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Interview: Kurt Russell on ‘Deepwater Horizon’ and Bringing Blue-Collar Heroism Back to Movies

In Deepwater Horizon(in theaters Friday September 30), Kurt Russell plays Jimmy Harrell, an offshore installation manager on the Deepwater Horizon. His life is instantly thrown into chaos when a massive explosion threatens the lives of everyone onboard the giant oil rig planted roughly 45 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

That explosion lead to the worst oil spill in U.S. history, not to mention a lot of angry finger pointing at oil giant BP for the role it may have played in an ecological disaster that we’re still feeling the effects of to this day. What you may not know or remember about the explosion is that it killed 11 men working on the rig. The film, directed by Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), stars Russell, Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Dylan O’Brien and more.

Jimmy Harrell was one of the lucky ones to survive the explosion, but barely. When Fandango sat down with Russell to discuss the film, we began by asking him about the vulnerable position Harrell was in when the explosion hit.

(Note: This is part two of our interview with Russell. Read part one here.)

Fandango: The guy you play in Deepwater Horizon was in the most defenseless place when the explosion happened.

Kurt Russell: Yeah, he was in the shower.

Fandango: That’s a bad spot to be in.

Russell: A bad spot to be in, for sure. He had been on the phone a lot, back and forth as they were preparing these tests. They were continuing the process of moving forward, but carefully, and I think there was some miscommunication and misunderstanding going on — a lot of confusion. And when it happened to finally blow, he was in the shower.

Fandango: Did you meet with Jimmy at all?

Russell: No, I never did. It was kind of interesting – I wanted to, obviously. I’ve done it a number of times; I’ve played real people who were alive, people who had died. Either way I feel a tremendous obligation to first verify that the writer understood who the person was; that the writer has no shortchanged or created a situation around that person that’s just not true. You can do that by meeting the person, and a lot of time you get discrepancies. The writer will say, ‘Yeah well I thought…’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t care what you thought! How would you like if it I just changed your life on film?’

Fandango: So how do you honor this guy’s story the right way, the accurate way, when you don’t get to meet him prior?

Russell: I watched a video, talked to people who knew him and people who did his job, the OIM, offshore installation manager. And you begin to get a pretty good picture of what those guys are like, and I thought the writers – from what I saw and read – they had Jimmy in the right spot, capturing the essence of what it looks like he was.

Fandango: Would you still like to meet him?

Russell: Yeah, I would’ve loved to meet him and I’d still like to meet him. I hope if he sees the movie… I dunno, maybe he’ll chuckle. Hopefully he’ll like it.

Fandango: There’s a certain amount of blue-collar heroism that’s missing from movies these days. Films like Deepwater Horizon, about these average guys who could be your neighbors who are forced into heroic situations due to extreme circumstances. Guys like you played in Backdraft, Tango & Cash, even in Big Trouble in Little China you’re a truck driver.

Russell: Well in Backdraft he’s like a super fireman. Breakdown is your average guy. Unlawful Entry is your average Joe who’s over his head financially and trying to make ends meet and this horror show happens. I understand what you’re saying, and if that’s the case then this is a movie that definitely does fill that slot.

Fandango: It’s also a movie that shines a bigger spotlight on an industry not many people actually know about.

Russell: We have a tendency to not know, as opposed to forget. This particular job was and still is inherently dangerous when it goes wrong. Those guys who go tap into the earth, whether it be five miles beneath the ocean or in a field somewhere – when you’re popping into a place that has some severe pressure going on, you’re asking a lot of yourself to do this without it going south. Because when it does go south, it’s a pretty horrible thing. When you see that in a movie like this, it’s a lot easier to sit back and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot more that goes into getting that oil out of the ground and into my car than I really think about on a day-to-day basis.’

Fandango: A lot of people probably have no idea what happened on that oil rig – that people actually died.

Russell: When people ask you why did you do take on the role, that’s exactly why. I didn’t know there was a real human story – I thought a pipe busted. I had no idea 11 people died. I didn’t know there was this massive explosion. I didn’t know that story. I was only told the story of the ecological disaster. I find that politically fascinating, and by politically I don’t mean politicians, I mean media and politics, and local politics. Everyone who was involved in making sure the ecological disaster was attended to. Are we seriously now at a place where the ecology or the potential disaster in an ecological situation means more than human life? There’s something wrong with that.

Deepwater Horizon hits theaters on September 30. Check out the first part of our Kurt Russell interview, in which he talks superheroes, sequels and that Big Trouble in Little China remake.

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