In some ways, it’s tough—and in others, not tough at all—to be Brendan Wayne. On the one hand, he co-stars in the new Jon Favreau–directed sci-fi blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens, which was a hit at last week’s Comic-Con in San Diego and opens tomorrow (July 29) pretty much everywhere. Despite being the lowest rung in an all-star cast, Wayne has received almost as much press coverage as his more famous co-stars, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Daniel Craig. But on the other hand, he is incessantly asked questions about his grandfather, who happens to be American cowboy icon John Wayne. It’s not just that Brendan Wayne has big shoes to fill; he might as well be an amputee and the shoes are the Grand Canyon. He would literally have better luck doing anything else in the world besides acting in a cowboy movie. It’s why Bob Dylan’s grandson, Pablo Dylan, recently announced that he’s making a hip-hop album. What was he going to do, record an album of folk protest songs? Good luck with that! I called Brendan on the set of his new movie, The Red House, as he was sitting in the makeup chair and having fake blood applied to his face. For somebody who gets asked about his grandfather approximately every 30 seconds, he was remarkably funny and gracious.
Eric Spitznagel: Did you ever tell a reporter, just to fuck with them, “I don’t want to talk about my grandfather”?
Brendan Wayne: I did, actually. I said it to somebody last week. I was like, “Could we not talk about John Wayne so much? We were never on good terms.”
No you did not.
I did! And the guy was like, “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry.” He got pretty flustered by it. And I finally broke and said, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” I do like doing that from time to time. Sometimes when people ask what he was like, I’ll catch them by surprise. “He was a bastard. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
“He punched me when I was a baby.”
Right, you think you had a rough childhood? Try having a gun pointed to your head by John Wayne.
Did you ever consider saying no to Cowboys & Aliens, just because doing it would lead to a lot of John Wayne questions and comparisons?
Not for a second. There’s a two-fold answer to that. With the John Wayne association, you get to a certain point in this business and you realize that you have to be marketable to a studio. How do they justify keeping me in the film? I’m in a cast that includes Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, and Olivia Wilde. Why, exactly, do they need me? You know what I mean? I want to be a part of this group, so how do I make myself valuable? Also, there was no way I was saying no to being in a Western like this, even before I knew who was in the cast. Like most other kids, I grew up wanting to be a cowboy, playing the sheriff or whatever. So playing a cowboy in this movie was the easiest thing for me to tap into imaginatively. I can ride a horse, and I can do stunts on a horse. [Pause.] At least I found out I could do stunts on a horse.
You found out? I assumed you came out of the womb on a horse.
[Laughs.] No, I waited until I was a little older. I thought I was pretty good at riding horses until I got on this film and I was working with guys who were rodeo champions. That’s a different type of riding.
I can’t imagine getting on a horse at all. I have Christopher Reeve anxiety.
Oh, God, I understand.
I can’t get over the fact that it’s a live creature that hates me and wishes I would get off its back.
That’s true. If it senses any trepidation at all, it will try to own you. My biggest advice is to be next to people who know how to ride. When that accident happened to Christopher, he was riding out alone with a horse. Nobody was on his left or right, and horses feel better in packs.
The few times I’ve ridden a horse, I was convinced they could smell the city on me. They get a whiff of museums and three a.m. taco places and it makes them angry.
You do have to be careful with horses. When I got on the set of Cowboys & Aliens, they asked me, “So you can ride?” And I said, “Nope!” I made it very clear that I wanted a lazy, slow horse. And if he’s old, all the better. You don’t want to tell wranglers you can ride, because those guys will put you on the best stud out there. I’m not having any of that. You’re right, a horse can smell the city and they can smell fear.
I heard Jon Favreau say in an interview about Harrison Ford, “He’s our generation’s John Wayne.” Did that piss you off?
Not at all. I get it. But I have to be honest with you: I think it’s unfair to Harrison and what he’s accomplished. It was meant as a compliment, but I think Harrison Ford has done enough in his career to be our generation’s Harrison Ford. It’s like comparing Kobe Bryant with Michael Jordan. It’s like saying, “Obama is our generation’s Washington.” Just let him be Obama.
I feel like you need to get back at Jon. Is it O.K. if I refer to you in this interview as “our generation’s Jon Favreau”?
I’m fine with that. Yes, by all means, please write that.
Did you call your grandfather “Grandpa,” or did he make you call him “Duke”?
You know what’s funny? Of all the affectionate names we could’ve called him, all the masculine versions of “Grandfather,” what do you think he preferred? He wanted to be Granddaddy. That’s just amazing to me in hindsight. My dad is Dad, but my grandfather wanted to be Granddaddy.
