Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) loses her husband and children in a Commanche attack on her farm. In most westerns, that would be the setup for Rosalie to become an avenging angel kicking Commanche butt. Hostiles, the new western from writer/director Scott Cooper, tells the real story of a woman like Rosalie.
Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) finds Rosalie while escorting Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) home to die on his reservation. The film has horses, cowboys, cavalry and Native Americans, but asks more probing questions about what the violent frontier really meant to Americans.
Rosamund Pike spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone out of New York earlier this week. Hostiles opens Friday, December 22 in theaters.
Monsters and Critics: Your portrayal of what we’d now call PTSD is something we’ve never quite seen to this extent in a western before. What was your gauge for how her PTSD would manifest?
Rosamund Pike: I just had to take on the very physical aspect of grief into my body as best as I could understand it from everything that people shared with me or I read. I realized that the main thrust of Rosalie’s journey through this film is the processing of that grief.
That was my job, was to look at grief in all its stages and complexities and different colors and tones, the loud and quiet, the painful and the numbness, all of us. And try and make it as real to people who would recognize it as possible.
That was my main focus and I just read every account I could of people who’d had people taken from them very, very suddenly in violent ways. It was hard work, very upsetting work but also humbling and something I felt I grew from as a human being.
M&C: Were those accounts both modern and historical?
RP: Yeah, yeah. Yes, exactly. There were lots of photographic evidence that you can build around from the time, of children’s deaths. There are some very powerful images, just because many children were lost on those wagon trail journeys west. And modern accounts.
I was always looking for physical manifestations and I suppose over the course of the film, the five stages of grief, of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, strangely moments of our films fell very strongly into that passage. It was hastened. Obviously those stages can take years for people.
M&C: Was the digging scene the most intense?
RP: That was very intense. I knew I wanted to dig with my hands. All kinds of things possessed me in that. I wanted to take the earth with me.
I wanted to fill my pockets with the earth that my children were buried in. I wanted to take a piece of them. I wanted to get down into the hole. It was sort of hard and not hard. I don’t have much memory of it actually, to be honest.
M&C: And it was striking how just seeing Cheyenne and their tents would trigger Rosalie. What was your take on what she’s feeling when she sees other Native American markers?
RP: I think she’s been in a state of numbness and suddenly she’s terrified that she’s been brought right back into the hostility, that this man she thought was her protector had suddenly taken her right back into the jaws of death.
She’s got no sense of reality or processing in a real way. It’s just an utter shock trauma response. I just felt it was a total recoil, physical and it was silence. What came out was silence but it was big.
Then simultaneously the feeling of Blocker being the support. I got my head and I just pushed it into his side, like he could hold me, like he could support me like a tree.
M&C: Was the research you did into the American west similar or different than research you might do into British history, like the Jane Austen period for Pride and Prejudice?
RP: Yes, I think so. I feel like the western is the kind of way that America keeps answering its own past. There’s something very potent in the idea of the western that’s a way of America processing its existence and a lot of its core values.
It’s obviously a lot about land rights and displacement of people and hatred and fear. Now we’ve made this modern western which deals with tolerance and understanding and a vision of overcoming fear.
I read a lot about the cavalry too. There are amazing accounts of cavalry officers. There was just so much. It’s an infinite supply of information and you have to curate it somehow for yourself.
I knew that Scott really wanted to make the Native American experience very truthful. We were lucky enough to have Native Northern Cheyenne Chief with us at all times. My understanding of Native American culture just exploded during the filming of this. It was a huge privilege.
Everyone thinks if it’s a western, it’s going to be the fun of action sequences and horses. This certainly was that but it was also this education in the ways of Native American life and culture and belief, which I was not really fully expecting.
M&C: Did digging into this era give you new insight into the United States as a country?
RP: Yeah, on some levels, you know that you’re dealing with a story that’s about fear and hatred and it feels very relevant to the fear mongering that’s being propagated now.
On another level, it opens you up to the hope that America has always stood for and should still stand for. The hope and the welcoming of all people and the goal of it being somewhere where people of all nationalities can live harmoniously together.
That is the goal, right? It’s sort of awakened me to that. Right at this present moment, we’re in need of being reminded of that.
M&C: Was Rosalie’s accent one that still exists or something you had to create from the era?
RP: It’s sort of something I created, an idea of someone who’d come from Illinois and gone west. I wanted her to have a voice. It was all a quality of voice.
I wanted her to be someone of faith, someone who’d been brought up singing hymns and pastoral songs. I wanted her to have the feeling of the land in her voice.
Obviously there’s no direct voice reference I could use from the time, sadly. It’s much nicer when you’ve got a specific person as I do now when I’m playing Marie Colvin.
M&C: How did you like the costumes and riding horses, the trappings of the western?
RP: I love all that. Costumes help hugely. I love the fact that I got to wear my husband’s hat for the whole film. She carries her husband with her.
I always imagine that even when she’s sharing a tent with Blocker, her husband’s hat is there in between them. He’s there somehow.
Riding every day, it was amazing. I felt really lucky to be out there in that countryside riding every day. It was amazing, just amazing.
M&C: What is the film in which you’re playing Marie Colvin?
RP: I’m making a film with Matthew Heineman, the City of Ghosts documentary maker, [called A Private War] about Marie Corvin who was a war correspondent for the Sunday Times in London who was killed in Syria in 2012.
M&C: So there is a lot of material on her.
RP: Yes, huge amounts, a huge responsibility there.
M&C: Are you still attached to play Marie Curie in Radioactive?
RP: Yes, I’m going onto that in February. I’m very excited about that, working with Marjane Satrapi. She’s amazing.
M&C: How much have you delved into that already?
RP: I’m in the beginning stages of my research for that. I start chemistry and physics lessons when I get back to London.
M&C: I’ve always asked everyone I’ve met who’s been involved with Gone Girl this question: Do you think Gone Girl is warning me about women like Amy or punishing me for my role in gender dynamics?
RP: I think it’s making a comment on the narcissism epidemic of now. You can find yourself with a sociopath if you have narcissistic tendencies which they can play into.
I think that the subtlety and brilliance of that subject is probably all summed up when Amy says to Nick, “The only time you really ever liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone I would like” which only a sociopath would say.
But, she’s also right because it’s that reflection back of himself of his own image that was really what he was in love with. So there you go, some food for thought.
M&C: Sociopath is such a great word for that. I saw it as: if you have “game” like Nick had, which I never have when I’m dating, but if you do you will attract someone who makes you play that game for the rest of your life.
RP: Hmm, well, narcissism is the other word for game I suppose. In the case of Nick, certainly.