Barry Pepper Talks ‘True Grit’

The accomplished actor explains how to work with The Coen Bros., how to get cast by Terrence Malick, and... tears?

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


With True Grit, The Coen Bros. put a big question mark behind the constant refrain that “Remakes suck.” With ten Oscar nominations and an over $100 million take at the U.S. box office – a Coen Bros. first – the critically-acclaimed audience favorite reminds us that just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it’s untouchable. One of the actors who brought True Grit to life, in a surprise role kept out of most of the trailers, is Barry Pepper. The stalwart star of Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile and Terrence Malick’s upcoming untitled feature sat down with Crave Online to explain what working with the Coen Bros. is really like, how to get cast in a Terrence Malick movie and also to shoot down the IMDb-sourced rumor that he has an acting trademark.


True Grit premieres on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 7th.


Crave Online: So True Grit. You were in that. And I’m only saying that as sort of an “Oh!” because we didn’t see you in any of the trailers. You were kind of a surprise at the end.

Barry Pepper: Oh good. […] I think that was by design. The Coens discussed during our original read-throughs where they wanted to first see Lucky Ned. Because it was such a faithful rendering of Charles Portis’s novel, so much of the backstory really informed each of our characters. In the case of Lucky Ned, much of what into my characterization was because of the backstory in the novel, although it’s really not ever spoken about. But the Coens are so specific with their characters, and they were just so laser-focused on bringing that novel to life in a way that the original film wasn’t able to do. So they were quite conscious of not revealing Lucky Ned’s face too early on because of the backstory between Rooster Cogburn and Lucky Ned. A year previous to when our film opens they have a big shootout and dustup, and Rooster shoots Ned in the face and busts up all his teeth and creates this wicked scar on his face. They’re nemeses. They have a history, [so] when you first meet Ned he just is explosive because he’s so enraged that Rooster has the audacity to infiltrate his mountain camp, and is about to ruin everything.


Crave Online: One of the things that really surprised me about Ned as a character was how reasonable he was.

Barry Pepper: Right.


Crave Online: He’s kind of a nice guy in a lot of ways!

Barry Pepper: Yeah, he certainly honors in a small way the title of the film. He sort of shows his true grit, or displays his true grit, in the sense that he honors his fair play deal with Rooster by releasing Mattie in the end. And he believes that what Chaney has done needs to be accounted for, and yeah he’s a very interesting character in that way. But then, like I say, the novel really informs that far more than this film does.


Crave Online: I notice looking back at your career that you really haven’t done any remakes before. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Barry Pepper: I guess not. I was involved in The Kennedys production recently, and so that maybe you could classify as a remake. Everybody and their dog has done a picture about the Kennedys.


Crave Online: And you played Tom Ripley [in Ripley Under Ground] and that character had been done before.

Barry Pepper: Yeah, well that’s an odd one. That was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel that never was meant to be a Ripley film, but I think after we filmed it they decided to call it a Ripley film. But that’s another story for another day.


Crave Online: I guess so. When it comes to that sort of thing, did you avoid the original film at all? Had you seen it before…?

Barry Pepper: True Grit?


Crave Online: Yeah.

Barry Pepper: No, I hadn’t seen the original until after… and least until after I had created my version of the character, which was fortunate in hindsight. I’m such a huge admirer of [Robert Duvall, who played the character in the original film) that it would have been very difficult not to pay homage to his interpretation. It’s funny. I’m very flattered by critics who say I’d done a spot-on impression of him. It has far more to do with the musicality of the lines and dialogue that we share in the film. The dialogue is so precise and peculiar in its phrasing that it has almost this Old West iambic pentameter that you acquire. And he delivered it in a very specific way, as did I. That was completely by chance, only because we had both read the Charles Portis novel and were faithful to it. But it was really great to talk to him after the film came out, and I called him and spoke to him just to let him know what an honor it was to reprise the role he originated. He was very kind. He said that we’d all done a fine job and then we had a chance to talk about his experience on the Henry Hathaway film, and just how different things were. Yeah. It was great.


Crave Online: This is a bit of silliness, but I remember realizing that your character’s name was also ‘Pepper,’ and I was like, “It’s the part he was born to play!”

Barry Pepper: (Laughs) – That’s right! As luck would have it, that wasn’t typecasting. I read for the part and, well, basically created a character in costume and put it on tape, sent it to the brothers to let the know that I knew what I was doing. (Laughs) – They liked my interpretation and they flew me in to read opposite the final casting of the Mattie Ross character. Ellen Chenoweth had audition 15,000 girls for that particular part and they’d narrowed it down to four girls, I think. I went in with Jeff [Bridges] and the Coens and we read opposite [Hailee Steinfeld]. And they cast Hailee that day, and then Jeff and I did our costume fittings. And that was fantastic, going in a big room with these thousands of pieces of costume… hats and boots and vests and jackets and everything you can imagine. Boots and spurs and gun belts and knives and all the good fun stuff. And just seeing Jeff pick out his pieces; and I got to find my pieces that I wanted for Lucky Ned. It was really an enjoyable process just being involved in the production that early on. And I got to design my pistol and I had an elk horn handled knife blacksmithed for me, and got to choose to the type of pistol and design the handles. Black ebony handles with white ivory shamrocks emblazoned on the handles of my pistol. It was just a real joy.


