‘First Cow’ Interview: John Magaro on working with Kelly Reichardt, baking, and the future of independent cinema

Before the pandemic hit, A24 released Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow in select theaters across the country. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the film’s life in theaters was cut short. The film was released on Blu-Ray and DVD back in September and has since gained a small following amongst film lovers. First Cow is not a film for everyone but it is a film that celebrates everything that makes independent filmmaking so special. I recently had the opportunity to chat with the star of First Cow, John Magaro, over zoom to discuss the project. First Cow is one of the first films that he has been cast in where he stars in a leading role. His performance as Cookie is pretty terrific and we spoke about what it was like for him to take center stage along with various other topics including working with Kelly Reichardt, his love for baking and cooking, and his thoughts on the future of independent cinema post pandemic.

Scott Menzel: Hi everyone, I’m here with John Magaro star of First Cow, which is now available on various streaming service, and also on Blu-ray and DVD. So, John, first and foremost, let’s talk about this terrific performance, one of which that is very quiet and subdued, but really showcases your talent as an actor.

John Magaro: Ah, thank you. It’s good to be here, Scott. And yeah, it was a great opportunity and I’m glad you got to see it.

Scott Menzel: So I sort of want to lead with that. You have a really impressive resume so far, not only with the filmmakers that you’ve worked with, but the talent that you have worked with. But this is one of the first times that you are front and center in a film, or TV show. What was that like for you?

John Magaro: Every role is challenging. And I always go into it putting as much effort in, as much work as I can, whether it’s two scenes or the whole movie. There was a lot more pressure, I think, coming into this because of the weight of the role and also because it was something very different from what I’ve normally done. Not that I didn’t necessarily think I was capable of it. It’s just something that people might not be used to from me. But I’m thankful Kelly put her faith in me to bring Cookie to life. But you kind of have to let that pressure go and show up and do your job. And if you’re fortunate enough to be, you’re surrounded by other talented people who are working hard and trying to tell the best story they can. It just becomes fun. And you let that go and you take the journey.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. I think you did such a terrific job with this film, especially since it’s not a showy performance. And I think that’s something to really note. There’s a lot of movies, and a lot of the stuff that gets talked about around award season is people having breakdown moments or this moment where you’re like, oh my God, that’s the award moment. With this film, you have to carry the whole thing on your shoulders. And I mean, you have a great supporting cast that’s helping you along the way, but the movie relies so heavily on you and your showing of emotion and the way that you carry the film. So, again, I just wanted to say that I have never seen you in a role like this before. I would love to see you in more roles like this, because I think you really do nail this performance. Going off that, since this is something that you have not done before, how much research went into playing this character?

John Magaro: Well, it started with what you said. I felt really fortunate to be able to play a character who is so kind of insular and quiet and economic in his speech and emotion even. I think the reason I don’t get to play those and a lot of people don’t get to play those is because those characters aren’t often lead characters. There aren’t many characters like that nowadays. Like you said, the big splashy, oftentimes ham-fisted, big characters tend to be what people are playing, maybe even what people prefer to see it. It’s hard to sit through patiently a film where not a lot happens, but so much happens, but you have to dig to find that. Now going into it, I personally love those kinds of films. I think the reward is so worth it.

I compare it to having a beautiful piece of Kobe beef verse having a hamburger, you know? They’re both satisfying, but one is just something more special. Not to discount hamburgers, they are great too. Now going into it, I approached it how I approach everything. Everything I do, what I need to know I seek to find out. I had the book that this is based on, Half Life. Our film is very different than the book. So, I didn’t think reading the entire book would help me necessarily, but I read the portions that address our sort of little fraction of Half Life. But what I found most helpful was Kelly was smart enough and kind enough to send me these great cookbooks, like Lewis and Clark cookbooks, that you would have been cooking on a journey into the Oregon territory.

And I’ve worked my way through these cookbooks. And just doing that, not only is cooking kind of like a meditation, especially if you’re chopping all the vegetables and stewing things. That takes time and patience, which is exactly what Cookie has and is. So I found doing that as an in to the character of Cookie. When you’re waiting three hours for some meat to tender and stew down and become a rich, beautiful meal, three hours in quiet is more than we’re used to in the modern world, where you just pop something in the microwave or go on UberEats and your meal’s there. So I found that really, really helpful. We also did a bootcamp, a frontier bootcamp a week before where Ryan and I were able to get each other’s rhythms and bond a bit. And that also sort of set the mood.

Scott Menzel: Well, that’s great. Were you like a baker or into cooking before this, or is that something that got inspired because of this?

John Magaro: I was into cooking before this. As I’ve gotten older and the longer I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten more into cooking. When I was younger doing this, you would finish a day of work and maybe go have a few drinks or something. And then as I got older into my thirties, I didn’t want to do that. It became not fun anymore. So cooking, I would come home, because after a day on set, you’re really amped up, a lot of energy, you’ve been drinking coffee usually all day. So I found coming home and cooking a meal, not only is it healthier than ordering something, it also just sort of relaxed me. But so there was the hobby of it, but then doing this, it’s exploded into kind of another passion, I feel like. I just finished a Persian lamb stew that we’re going to have tonight. It’s really delicious. So I’m still even cooking stews now. I’ve really perfected those. But yeah, it’s expanded my passion for it.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. I’ve never had, what was it? The oily cake. I’ve never had one of those.

