Meet the wild bunch

The characters in The Harder They Fall are loosely based on real-life figures from the Old West but placed in entirely fictional scenarios. Here three of the actors explain what drew them to their roles

20 October 2021

By Christina Newland

Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary and Jonathan Majors at Nat Love in The Harder They Fall (2021)
Sight and Sound

The Harder They Fall is released in UK cinemas on 22 October and on Netflix on 3 November.

Jonathan Majors as Nat Love in The Harder They Fall (2021)

Jonathan Majors as Nat Love

Jonathan Majors, who grew up in the heart of the Old West, in Texas, is no stranger to the western: he spent his youth watching them on TV – “Butch Cassidy, Gunsmoke, The Magnificent Seven”’ – and later landed a supporting role in his first feature in Scott Cooper’s revisionist frontier tale Hostiles (2017). But when the actor read Jeymes Samuel’s screenplay, he says he saw an opportunity not only to play an archetypal gunslinging outlaw hero, but also to portray his character Nat Love as “a young Black guy dealing with a lot of internal issues: revenge, love, camaraderie”.

As Majors explains, to work with an all-Black cast felt groundbreaking, with the film provoking questions about “the pyramid of who gets to be a ‘westerner’. It’s a conversation about who gets to say they’re the most American, which is why the cowboy genre was completely colonised by whoever was running the camera. This film is a corrective to that narrative.”

At the end of the day, the actor points out, the people who really knew how to operate in the untamed West were not the white faces we see in most westerns. “People that had the most grasp on it would have been runaway slaves. And our Mexican neighbours and the Native Americans. These white folks were just figuring it out.”

The real-life Nat Love emerged from slavery at the end of the Civil War to live a long, adventurous life as a cowboy; and while Majors plays a fictionalised version of him, he used the man’s autobiography as research. “Nat Love had a huge imagination, and he believed all these things about himself. And in most cases, he could prove those things,” Majors says. “So in the film, I could take Jeymes Samuel’s narration, and in my mind, just add them to the autobiography.”

Regina King as Trudy Smith in The Harder They Fall (2021)

Regina King as ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith

As a formidable villain with an enigmatic past, Regina King plays one of the key members of the Rufus Buck Gang, putting Nat Love and his posse directly in her rifle sights. “There’s still some love in her heart, but it’s a dark heart. She’s a by-any-means-necessary kind of woman,” says King of her character. “Between Jeymes [Samuel] and I, he trusted me to tell that story. Because Trudy Smith is so unknown, it allowed me not to have to work with certain confines. The history has taken place, but it was a wonderful opportunity to create a person based in a period of time. It was fun to be able to take liberties.”

And wearing 19th-century clothing certainly helped. “She’s very strong, so I’m always standing erect, but the clothes help you to fall into slightly different body language that maybe I’m not clocking as Regina, but translate in watching the character. That’s the beauty of the wardrobe. Buttoning all these buttons, knowing you’re living right next to where fabric is dyed because the world was much smaller back then… keeping all those things in mind informs your physicality.”

Of the real-life inspiration for Trudy Smith, she says, “Most of these cowboys – and cowgirls – I’d never heard of. So it was exciting to see Jeymes do this extrapolation of bringing these historical people into one space. It was really innovative.” Having recently completed her own directorial feature debut, One Night in Miami, she says working with Samuel on his debut felt right. “When people take a chance on a first-time director, it’s a big deal. There’s no way for someone to be a successful director without a first time. To watch Jeymes do something so big on his first film was really impressive.”

Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary in The Harder They Fall (2021)

Zazie Beetz as ‘Stagecoach’ Mary

“I just really loved the idea of exploring a world that has historically, in some ways, been a little bit erased,” Zazie Beetz says of her role in The Harder They Fall. She plays another true-life historical figure, Mary Fields – aka Stagecoach Mary – as an intrepid member of the Nat Love gang and a saloon girl with a penchant for the odd song or two. (It’s Beetz’s real singing voice you hear in the film, in a scene which was nerve-wracking but rewarding for the longtime Broadway fan).

Her character is a considerable deviation from the real-life Fields, the first Black woman to be a mail carrier in the United States, in Montana. “We’ve adopted the names, not the actual characters. But we’ve adopted the names of real people that were black Westerners. I think that just adds another layer to the fact that these were real communities. There’s something really special about exploring that, even though it’s highly fictionalised,’ Beetz says.

“Twenty-five per cent of all cowboys were actually African-American. But in media and film portrayals you don’t see it,” she adds. “I wasn’t really a fan of westerns before I came on to the project – they’re very male. But a good story is a good story, so me and one of the other actors would meet up every Sunday and watch one. I’m ashamed to say it took me this long to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], and it was incredible. And High Noon [1952] and A Fistful of Dollars [1964]. So I ended up really connecting to and enjoying the genre that I previously wasn’t so inclined to watch.”

 

 

More on The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall: a brilliantly over the top revenge tale

By Leila Latif

The Harder They Fall: a brilliantly over the top revenge tale

“You throw Black people in a western and it’s like sci-fi”: Director Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall

By Christina Newland

“You throw Black people in a western and it’s like sci-fi”: Director Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall

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