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Interview: Kurt Russell On ‘The Art Of The Steal’

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a decent heist movie make it’s way towards theaters, and “The Art of the Steal” is just what we were asking for. It’s a clever, funny and exciting film, and leading the charge alongside director Jonathan Sobol is actor Kurt Russell. Audiences haven’t seen Kurt Russell in too many movies as of late, and why should he? The veteran actor has reached that point in his career where he can pick and choose as many, or as little, film roles as he wants. When the script for “The Art of the Steal” came across his table, he couldn’t resist but to join in on the fun.

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In “The Art of the Steal” he plays Crunch, a below-average motorcycle daredevil who used to work as a conman alongside his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon). When a con goes wrong, Crunch gets the blame and lands in jail for a few years. Once he’s out, he finds himself back in the game all over again, but his ulterior motives are hard to read. got the chance to speak with Kurt Russell about making the movie, working with the cast and how he approaches the craft of acting.

What was the appeal to you to join this project?

Kurt Russell: I thought it was clever, and by clever I mean it took what I felt was a conmen then art/art heist and combined all of them with a sting movie. To have a sting movie, you have to have an audience involved. I love it when the writer has the acumen to put together a screenplay that gives him the feeling that he’s earned the right to almost start the movie and point the finger at the audience and say “All right, so you’ve gotten jerked back and forth a few times and you can’t say that it’s been done dishonestly but you’ve got three seconds to answer, who’s doing what to who? You’ve got to come up with an answer.” I think that those movies are very rare. It puts the intelligence of the writer/director on display.

When people talk about taking risks and making movies, I often chuckle to myself and say “That was a real big risk, pays you fifteen million dollars, what a big risk.” What’s risky is when you put your brains on display. When you’re laying yourself out there as a writer/director to be criticized for how smart you are. I’ve read a lot of scripts over 52 years and this was clever. Now, the question is then, how do you pull that off and who’s the guy to pull that off. When it’s the same guy who wrote it, you often run into a lot of problems. They’re generally the first person to bail out on themselves and I’ve seen that a number of times. It’s shocking when you see it, see the very guy who wrote it bail off of his stuff because he just doesn’t know how to do it instead of saying “Look, here’s what I’m trying to do. Can somebody here help me do that?” and you go “Yeah, I can.” I just want to know exactly what it is you’re trying to do. What was great about working with him was he put together a group of people that almost to a man or woman said “I get what this is, you might have to put me on track every once in a while, you’re always gonna be the one who says that’s not quite it.” You’re always gonna be the captain of the ship. As long as you have that person who’s not afraid to make those decisions and take responsibility for that then you’re free to say “How far do we want to go in this scene?” I can do this or I can do this or I can do this. And you keep taking this little chess piece and move it all along the board and move it to the end and say “That still works.” That’s a good one. It sounds simple but it’s pretty complex when you’re doing movies that are out of sequence because of the way you have to shoot it and you’ve got actors working on different days who aren’t there to double check and you’ve got to remember to tell him that you’ve done this instead of that. So a lot is put on his plate and I think it’s our job as actors to do as much as we can to clean the plate but put all the best ingredients on it for him to choose from.

There’s a moment with you and Matt Dillon where he steals from a little girl and you yell at him about a robber’s code. Is there a code you operate by in your job?

Kurt Russell: Yeah, I’m sure there is. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it to make it interesting for you but there are some codes. My code is very simple and goes back to what my dad said to me. One of the early jobs I got, I was maybe ten years old and my dad, it was one of the only things he said to me about acting, “Ok, you’re getting paid a man’s salary, do a man’s job.” That was it. [The director] and I really do like each other. I know that it’s fun to work with people always but it’s a different thing to appreciate them for what they’re trying to do. Let’s face it, if this was your fifth movie, this movie would be different, better in many ways and probably in a raw way, not quite have an energy that you always want to keep in your movies. It’s always a fun thing to imagine getting better but keeping that raw energy that comes with youth and ignorance and exuberance and not being afraid. But I do appreciate John and appreciated his screenplay and what he was doing. I thought it was impressive that he was laying himself out there and saying “I think this is funny and kind of sharp, what do you think?” To me, it’s the kind of thing that you don’t often get to do. It’s generally not about that. It’s generally about having something to say and having a tale to tell. This is not that. This is just being in the world of movies that I just think, I just love going to the movies and finding out I’m in one of those. There’s been quite a few of those lately. Take Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s got conmen in it. It’s not an art heist movie but it’s definitely a sting movie because the audience is involved and you have to say “Didn’t see her coming” and it’s kind of fun.

