Image Tory Zimmerman.
© USA Today.
Clothes make the man, they say. But they especially make the cowboy.
Not every modern-day actor can pull off the frontier look. Two who can: Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, cut from the same professional cloth and co-stars in Appaloosa, which goes wide Friday.
Harris, who also directs, is the nattily attired marshal Virgil Cole. Mortensen is his deputy, Everett Hitch, who prefers well-worn garb. As they go after a lowdown rancher (Jeremy Irons) who lords over a New Mexico mining town, their lawmen are no Ralph Lauren-does-rustic posers.
"You have to get a handle on what the characters look like," says Mortensen, 49, who also played opposite Harris in 2005's A History of Violence. "If you take it really seriously, you might make a better Western than most."
One area the actor always takes seriously, whether in The Lord of the Rings or Eastern Promises, is hair. For Appaloosa, Mortensen grew a thick goatee and bushy mustache while keeping his haircut military short, a reflection of Hitch's training at West Point.
"I showed up with it that way and just kind of maintained it," he says. "I based it on pictures."
As Mortensen discusses his versatile hair options, Harris, 57, chuckles. "I wish I had some versatile hair options," he says. "I actually had a (hair) piece made, and we screen-tested it. It was pretty interesting looking."
Adds Mortensen, "He looked like Will Rogers a little bit." Harris suggests: "Maybe like Clarence Darrow or somebody. But I didn't want to deal with it."
They decided that their characters should be tidy fellows. "They both have respect for their stuff," Harris says.
Other little touches indicate their close bond, such as the way Hitch bails out Cole whenever he stumbles over a multi-syllable word. "You have to feel the history with these guys," Harris says. "The film isn't going to work otherwise."
Especially after Renee Zellweger's winsome widow moseys into town and catches Cole's eye, disrupting their long friendship.
They were just as particular about not resorting to myth-shattering revisionism to make Appaloosa, which is based on a Robert B. Parker novel, more relevant to today's audience.
"Unforgiven tried to have its cake and eat it, too," Mortensen says of Clint Eastwood's 1992 Oscar winner. "It tried to be anti-violent and feminist, but then became superviolent. It's kind of a cop-out, even though I like the movie a lot. This one is unapologetic." Gunfire comes fast and furious, without fancy trappings.
Both men came of age when such horse operas were commonplace. "One of the first times I got on an airplane, I must have been 5 and my brother was 7," Harris recalls. "People asked us who we were, and I said, 'I'm Roy Rogers and this is Gene Autry.' "
He knows that sending out a Western these days is a risky proposition. While last year's remake of 3:10 to Yuma did a respectable $57 million at the box office, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford took in only $4 million, even with Brad Pitt as the legendary outlaw.
"It was tough to get it financed," Harris says of his film. "One of the biggest demographics is, quote-unquote, males 25-35 or so in terms of moviegoers who go to action films. They don't even know what a Western is. If you are 25, you were born in the '80s, and you can count on one hand the number of good Westerns that have been made since then."
What attracted him to the material in the first place was the relationship between Virgil and Hitch.
"It was just a character-driven piece," he says. "They could have been two guys in the service, two cops in a car, a couple of athletes, and I still would have been drawn to it. It just happens that the relationship between these two men takes place in the West, and they are these lawmen and it's 1882."
That argument didn't totally wash with the bosses at New Line Cinema (since dismantled by Warner Bros., which is now releasing the film). "There was not a lot of trust from upstairs that this film was going to work," Harris says. "They were nervous. They kept trying to manipulate it."
But once a trailer was cut and screenings began, executives heard the word and it was pretty darn good. "The feeling amongst the marketing people is a lot different than it was five weeks ago," Harris says with a smile.
At least no one can say anything bad about the way the leads look. Not like the way Mortensen dishes about the 3:10 to Yuma update.
"I don't mean to pick on it, but I didn't like the clothes very much. For the most part, it was distracting to me."
Although Mortensen does have at least one positive observation: "Peter Fonda looked pretty authentic to me."