mountain story it’s a calm and measured film, but there are intense and messy emotions bubbling just below its surface. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the film centers on the turbulent relationship between a pair of estranged siblings, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) and Cal (Owen Teague), who find themselves unexpectedly reunited at their family’s ranch. Bound together by their father’s failing health, Erin and Cal spend most of their time mountain story dancing around each other, making brief attempts to reconnect, but never acknowledging the traumatic event that drove them apart in the first place.
The film forces Teague and Richardson to carry the full weight of the story on their shoulders. If the performance of any of the actors does not feel authentic, then mountain story would collapse on itself. Fortunately, both Teague and Richardson are capable young actors and their performances in mountain story they’re impressive. In Richardson’s case, his work here feels like one more notch on the belt of an actor who has consistently turned in stellar performances for several years.
With mountain story hitting theaters, Richardson recently spoke with Digital Trends about what it was like to make the contemplative new western. The star, who is currently in Italy filming the second season of HBO the white lotusalso shared why mountain story‘s “meticulous” production design and isolated setting helped her get inside the head of someone who has a habit of repressing her emotions.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: The film looks beautiful, but the conditions also looked like they might have been rough at times. How were your experiences filming in Montana?
Haley Lu Richardson: I mean, it was pretty windy some days. [laughs]. I was like, “Is this footage going to be usable?” But I don’t remember the elements being that difficult. I think the hardest thing for me was the emotional space I had to be in to play Erin, and sometimes that was heavy. But also, at other times, it was really cathartic and nice.
You are very isolated in the film. I guess that helped get into the character’s headspace?
Oh yes, sure. I think the more specific you can make the world around you while you’re shooting, the better the process will be because it feels more real. There is more to connect and take advantage of. When we were in Montana, we were shooting outside of Bozeman on this ranch in the middle of nowhere. There is nowhere to run or hide, so you feel like you have to surrender to that kind of life and that kind of energy. I loved that. I think it definitely helped.
I always find it interesting when actors have to give slow performances and keep a lot of their cards close to their chest. Erin is only really allowed to fully open up near the end of the movie. How did that affect her process this time?
I really wasn’t thinking of it that way. She was thinking about what Erin would feel about having to go home. I don’t think she’s intentionally holding back or just hinting at her emotions. For her, it’s more like the only way she can function in these circumstances is to shut down. She has big barriers and boundaries, and she’s still holding back a lot of the anger and the truth of what she really feels. The vulnerability doesn’t go all the way, but oh man, it’s heavy.
I think the reason it works within the larger context of the movie is that the character honestly can’t express more until something happens that is a catalyst that allows him to express what he feels.
The first time we see your character in the film, she wears very brightly colored clothes, which makes her stand out from the rest of the characters in the film. Was it a decision you made yourself or something you came to through a collaboration?
I thought about what Erin would look like, but it’s great when you meet the people in the locker room. It’s a fun collaboration and you can get ideas from them that you never would have thought of or vice versa because you can really create something together. We came up with what Erin’s life has been like in New York since she ran away from home and thought about who she’s become and how she expresses herself. She is a very unique look, especially the coat that she wears when she first arrives.
You can tell she shops at thrift stores and almost has a granny element to her. I felt that she was a bit of a curmudgeon, like a curmudgeonly grandmother. There is something so adult about her. I think it comes from her trauma and her trying to find things that feel like her or that feel like home. Things that give you some kind of comfort.
Erin and Cal’s room layouts in the movie also feel very specific. Was there anything in Erin’s room that you thought was important or that she helped you with your performance?
Haley Lu Richardson: Well, the production design of the entire movie and the ranch house is very good. Scott McGehee’s sister, Kelly, was the production designer and she did a great job. I thought it was all so complete and real and vivid and specific. I love it because, again, when you’re close to that kind of specificity, it’s so much easier to connect with this character that you’re essentially making up from a page and your own thoughts. The production designer was really helpful throughout the entire process.
But I thought that Erin’s room, specifically, was so gentle, which I found so disturbing and sad. You know, I think Cal has a line in the movie about how Erin and her dad had a lot in common. They were both a bit fiery and opinionated. But I do believe that there is a gentle horse-loving, ranch-loving lady within Erin, and that was tainted by what happened to her. It saddens me that her kindness was a bit tainted and lost. But then again, I don’t think she’s lost forever because, in the end, her vulnerability and her love resurface.
mountain story it is now playing in theaters.