“There’s a father and a son on a horse, they’re running from something and they’re outlaws”. That was the first image that came to filmmaker Anna Kerrigan when she began writing the screenplay for her Tribeca and Outfest award-winning feature Cowboys. Joe, beautifully played by newcomer Sasha Knight, is a young trans boy whose gender identity is accepted by his father Troy (Steve Zahn) who decides to take his son across the border to Canada on horseback, away from his mother Sally (Jillian Bell), who is struggling with her child’s gender expression. Following a nationwide amber alert, the no-nonsense Montana police detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) is intent on tracking them down. Read our ★★★★ review of the film from Tribeca.
Ahead of the release of Cowboys in virtual cinemas and on demand this Friday February 12th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the cast and filmmaker. Writer-director Anna Kerrigan discusses the research she did for her screenplay including speaking with parents of trans children, while actor and LGBTQ+ ally Jillian Bell details the challenge of portraying a character with very different views from her own. Plus Steve Zahn and young trans actor Sasha Knight share their experiences of creating a father/son onscreen bond and getting to horseback ride on location in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Read the interviews below and watch the conversations on our YouTube Channel.
Sasha Knight is wonderful in the film, he’s so natural on camera. Anna, tell me about casting him and what he was like to direct?
Anna Kerrigan: “I worked with a casting director named Eyde Belasco, whom I’d already worked with on some smaller projects and she cast Transparent. We were a smaller budget production so we didn’t have a ton of resources and it was a very grassroots effort. In addition to sending the casting breakdown to the more traditional breakdown services and indirectly to agents, we also hit up a bunch of nonprofits that either support trans youth or parents that have trans kids. The submissions we got ran the gamut from kids who’d never acted before, to kids who were interested in acting and luckily Sasha was someone who had wanted to act and had already been doing voiceover work. He was based in Los Angeles and Eyde worked with him first and sent me some videos. I got to talk to a lot of kids through the process and there were so many kids that I loved, but in terms of being a great fit for the role, Sasha, like you said, he’s very natural. He’s a really fun kid, way more than the character is, but he was able to drop into that and understand what the character had gone through, partially drawing on some of his own experiences. He was a real breath of fresh air on the set. He was just so excited to be in a movie that sometimes we were really like, ‘Alright, we have to be in a serious scene now!’ But he was great, he was really fun.”
Jillian, what was it like to share scenes with Sasha?
Jillian Bell: “I loved working with him. He had been shooting for a few weeks and then I came in later. Sasha was the first cast member I met in person when I arrived in Montana. He was with his family having dinner and they said, ‘Pull up a seat’, and I just sat with them with my luggage next to me! They were so welcoming and lovely and it kind of set the tone for how the rest of the shoot was. Sasha is just pure sunshine. He was so excited to be a part of this. He kept saying, ‘I don’t want it to end, I never want it to end!’ I was telling him that that’s the best thing about shooting films, it doesn’t really end, you just go on to new experiences and new families and you forever hold those memories dear.”
Jillian, tell me a little bit about your approach to playing Joe’s mother Sally. Some people watching might not agree with her actions, but we still empathize with her to some degree and she’s not villainized in any way.
Jillian: “That’s due to Anna’s beautiful work. Her script had that already and I felt like I had to meet that balance in my performance as well. I’m very unlike Sally. I’m a huge ally of the LGBTQ+ community. I am not a parent myself, so I talked to a lot of parents and the thing that kept coming back to the centre, which I used as a touchstone for Sally, was that parents always want to protect their kids at all costs. Sometimes they go about it the wrong way and I think that’s what Sally did. So I had to hold that in my heart because playing her was extremely difficult. It was extremely difficult being in that skin, feeling what it’s like to be unaccepting of someone whom you love, especially with Sasha there and having his experience be so close to this character in some ways. I always wanted to protect him as well, so I was playing one person on set and then off set we were giving each other hugs and being so supportive of each other. He was being as supportive of me as I was of him. I needed that hug at the end of the day.”
Anna, what was your approach to creating the character of Sally?