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Where there any heist movies you were thinking about while making the movie? Or any that just appeal to you and are some of your favorites?

Kurt Russell: We did have conversations about different things. What’s interesting to me about the point of view of making them is I made another movie and when you’re making the movie and when you see the end result, it’s nothing exactly like when you’re making it. It’s what you hope you might see. Because I know when we made “Vanilla Sky,” I had similar conversations that I had with you I had with Cameron [Diaz] and Tom [Cruise]. I said “Now guys, I’m just confused about something here. If you got Kurt Russell and he’s telling Tom “Don’t jump” don’t we want the audience to agree with Kurt “Don’t jump”?” You get down to funny stuff like that but at the end of the day, Tom kind of looked at me, and it was this two hour conversation, and Tom looked like “I’m not sure” and Cameron was like “If he’s right, we’re sunk.” Those conversations you do have because it’ll turn on a dime. If you don’t get the fullest out of it, you don’t really get the most out of the thing. But if you violate, then the audience never forgives you in these kind of movies. So you’re on your toes. In your defense, you’re dealing with 12 people coming to you for slight changes on the outside, right away, that is better. That happens constantly.

You’re dealing with 10 to 15 of those a day. You start adding those up and once or twice or three times, you’re not going to quickly add those numbers and come up with the right number. Look what happens here if you do that. That kind of thing is almost easier, I get fascinated by that. It’s not easier to hold onto it because that’s where you’re living and you’re living way deeper inside of it than I am but it is something that fascinates me in terms of looking at everything that people do, getting the most out of it, and saying “Were ok, aren’t we?” I’m not looking at the camera saying that, I’m looking at her saying that. It’s fine. I just always liked the idea of, and I’m not gonna say what the movie is, but I love the stuff that takes place at the end where it’s my favorite kind of thing of a movie where you’re onboard and all these things are wrapping up. The end of this one is like a guy at a shooting range with his girlfriend and he’s going “BOOM. Down. BOOM. Down. BOOM. Down. BOOM. Down.” And my brain is going “That’s great! Here’s the Teddy Bear.” I love the progression where it goes down. Especially when you think it’s down and things start happening rather quickly. It’s this slow foreplay of what’s taking place earlier and then this climax is coming at you fast and furious and nothing can stop it now because it’s been taken care of, it’s been done.

What I like about “The Art of the Steal” is the characters are so surprising, especially the relationships they have with each other throughout the movie.

Kurt Russell: Well yeah, all I’ll say is my favorite relationship in the movie is Lola and Crush. One of my favorite movies in terms of writer just knowing more than the audience does instantaneously “Bound.” Why does “Bound” work? What’s the last thing she says in Bound? “What’s the difference between you and me?” and she says “I don’t know” “I don’t know either.” Those two girls are in love and the audience, that writer knew that the audience would just make the assumption no matter what. The love story would be between a man and a woman, no matter what. That’s just a given. Wrong answer. That’s why that works. What I love about how it is with Lola here is, and I’m just talking about it without blowing the movie and hopefully people see the movie but the assumption is that he’s an old guy that she’s taking advantage of. It’s just a given. We all just go in thinking that. It’s just done for you. That assumption is what makes that work. Without that assumption, there’s no game to play. That’s on a filmic level. When I read this thing, I said I want to meet this guy because he understands things. He understands things that the audience are walking in with. They’re walking in with their baggage. It’s great and it’s really fun to play with. So that’s the kind of thing that you’re literally spending millions of dollars and hopefully coming up with something great based ultimately at the end of the day is based on that understanding, that relationship is a real one.

What was it like working with Matt [Dillon]?

Kurt Russell: I just thought he was such a good choice and the way he embraces that stuff. There’s very few actors who know how to do that. He’s just really good at it. He’s an interesting actor to work with in general. Kate [Hudson], my daughter, worked with him and said “You’re gonna like working with Matt, he’s an interesting actor.” And I did. I was just impressed with the way he, I don’t know if I can understand those characters as well as an actor like Matt. There’s something he’s able to actually grab onto there that I wouldn’t know how to find. It’s like a load off your mind. When you’re reading something, you have a tendency to play every role because you’re trying to understand every character and then you walk in the room on the day and you realize, first of all, oh thank god I don’t have to know everyone’s lines, that’s a load off, and then you realize you don’t have to do anything but watch everybody. I just think Matt was perfect casting for this character. I think he did a perfect job.

“The Art of the Steal” is out in limited theaters now.

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