John Magaro: Well, I think you have. Have you ever had a Beignet?

Scott Menzel: Yes.

John Magaro: It’s the exact same thing.

Scott Menzel: Is it really?

John Magaro: Exactly the same thing. It’s just the term is different. And so, it’s a donut. It’s basically a donut. It’s just fried dough with powdered sugar, honey on it, or whatever. And it tastes exactly, it sort of tasted like a mix of Beignet and a funnel cake.

Scott Menzel: Oh, that sounds delicious. One of my favorite scenes in the movie, is when you first start selling those cakes, and all the townspeople kind of come around and they’re like, oh, let me try this, let me try this. And then, when you have one left and everyone is just sitting there, upping the money of how much they can pay for it. There was something, I don’t know, so timeless about that scene.

John Magaro: Capitalism at work right there.

Scott Menzel: There you go. Pretty much it

John Magaro: That’s like a basic increment of capitalism, supply and demand there. And even with the ugliness of it. And yeah, but also, there’s something about food on film that’s comforting and reassuring. And it also just makes you hungry. I mean, that’s probably a big reason they sell all kinds of food when you go to the movie theater. You’re watching it and you want to eat. So I’m sure a lot of people leave First Cow very hungry.

Scott Menzel: Absolutely. So you were talking a little bit about this already, but what was a typical day like on the set of this film?

John Magaro: The days were surprisingly calm. I think a big part of that was because of Kelly’s preparation, her knowledge of film, her vision which is so crystal clear. She knows exactly where she’s going. So that takes a lot of the chaos out of the equation when you have a leader who really is focused and knows what they want and where they’re going. It helps. She also has people around her who she’s worked with again and again and they’re like family. And Ryan and I have since become kind of part of that family.

And then the final component was, we were out in this beautiful forest, this untouched forest in Oregon, which since has now tragically been burnt. I mean, so much of it is gone now because of these terrible fires. That’s a whole nother thing. Anyway. But being in these pristine forests was just, you couldn’t help but feel calm. You couldn’t help but feel calm. And I think having a calm energy on set, it makes you feel open. It makes you feel more open as an artist. It makes you feel more willing to trust where you’re going. And it helps you produce good work. So it was just a really beautiful experience.

Scott Menzel: It is so sad that you told me about the landscapes being burnt, because I’m telling you, the cinematography in this film is terrific. One of the most beautiful films that I’ve seen this year.

John Magaro: We had a master, Christopher Blauvelt shooting it. And if you’ve seen any of his other work, and he’s worked with Kelly a few times now. I was really blown away by his work on Meek’s Cutoff. And not only is he a brilliant shooter, he’s also just a good guy. Yeah. I mean, that was shot on digital, and it looks like 16.

Scott Menzel: It does.

John Magaro: Really, really impressive what he did. Yeah, it’s really, really remarkable.

Scott Menzel: So I couldn’t help but notice throughout almost every single answer, you’ve brought up Kelly in some way, shape, or form. And you’ve worked, as I said in the beginning with a lot of iconic filmmakers including Todd Hayes and Adam McKay. What was it exactly, or I guess you can’t really sum it all up, but what is one thing about Kelly that makes her stand out from other filmmakers that you’ve worked with?

John Magaro: I mean, like I was saying before, that vision, that focus, that’s so clear. Sometimes you work with people who don’t know where they’re going. That makes you feel less secure as an actor. It makes you sort of worried as an actor. Not to say that it will be bad, but you’ll go home feeling more stressed because you don’t know if you’ve got it. You don’t know if you’ve got what you need for the day. And once you’re done with the day, it’s out of your hands. So it’s nice to have a sense of feeling confident that you’re getting what you need and you’re going to be in good hands in the edit and all that kind of stuff, that vision. But I think that’s what makes me think she’s so brilliant, because she’s focused and has a vision.

But what that also comes from is her tremendous knowledge. She’s a professor of film at Bard. She is an encyclopedia of cinema. She’s probably seen almost everything. She has a supreme appreciation for the craft of it. And that translates. I mean, both her and Todd, they’re both very close. They’re close friends. They have a very deep, long relationship. But both of them have a supreme love for cinema. And it shows. It shows in their filmmaking. And I think that’s why we all respect them. That’s why critics give them acclaim, because we’re passionate about cinema. So when you see someone execute it, it just keeps inspiring us. It keeps us going. It keeps us making films and hoping to make better films. You need people like that, otherwise it’s just noise.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. I mean, not to bring up a sour subject, but I’ve been a huge advocate for independent cinema for years upon years. I remember when I made my first trip out to LA, and I went to an independent cinema that is now an AMC in West Hollywood, and I saw Lost and Delirious there. And then I saw Ghost World the next day. And I just remember saying, “wow, these are different types of films that I am not used to seeing.” How do you feel this horrible situation we’re in right now is going to affect independent cinema?

