Wyatt Russell: "Playing Jena Plissken would be an artistic suicide"

Wyatt Russell: Playing Jena Plissken would be an artistic suicide

Wyatt Russell

Thanks to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Wyatt Russell is becoming a very familiar name and character to the general public. Prior to playing John Walker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Russell was seen in a number of projects such as Ingrid Goes West and Overlord. However, before he was known as an actor, Russell was known as the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.

Father and son look a lot alike, so it's no surprise that he was recently asked Wyatt to dress the play Jena Plissken in the much-discussed reboot of Escape from New York. In fact, in 2019, it transpired that The Invisible Man writer and director Leigh Whannell had been tasked with writing a fresh start on Carpenter's beloved film. There haven't been many updates on the project over the past year, but one thing is certain the protagonist won't be played by Wyatt Russell.

During an interview with Esquire, Russell answered a fan question about the reboot of Escape from New York who asked him if he would be interested in the role or if he could persuade his father to "follow the Logan route and create a new one". The actor replied, “Even if he is very kind, it will not happen. There will be no reboot of Escape from New York on my part, it's like professional suicide, it's a thing not to do. I don't know if anyone else could play Jena Plissken. Good luck, go get them, I sincerely wish you the best. I just don't know how that's possible. As for me, if I wanted to get hateful messages from people, I think I would have pushed to play the role that was my father. But I'll never do anything like that “.

While Russell has no interest in taking Snake Plissken's cape, there is another famous character he is playing: Captain America. Russell is very aware of the hatred his character is generating among fans in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In fact, he doesn't care. "It would be an honor, I guess, not to be appreciated in the Marvel universe," Russell told USA Today.

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Wyatt Russell Knows He's Not Your Captain America. It Doesn't Bother Him.

This story contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode Five.

It's 2004. Wyatt Russell mans the net at a hockey rink—the kind that offers skating lessons and has a sports bar on the second floor—somewhere in British Columbia. Wyatt's about to get his ass whooped. He's 17 years old, which means he'll live another 17 years before he picks up a hunk of a star-spangled shield and call himself Captain America. Here, in Canada? Wyatt's gunning for the NHL. Big crowds, star goalie. Nothing else. He's good, too. Best numbers in the Pacific Junior Hockey League. Not today. The puck slips past him. Bad goal. Another one. And another one. Wyatt Russell's blowing the damn game.

Russell turns to the crowd and throws his hands in the air. In hockey sign language: Look, I've done everything I can do. What do you want me to do? Ow! He fakes a leg injury. His knee. Or something. Pulls himself from the game. Team is better for it. Russell's crew rallies and wins, which makes him think that no one noticed his very bad, no-good game. Sweet. His goalie coach walks up to him after the game, says he wants to meet at the McDonald's on the corner. 10 minutes later, Wyatt's at McDonald's, grease and a screaming McFlurry machine.

'You took yourself out of the game,' the coach says. 'If that's the way you want to live your life? If that's the person that you want to become—the person who throws your hand up and says, 'What do you want me to do?' And you're not going to push through that moment?

Wyatt starts crying. Wyatt Russell is crying at a McDonald's. There's no crying at McDonald's, unless you're stuck in the ball pit.

'I can't work with you. It won't work. This won't work.'

Wyatt never throws his hands in the air again. The coach stays.

Photographer: G L Askew II (Instagram: @glaskewii); Stylist: Monty Jackson (@mrmontyjackson); Groomer: Brian Fisher (@brianfisherhair); Location: The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills

G L Askew II

'He cut to the core of me. From that moment on, I changed as a person,' Russell says over Zoom this week. “I said to myself, When you come upon hard times and you will—you're a human being that doesn't give a fuck what anybody says... You're doing it for yourself. You're going to run through that brick wall because that's what you're going to do. That was what he taught me through tough love. And that's become the person that I am today. I think it's the reason why I'm even able to do this part, to be honest.”

This part? Captain Fuckin’ America. The singular, red-white-and-blue beacon of our hopes and dreams, the billion-dollar-grossing embodiment of human decency, a role forever fused at the hip with Chris Evans. In Disney+’s latest Marvel Cinematic Universe installment, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Russell plays John Walker—an army man who goes from Medal of Honor recipient, to the guy the U.S. government anoints as the new Captain America, to getting-his-ass-kicked-by-anyone-and-everyone faster than you can tweet #NotMyCap. Over the course of the series, the poor guy becomes a bit of a heel. Then, he anoints himself with superpowers, how lucky. With the superpowers, he smashes a helpless dude’s face in with the same shield Steve Rogers used to save the mortal universe. After all that, Walker comes face-to-face with one of Marvel’s greatest surprise cameos. (More on that nuke in a bit.) Walker’s approval rating nowadays? The vet’s smarminess alone has inspired fan rage that’s fallen just short of a government demand to reinstate Evans as Cap. Not happening. Walker is our guy. Get to know him.

