Actor Barry Pepper discusses playing Lucky Ned Pepper in True Grit

Barry Pepper discusses playing Lucky Ned Pepper in True Grit, his woolly chaps, working with the Coen Brothers, and much more

Barry Pepper is one of those actors who you just can't help but notice, not only because of his fantastic chops as an actor, but because he keeps popping up in high-profile projects. After cutting his teeth in small TV roles in the early 90s, director Steven Spielberg cast him in his World War II classic Saving Private Ryan, and his movie career was off and running. He appeared in Enemy of the State and The Green Mile before earning an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of New York Yankees legend Roger Maris in the HBO movie 61* in 2001. His latest role is that of the villainous Lucky Ned Pepper in the phenomenal Western True Grit, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD on June 7 (CLICK HERE to read my review of this stunning Blu-ray disc).

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Barry Pepper over the phone about his role in True Grit. Here's what he had to say.

I saw this before the theatrical release and I absolutely loved it. I'm a huge fan of Westerns and it was great to see the Western brought back to the forefront. I was curious if you are a Western fan, or a fan of the original movie itself?

Barry Pepper: I didn't see the original film, and I feel fortunate, in hindsight, that I was able to develop the character of Lucky Ned based on the Coen's screenplay and having read Charles Portis' novel. I think that the high bar, for me, is The Good the Bad and the Ugly in 1967. That really just raised the bar for the whole genre. When I did eventually see the True Grit, I think since The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, it's tough to avoid comparing films, side by side, within the genre. I don't feel that the original did the novel justice. I might be in the minority saying that, but the film certainly showcases John Wayne's versatilities as an actor, his humor and vulnerability, and there are many anachronisms in the film, the hats and clothes, which are not as present in more recent Westerns. The Coen's are just absolutely incredible to work with for that reason, they just have this laser focus on dialogue and period vernacular and very, very specific characteristics. When I read the novel, you realize that there is far more to the character of Lucky Ned than is able to be represented in the screenplay, so your task is to design a character that reveals that back story in a very brief window of screen time. When I first met with the Coen's, I spoke to them at length about that back story and how, when Rooster and Ned crossed paths, Rooster shot Ned in the face. I wanted to have that inform Ned's sound, the way he spoke and I was looking for a tone and a gravel because I had assumed that his jaw had been broken and his teeth all busted. It was described in the novel he has a wicked scar across his face. What really impressed me in working with them, is they embraced that. They really wanted that as well, even though it was going to be an hour in the makeup chair every morning, with this prosthetic makeup to create these busted teeth and the broken jaw and the scar and this amazing transformation they put me through every morning. I was just so flattered by that, that (producer) Scott Rudin and the Coen's would allow me to do that, each day. It was a brief character, but they felt that was important too, even though it would never be explained in the film, audiences would almost have to then go back to the novel to appreciate why we went through that effort.

There are so many filmmakers that wouldn't commit to that level of detail, with your prosthetics and the clothes. It was amazing.

Barry Pepper: They hired (costume designer) Mary Zophres for the hats and the clothes and, seriously, most of the research on the period showed that most of the clothes were worn, stylish hats. There were no fancy bands, just something to carry water in and to keep the sun and rain off you. Yet, there are so many anachronisms, especially in Westerns, where everybody who does a Western has this vision of everybody being dressed in fancy silver buckles. The truth is, most cowboys and outlaws and ranch hands were just hardscrabble people. They had dirt floors and outhouses and no running water. Lucky Ned and his gang, they were up on horseback in the mountains in winter, and there was a line in the novel that informed the direction I wanted to go with that. It says, "We have no buttermilk, we have no bread," so I went on a really low-caloric diet and started working out with a lot of cardio. I got really lean and sinuous for the role because all of the pictures that we researched, these outlaws were really lean, rugged-looking people. We really wanted to honor that.

Nice. I didn't know you prepared like that. I haven't read the novel, but there's a great feature on the Blu-ray about Charles Portis' work.

Barry Pepper: Oh, it's great. You've got to check it out. He's a great, Arkansas literary genius. Characters like Tuco, Eli Wallach's character from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, that's the kind of character that I'm riveted by, those kinds of performances. We really wanted to have some fun with Lucky Ned. And, of course, we haven't seen woolly chaps in a movie since Buster Keaton (Laughs). That was a lot of fun to get together with Mary Zophres and design those chaps from the book. That was one of the coolest parts of the production, being there from the very beginning, being tasked with that. I actually was invited in to help find the Mattie Ross character also. There were four or five girls who came in, narrowed down from about 15,000. We were able to read opposite them and that's where Hailee (Steinfeld) was cast. It was extraordinary to be there early on. After we read the Mattie Ross character and cast Hailee, Jeff and I went into the costume room with Mary and we started picking out our clothing and hats. It was just fabulous. There were hundreds of hats, gun belts, boots, vests, and all these things. The pieces of the character are starting to speak to you. You'll pick up one hat and cock it to the side, crush it a little bit. No, that's not quite right, and try another one. Then there is the makeup team and the props team and I got to meet Roger Deakins, this off-the-charts beautiful cinematographer. It all just started to inform itself about all the people you meet as you go. It's a real joy to be involved in the production that early, as opposed to coming and and them saying, 'OK, here's Lucky Ned and here's what he's going to wear.' In hindsight, I was really fortunate not to have seen the original film. I'm such a huge admirer of Robert Duvall that I would have been hard pressed not to be informed by his interpretation. It would've been very difficult not to pay homage to his work, and yet, I was able to speak to him afterwards. He was very kind it it was very nice. I gave him a call because I was kind of nervous about it. I just wanted to tell him what an honor it was to reprise a role which he had originated. He said, 'We had all done a fine job,' and we had a nice chat about his experiences on the Henry Hathaway set. I'm flattered by critics who said I did a spot-on impression of him. I believe it had more to do with the musicality of the lines. The dialogue has such precise and peculiar phrasing, like an Old West iambic pentameter which you develop and ear for and the delivery is very specific. We shared that, so I think people assumed I was going for an impression, but I didn't even know he was in the original film. Someone had mentioned it to me, after I had a chance to put my version together.

Yeah. That does seem like it worked out for the best, because those are some pretty big shoes to fill, if you had known that going in.

Barry Pepper: Right. It's hard to not fall into an impression, by way of homage.

The movie did wonderful at the box office, but for those who might not have seen it in theaters, what would you like to say to get them to pick up the Blu-ray or DVD in a couple of weeks?

Barry Pepper: Well, I think what's fantastic about this film is it's based on a classic American novel and it was highly deserving of a faithful rendering. The novel is a masterpiece and it's an odyssey with the most unlikely pairing of characters, this dark comedy in the vein of Mark Twain and Henry James. I think that even hardcore duster fans, die-hard duster fans will love this film because it's got a little bit of everything. It kind of reinvents a well-worn genre, in the sense that it has this 13-year-old girl as its main character. It's a really, really enjoyable adventure, and I think the Coen's did this film as a family film, sort of a young girl's coming of age story and it has all those elements that people love about Westerns. I think people will really enjoy it.

Excellent. Well that's all the time I have. Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with anything else you have coming up.

Barry Pepper: Thanks a lot.

You can watch the wonderful Barry Pepper as the villain Lucky Ned Pepper in one of the best movies of 2010, True Grit, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD on June 7. You can also CLICK HERE to read my review of the Blu-ray, which is a must-own for any fan of Westerns or of this glorious cast.