John Magaro: I mean, independent cinema was already being affected. It’s changing. The world’s changing so quickly. Streaming services have offered things that are good and things that are bad for film. A lot more things get made, and things that the studios had given up on get made there. The great indie cinema of the ’60s. But I’m going to really talk about the ’90s, I think. That was a really bright time for independent film. I don’t know if they’re coming back. And it’s sad because, like you said, there’s tremendous variety in independent film. Really unique perspectives, because the filmmakers really get to have a voice. And I don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think with this pandemic, it’s just making things worse, because now we have theaters shutting down.

We have big theaters shutting down, besides obviously we have little theaters constantly shutting down, but what does that mean for things? I just finished a very independent film that Dan Mirvish, who, I don’t know if you’ve know Dan Mirvish, who’s been a champion of indie. He helped create Slam Dance. Champion of indie film. And it’s tough, those kinds of films when you’re making them. But there’s something lovely. Because I remember as a kid, me and my friend George, bringing out the camera and making some dumb little movie because I’m sitting there with editing equipment trying to edit a movie together. And I think that’s what so many of us who are in film did. And there’s something about those independent films that still has that rustic home cooked feel to it.

There’s always a place for the big studio action movies. There’s always going to be a place for that. They’re perceived well all over the world. But watching the pandemic and what’s been happening whittle away at the last kind of pillars of independent film is sad to watch. And now we live in a world where I don’t even know what it is. Maybe I shouldn’t go there, but it feels like studios now they’re for independent. The line has become blurred. I don’t even know what true independent cinema is anymore. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. Voices will be heard. Stories will be told, no matter what. And hopefully we’ll have great filmmakers to tell beautiful stories.

Scott Menzel: I think if anything, now is the most important time for an award ceremony like the Independent Spirit Awards to survive. Because I’ll tell you, I don’t know if you’ve seen Nine Days yet but it’s a gorgeous film. Very much like First Cow. Very slow build, but you can reap the benefits if you’re watching and you’re focusing on it. But yeah, I’m watching that movie and I’m like, “no one’s going to watch this.” But the Independent Spirit Awards is where I see that movie going. And I see this movie doing well there as well. And I think we need more of that. That’s what’s going to help, I think, to save independent cinema, is we need more people like Film Independent who are going to elevate these films. Because throwing a movie on Netflix nowadays, if it has no buzz, it doesn’t matter. It’s just going to get lost like The Forty-Year-Old Version. They put that out. No one’s talking about that. That was a huge movie at Sundance. No one’s talking about it now. And I feel bad because I love both aspects of cinema as you do. I can tell from your passionate response. But I’m just really scared of where everything’s going right now.

John Magaro: It’s kind of going back to what we were saying before, the wagyu and the hamburger. It’s like, you want a balanced diet. You can’t just have wagyu and hamburgers. You might want to, but if you’re going to really be able to appreciate what this is, you got to have a spectrum of things. And I worry that the spectrum is getting narrower and narrower.

Scott Menzel: Yeah, I do too. All right. I’ll ask you one last question and then I’ll let you go. Thank you so much again for taking the time. So you’ve been in TV, film and indie film. I already know the answer to this question. No, I’m not going to ask you your favorite but I’m going to ask you, what is the challenge of working from each of the different mediums.

John Magaro: You know, and I mean this honestly, I don’t think there is a challenge. I think at the end of the day, an actor is an actor. You do your job. And I will include theater in that too, because I do theater as well. You have one job. To tell a story, to tell it honestly. And I think that’s pretty much it. So whether that’s in a theater with 500 people or a theater with thousands of people or on a screen or on a small screen, your job is the same. And as long as you’re bringing truth and listening and fusing the character with life, the rest is out of your hands. The editors, the other people are going to decide those things. So I think that’s it. You have to kind of come at it as I’m an actor and I’m going to do my job.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. Well, thank you very much, John. I apologize that I went a little bit over on time. But I thank you so very much. Best of luck. And I’ll try my best to help get the word out on this one. I run a critics organization called the Hollywood Critics Association so there’s a couple of people in there who actually have this movie on their best of list.

John Magaro: I hope people put it in their DVD players too. Screeners are sitting out there in a pile. So I hope that people will actually at least watch it.

Scott Menzel: Yeah, I hope so, too.

John Magaro: We’ll see. But Scott, it was great talking to you, and I look forward to the next time. Maybe in person.

Scott Menzel: Yeah, absolutely. I love doing these over virtual, but there’s nothing like meeting someone in person and then afterwards, kind of having a side conversation and whatnot. All right. Thanks a lot, man.

John Magaro: All right. Talk to you soon.

First Cow is now available to rent/own on various streaming platforms and can be purchased on Blu-Ray and DVD

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott Menzel has been watching film and television since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by the films of Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associate's Degree in Marketing, a Bachelor's in Mass Media, Communications, and a Master's in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name change occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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