[Interview] ‘Straw Dogs’ Star Drew Powell

Director Rod Lurie has taken on an incredible challenge in remaking the 1971 Sam Peckinpah classic Straw Dogs, particularly when it comes to living up to the reputation of such a highly-regarded film. Remaking a movie like Prom Night is one thing; updating a stone-cold masterpiece like Straw Dogs is entirely another.

I recently caught up with actor Drew Powell, who in the remake portrays one of the small-town toughs tormenting Los Angeles screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) during their stay in rural Blackwater, Mississippi. During our chat Powell spoke of watching the original film for the first time shortly before shooting, how the Deep South setting of the remake reflects the current political mood in the U.S., and his suggestion that it might be a good film for parents and their (older) children to watch together. You know, how you usually go see movies featuring brutal rape scenes with your mom and dad.

See inside for the full interview.

Actor Drew Powell, whose genre work includes 2004’s direct-to-DVD Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and a walk-on role in 1408, stars in the upcoming remake of Straw Dogs as Bic, the “cut-up” of a group of Deep South good ol’ boys who make life a living hell for David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Kate Bosworth).

I hopped on the phone with Powell recently to discuss the update, which opens in theaters this Friday. During our talk he addressed the inevitable comparisons to Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 original, working with cast members including James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, and James Woods, and the social subtext that comes with moving the film’s location from England’s West Country to the small town of Blackwater, Mississippi.

Note: the text of the interview has been edited slightly for length.

Bloody Disgusting: How familiar were you with the original before you signed on?

Drew Powell: Well, I had heard of it, of course, but I’d never actually seen it. So when I got on set the first day, when I got on location the first day, somebody had a copy. And I borrowed it. It actually was the Criterion DVD, which was great, because not only did I have the movie, but they had a lot of great extra stuff. Like they had a British television show that had filmed on location. I think it was called ‘On Location’ or something like that, where they had Dustin Hoffman, kind of followed him around on set. You really got a real idea about the making of that film.

And so obviously, after I watched it, I was like ‘Holy crap, this is serious.’ And then of course I did my research and realized the controversy surrounding it and how it had been banned for so long and all this stuff. So I knew right away what I was getting into, that this was gonna be a big deal.

BD: Talk about the character that you play and how you fit into the plot.

DP: Well, I’m a character that wasn’t in the original. I think in the original there was Charlie and two other buddies, and Rod has added a third, named Dick. And I’m kind of the comic relief, kind of the lazy cut-up of the group…

…So Bic is definitely the jokester and [provides] the levity of the film. Which is good…I think it’s good as an actor to be…if you’re not gonna be the main bad guy, to be the guy that breaks up the tension a little bit, because there’s plenty of tension in the film.

BD: The original is incredibly intense and visceral. Was there an attempt here to one-up the original in intensity?

DP: You know, I don’t think I’d use the phrase ‘one-up’. I think it’s more just modernizing it a little bit. Look, you’re never gonna trump the violence and intensity of the first one. And I think the genius of Peckinpah in that first one, even though to the modern viewer the storyline’s a little herky jerky – there’s not as much of a plot or a storyline as we’re used to – but just the kind of keeping you off balance is what he did very well in that film.

Definitely Rod does that, but I think he does it…he also has a storyline. You understand a little bit more of the context of what’s going on. And I think it also really fit the Deep South, with that kind of…it was a good transition to go from the West Country in England to the Deep South. I think that was a place where a Harvard educated guy is really a fish out of water in a place where it’s about church and football, and that’s it.

So I wouldn’t say it’s ‘one-up’, but I would say the intensity of it is definitely there, and the…siege at the end is full on, and everybody, James Woods is really great. …Everybody knows his work. His intensity level is huge, and he brought a lot to…the screen. And I really enjoyed working with him as well.

BD: What is he like to work with?

DP: He’s a great personality, really smart. You know, he does he thing. He’s Jimmy Woods, and he’s been doing this for a long time. But it’s nice to have a real pro that’s done so much work…the four of us guys, who are still…at least compared to him, up-and-comers. Because [in the film] he’s kinda our ringleader in a lot of ways, as our former coach. So yeah, it was great.

BD: Talk also about working with James Marsden and Kate Bosworth.

DP: You know, I hadn’t met either of them, but I knew their work obviously. And I was just really impressed by both of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if people think these are the best performances of their careers. The onus is on them, in large part, to kind of bring the feeling that the audience has, to the audience. Because we’re seeing it through their eyes.

Look, to try and take on a role that Dustin Hoffman played is a big, big task. And I thought James did a great job. He really…he’s a great actor, he’s a good guy. We had a lot of fun off-set, playing guitar and singing. And Kate…you know, I don’t have to tell you how intense of a role that is, and…I think it’s updated in a way that she’s a little bit more of an independent woman maybe than Susan George’s character in ’71. Because I think times are different. It’s what? 30 years on. 40 years on. So I think they’re both great.

And then the rest of the cast, all the way down. I mean, Walton Goggins…has a smaller role but a really important role, and Dominic Purcell’s character…who plays the slightly retarded guy, he was great. Laz Alonso from ‘Avatar’ is in it as the Sheriff. And that was a great piece of casting by Rod to have an African-American guy as the Sheriff in town. So I mean really, from top to bottom, the cast is really stellar. I’m really proud to be a part of it.

