Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow leaves a lot up to the viewer to decide, but audiences have responded to the natural, gentle chemistry between Cookie and King-Lu. As two men who form an ambitious bond, they aren’t like the aggressive and overly masculine men wandering around the woods in Oregon. Gotham nominee Orion Lee explains how Reichardt’s patience allowed him to burst through as King-Lu.
When King-Lu first meets John Magaro’s Cookie, he quite literally naked and vulnerable. There is an instant trust between these men even though they aren’t familiar with one another’s past. As the film progresses, they take turns listening as they dream about a future as business partners together. They are doing it their own way.
Lee enjoyed the ambiguity of the script, and he suggested that audiences have interpreted the film in a variety of ways. Do they believe all of King-Lu’s stories? Is he exaggerating to get what he wants and needs? It’s been a long time since we have seen two male characters bond without obnoxious bravado and competition. It’s a relationship that changes both of them.
**There are slight spoilers to First Cow‘s ending towards the end of this interview**
Awards Daily: Kelly Reichardt is known for films about the working class and they are always shot so naturally and beautifully. Was she the main reason you wanted to be in First Cow?
Orion Lee: Absolutely. The only thing I saw of hers before was Night Moves and I was amazed by the fact that she could do a slow thriller. This was a movie that had me on the edge of my seat but there are no car chases and there are no explosions. The only one that happens is off camera in a vague background. I was over the moon. To work with her on set is even more amazing. There are some people who are geniuses but they are so hard to work with. She gives you support when you need it and she gives you the time that you need. Whenever you ask for it, she’s there for you. It’s a really great working relationship and the team she has around her is amazing.
AD: When we first see you in the movie, I was surprised by how much King-Lu trusted Cookie immediately. Do you think the connection was immediately evident or is it because he has nothing to lose? He’s quite literally naked and afraid.
OL: I think it’s a combination of a few different things. Literally at that time, he’s starving. He doesn’t have much. King-Lu has survived by his wits and his assessments of people, so he has the ability to look at someone and think that he’s not running around with a gun. He can make an assessment on his vibe. Needing to trust someone in that moment was key.
AD: The way you look at each other was very striking. That connection was very immediate as an audience member.
OL: What helps with that was us listening to each other as characters and as actors. I am trying to get every piece if information I can from this character. I am at a very raw state and I am slightly dazed, but I am trying to figure out who Cookie is at the same time. My character is very wily so I am trying to reach out and emotionally touch him. He’s asking for help so he needs to convince this stranger to help him. That’s the great thing about this script is that there is an opportunity to play with a lot of different things. It’s open to interpretation as an audience member as well. You can think that King-Lu’s story isn’t true and he’s trying to manipulate Cookie in that moment. Or maybe he generally has that connection. I did think when I first read the story, I knew it was a story about friendship. I always think that friends have more in common than they have differences.
OL: I thought that King-Lu was quietly and reserved as well. Kelly wanted to push me in a different way. She wanted him to be more charismatic and talkative and she pointed me to Ryan O’Neal.
AD: Oh, that’s interesting.
OL: Yeah, it was interesting because my mom really liked Ryan as an actor. I was looking at him and I thought it was far from my conception as the character. What I came to was King-Lu came from a certain situation and traveling around to all these different places he’s had to become charismatic and learn different languages. I thought that he would’ve become like Cookie if he had the opportunity to be like Cookie. He’s had this path which has changed him so that he’s now King-Lu. At his essence, he’s a quiet, reserved person because I look at myself, and I used to be introverted before I started to act. When I was kid, I was very quiet but then I remember my dad told me that I had to speak up. King-Lu, back when he was a child, he was more reserved, but his lifetime has changed him. When these two people meet, they are like souls recognizing each other. It’s not spoken. It sounds romantic, but that’s what it felt like at its core.
AD: The ease between these two men is, honestly, refreshing. We don’t ever see them butt heads or disagree or fight. What kind of conversations did you have with Kelly or John Magaro about that relationship? If it was off, it would throw the balance of the movie off.
OL: This is a cliché answer, but it comes from the script. Jon Raymond wanted to write a book or story about friendship and the King-Lu character came from that. They are still friends, and he makes a cameo in the bar scene. Jon’s spirit with that went into the script and he worked on it with Kelly. John Magaro and I didn’t have talks about how it would come across. It comes down to two actors listening to each other and we were always open to each other. We never talked about the script, though, and it meant that we were listening to each other even more. It meant that we were going to go into a scene together, and I had no idea what he was going to do.
AD: Oh, that’s so interesting.
OL: He has no idea what I’m doing to do. We are just watching each other an listening. At the same time we were open to suggestions and he would say yes to me trying something. Being generous to each other and listening to each other and, I think, that’s the thing. Maybe that’s rare? Two people sit down and listen to each other.
AD: You can recognize that openness and that’s why people are responding to this so much. I did a quick Twitter search on the characters, and people were just gushing about how much they love the two of you. I saw someone selling Cookie & King-Lu Baking Company t-shirts and people making art on Etsy.
OL: I’ll have to see that.
AD: At one point Cookie comments that something seems dangerous, and King-Lu replies, ‘So’s anything worth doing.’ I kept thinking of how King-Lu pushes Cookie and King-Lu’s ambition.
OL: The vast majority of the time King-Lu is pushing. To me, he’s an old entrepreneur. That means he’s failed plenty of times, and he’s always been driven. In certain situations, the system is rigged against him and other times he’s just failed himself. One of the great things about King-Lu is that he never gives up. He’s reached this age and he’s still dreaming. He’s still a dreamer and he wants to get his venture off the ground and he’s excited about making it. He’s not exactly old and he’s not exactly young and that’s part of the charm of the character. He’s always coming up with ideas and still going.
AD: And he probably doesn’t want to ever get back to the place we see him from the beginning of the film. If he can make money, he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
AD: In terms of the shoot, I could feel the dampness in the air and the weight of the clothes. I wanted to know how that affected you because it helps transport the viewer.
OL: I have to say that it was cold the day I was naked (laughs).
OL: I remember before the take, I asked the first AD to tell me when we were five minutes out. When he did, I started doing squats just to get my blood going. I was punching the air. I remember the next day, it was so painful to walk. I didn’t think about it when I was doing it. One time, we were in a canoe and the person rowing it had thrown some water into the back. By the time we got to the shore, the person helping us with the props was taking out ice. He was just picking it up with his hands and throwing it back into the water.
AD: So you’re telling me it was very luxurious.
OL: (laughs) The thing is just standing there and seeing the beauty of the part of the country that is the genius of Christopher Blauvelt. He captured the fall colors on the screen so you feel like you are there. Also, with Kelly’s style, she gives you the time as an actor and an audience member to feel space. To absorb it and it go through you instead of scene, edit, scene, edit.
AD: I think the final scene is so beautifully done. Cookie lays down and he closes his eyes and King-Lu looks at him before he lays back. What is he thinking as he looks at him?
OL: I hesitate to say, because a lot of this film is open to the audience. But it was important for me to try anyway to have this idea of King-Lu could make the decision to go. He did that with his previous friend–if you believe his story at the beginning. His friend was in trouble, and he left. King-Lu is wondering if it’s time to go.
AD: That just killed me.
OL: It has to have that. You have to have a choice in your relationships to stay and you have to have a choice to go. That has to be an active thing. It can’t be about loving someone or needing them for your career. You have to have that choice to stay or go and you constantly make that choice to stay.
First Cow is available to rent on Amazon and Apple.