Anna: “Jillian did such a brilliant job of navigating that tricky balance. Also, just to second what she said as a witness, we would do these tough scenes sometimes and I would just look over at Jillian afterwards, and I’d be like, ‘No one thinks you’re a Sally!’ I felt like Jillian was self-flagellating every time that she had to be a difficult lady. What’s interesting about the character of Sally is that there are more people who are Sally-ish than you would think and it extends to liberals and conservative people. People’s egos get very tied up in the gender identity of their child, not just their gender identity, but who this child is going to grow up to be, and that extends to people on both sides of politics. We’ve talked to a number of people whom I would consider very liberal who are like, ‘But a child wouldn’t know. How can a child decide?’ It’s been a really interesting eye-opener in that way.”
Did writing and researching the film expand your own knowledge or understanding of young trans folks?
Anna: “Yeah, I wanted to know as much as I could. When I started writing the movie I wrote, ‘There’s a father and a son on a horse, they’re running from something and they’re outlaws.’ I didn’t set out saying, ‘I’m going to write about a trans kid and his dad’, it just evolved organically. So I wrote the script and I know trans people and I often end up with members of the LGBTQ community in my work, just because they’re in my life. Once we had the script finished and it was set up, I reached out to GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation Nick Adams and he worked with me on the script. Actually, not to toot my own horn, but I didn’t really have to make any changes. He was really helpful through the casting process and he continues to be helpful. The Montana Film Office gave us a grant and they’ve always been very supportive. When they flew us up to Montana for our first location scout, they set up a dinner with myself, a producer, and four transgender adults who had all grown up and come out in Montana. That was really an eye-opener and I stayed in touch with one of them who’s a therapist specifically to trans kids in Montana. She also worked with me to make sure the role was authentic and of course I talked to Sasha, and I talked to parents of trans boys. Because I was talking to so many kids and families across the country, those casting sessions would turn into these long conversations about the script and what resonated with them. It was all really helpful. I think that when you’re making a project like this and you find people who it resonates with everyone wants to share their experiences and that’s been really special and amazing.”
Jillian, what did you find helpful in your research as you were preparing for the film?
Jillian: “I was striking this balance of doing some research on my own and reaching out to a family that has a trans child, but also wanting to come from it in a misguided way to get into the backstory for this character. Balancing out making her a good parent, but also someone who is human that has made big mistakes.”
I wrote in my review that I want to see a spin-off series with Ann Dowd as a Montana cop! It’s such a great cast all around, but I loved seeing her in this.
Anna: “She’s amazing, we all love Ann! No one has a bad thing to say about Ann Dowd, she’s the best. She’s the most positive person. I still get very loving emails from her just being a total sweetie. As a director you want everyone to take ownership of their job in a very serious way and Ann has a way of doing it where she does her research and she really gets to know her character. She becomes very loyal to her character, and even though I wrote it, she would put my feet to the fire about certain lines or certain things I was asking her to do, but she did it in this way that was all in the spirit of collaboration. She would she would get really passionate about it and I’d be like, ‘Ah, you’ve got a point.’ We would talk it through and she was just such a delight in the way that she managed to challenge me but in the most generous way possible, if that makes sense.”
Jillian:” It’s because she cares truly, not just about the project, but about the message of the movie and about who she’s working with. I showed up two days after she’d already been on set and she was already talking to everyone. Everywhere I looked she was like, ‘David, how is Cassandra your wife? And how is your pet bird that got its foot broken?!’ She just knew details about people’s lives that were so intimate and it’s because she truly does care not only about humans, but about the human experience and I think that’s part of being a really good actor.”
Sasha, what kind of acting experience had you had before you were cast in Cowboys?
Sasha Knight: “It is my first film so there wasn’t really much before Cowboys. Actually I was only doing voiceover work before, but the character was trans so my mom let me audition for it. It was just so fun and I loved the script, and then I ended up booking it!”
I love the father/son onscreen relationship between you and Steve. Did you get chance to hang out at all before you started to work on the movie?
Sasha: “Yeah, all the time. We both went there two weeks earlier and then whenever we weren’t shooting we were hanging out.”
