Montana History is a quiet, measured film, but there are intense, messy emotions bubbling beneath 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 unexpectedly find themselves reunited at their ranch. family. Brought together by their father’s failing health, Erin and Cal spend most of Montana History dancing around each other, making brief attempts to reconnect, but never acknowledging the traumatic event that separated them in the first place.
The film forces Teague and Richardson to carry the full weight of its story on their shoulders. If the performance of either actor does not seem authentic, then Montana History would collapse on itself. Fortunately, Teague and Richardson are capable young actors and their performances in Montana History are breathtaking. In Richardson’s case, his work here feels like another notch in the belt of an actor who has been consistently turning in star performances for several years now.
With Montana History In theaters, Richardson recently spoke with Digital Trends about what it was like to make the new contemplative western. The star, who is currently in Italy filming the second season of HBO The White Lotusalso shared why Montana HistoryThe “thorough” production design and isolated setting of helped it get inside the head of someone who’s made a habit of bottling up their emotions.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: The film is beautiful, but the conditions also seemed to have been able to be difficult at times. What were your experiences filming in Montana?
Haley Lu Richardson: I mean, it was very 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 just 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 enjoyable.
You are very isolated in the film. I guess that helped get into the character’s headspace?
Oh yes, of course. I think the more you can define the world around you while filming, the better the process because it feels more real. There is more to connect and tap into. When we were in Montana, we were shooting just outside of Bozeman at this ranch in the middle of nowhere. There’s 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 it. I think that really helped.
I always find it interesting that actors have to give slow performances and keep a lot of their cards close to their chest. Erin isn’t really allowed to fully open up until near the end of the film. How did that affect your process this time around?
I didn’t really think of it that way. I thought about how Erin would feel when she got home. I don’t think she is intentionally holding back or just hinting at her emotions. For her, it’s more like the only way for her to function in these circumstances is to shut down. She has great barriers and boundaries, and she still suppresses a lot of the anger and the truth about how she really feels. Vulnerability only comes at the end, but oh man, it’s heavy.
I think the reason that works in the larger context of the film is that the character honestly can’t express more until something happens that’s a catalyst for him to express how he feels.
The first time we see your character, in the film, she wears very colorful clothes, which distinguishes her from the other characters in the film. Was it a decision you made on your own or something you came up with through collaboration?
I had thought about what Erin would look like, but it’s great when you meet the costumers. It’s a fun collaboration and you can get ideas from them that you never thought of or vice versa because you’re really able to create something together. We kind of imagined what life was like for Erin in New York since she ran away from home and thought about who she has become and how she expresses herself. It’s a very unique look, especially the coat she wears when she arrives.
You can tell she shops at thrift stores and there’s almost a granny element to her. I felt like she was a bit grumpy, like a grumpy grandma. There’s something so adult about her. I think it stems from her trauma and trying to find things that look like her or feel at home. Things that give him some form of comfort.
Erin and Cal’s bedroom designs in the movie also seem very specific. Was there anything in Erin’s room that you considered important or that helped you in your performance?
Haley Lu Richardson: Well, the production design of the whole movie and the ranch house is so good. Scott McGehee’s sister Kelly was the production designer and she did such a great job. I thought it was all so complete and real and lived and specific. I like that because, again, when you’re around that kind of specificity, it’s so much easier to connect with that persona that you’re basically creating from a page and your own thoughts. The production design was really helpful during this whole process.
But I thought Erin’s room, in particular, was so sweet, that I found so strange 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 fiery and opinionated. But I think there’s this sweet lover of horses and ranch life inside Erin, and that’s been tainted by what happened to her. It’s sad to me that her sweetness has been tainted and lost. But, again, I don’t think it was lost forever because, in the end, her vulnerability and love resurfaces.
Montana History now playing in theaters.