Boyd Holbrook talks playing a villain for the third time after Logan and The Sandman and what he desires for his career. Read the interview below:
When Boyd Holbrook flops down into a chair for our interview, roughly 18 hours have passed since the premiere of his latest film. That film was Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the premiere took place at the Cannes film festival and, despite patchy reviews, it was met with a five-minute standing ovation in the room. As we talk, Holbrook is visibly still attempting to process the whole thing.
“The level of stimuli was comical,” he drawls. “It was out of sight, man. An ovation like that has a real life of its own. It goes from, you know, pure love and admiration to, ‘OK … are you gonna stop? OK, no keep going,’ to ‘This is a bit awkward, isn’t it?’ to ‘Oh, this is great. This is a moment.’”
If you’ve seen any footage from the premiere, it will undoubtedly have been the moment where Harrison Ford, having just been awarded an honorary Palme d’Or by festival director Thierry Frémaux, gazes around at the room with tears in his eyes. For a monument like Ford, who has spent much of his 80 years gruffly rejecting any form of sentimentality, to be so visibly moved hits like a jackhammer.
“It’s been really fascinating to watch Harrison go through all of this,” Holbrook marvels, simultaneously fiddling with a vape pen and a cocktail stick over Zoom, from one of the anonymously dingy backrooms that the festival usually tries to conceal from the public. “It’s really touching. When you try and get your head around the perspective of what’s happening in real time? Wow.”
Holbrook’s own role in The Dial of Destiny isn’t a particularly big one – he plays a henchman to Mads Mikkelsen’s Nazi villain, and the bulk of his screentime is taken up with scenes of him either shooting people or desperately wanting to shoot people – but it is memorable. A lot of the film’s publicity material, for instance, involves a sequence where Indiana Jones rides a horse through the New York City subway system, chased by Holbrook. It probably isn’t a spoiler to reveal that Holbrook’s primary motivation in the scene is a desire to shoot Jones.
Although the part isn’t the biggest, it clearly wasn’t one that Holbrook was going to turn down. Now 41 years old, his career is exploding in all sorts of directions at once. After playing the meaty role of DEA agent Steve Murphy in the Netflix series Narcos, he recently took another step up the ladder as the Corinthian, a walking nightmare with teeth for eyes, in the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. On paper, he is far beyond minor henchman roles. But of course he said yes to Indy. Not only is this the sort of thing he can do very comfortably in his sleep – very few actors working today can play Creepy Violent Second Banana with his level of visceral relish – but also this is an Indiana Jones film. For him, just as for an entire generation of adults around the world, the first three Indiana Jones movies are essentially imprinted on his core DNA.
“One of my first memories is actually watching those movies with my sister and my dad in my living room,” Holbrook says. “That moment when they jumped out of the plane and landed on the mountain in the raft … that sense of adventure! And everybody knows Indiana Jones. It’s really, really wild. It’s hard to verbalise.”
For some, however, Holbrook is still best known as Donald Pierce, the irredeemable Creepy Violent Second Banana who spent the bulk of 2017’s Logan doing his absolute best to murder Wolverine. Like The Dial of Destiny, Logan was directed by James Mangold. How does it feel, I ask, to be the first person to pop into Mangold’s mind whenever he needs a piece of shit?
“Well, he definitely creates characters who don’t think they’re a piece of shit,” he replies testily. “In the early conversations [for Indiana Jones] we had, he said ‘I want to offer you this part, but I don’t want to offend you.’ I don’t know whether that was because I’d be playing a Nazi or because the role was small.”
Initially Holbrook’s character was written as German, but he pressed Mangold for him to instead be an American who we see trying to learn German. “That’s because he is such a piece of shit that no one will have him, except for Mads,” he says. “This guy really just wants to belong to anybody. And it doesn’t get more human than that.”
