Wyatt Russell didn't intend to be an actor. But when his first career failed him, he taught himself.
Wyatt Russell is relatively new to acting. He’s known for performances in 22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some, Cowboys and Aliens, and Black Mirror, and he'll soon be known for upcoming releases Folk Hero & Funny Guy (in theaters May 12), Ingrid Goes West (in theaters August 11), and Lodge 49 (premiering October 5th on AMC). Some might attribute Russell's success to his golden surfer hair and good looks, but that’s not the full package; both on-screen and off, he exudes a mix of natural charm, convivial confidence, and small-town modesty, plus an uncanny ability to make his acting seem easy.
"Hockey was my acting school."
Folk Hero & Funny Guy is the latest example of Russell’s mastery. A classic buddy tale with an indie feel, the film has been receiving positive reviews, in particular for the titular relationship between Russell’s "Folk Hero" and Alex Karpovsky’s "Funny Guy." From its character-driven plot to its improvised dialogue, the whole thing feels authentic. The performances are remarkably human and the emotions ring true; pain overshadows laughter as the dark, unglamorous side of showbiz affects the relationships onscreen. Often, when we are about to laugh, the film surprises us with harsh realism. Of course, the film is funny, too, but most of the humor comes in the form of painfully awkward situations. We laugh, we cringe, we sympathize. We identify.
As No Film School sat down to interview Russell, he chuckled at our name: “No Film School? Literally?” An autodidact himself, he was in on the joke. So, how has he taught himself to act with authenticity? Here’s his personal "No Acting School."
1. Keep it real
Russell grew up surrounded by performers. His parents are Golden-Globe nominated Kurt Russell and Oscar-nominated Goldie Hawn; his half-siblings are Oliver Russell and Oscar nominee Kate Hudson; his grandfather was actor Bing Russell. Nevertheless, Wyatt's approach to performing could not be less traditional.
"Acting is treated like this thing you can’t touch," Russell said. "How do I get good at it? To me, it's: wake up, look around. Everything you see and do is acting. Everybody’s acting. Everybody wants to be seen as a certain type of person. The way you carry yourself down the street. The way you treat me, treat your mom."
Russell never received any formal training; instead, he believes in a naturalistic approach to acting. But this doesn’t come without effort. As he sees it, he has been training for years by observing life. For Russell, actors who approach the craft from a more academic standpoint are often trying too hard—and that shows on the screen.
"The writer, the director, the editor—they’re the ones who are telling the story. I’m their pawn."
"After all, we’re all different," Russell said. "And we all have many layers. So who’s the real you? For me, that’s the essential question of acting."
In Folk Hero & Funny Guy, Russell plays a guitar-strumming, barefoot IPA lover. In real life, he plays guitar; though we didn’t share any beers during our interview, his shoes were off, his feet up on the table. Clearly, his performances come from a personal place.
“Whatever the situation calls for, I’ve lived it before in some way or I’ve thought about it in some way,” Russell affirmed. “So why not execute it the way I would execute it myself?” He shook his head, dismissive of less personal methods. “You can’t be taught how to be someone else. You won’t find anything out that way. You have to bring yourself to the party.”
In his past work, Russell has played roles ranging from a serial killer in Cold in July to a tortured millennial artist in Ingrid Goes West. More often than not, he’s been cast as variations of the feel-good bro on the cusp of enlightenment—and he’s cool with that—but despite their predictable surface, his characters have depth and authenticity.
"In order to play a believable character, you have to understand him—and then play him within the context of your own reality."
"You can’t make yourself look like something in someone else’s eyes that they don’t see you as already," he explained. "So the trick is to use that to your advantage. In order to play a believable character, you have to understand him—and then play him within the context of your own reality. That way, the people who are watching it will buy it."
His approach works. Because he draws from his own experience, and because he digs deeper, the sincerity that he brings to each performance helps him avoid caricature. He’s so damn believable—and so likable— that his flawed characters translate as cultural commentary.
"It’s not like I’m some kind of genius," he laughed. "I’m just not good at faking it. I’d rather explore the truth."
2. Don’t try too hard
Russell likes a good challenge. Currently, he’s doing his first long-form performance for the upcoming Paul Giamatti-produced AMC TV series Lodge 49. "Give me a challenge and I’ll try to meet it," he said. "I’d like to play a badass transvestite—that would be cool."
As he sees it, the real challenge is how to make his performance look easy. So he tries not to try too hard.
