SXSW standout Montana Story finds estranged siblings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) back on the family ranch together for the first time in seven years at the behest of their father’s approaching death. Set against powerful Big Sky Country, Cal and Erin are forced to come to terms with the past and confront a deep and bitter family legacy.
The film first made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021 and finally hits select theaters on May 13. Ahead of the theatrical release, Teague opened up to LA Confidential about his starring role, visiting Montana for the first time and finding brightness in Cal.
Was filming for Montana Story the first time you've ever been to Montana?
Yeah, it was the first time any of us had been. Which was funny because I read the scripts during the middle of lockdown for COVID.March, the pandemic started. And then like, June, July, I think I got the script for Montana Story. And I was sure that [writer-directors] Scott McGehee and David Siegel either were from there or had been there or spent a lot of time there or something because it was just so clear in the story. And then we got up there and we started filming, and they were like, “Yeah, no, we've never been. This is the first time we've ever been in Montana. This is just out of our imagination.” And so all of us were like, “Oh, this is Montana.” And it's completely exceeded what we had imagined in terms of natural beauty and awe. It's an amazing place— the nature of it and untouched wilderness. It's incredible.
Haley Lu Richardson has a line that more or less describes how Montana’s vastness can swallow you up. Did being there ever feel overwhelming?
I found it very freeing and very therapeutic. I think because we were in this pandemic where being around other people was suddenly something that was dangerous and kind of scary. And suddenly you're in a place where there are just no people. It's just you and mountains and the occasional cow. I gravitate to that sort of environment anyway, where it's kind of just like if man did not exist, this is what the world would be. I like places like that. Especially at that time period, it was really nice.
You’ve talked about how the fear of getting sick or getting someone else sick fed into your performance. How did you translate that fear into Cal's guilt and other emotions?
The fear I think came in his hesitation, and he's got a lot of shame as a guy for things that happened seven years ago, and that has formed his development and really, really changed him from maybe who he would have been otherwise. I think that having so much unknown in the world that at that time got into my head my body in a way that put me not in the same circumstances, but the same output feeling of like, “I'm unsure of my place in the world and what the future is going to be like.”
You curate playlists to listen to to get into character. For you, especially as someone who plays music, is the music sonically helpful for you to get into character or is it about the lyrics and the song’s storytelling?
It's more just the music itself. If I find something or if I know a song where the lyrics pertain, it's always nice because you have that kind of literal buy to the work we're doing. I think music changes the way your brain— I mean,it does, I don't think that. It's a factual statement. I believe. Probably fact check me on that, but it changes the way you process stuff. And it changes what your body does, too. I had a bass teacher growing up who actually played music on his double bass player in a cancer hospital in Tampa, and he was called a music practitioner and it was like a healing thing for people in the hospital to hear him play. And there were studies that backed up how this was beneficial to their bodies as they dealt with cancer…Music does something to us.
What was it like to embody Cal?
He has this darkness that a lot of people have, but his doesn’t come out as aggression or anger. He has anger towards himself, but towards his father and towards Erin, but it doesn't come out as like, “I want to destroy you” kind of anger. It's all even inward.
He's not someone that you would look at and say, “Oh, that person is troubled.” I think he hides it for the most part in his daily life. I enjoyed not playing someone who had that kind of brightness and that kind of love in them where it doesn't come out as like hatred. I often play a lot of people who are seeking revenge or destruction or whatever, which can get a little taxing.
When Cal talks about his dying father’s abuse of him and his sister, it’s not told in flashbacks, but rather verbally explained to Ace. It felt like a sensitive way to approach trauma. Do you know if that was intentional?
I really love the way that Scott and David wrote that. The whole thing really, but that scene in particular, where it's more powerful, I think, to see someone deal with the memory of that than it is to see it actually happen. I think when we see that sort of thing actually happen on screen, it's very easy to get that wrong and make it feel sensationalized or predatory in some way. If we're seeing this person deal with it in retrospect and have to put it into words, I think that's a much more sensitive way to do it. And also as an actor, it's more exciting for me.
It was an interesting little bit of filming because we did that sequence over a few days that were unconnected and so I was like, “Okay, what's the what are the beats and how do I like keep them feeling like one continuous thing?,” when in reality it was like we shot the first part on one day and then the second part weeks later.
That was a challenge, but when you have directors like Scott and David, it's a challenge that's completely doable and even fun, even though I wouldn't describe that scene as fun.
Is there anything else that you're working on this year that you’re particularly excited about?
I'm about to start something with Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis Dreyfus, which I believe is called Beth and Don. I'm not sure if that's going to stay, but actually Montana Story was not called Montana Story until late in the game. Up until that point, it was called Untitled Montana Story and then they just realized, “well, we can just take the first word out there’s our title.”
I get to play Julia’s son and Tobias Menzies plays my dad and they're just both wonderful, and I'm really looking forward to it… It's a comedy. It's not like, “Haha, this is so funny.” It's like, “This is funny because this is how people act and it's really sort of sad.” But it's very, very funny. Nicole is just so good at making these characters, who are so messed up in little ways that it makes them hilarious. Also, I read the script and I was like, “I relate to this way too much.” And I told her that and she goes, “Oh, I'm sorry.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Hadar Pitchon