BD: You mentioned he’s African-American. Is there an element of racial tension in this one as well?

DP: Definitely, definitely. Anyone who’s been in the Deep South knows that that’s still there. Maybe not as strong as it used to be, but it’s still there, and I think Rod would’ve been remiss to…not include that. …And it really manifests itself in an interesting way in this film. It doesn’t overshadow…it’s not a race film, necessarily, but it’s a film about life in a small town, and a fish out of water, and all of those different things.

BD: We’re in a really scary time in our country where there are so many social divisions, between the Tea Party movement and the extreme right, and then the progressives and the Left. It seems like there’s such a widening divide right now, and I feel like this is sort of a perfect time to make a film set in the U.S. that deals with that tension. Because you have James Marsden’s character who is Harvard educated, and then you have these sort of good ol’ boy characters from a Southern small town.

DP: You’re absolutely spot-on the money there. That’s exactly right. I can tell you for sure that Blackwater would definitely be a Tea Party town. [Laughs] …and I think you’re right, I think that’s at the core of the conflict in this movie…

I heard that Peckinpah’s movie was in some part a response to the violence that was happening with Kent State at the time, and the Vietnam War protests and all that, and I think it’s interesting because 40 years on you have a similar kind of deal, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political divide that’s as present now as it was 40 years ago. So I think you’re absolutely right about that being a major, major subtext here. And I’ll be interested to see how people respond to that.

BD: The controversy in the original movie particularly revolved around the rape of Susan George’s character, with some claiming that at one point it’s implied she’s actually enjoying what was happening to her. Tell me what it was like filming that – if you were even involved in that – and what kind of a response you think it’s going to get from people. Do you think it’s going to have a similar controversy to the original, or do you think that was unique to the time?

DP: You know, I wasn’t a part of that scene. During that scene I’m out with James Marsden’s character while that’s going on. But I know that was obviously a very heavy scene to do, and I know they took the better part of a week to shoot that with Alex and Kate and Rhys, and I know that they didn’t take that lightly.

My hunch is that it won’t have the same impact in that regard…as it did in ’71, just because in some ways we’ve been desensitized to some of that, with the movies that we’ve had in the last 20 years or so, but that doesn’t cheapen the fact…that it’s still a horrendous, scary thing, and that’s part of the tension that is really driving that film.

The cast members did a great job of handling it in a way that it’s not gratuitous, and it’s not…it’s uncomfortable, but it doesn’t approach that level of the horror porn. It’s not that kind of really, really over the top…I think it’s handled with…a careful touch, but still, that’s a major part of that film. You would be doing the film a disservice to gloss over that or delete it. So I think it’s done in the way it should’ve been done.

BD: In the intense, violent scenes that you acted in, what was the mood like on set? Was it like where everyone would step away after the cameras stopped rolling, and take time to digest what’s happening, or was the tension easily broken?

DP: That’s a good question. You know, I would say that…you know, whenever you do an intense scene, a violent scene…I think everybody was professional enough that…it’s not like everybody had to be a Method actor and stay in character all the time. …I think that can really bog you down, if you keep doing that. So I think everybody handled it well.

And there were moments where yeah, it was intense, and you had to just take a minute and go right back into it…and sometimes, you would be able to break the tension and have a break. …You know, as an actor those are always really interesting things to do, because you’re acting, you wanna be truthful, but you’re still acting, you know?

At least I’m of the mind that I don’t wanna take that too far. I don’t want it to get into my own head and affect me personally, because at the end of the day it’s a job and that’s what you get paid to do as an actor, is to bring that to the screen. You’ve gotta compartmentalize that from your real life.

But everybody was really a pro, and I think Rod handled it really well. One of the things with my character is I tend to be a pretty happy-go-lucky, goofy guy, and he was really concerned that my character wasn’t too likable, that in the end people don’t wanna see me succeed. And so we had some interesting conversations about how to make sure Nick is not too sympathetic. [Laughs] And that was a good learning process for me as well, and really fun.

BD: How closely does the plot adhere to the structure of the original film?

DP: I think the structure is very similar. I just keep telling people it’s an updated film. It’s not trying to be better than the original…it’s also not trying to be its own separate entity, because it is a remake. But I think structurally it’s very similar, but there’s just different nuance, because it’s in a different place and time.

So I think that’s the best thing you can do with a remake, is honor the original and update it so it doesn’t feel like you’re just remaking, shot for shot, the original film. So in my personal opinion, I think it’s a really nice balance.

BD: It’s a tough movie to remake. It’s not like you’re remaking “Friday the 13th”. It’s such a critically-lauded film. It’s gonna be a hard thing to live up to.

DP: Yeah, absolutely. No question about it. I think all of us involved are kinda waiting with bated breath to see how it’s received, because I think in some ways…the positive is you get the intrigue and interest in the film off the bat, before anyone’s seen anything, because it’s such an iconic movie. On the other hand, you have people that are ready for it to suck, waiting for it to suck. And you have to try and win those people over.

And we won’t do that for everyone, and there’ll be people that think how dare we even try? But my hope is…that it’ll bring together the younger audience that’ll be excited to see Alex Skarsgard and Kate Bosworth and all that…with their parents, and gee, probably grandparents, who saw the original…and they can go see the movie together and talk about. I think that’s kinda cool, because that doesn’t happen very often.