Steve Zahn: “It was really cool. Those two weeks were really valuable. It wasn’t a long shoot, but I felt that it was important to do that. We did the horseback riding and that was easy, we got that down right away, and then we just hung out. We rehearsed, and we ate breakfast, lunch and dinners together. Sasha’s an old soul and I preferred hanging out with Sasha as much as anyone else. We have the same energy and we had a great time. We had even more fun when we were shooting because we were out in the woods and by rivers. We were tight.”
Had you been horse-riding before, Sasha?
Sasha: “Yes, I used to do horseback riding camps and lessons, so I knew how to horseback ride, but it was my first time riding with another person.”
Steve: “Sasha had no fear, that’s the truth. The first time you came running up and jumped on the back of this horse, it was like a little monkey!”
Steve was saying you’re an old soul and as this journey goes on it feels a bit like Joe is the grown up in the relationship at times doesn’t it?
Sasha: “Yeah, definitely. In places Joe has to step up and be the adult, especially in one particular scene.”
One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when you’re both sitting in the truck and Joe tells his dad Troy that he doesn’t want to wear dresses anymore. What was that like for each of you to shoot?
Sasha: “It was fun. We didn’t actually drive around or anything, we just sat in the car the entire time. We sat in the car for like two hours! Before the scene, I was running around the parking lot.”
Was that to get you ready to do it because Joe is a bit anxious in the scene, or was that just for fun?
Sasha: “Probably both!”
Steve: “I love that scene too and I love how Troy reacts, which is, ‘Great, okay.’ He’s more concerned than anything and I thought that was beautiful. When we shot it, I remember it was getting really late and we had literally half hour to shoot that scene and I kept saying, ‘This is an important scene, we can’t just do this’, but we did and it’s really good.”
What was it like getting to spend time in the great outdoors in Montana when you were shooting the film, what did you enjoy about that?
Sasha: “It was awesome because we shot in Glacier National Park. It was so pretty and it was so much fun, especially the scene where we got to go in the water, that was fun but everybody was like, ‘Oh my gosh!'”
Steve: “Yeah, they were freaking out, but we were cool. It was a little chilly, but it’s glacier water! That’s the beauty of movies, when you get an opportunity to go up and shoot in a national park. It just makes your job so much easier. It’s hard to lie when you’re in the shadow of a mountain.”
Sasha, were there some aspects of this story and your character Joe that you could relate to yourself?
Sasha: “Definitely, because it was trans and I’m trans. Also I lived in a small town in Colorado for four years so we had some things in common. I do relate to Joe, but I’m not really like him because we have different personalities. I’m really energetic and Joe’s not.”
In terms of acting, what did you take away from working with each other?
Sasha: “I definitely learned a lot from Steve, he was very helpful. He taught me about coverage, how to turn to the camera.”
Steve: “Yeah, little technical stuff, no one teaches you that stuff, you just learn it on the fly. It’s always good to have somebody around to tell you how to hit your mark. I learned a lot from Sasha too. The great thing is you’ve got this young soul and Sasha listens, unlike most kids, there’s a true listening interaction going on. It’s very simple to say, but it’s very hard to do and you can only do that when you really know your material, and you’re really comfortable in this skin that you’re in. So it’s nice and refreshing to see that youthful, non-tarnished thing that he has.”
Listening is a very important acting skill isn’t it?
Steve: “It’s the most important.”
What was the most fun scene to shoot or the most fun day on set?
Sasha: “I really liked the scene where I got to go in the glacier water, or the scene in the Western store, that was really fun!”
Did you get yourself a pair of cowboy boots from there?
Sasha: “I actually did get a pair of cowboy boots from there and I wore them the entire shoot after I got them! I wore them every single day!”
How about you Steve, was there something that you really enjoyed while shooting on the movie?
Steve: “I enjoyed the scenes that were just us riding horseback, where you don’t see the cameras. It was just interacting; calm, without being chased. Those scenes are beautiful to me. Those are fun. It represents what I thought a movie was like when I was a kid. Usually you see so much going on, but we had so many opportunities where they just rolled and we just rode our horse.”
By James Kleinmann
Cowboys is in virtual cinemas and available on demand Friday February 12th.
Watch our exclusive conversation with Anna Kerrigan, Jillian Bell, Steve Zahn, and Sasha Knight below: