Brendan Wayne keeps wondering what his granddad would think of Cowboys & Aliens.
After all, this wasn’t just any grandparent. This was John Wayne – Hollywood’s ultimate western star, and the rugged mainstay of sagebrush sagas for more than four decades.
So how would The Duke react to a movie in which a spacecraft invades a small Arizona town in the late 1800s?
Brendan figures his grandfather would have initially been incredulous. “He would probably do as I did and ask, ‘What’s the name of this thing?’ – and ask about five times more.”
But he also believes the grandfather he adores would have kept his mind open to the idea of a science-fiction western.
“And then, after reading the script, I think he would probably be intrigued by the challenge, considering that westerns were his bread and butter. And on the flip side, he would have been attracted by working with a great director (Jon Favreau) and he would have loved acting with people like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.”
Wayne is chatting by phone from California, where he is about to drive his daughter to school. He plays a sheriff’s deputy in the movie opening July 29 – “one of those simple men who goes on a greater cause than he ever could have imagined, when he hits the trail to get back the townspeople who have been kidnapped by aliens.”
There’s a certain matter-of-factness in the way he’s discussing the plot. Perhaps that’s because of his ingrained belief that Cowboys & Aliens faithfully honours the conventions of the traditional western.
In other words, this is a western in which the bad guys just happen to be aliens.
“That’s as well put as it can be,” says Wayne, who points out some ingredients of the westerns of yesteryear can be problematical these days. “It’s hard to tell the classic cowboy-versus-Indian tale without affecting a culture or a particular group. So if you’re still going to tell a classic tale, you have to find a way, and I think Jon Favreau came up with an incredibly original way. He wanted to tell a western story and that’s what he did.”
In the film, Harrison Ford is the old-fashioned, upright military man faced with a challenge for which the military manuals offer no solution. Keith Carradine is the sheriff, and Brendan Wayne his deputy. And Daniel Craig is the lonely stranger who promises to be their salvation.
Wayne and his acting colleagues had to become skilled in the art of doing many scenes with non-existent aliens who would only later be digitally realized, But the 39-year-old actor says that, apart from the sci-fi element, Cowboys & Aliens is absolutely true to period.
Unlike the recent Battle Los Angeles, where the Marines employ the latest technology against alien invaders, the defenders of this dusty Arizona town enjoy no such benefits: They only have their own ingenuity and resourcefulness to get them through.
“That aspect is very authentic, right down to the boots I wear, and we held on to that throughout the story,” Wayne says. In fact, he doesn’t really see this as a special-effects movie like Transformers.
“Ninety per cent of the movie is not CGI. It’s leather and bootstraps and dust. Everything you see on those horses is on those horses. I ended up doing my own stunts, so I was proud about this, and all those guys were pretty impressed with me that I was going to do them myself.”
A bit of on-set rivalry with co-star Olivia Wilde prompted him to do a stunt he now can’t believe he managed to pull it off.
“I was so pumped up with adrenalin that it didn’t dawn on me until I got on the horse what I had to do,” he says now. “It was one of my proudest moments.”
And no, he won’t tell us what happens. “It’s a surprise. If I say anything more, I would give it away.”
Wayne is conscious of being perceived as the heir to his grandfather’s legacy. He’s not entirely comfortable with that perception, which is why he spent his early acting years as Brendan La Cava, using the surname of popular 1930s director, Gregory La Cava, who was also a relative. He didn’t want anyone to think he was capitalizing on an iconic name, or the fact that he’s the son of John Wayne’s daughter.
“I was definitely against it, and then my dad said, ‘If your mom was a Rockefeller, wouldn’t you use the name Rockefeller in this business? Use what’s going to get you through.”
Living in his grandfather’s shadow wasn’t always easy. There was no problem when Brendan was a child and visiting John Wayne on a movie set. “He was just granddaddy, not grandpa – granddaddy. And he was so big and always ready with a laugh and a smile, and I could tell he loved his children and grandchildren.”
Brendan was taught from a young age there were certain values and attitudes he had to uphold because of his heritage.
“It wasn’t a case of being able to do whatever you want and only four people will care,” he says. “As a kid, I didn’t quite understand it, but I was pretty good and stayed within the bounds. As I got older in college, I definitely railed against it, but at the end of the day, I was able to see his effect on people . . . and what John Wayne means to people.”
That came home forcefully when he was filming Home of the Brave in the Middle East. Brendan, a supporting actor on the film, was astonished to find people lining up outside the set for his autograph.
“I had an idea that my grandfather was big, but sometimes words don’t convey it. I was so amazed and so proud to stand there and sign those autographs.”
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