Early on in his career, Kentucky-born Boyd Holbrook’s biggest issue might have been being too damn good looking for his own good. But it didn’t take long to put his modeling days far behind him with such grounded performances as the Pablo Escobar-chasing DEA Agent, Steve Murphy, in Netflix’s mega-hit Narcos; Wolverine’s nemesis in James Mangold’s excellent Logan; and as Kevin Costner’s cowboy son in Hatfields & McCoys. This month, he further stretches his acting chops in B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, the astute black comedy Vengeance, as well as in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, arguably the scariest mainstream comic book ever published.
Having recently wrapped on Mangold’s yet untitled fifth Indiana Jones film, Holbrook took time out to talk blue-collar roots, trying his hand at comedy, setting his sights on directing, and how “good artists copy, great artists steal.”
LEO: Vengeance is a very interesting film because it sets up a certain type of fish out of water story, where it looks like it’s going to portray small town Texas a certain way, and then goes in a completely different direction and actually portrays it in a very positive way. It’s almost a statement against the cliches and condescension of so many films. Is this one of the things that attracted you to it?
BOYD: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to do this film because I saw that, at face value, it was from this point of view. Culturally, certain places are defined a certain way, and I feel that—to use the umbrella term—Hollywood is opening its eyes and diversifying, which is good. For a movement or a group of people that is meant to be progressive, it would be inherently ironic of them to think that any culture, regardless of any demographic, would be less than or lack intelligence. There are just differences in cultures. There’s not one that’s better.
You were born in Prestonsburg, which is a small town in Kentucky. Has that played an important part in your work and the choices you’ve made?
Absolutely. My dad worked in a coal mine and ran a bulldozer most of his life. I think that’s where my work ethic comes from. And I really do treat it like work. I absolutely love what I do, but I don’t feel, and have never felt, entitled. It’s given me a real drive, growing up around people like that in Kentucky. I know what real life is all about. I could never have an elitist mindset, or I couldn’t go home.
The film, and the role in particular, is a lot more comedic than perhaps you are known for. Was this an aspect that drew you to it, and do you see yourself doing more comedy?
Oh my God, I would absolutely love to do more stuff like this, and I’d love for more films to be made like this. This fresh commentary type of way that B.J. Novak has captured. I’ve always wanted to do comedy, but I thought, “Maybe you think you’re really funny in your house, but…” [laughs] I was hesitant to take it out and try. But I just had a blast doing this. It’s such a relief in a way, to be able to do something like this, compared to some of my past work. My definition of a real actor is just being able to play a range of rich characters, tying one end of the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum. For me, that’s really what it’s all about.
Until now, you’re probably best known for Narcos. Has that been a hard role to shake off? Have you consciously striven not to be type-cast?
I think everybody got splashed into the scene somehow, and I’m so thankful it was with a show like Narcos, that was a real kind of trailblazer. It’s such a popular show. Netflix had just opened up in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, so think about the millions of subscribers that that sort of caught in its net. And we were really in Columbia for two years. It was just a real apex and landmark of streaming. And, of all the things, you’re the dude from Narcos. So, I’m glad it happened that way rather than some teenage romcom or something like that.
I would say, if anything, the modelling thing has been harder to shake. I was broke as a joke, and I was trying to go film school; I wanted to be a director and a writer. And I had absolutely no money. And then when that opportunity came around, I was like, “Take the bag and run.” But I didn’t know that it would last as long as it did. And so, for me, I think I’ve probably tried to do more different things to prove myself in the types of work that I’ve had.
You’re starring in the anticipated series, The Sandman. Were you familiar with Neil Gaiman’s original work before taking it on?
Oh yeah. You couldn’t avoid those comics in high school. They’ve been around now for 34 years. I also feel like time and space are so important when trying to embody a character and transform it into the tone of the piece. The longer you can sit with something, the more familiar you are with it. So you’re more of an existence in a performance rather than playing some characters of something that you vaguely know about. Had I been thinking about Sandman for 15 years? No, but it’s better than just my first cold read and then trying to explore the character. So, yeah, I was definitely familiar, and if Neil Gaiman is happy, what else do you want?
The Sandman is fairly FX heavy. Did you enjoy that aspect of it or find it challenging?
It didn’t feel FX heavy, and I think that’s why they were able to make it. So many other amazing filmmakers had been on Sandman for so many years, developing it. And, in Neil Gaiman’s words, “Thankfully we didn’t make it with them, because we were able to make the show that I’ve always envisioned now.” So, you really didn’t feel all the FX stuff. It was kind of a 50/50 thing. I have been on sets where you’re totally surrounded by green or encompassed in a blue sheet, and it’s a little bland. But these sets were rich and alive, and real.
You directed a short, which you also wrote, and you’re in development on a feature of your own writing called The Thirst, which you’ll also star in and executive produce. Are you planning on directing that? And is there anything you can tell us about this film?
My recent short that I directed is from a Sam Shepard short story. The film is called The Peacock Killer, and it’s on Vimeo. I think anybody can watch it. And that was a great experience, especially working with some of Sam’s writing. The Thirst is about water and where our water’s future lies, and just encompassing a narrative story around that to basically broaden what we’re really up against, and our children’s generations will be up against. But do I plan on directing that? I have become much more practical in the last few years where I think you can write something and direct something at the same time for the first time, but directing it, writing it, and being in it, I just feel, honestly, is a little bit too much to bite off for me. But directing, yes, I can’t help myself. I’m always finding out how the camera crew’s accomplishing a shot or moving the story, just technically, along. That for me is so fascinating. I definitely see directing in the future. I’m hoping The Thirst will be that, but really, more importantly, I feel like a story like The Thirst needs to be told.
You’ve worked with David Fincher, Kevin Costner, Neil Gaiman, Gus Van Sant, and Harrison Ford, amongst many others. Is there anyone in particular you would say has been the biggest inspiration in your career?
Who comes to mind is Morgan Freeman. One of my first roles that I ever did was for The Magic of Belle Island. And, it was a masterclass just to sit there and watch him perform. Sometimes, you have to get eyelines close to the camera and you put little X’s on the box [by the lens], so you’re not actually looking at the other actors, but the actor is still sitting there and you’re hearing the lines. And during a take, the tape dropped off the camera. And my rookie self was thinking, “Oh my, I should probably pick up that piece of tape. He’s gonna need it.” But he carried on, and I told him after the scene, I didn’t know if I should pick up that tape or not. And I’ll never forget how adorable he must have thought I was by just the way he laughed and told me that he didn’t even need the tape. That’s my goal. To aspire to have that control and focus, and years of experience. But all those guys you listed. Good artists copy, great artists steal. And whether they know it or not, I’ve definitely taken something from each and every one of those names.
Last question. We know, of course, that you can’t tell us anything about the new Indiana Jones. But can you at least tell us if it’s going to be better than Crystal Skull?
You bet your ass. [Laughs]
CHECK OUT BOYD
In director James Mangold’s untitled Indiana Jones 5 film
As Clement Mansell in the new series Justified: City Primeval
As Ty Shaw in director B.J. Novak’s Vengeance
As The Corinthian in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman
As Steve Murphy in Netflix’s Narcos
As Pierce in director James Mangold’s Logan
As Quinn McKenna in director Shane Black’s The Predator
As William ‘Cap’ Hatfields in Kevin Costner’s Hatfield & McCoys