Crave Online: That sounds fantastic.

Barry Pepper: Yeah, [the Coens] are just so laser specific with their detail, the brothers are, and there’s no anachronisms like in so many westerns. Yeah, and there’s just this lovely formality to the dialogue. No contractions, and yeah… It just was a really enjoyable process from the very beginning.

Crave Online: The Coens have this sort of reputation as quirky auteurs. And you’ve worked with so many great directors – Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, and Terrence Malick now – are the Coens actually different at all?

Barry Pepper: They are. I think, you know, to a large degree their directing’s done long before you ever set foot on set. The screenplay and the storyboards are so meticulously crafted, as well as the process they go through with makeup and costumes and prosthetics, and it all informs you of all you need to know. The direction on set is respectfully unintrusive, in that the last thing you want at that point is a lot of direction. I want to be so fully immersed in the character and the imagery of the piece that the directors can just focus all their energy on covering it as beautifully as they’ve conceived it in their mind’s eye, and they’re not distracted. You know, they shouldn’t be distracted with having to be worried about you. I have a tremendous respect for directors who have a tuned ear for precise delivery of a line, and both Joel and Ethan are such wordsmiths they really the music and timing of dialogue and delivery. That’s a unique gift they have to offer actors. The subtlety and the shift in delivery, it can elicit a wonderful variety of emotions for an audience, and often it’s a subtlety that you didn’t see yourself until they suggest it, [but] it makes all the difference in the scene. And that’s where their genius lies, I feel. They just come up and whisper in your ear, just some irreverent choice. They’ll say something like, “Try it a little more pious,” [or] “a little unctuous,” [or] “fall off at the end of the line,” or “try something irreverent.” And it’s these little oddities that they offer that make their actors shine. [And] it’s a real calm, cool, collected set. That’s also quite a distinction of being on the Coens’ set. Nobody’s running around with a bullhorn freaking out. (Laughs.)


Crave Online: I was looking on IMDb and they this beautiful thing in their biographies for actors. They have ‘trademarks.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen your IMDb page, but they have a trademark for you that said the character you play cries in every movie you’re in, “except for Ned Pepper in True Grit.”

Barry Pepper: (Laughs) – Yeah, I don’t know. I never thought of it. I don’t know what that means.


Crave Online: I just thought it was amusing.

Barry Pepper: I don’t know if that’s true, but carry on.


Crave Online: It doesn’t seem like a “thing.” Characters get upset in movies. It’s dramatic. It’s so ridiculous, pointing that out. It’s beautiful.

Barry Pepper: I enjoy tragedy. I enjoy drama. Quite often it’s par for the course.


Crave Online: I wanted to ask you about Terrence Malick’s next movie [in which Barry Pepper co-stars], but there’s nothing available. It’s just such an exciting thing every time he makes a film.

Barry Pepper: He seems to be much more prolific in recent years than earlier in his career, that’s for sure.


Crave Online: How do you go about getting cast in a Terrence Malick movie? Does he just ask you?

Barry Pepper: Yeah. Yeah, he just called me. There’s just something in my filmography that he admired, and he said, “I want you to play a lovable and esteemable man, which I think you are.” (Laughs.) It was an amazing experience working with him. It was a rare oasis in recent years with me, working with a director of his spirit and ability. Just an extraordinary person.


Crave Online: You’ve been a lot of movies over the years. What do people recognize you the most for?

Barry Pepper: It really depends, you know, on what film strikes them or touches them. Yeah, it’s always different. Sometimes it’s the most independent, obscure film that I’ve done that always surprises me that people want to talk about, or are most moved by. I did a film in the Canadian arctic called The Snow Walker. It always impresses me when I hear people ask about it, or tell me that they’ve seen it, because it was just one of those very tiny independent movies that I was fortunate to be a producer on. It was an incredible adventure, the experience and the people that I got to work with, and yet it’s one of those films that you just don’t expect to see the light of day. But it’s had a healthy life on DVD.


Crave Online: What do you have coming up that’s exciting you?

Barry Pepper: Well, I’m excited about the Terrence Malick movie that’s coming up.


Crave Online: Does it have a title yet?

Barry Pepper: No, I don’t believe it does. He’s got a few projects that he’s working on simultaneously, so I think it’s still in the editing stage. But yeah, what I’m most excited about is the release of True Grit on DVD and Blu-Ray.


Crave Online: (Laughs) – Well, you should be. It was a ridiculously good movie.

Barry Pepper: It was.


Crave Online: The Coens are on such a roll right now, and thank you for being a part of that. You were really great in it.

Barry Pepper: Great. I’m glad. I’m glad I was able to find a role that didn’t call for tears. (Laughs.)

Crave Online: (Laughs) – Stick to the man!