So, before we push forward into the annals of superhero, you need to know something about Wyatt Russell. Wyatt Russell knows he is not Chris Evans. Wyatt Russell knows he is #NotYourCap. Wyatt Russell knows about the the side-by-side of Walker and the old guy from Up. He is fully unable, incapable, totally unfit to give a shit. He couldn't even if he wanted to. Maybe, if the McDonald’s come-to-Jesus never happened, Russell could. Once you get over that, we can talk about the radicalization of one Captain F. America.

When Russell and his beard—a mass of hair so epic it could hold government secrets itself—pop on Zoom, it's about 8 a.m. in California, also known as 'not that early' for a new father like himself. He just received our non-superheroed world's closest thing to super-soldier serum—a second dose of the vaccine. 'Excuse me for my lack of joie de vivre this morning,' he says, regretting that he ignored his brother's horror story about jab number two.

As you've likely gleaned, Russell's path to Cap sounds a little bit like the plot of a Judd Apatow sports dramedy. Born to famous parents in Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Or Mom and Dad, to him. Russell chooses a life where he'd devote all of his energy to playing the highest-pressured sports position this side of a quarterback: A hockey goalie. When you lose, you're blamed for it. When you win? It's because your guys scored more goals than the other team—not because you kept them from going in. Russell's effectively baptized at McDonald's, and goes on to play in Germany and the Netherlands. By the time he's 19 years old? Five concussions. A CT scan shows a black spot in his brain. What now?

'I did it because I fucking loved it,' says Russell, who had to give up his world before his mid-20s and retire. 'That was my first love, and it is for most hockey players. So you will do anything to make that art work for you. And it is an art. Skating is an art, making saves, the whole thing is an art. So when I transferred all of what I had learned about what it took to be good at art, it was just hockey for me.'

Russell in Everybody Wants Some!!.

Van Redin/Paramount/Detour Filmproduction/Kobal/Shutterstock

Russell takes a six-week directing seminar at USC and loves it so much that he eventually gives acting a shot. One of the early roles? A flirty hockey player in This Is 40, go figure. Later on, he bench-presses with Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street. There's a one-off spot in one of Black Mirror's most haunted jams. But you really see Russell's on-screen joie de vivre—and how he funnels his past life into this new one— in Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! The hangout comedy follows a smoking-and-drinking college baseball team a few days before the start of the fall semester. Russell plays the stoner of all stoners, Willoughby, who, gives the greatest breathless, post-bong-rip, Van Halen is a corporate sham tangent you may ever see on film. Later in the film, Willoughby turns out to be a 30-year-old man who fakes his age so he can bro around and still play baseball. Russell pulled the character's glassy-eyed mantra, I'm here for a good time, not for a long time, from an old teammate who had a tattoo of a flaming skull on his ass.

'I remember when he got traded, or released, that he was leaving the locker room and he turned around and he just looked at everybody in a fun, good-hearted way. But it was kind of sad because it was ending,' Russell says. 'He was aging out of hockey. He goes, 'Well, I'm here for a good time, not a long time, right boys?' And left. When we were doing [Everybody Wants Some!!] I was like, Fuck. Willoughby was here for a good time, not for a long time.'

Now, If you interview Wyatt Russell and don't watch a little Lodge 49 beforehand, it's like walking into a quiz on the founding fathers thinking Barney the Dinosaur was our first president. From 2018 to 2019, the show ran for two seasons on AMC to where-has-this-been-my-whole-life reviews. Russell stars as Dud (not a typo), a deadbeat Lebowski who happens across a secret order of alchemists who may or may not hold the secrets of the universe. At one point, a tapeworm-looking parasite boogers out of a guy's nose during a lecture, which is all you need to know about Lodge 49. It ran on Thursday nights at 10 p.m., smack after AMC's dark-sided Pirates of the Carribean-esque series, The Terror. With commercials. (Wyatt: 'It's not meant to be watched with commercials. You're having a beautiful moment and all of a sudden, it's a Tide commercial with a mom and who's like, 'Grass stains!'') Now, Lodge 49 is on Hulu, where you can binge it without the threat of Tide commercials and/or grass stains.

