This interview contains major spoilers from “The Power of the Dog.”
More lisp. More slinking, fox-like body movements. And — gosh darn it — more comb! (His character runs his fingers through a comb’s teeth when he’s anxious.)
“I was always thinking ‘This is too much,’” said Smit-McPhee, 25, his willowy 6-foot-2 frame and wide-set eyes filling the screen in a video call from his family’s home in Melbourne, Australia. “But I tend to unconsciously underplay my characters, so it’s a constant that directors ask me to turn it up a little bit.”
Smit-McPhee’s character, Peter, is the quiet heart of Campion’s western, now in theaters and streaming on Netflix: a shy teen who both irks and brings out the softer side of a masochistic cowboy, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), raising cattle in rural Montana in the 1920s. (The film was shot in Campion’s native New Zealand.)
“I think the first impression is, ‘This kid’s obviously light on his feet, so delicate, possibly naïve,’” said Smit-McPhee, who, in a black T-shirt and ball cap, is self-assured and philosophical in real life. “But we come to learn he has a greater strength to him.”
While Smit-McPhee read the script and Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, he enjoyed the role’s ambiguity, which he said allowed him to arrive at his own interpretation of Peter’s motivations. He worked with an accent specialist, a body movement coach and did meditation and dream work, all in the service of challenging himself to deliver the most nuanced performance.
“Jane pushed me to explore new territory,” he said. “It was only a couple of nights before I went to bed thinking, ‘I’m going to need to completely commit to this.’”
What to Know About ‘The Power of the Dog’’
“The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s simmering Western drama based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, is currently streaming on Netflix.
The role is the latest in a career built on sensitive, inquisitive characters. Smit-McPhee first gained notice as a son navigating a postapocalyptic hellscape with his father in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” before playing a bullied boy who falls in love with a vampire in the 2010 horror romance “Let Me In” and the devilish but kind-at-heart Nightcrawler in the recent “X-Men” films.
In an hourlong conversation, Smit-McPhee discussed how his struggle with chronic pain helped him related to Peter’s outsider status and what he makes of the film’s ending. These are edited excerpts.
The first time you met with Jane Campion, in Los Angeles in 2019, she asked you to have a conversation in character as Peter. What was that like?
It was very freeing and forgiving in comparison to other auditions I’ve done. From a director’s perspective, you get to see how much this actor has understood the psyche of the character and filled in the blanks in the script. I tried to get as far away from my own thoughts as possible.
What in Peter do you relate to?
Physically, the people around him tend to judge him to be a bit weak or not man enough. That’s something he was dealing with 100 years ago, and we’re still dealing with today — negative effects on how you view yourself when you’re told you’re not strong enough, or people assume that about you. But in the same breath, when you understand what value you bring to the world and others, you gain a confidence and a love for yourself.
In one scene, he dissects a rabbit he’s killed in his bedroom. Are you squeamish around blood?
I’m not squeamish when it comes to blood, but I’m 100-percent squeamish when it comes to flesh being cut. My girlfriend watches these shows like “Nip/Tuck” and “Botched,” and I feel sick when I try to make myself watch those gruesome scenes. But in the spirit of Peter, I forced myself to in order to familiarize myself with it.
Despite not being a pillar of traditional masculinity, Peter is remarkably self-assured. Where does that confidence come from?
I believe it has a great deal to do with the environment he was raised in, which was very secluded and isolated, as well as his experience of trauma — he had to physically cut his own father down when he committed suicide. Because he was isolated, he didn’t have any expectations of others to live up to in terms of how he dealt with his traumas.
When you were 16, you were diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a medical condition that causes vertebrae to fuse and results in chronic pain. Did you relate to Peter’s sense of being an outsider?
Absolutely. I wasn’t as physically capable as other kids, and that brought me a lot of grief in my younger years before I learned how to deal with it. But I used the chronic pain and the emotions to fuel me further into my endeavor with curiosity. I found myself in libraries a lot; I would find heaps of books on things that transmuted apathy into a sense of control or freedom. But my knowledge didn’t help me become someone who wasn’t an outcast, it just made me grateful for being an outcast because of where it took me intellectually, spiritually and physically.
Your vision was impaired in your left eye while shooting the film because of a severe cataract related to your condition — which means the scene where you catch a matchbox must have been pretty difficult.
They just left the camera rolling, and it took me probably 20 times to catch the matchbox because I have no depth perspective — any time someone hands me something, I think it’s closer than it actually is. But I eventually did get it, and it was without giggling, so that’s good!
Did you have discussions about your characters, or were you letting the dynamic play out as you went?
We had a very, very deep discussion about our characters — there’s so much going on that’s internalized, so it was about talking about all these things that are ambiguous in many ways in the script and the book.
Kirsten [Dunst, who plays Peter’s widowed mother, Rose] and I had this idea — it’s not in the book at all, and I have to be clear about that because it would change the whole story — that Peter had actually killed his dad, too. It was our little secret that would just create a weird bond between them that would translate, but the audience wouldn’t know how to put their finger on it. But apparently some people put their finger directly on it!
What do you make of the ending?
Peter completely killed [Phil] with the anthrax. And he didn’t necessarily plan it out from A to Z, he’s one who really just acts upon the moment.
Is he attracted to Phil?
I’m still not sure if Peter started to feel his own intimate and sensual feelings toward Phil, or if that was all just a means to his own ends, but it does create a deeper layer that Peter was exploring his sexuality and maybe discovered himself in Phil and had to sacrifice his love for him.
Do you think Peter’s mother knows he killed Phil?
I think Rose knows and doesn’t want to ask. The same goes for Jesse Plemons’s character — when he hears about anthrax, he knows Phil would never touch anything that has anthrax because he’s so well-learned in those areas. People don’t ask what they already know.
“The Power of the Dog” wasn’t the only film you shot close to home during the pandemic — you also play the singer Jimmie Rodgers in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic, filmed in Australia and slated for release next summer. What was it like jumping from a western to the glitz of a Luhrmann film?
My first day on the set, I was just supposed to be in the background of a scene, but then Baz Luhrmann said, “I have this great idea, I want you to stand on the table and sing.” And he gave me the option to say yes or no, but especially after working with Jane, I said yes. You’ve just got to not think about what others are going to think.
What would be your dream role?
I’m a big fan of surrealism, so it would be cool to play Salvador Dalí — I think I resemble him, in a way.