Boyd Holbrook had barely ventured beyond his native Kentucky when he arrived in New York City to try his luck as an actor. He gave himself two years to succeed but despite working with some big-name directors such as David Fincher (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, The Social Network), came desperately close to throwing in the towel. Things took a dramatic turn when Holbrook landed the role of DEA agent Steve Murphy in 2015 series Narcos, Netflix’s acclaimed examination of the rise of the cocaine trade in Columbia. It catapulted the actor into household-name territory. Next stop was a role on other side of the law, playing villain Donald Pierce and making life impossible for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in Logan.
Greenpoint, north of Brooklyn, is a working-class neighbourhood whose gentrification has started in earnest; renovated brick facades hide cafes and small shops of organic products. The 37-year-old Holbrook patiently waits for his interview on the ICON set inside one of the district’s warehouses, with its uninterrupted view of the Manhattan skyline. The actor is about head to Canada to film his next movie, and is dressed down for the journey in jeans, brown suede shoes and a red short-sleeved shirt with a slight crinkle.
Low-key he may be but at the time ICON was going to press, Holbrook found himself caught up in the headlines surrounding his new film, The Predator. His co-star, Olivia Munn, had a scene deleted from the film after realising the actor she was playing opposite — Steven Wilder Striegel — was a registered sex offender who had spent time in jail for grooming a teenager online. Holbrook was blasted on social media for taking four days to speak up about the controversy that engulfed promotion for the action film. At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Munn said she felt isolated by her male co-stars who up until that point had remained silent. Holbrook responded immediately with a statement of support.
“I want to start by apologising for this statement coming late in the current conversation,” he said. “I do not take any of what has gone on lightly, and I want to speak from the most honest and genuine place possible. I have stated before, and I will state it again, I am proud of Olivia for the way that she handled a difficult and alarming situation, and I am grateful that Fox took the information seriously and took action swiftly.”
Controversy aside, ICON sits down with the actor to talk surprise meetings, life-changing decisions, finding yourself in Texas and why leaving the US might be the next step.
ICON: Can you tell me a little about your childhood in Kentucky?
BOYD HOLBROOK (BH): “I grew up in a small town, in the central part of the Appalachian Mountains. It was a predominantly coal-mining region. My father worked in that industry for about 40 years. It’s like a wall of different green tones; mountains placed one on top of another that extend for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. In a sense, it was
a very magical childhood. Dad would leave home by day and come back when it got dark. Many times I would get lost in the woods and I would be forced to deal with situations in which you have to learn by yourself, either by walking down roads, following deer or stumbling upon a snake. To be alone and surrounded by nature gives you a lot of free time to develop your imagination.”
ICON: In this environment, how did you become interested in acting?
BH: “It was not really until I was 17 years old. I saw a movie called Slam, which starred the poet and rapper Saul Williams. There is a scene in which he stops a riot in a prison with only poetry. It was seeing that that made me think, ‘I want to do that for the rest of my life’.”
ICON: Before you left Kentucky, you met actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals). How did that change your perspective on what you wanted to do?
BH: “I think I just discovered that acting was possible. I do not know what his childhood was like, but I was living in Kentucky and was going through a hard time. I had just left university and I did not know what to do with my life. I think I recognised [Shannon] from Vanilla Sky. I gathered up the courage and asked him what he was doing. I had never met an actor before, so the meeting turned what seemed like a dream into reality. He lives in the same region, so what he had achieved didn’t seem impossible and encouraged me. He told me to go into the theatre, so I started applying for jobs in theatre companies.”
ICON: What was it like moving to New York? We imagine it must have been a very drastic change?
BH: “[Laughs.] Totally. I think I had only left the State of Kentucky twice before moving there, so it was a radical change. I did not know what was happening around me. I looked like a deer in headlights. I began to absorb everything. You go to the East Village and see a transvestite for the first time [laughs]. You go to bars and you meet people. I tried to make up for lost time by staying up late and going out a lot. I was 21 when I arrived in New York and I just started dating. I learned to understand how the world works. New York is a relentless place. If you can survive there, I think you can get it anywhere.”
“I had just left university and didn’t know what to do with my life. I recognised Michael Shannon from Vanilla Sky. I gathered up the courage and asked him what he was doing. The meeting turned a dream into a reality. He encouraged me …”
ICON: At which point did you feel you had some sort of direction in your career?
BH: “It is true that I went from one place to another for a long time. I think that, artistically speaking, this happened when I started working with some very good directors. First I did two years of acting school and I told myself ‘If I’m not making a living as an actor in two years, I’ll quit’. I did not want to be an actor having a hard time getting a job for the rest of my life. That was my personal goal. So I started working with [screenwriter] Scott Frank [Out Of Sight, Logan], director David Fincher and director Scott Cooper [Crazy Heart, Out Of The Furnace].”
ICON: How did you land the role in Narcos?
BH: “I had seen a film by José Padilha [producer and director of the series] a couple of years ago, 2007’s Tropa de élite. Two years later, I went to Los Angeles for some meetings, and one of them was for Narcos. It was a month before I was completely bankrupt and I slept on my agent’s couch for the couple of weeks. I was very lucky that everything fell into place at that moment.”
ICON: It has been couple of intense years in your career. How have you managed them?
BH: “My wife [actor Tatiana Pajkovic], son and I moved to Austin, Texas. And look, I never imagined that I would become a Texas resident, but here I am. Yes, I moved away from New York, away from the apartment the size of a shoe box. Now we have more space, we are back in nature. That’s what we set out to do. Instead of going with the flow, which means going to events and parties, we got away from all that. What I want now is for the work to speak for itself. I want to be at home with my family and work on other things, like my own personal projects.”
ICON: You also have a house in upstate New York. Does it remind you a little bit of Kentucky?
BH: “Yes, that area of New York is quite similar to Kentucky. The valleys of the mountains are a little wider. In Kentucky, they collapse one over the other. My friend [photographer] David Armstrong lived there and a plot of land near his was available. I bought it and for 10 years I built a house. If [my job] sent me a cheque, I installed the electricity. If they sent me another one, I installed the water, and a concrete floor, and a bed, and walls … It’s nothing special, it’s an old farm, but we have a pond, a stream, a good four hectares on which to relax . When you’re doing a movie, sometimes you do not even know what day it is. You just get up and go to work. Then you go to sleep and go back to work, and you do that for two to six months. When I come back from being outside working, I always want to have time to rest and recharge the batteries.”
“My job is to use the bandwidth I have to promote a movie, answer a question and start a conversation. I would like to be part of movements and waves of change.”
ICON: You have very strong opinions about the current state of the government in the US …
BH: “I can say with great confidence that in the next couple of years I will probably move out of the US. My wife is from Denmark and I think it would be a way to boycott everything that is happening. I can afford to leave the country. I do not agree with what is happening and I do not want to be part of it. I feel there is going to be a point of inflection. There must be. And if there is not, I do not have much more hope in humanity. Of course, since the dawn of man there have been calamities, catastrophes, difficulties, famine … In life there is a great amount of suffering. I think the disappointment of now is that we are in a place where people think that life should be pleasant and wonderful all the time and it is clear that it is not so.”
ICON: Do you enjoy using your public platform to speak on politics?
BH: “Art is an exceptional medium for talking about political or social issues. My work does not try to solve anything. My job is to use the bandwidth I have to promote a movie, talk about a question and start a conversation about it. I cannot fix the planet and I do not plan on doing it but I would like to be part of the movements and waves of change.”
ICON: And what about the future?
BH: “I’m trying to work as much as possible on a personal project, I’d love to carry out a draft of a script, but it’s taking me longer than I expected. Between that and preparing for In The Shadow Of The Moon [the new Jim Mickle film that will premiere in 2019] I’ve had a lot of work. I’m looking at something for the future. Maybe it’s a series that ends up getting me, but I cannot say if it’s still going to get the green light because it’s a bit early. I’m not in the situation I was five years ago, when I was desperate to find a job, so now I’m taking my time.”
ICON: You’re enjoying what you’re doing then …
BH: “If you’re asking me if I’m happy, yes, I’m happy.”
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE OCTOBER EDITION OF ICON MAGAZINE.
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