Photographer: G L Askew II (Instagram: @glaskewii); Stylist: Monty Jackson (@mrmontyjackson); Groomer: Brian Fisher (@brianfisherhair); Location: The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills

G L Askew II

'I was on the phone with Paul Giamatti yesterday and we were just catching up,' Russell says. Giamatti was an executive producer for Lodge 49. 'And every time we talk, I'm like, 'I'm never giving up. I'm always here for whatever happens.' If God touches Jim and says, 'You're able to do this for another season or two,' I am there.'

After AMC cancels Lodge 49, Russell's in a spot. Things like Lodge 49 and Everybody Wants Some!!, where he's playing these lovable-broken weirdos with names like Dud and Willoughby? Russell loves it. Good at it, too. But as someone of the tall and talented variety, the superhero magnet comes for you eventually. He's getting offers to audition for a few roles. Stories weren't right. 'Maybe I was a little insecure about being able to pull it off convincingly. And I just hadn't seen the right superhero yet,' he says. Marvel comes calling, asking him to audition for a mystery role. Russell's agent pushes him to read some lines and he does. Whoever this superhero guy is, there's actually complexity there. Russell gets the part. Time to break out the champagne and—Marvel shows him a picture of Captain America. Oof.

'My first reaction was like a kid who opened up a present on Christmas that's amazing, but maybe it's not what you want,' Russell says. It was like, 'Yeah!' But in my head, I'm going, What? I can't be Captain America. It's impossible. I can't do it.'

Now's as good of a time as any to address a few FAQs. Russell never had a heart-to-heart, big bro/little bro passing of the torch phone call with Chris Evans. He didn't hit up his dad, who played Ego The Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, for advice on how to stick a toe into Marvel's multibillion-dollar multiverse. Oh! A big one. Russell doesn't know John Walker's future past The Falcon and the Winter Solider. Or can't say. Probably both.

So Russell's trying to figure out how to play Not Chris Evans. First of all, John Walker really does look like the Up grandpa all jacked up on supersoldier serum. Not a great start. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, his greatest strengths are impatience and not playing well with friends. The Dora Milaje hand him the ass-kicking of a lifetime, which, if anything, prompts him to cheat genetics and take the serum. Which he uses to bludgeon a man's face so hard that he gets blood all over the shield. But Walker's a war hero. That's how he got the gig. Medal of Honor recipient. That means something. Right?

Russell as John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.


On set, Russell would pick the brain of a guy named Brendan. He's a trainer for Marvel and a former Marine. Brendan told him to listen to an interview with Dakota Meyer, who won the Medal of Honor for saving 36 lives in Afghanistan during a single battle. But he also had to extract the bodies of four dead Americans. During the interview, Meyer describes a day that he has to live with for the rest of his life. His friends died. And he got a medal for it. Russell imagines what it must feel like for Walker to look at his medal. What he thinks of when he sees it. What it's like for Walker to become Captain America and have millions of people to go, Yeah man, go for it! when you're suffering from PTSD. Russell asks: 'We look at people who are in the service, like, Yeah, way to go. But we don't ever actually look into their heart and go, What's going on, really?'

'Really, at the end of the day, that Medal of Honor represents failure,' Russell adds of Walker's highest award. 'It represents failure. And he's trying desperately, desperately to right his wrong. By going down that rabbit hole, he's making things worse, you know?'

It's not pretty. It's not a 160-character sentiment. And that's exactly what drew Wyatt Russell to John Walker. In a monolithic film franchise where all the good guys line up on one side, all the bad guys get together on the other end, and they charge at each other, John Walker lives somewhere in between.

Photographer: G L Askew II (Instagram: @glaskewii); Stylist: Monty Jackson (@mrmontyjackson); Groomer: Brian Fisher (@brianfisherhair); Location: The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills

G L Askew II

'Not everybody agrees with [this], but if you're going to go fight a war, you kind of need that guy,' Russell says. 'Because I guarantee you from the stories that you hear when you hear war stories, if you don't have that guy, it's very difficult. Sometimes, they go overboard and do things that are wrong. That's what makes him an interesting character. It's in the gray area. He kills Nico with a shield. Well, Nico's that guy, but he didn't deserve to be killed by a shield. But he's a bad guy. [Walker] is what we look at now where he's basically just an overzealous cop. He's an ex-cop. He uses excessive force to get what he wants done and that's not OK today.'

