For many, First Cow will be an introduction to John Magaro. In Kelly Reichardt’s sensory 1820s-set western, the actor – whose past credits include Oscar-winner Carol and Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black – plays Cookie, a gentle soul with a talent for baking sweet, nostalgia-inducing treats. When he runs into King-Lu (Orion Lee), a sailor on the lam, the pair strike up a friendship that forms the film’s beating heart.
Speaking with NME for the film’s release, Magaro discussed his introduction to milking cows, why cooking is more relaxing than smoking weed, and details on his next film: David Chase’s long-awaited prequel to The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark.
Hey John! Critics are raving about First Cow – did you always know it would be a hit?
“When I got the script for First Cow, it really jumped off the page. I don’t think a lot changed from that initial read of the script; [director] Kelly Reichardt’s vision was always there. [From watching her early films], I noticed the bravery that she has as a filmmaker. She’s willing to have these entire scenes shown from a distance, where the dialogue is almost whispered. I was like, ‘Jesus, this director has courage.’ I was really excited to just sit down and talk with her.”
How would you describe your character Cookie?
“He’s an outcast. He lives in a rough, difficult world where ultra masculinity seems to prevail, and he doesn’t belong there. But he doesn’t have a lot of options, and there’s a chance to make money and also maybe a chance to find something new. So he takes the risk of going out there, and fortunately he finds King-Lu, who is another outsider, who he’s able to have connection with.”
How much did you commit to Cookie’s lifestyle?
“I will say that I’m not too ‘method-y’, I think that term is used too liberally with actors. What brought me close to Cookie was the cooking. During the shoot, I cooked in the style of that world. Beforehand, I was working my way through cookbooks from the 1800s.
“We were also really fortunate to be shooting in these pristine, untouched forests in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of the forest that’s up there is less than 100 years old, so stepping into that world right away just transports you back into Cookie’s time period. We would see deer who had no fear of man, and they’d come straight up to us and let us touch them.”
How would you describe your milking skills?
“I’m a city boy so I’d never milked a cow before, but it’s pretty easy. Other people have said it’s difficult, but luckily, [bovine co-star] Edie was a very sweet and gentle cow. We formed a really nice connection, mostly through bribery. I’d give her apples and carrots, stuff like that.”
What’s your relationship with food like?
“I find that when you’re away on set for weeks or months at a time, as opposed to coming back and smoking a bunch of weed and getting drunk, cooking is a meditative way for me to unwind. So I’ll come back and whip up a meal.”
What’s your favourite meal to cook?
“I’ve recently been making homemade ramen and tonkotsu broth. My wife would say Italian though, as that’s my roots. I can make a pretty mean pasta.”
You’re playing a younger version of Silvio Dante in Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark. What can we expect?
“I was a huge and still am a huge Sopranos fan; I had the poster on my wall in high school, and I watched it every Sunday night. Back then I was like, ‘Wow, it’s a cool mob show’, but now I see that it’s obviously so much more.
“Then I got to know David Chase on a film that we did together several years ago about ’60s rock and roll [Not Fade Away] and we’ve become very close. He’s like a father figure to me. I know it was hard for him to come back to the world of The Sopranos, but the script brings a lot of the dark humour, silliness and social political commentary of the show into this film.”
What happens in the film?
“It’s partly about Tony Soprano’s roots – Michael Gandolfini plays one of the versions of young Tony, and he’s amazing in it. The real focus though is on Dickie Moltsanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), who is the father of Christopher Moltisanti [one of the series’ main protagonists].
“I will say that for those of us who had to play characters who were already established, that was a huge weight on our shoulders. We know how much those characters mean to people. I think everyone who plays those characters really does a service, and I hope the fans don’t feel let down by that.”
‘First Cow’ is in UK cinemas now and on streaming platform MUBI from July 9