Born in 1981 in Prestonburg, Kentucky, Holbrook grew up with a coalminer father, an estate agent mother and, despite a strong desire to act in movies, no tangible way to enter the industry. One day, shortly after quitting a job loading and unloading planes for UPS, he ran into the actor Michael Shannon at a department store. Like Holbrook, Shannon was another Kentucky resident, and at the time he was enjoying his first real surge of fame. “I just went up to him and said, you know, ‘How do you become an actor?’ And he blew my mind. He told me to get into theatre, and I realised what a simple thing that would be.” Holbrook’s sister got him a job running lights for a local theatre company, and before long he was scouted by a modelling agency.
“She took a picture and, three months later, I get this random call to come up to New York,” he says. “I had never really left the state of Kentucky more than two or three times in my life, but my cousin was living in New Jersey and I stayed on her couch for three months. I got a job at a coffee shop, and got some modelling money. I tried to suck as much out of it that I knew it was taking from me,” he says of the experience. He used the money to pay for film school, wrote a script, and sent it to Larry Clark (who briefly considered directing it) and Gus Van Sant (who gave him a small speaking part in Milk instead).
And now, to bring things full circle, Holbrook has just found himself starring in Jeff Nichols’ soon-to-be released movie The Bikeriders, alongside Michael Shannon. Did he mention their meeting in the department store? “My friend [actor] Shea Whigham did,” he says. “He brought me to Michael and said, ‘Listen, you met this kid like 10 years ago.’ And Michael was like, ‘We met where? At a department store?’ He obviously had no clue. But, you know, it just goes to show you how far you can go.”
I had wanted to talk to Holbrook about his work outside acting, since it seemed to me as if he had a healthy spectrum of interests to stop him from getting carried away in the intangible mania of Hollywood. He sculpts, for example, exhibiting likenesses of Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ in New York in 2008. He’s a keen photographer. He has a movie script in development. But as I broach the subject, it seems I’ve asked a couple of years too late.
These days he just wants “to be good at one thing and do it really well, and not spend my time scattered”, he says. That one thing is acting. Holbrook has spent much of his career playing small roles for wonderful directors. There was Milk, of course. He was in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Like many people who filmed roles for Terrence Malick’s sprawling freeform 2017 film Song to Song, he was eventually cut out of the final edit.
But now he hungers for more. He’s about to star in Justified: City Primeval, the wildly anticipated sequel to the beloved neo-western series, and has signed up to star opposite Samuel L Jackson in a movie called Last Meals. In the first, he plays a sleazy villain straight out of the Holbrook playbook. He describes the second as the sort of role that had previously eluded him “because maybe I’ve been a little lower on the totem pole. And the role for Sam is, I think, his best work. He’s about to tell me about another piece of upcoming work, teasingly only that it is with a winkingly emphasised “film-maker”, but an offscreen representative lurking in the backroom tells him to stop before he reveals too much.
“I’m excited,” he continues, leaning forwards. “I’m excited, man. I want to upgrade. All these small characters are fucking cool, man, but I want to play something bigger. I want to play the lead. You know what I’m striving for? I want to give the perfect performance.”
For now, though, a small role in one of the blockbusters of the year will have to do. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is much better than 2008’s dismal The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but doesn’t quite match the perfection of the first three movies. It is very solidly the only thing it could ever be: the fourth best Indiana Jones movie.
“For sure, I’d take that on the chin,” Holbrook slowly replies, slightly hurt, when I explain this to him. But he bounces back fast. “This movie is perfect,” he announces in the next breath, very much the little boy who grew up watching this stuff and can’t believe he was allowed to join in. And who can blame him? It isn’t the biggest role or the best film, but you’d be excited about it too. And perhaps, newly ambitious after witnessing Harrison Ford soak up a lifetime of adulation in the space of a single evening, he’s excited for the day that this sort of adoration is lavished upon him. Until that day comes, though, there isn’t a creepier second banana in the business.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is in UK cinemas on 30 June.