At this point in the conversation, Russell's demonstrating extreme lucidity for someone in the doldrums of side effects, enough that you'd think that meditations on life and death and Captain America are somewhere on Pfizer's fine print. Let's ease up. Because it's been long enough. It's time. We must break for the cameo. Julia Louis-Dreyfus. JLD! In the MCU. Just when you thought they ran out of actors to put in these things. She shows up as the mysterious Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, telling Walker what he wants to hear and teasing a partnership with him down the line. As far as Marvel Cameos go, Louis-Dreyfus even beats David Hasselhoff in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And Matt Damon showing up in Thor: Ragnarok. Definitely beats Thanos. Russell didn't even know Louis-Dreyfus was coming when he signed on. Says there were rumblings on set. Someone’s coming. Louis-Dreyfus shows up for a couple days, a walking code-red-level Marvel secret, Russell describing working alongside the TV legend almost as if he’s back on the Linklater set. He could say anything—she’d roll with it, give it back to him, try her own things—spontaneity, vibes, all that. “It'll be endlessly interesting because she's endlessly interesting,” he says of JLD x MCU.

“I think people are going to think one thing and get a little bit of another because she's such a great actress and you've seen her do feats for the past, however many years. This is a very different type of character for her,” Russell continues. “I'm excited for whatever comes with that. I don't know. I have no idea what's going to come of it, but I hope something does. It would be amazing to work with her.”

Considering that Louis-Dreyfus's character could be playing a dark-sided Nick Fury—an all-knowing, wink-wink assembler of a potential team—it looks like Marvel has big plans for Walker. In Episode Five's post-credits tease, he forges his own bootleg Captain America shield, fusing his Medal of Honor right in the middle of it. Before then, Russell acts his way through a hell of a villain origin story. The government strips Walker of each and every decoration, makes him ineligible for veteran's benefits, and sends the would-be hero packing. Walker's response? I only did what you asked me to do. You made me this.

'He only ever knew one family—and that was the United States Military,' Russell says. 'He cared and he fought for them and he loved it, but now they've taken it. They've used him, and he feels used, and doesn't feel understood. Everybody has now turned their back on him, which is very dangerous to do to a person like that who now has super soldier serum in his veins.'

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A thought on villains, antiheroes, gray-area-dwellers, whatever: It takes a certain person to play one. You think fans run up to James Spader and go, 'Holy shit, it's Ultron!' Hell no. People root for heroes. Not villains. Even a guy like Tom Hiddleston probably knew full well how cheeky Loki would be. Who actually hates that dude? Imagine what it took for Russell to play John Walker. He's a genuine war hero, who also occasionally roids out and cracks skulls. Depending on when you catch him, Walker is either a dumb-but-decent guy or one of the last guys you'd want to see freshly superpowered and unleashed on society. It's a role that begs you to ask that—if Steve Rogers was born in the 1980s, not the 1910s—would he look more like John Walker? Again, not pretty. #NotMyCap has wormed through Twitter since the start of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with fans posting side-by-sides of OG Cap and New Cap, usually with some caption saying how punchable the latter is. John Walker's smiling face is the go-to meme if you want to cut up on a smarmy bro. And the rumors of a Chris Evans return will never, ever end.

'It's partly why I liked it,' Russell says. 'People were going to hate it. I knew it. That's the reason you do it. That's the point. You elicit that response and it's like, Great, it's working. I'm the kind of person [where] the gray area is a place that you must live. If you don't live there, you're going to have a very difficult time in your life trying to figure out who you are, because you're limiting the kinds of questions you can ask yourself and ask others... What this character hopefully brings to people is the idea that there's a gray area in him—and that in life, there's gray area all around us every day. '

There you have it. Unable, incapable, totally unfit to care what other people think. At 17 years old, Wyatt Russell figured out what it meant to do something for yourself. To love what you do so much that no one else can shake that feeling. To believe in the unknowable of a role. To take that role knowing your Up-looking mug won't be on the T-shirts of any adoring kids. To make that role something real, something that looks like life, messy as it is. Once you're there? You'll never cry at McDonald's again.

'You're finding out why you do it and the understanding that nobody else gives a fuck? That's the important place for anybody to get to. I'm doing this for me,' Russell says. He's talking about John Walker, yes—but Dud too. Willoughby. His next role. And the next one after that. 'And I love it. And I want everyone to like it and be great, but if I can look back and say, I did it, I really put my all into it? I can sit back and just accept the criticism, whatever way it comes. And I'm OK with that.'

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