, it's got to be a story that you have to tell because it's just not worth it if it isn't."
Did his experience as an actor inform him when it came to trying his hand at directing?
"Yeah, I mean, I've been watching directors my entire career, but that experience of directing taught me things. I think the most significant was patience and clarity. Not to confuse actors by over explanation. I learned how to watch the actor's face as they receive the note, and as soon as the actor understood what I wanted, to stop."
And on the subject of lessons learned, if he could go back and give himself a piece of advice at the start of his career, what would it be?
"This is meta, but I already did that. I had a chance to revisit myself and give myself the advice that I've been taking ever since. Which is, it's going to be a long journey. Pace yourself. It's a marathon, not a sprint. It's going to be hard as fuck, but just keep going and you will be fortunate enough to call yourself a working actor."
Not just a working actor, but one that will now be seen in a history-making film alongside an incredible cast. Bringing things back to The Harder They Fall, how does it feel to have been a part of that ensemble?
"You know, I'm a fan of all the talent that's on that screen I get to star alongside. It was great. I don't know how to say it other than it's what you think it would be. I can't think of enough good things to say about Regina King, I think she's intelligent, kind, talented, humble. Idris Elba, you understand why he's a movie star. He's charming but fierce on that screen. LaKeith has become a friend. I admire many things about everyone, and feel humbled to be a part of it."
You can follow Edi on Twitter: IAmEdiGathegi