But Russell does have a process. First, he figures out the character; then, he finds what he and his new persona have in common. And that’s when he owns it: no matter how different his characters are on the surface, they all spring from some deep place within.
"The bro is not that far off from the serial killer," he confided.
From then on, he inhabits the role, lives in the moment, and lets things play out. “Whoever the character, whatever the scene,” he said, “I just think about what I would personally think is either funny or sad or real in that moment, and I do that. Part of my humor is like, ‘I think this is absurd…do you?’ That part’s easy."
So which part is difficult?
"The more challenging roles are where you really start to learn how to manipulate your character—all while staying true to yourself," he said. "You know when it feels right. But after you’ve made your crucial first step, it’s no longer up to you. It depends on who you’re working with. If they understand the character the way you do—if you’re all on the same page—they can make you believable during production and in post."
3. Be a team player
Russell's relaxed attitude is supremely collaborative, and it all starts with casting.
"Casting is where the two parties ask each other, ‘Do you, the filmmakers, and I see the character in the same light?’ For me, that’s where I get to offer my honest opinion. It means that we have a better chance of making a good movie. And if their opinions don’t match up with mine, then they don’t want me in their movie, and that’s totally fine. After all, it’s their vision."
According to Russell, casting choices aren’t about rejection or loss. "Why would you want a role you’re not right for?" he asked. "I sure don’t."
Russell knows his limits, both on a personal level and as an actor. "The writer, the director, the editor… they’re the ones who are telling the story," he said. "I’m their pawn. And I enjoy being a pawn, to be honest."
"Why would you want a role you’re not right for?"
Russell’s humility is as important a tool as his talent. "I feel lucky to be able to work with some of the best people," he said. "I’m always reminding myself that I don’t want to do things just for the opportunity. Opportunity doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s just that: an opportunity. You gotta listen to yourself, to the filmmakers, and ask: 'Is this the right fit?'"
Folk Hero & Funny Guy is a perfect example of the right fit. “This movie was easy for me to do,” he explained, “because I play guitar, I play music, music’s a part of my life. So this wasn’t just an opportunity; it was a role I could execute. I knew I could do it and bring something of value."
4. Trust yourself
Listening to all of Russell’s advice about acting, you might not realize that he came late to the game.
He started his professional life playing professional hockey in Europe. "Hockey was my acting school," he said. “It doesn’t translate directly, but if I were trying to sound really smart, I’d say the body control and the physicality of hockey really helped with my acting. And so did the teamwork." He paused. "But I never intended to become an actor. Acting happened by accident."
"Hockey was what I wanted to do with my life," Russell continued. "I was a hockey player and that was everything. Then, I got injured.” His face fell. "In 2010, I had to retire from hockey. I’d been fighting so hard to succeed at it—and then all of a sudden, it ended. I had to figure out a new life. I considered lots of options, including acting, but I had this fear of failing—just crippling fear.
Despite his glamorous family history, Russell had to admit that he was just as vulnerable as the next guy. But he finally learned to let go. "Once I finally was like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care what people think,' that’s when things started to fall into place," he said. "Do it the way you feel like doing it, and don’t care what other people think. And stay busy. Nothing beats hard work."
5. Leave your comfort zone
Russell is quick to admit that he grew up with comfort. But he also wants you to know that despite his impressive pedigree, he learned far more from life adventures than he did from exposure to the family business.
"That’s what I tell the students I meet with," he explained. "Especially the ones who want to be actors. They ask me for guidance and my answer is simple: ‘Wait until you’re 18. Do school plays. Go to college. Travel. Go somewhere unfamiliar. Just watch other people. Experience life while you’re young, without responsibilities to cloud your view.'"
"You have to get outside of your comfort zone," he insisted. "For me, leaving my house in Santa Monica and meeting people who live with true pain is something I always carry with me. Back when I was playing hockey, I lived in Europe for three years. At one point, I lived with a heroin addict. Then, I lived with a Rwandan refugee, Frank, who had watched his whole family get fucking killed."
"Most of us are so sheltered," he added. "We don’t even know what we don’t know. But once you leave your little bubble—once you expose yourself to other lives—it expands you. Opens up your mind. This is important for actors so we can learn how to represent life, but it’s also so important for everybody. We need to realize we’re not that fucking important."
That’s the essence of Wyatt Russell: he has a pretty clear grasp of his place in the universe. And that's what makes him worth watching.