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Meek's Cutoff

Scottish actress Shirley Henderson talks about working on Kelly Reichardt’s impressive alternative Western film

Shirley Henderson was last seen on the big screen in Todd Solondz’s cult flick Life During Wartime. This month the Scottish actress returns to our cinemas in another American indie film, this time Kelly Reichardt’s alternative western, Meek’s Cutoff (also starring Michelle Williams). Reichardt’s fourth feature is a sparse tale of early pioneers in the American north-west; it follows three families as they lead their wagons across the hostile landscape of the Cascade Mountains, guided by local mountain man Stephen Meek. As they venture further along their unmarked path rations start to run low and they begin to question the motives of their guide. Dazed caught up with Henderson to chat about working with one of America’s most exciting independent directors and the challenges of shooting the film.

Dazed Digital: What was it like working with Kelly Reichardt?
Shirley Henderson:
Excellent. Very, very rewarding. She’s a tough lady, she knows what she wants. She’s secretive, from an acting point of view she doesn’t tell you much, she just trusts you. I’d seen Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, so I kind of knew her style. I knew that she can take a long time over a shot. I’ve only seen Meek’s Cutoff once but I wasn’t surprised when, for example, the shotgun scene was in real time. That’s her thing and I quite like that. The way Kelly films, sometimes she’ll just do one take. You clock that and think: okay I might not get 6 shots at this scene.

DD: What did you think when you first read the script?
Shirley Henderson:
I liked it a lot, I liked that it was quite sparing. I’ve never been offered anything like that: something in the desert, even of that time. So it was exciting, it was quite a big deal for me.

DD: How did the shoot go?
Shirley Henderson:
There were quite difficult conditions. The landscape dictates everything, we had snow and really intense dust storms, I’ve never seen anything like that before. Where we were filming was a couple of hours drive into the desert each day so you lose the light quickly. We were against time; there wasn’t the luxury of extra days. There’s a limited amount of film stock because we’re on a budget, so there’s a pressure there, you can feel that.

DD: How did you approach playing your character?
Shirley Henderson:
There are things you can research, you can spend a lot of time reading and finding little clues that you can try to sneak in there. That’s a good thing about it. Sometimes the diction [is important], depending on when it’s set and where it’s set, making your voice more articulate or not as the case may be. These are things that are quite fun to play with. But in the end it’s human beings, whenever you’ve been alive you try to survive. It might not be analysed feelings. My character’s pregnant but you never see a baby, it’s never discussed, it’s just matter of fact, just getting on with it.    

DD: How did you prepare for the film?
Shirley Henderson:
We spent a couple of days getting to know the animals, learning how to set up a fire, things like that. The animals were a big deal, working with oxen - they’re enormous and extremely heavy so we had to learn how to guide them and be natural with them. And Michelle (Williams) had to learn how to shoot, which is actually really difficult!

DD: What was it like working with Michelle Williams?
Shirley Henderson:
Terrific. Very, very relaxed. Very dedicated and focused. A natural actress I think.         

Meek’s Cutoff is out now