Was he always wearing that eye patch from True Grit when you visited?
Just over Christmas. [Laughs.] No, actually, he was a suit-and-tie guy off the set. And then on the boat, he was always about shorts and no shirt and no hairpiece—basically the exact opposite of his movie image. My memories of him are of being on his boat and fishing with him, which I know is a very different visual image than the rest of the world has. They think of him in the cowboy hat or the eye patch or riding a horse, and I think of him shirtless on a boat.
They did a True Grit remake recently. Did you at least get an audition?
I did, yeah. But I think at the end of the day they wanted to distance themselves from the original. The Coen Brothers wanted to make it their own film and not remind people about the John Wayne movie. They didn’t want that attachment, and they certainly didn’t need my pedigree. At least I hope that’s the reason, and not because I just had a really terrible audition.
Did you audition for the part of Rooster?
No, they were looking at me to play the lawyer who grilled Rooster in the beginning. I really wanted to be Rooster, but they got some guy named Bridges. He seems like a talented kid. I think he might do something in this business.
Can you do a John Wayne impression?
Not one you’d want to hear.
How bad could it be? It’s like a Jack Nicholson impression; anyone can do it.
It’s not for lack of trying, but I’m pretty awful at it. I can do the cadence, but I can’t do the depth of his voice.
He had that grumbling baritone.
Yeah, that deep…. [Doing a surprisingly good John Wayne impression.] “I’m not gonna hit you, partner. The hell I’m not!”
Oh Jesus, that was good. Add a “pilgrim” at the end and it’d be transcendent.
[As John Wayne.] “I haven’t lost my temper in 40 years, pilgrim . . .”
[As John Wayne.] “But you caused a lot of trouble this morning!”
[As John Wayne.] “I’m gonna blow your head off. It’s as simple as that.”
This is too much fun. It’s like dueling John Waynes.
The problem with mine is that I just end up sounding like I’m drunk. And I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying.
You were in the cast of another remake of one of your granddaddy’s movies, 2009’s Angel and the Badman.
We made a valiant effort. When they first asked me, I was like, “There’s no way I’m playing one of my grandfather’s iconic roles. I just can’t do it.” And they were like, “Don’t worry, we’re not considering you for Quirt Evans.”
They gave that to Lou Diamond Phillips.
That’s right, yeah.
And this is the part of the interview where we make fun of Lou Diamond Phillips.
Feel free. I’ll let you, and I’ll just be here when you do it.
You’re John Wayne’s grandson, and his only qualification is being the guy from Young Guns.
I’m not saying anything.
Did he at least acknowledge you? That had to be intimidating, doing the Duke in front of the Duke’s own flesh and blood.
Not that I know of. I did overhear him doing an interview, and he said something like, “You know, the Duke was just the Duke. He kind of just played that character. I’m going to bring something a little bigger, a little darker to it.” And I about lost my temper. My mom was in my ear, saying, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” To be overlooked by critics is one thing, but when another actor doesn’t recognize John’s ability to be subtle and powerful. Watch the original Angel and the Badman, and you’re going to see a guy who’s got range. It’s one of the greatest acting performances I’ve ever seen, period.
I’m just impressed that John played a guy called Quirt with a straight face. That name didn’t really catch on, did it?
It didn’t, no. If I have another kid, I’ll name him Quirt. I think it has potential.
Your uncle Ethan was named after John’s character in The Searchers. It’s a miracle that your mom didn’t name you after one of her father’s characters. You could’ve easily been Ringo Kid Wayne or Davy Crockett Wayne.
I was very nearly called Daniel Boone Wayne.
I’m not at all. It was really, really close to happening. It was like a Johnny Cash song waiting to happen. Instead of “A Boy Named Sue,” I could’ve been a boy named Daniel Boone. I dodged a bullet with that one.
Your granddaddy had a reputation for fighting. When was the last time you were involved in fisticuffs?
Not long ago. And I have the scars to prove it. If we ever meet in person, I’ll show you the ring cut I have under my right eye that I acquired in Mexico. I beat the guy in front of me, but I didn’t see the guy who was behind him.
Did you start the fight, or just finish it?
I actually thought I was going in to finish something. Little did I know, I wasn’t the final act. I woke up later and I thought I was sweating and my buddies were like, “Dude, that’s blood.”
That’s pretty badass. Your grandfather would be proud.
Maybe. I try not to get into fights too often. I do like boxing. I box three days a week at the greatest gym in Los Angeles, the Fortune Gym. As a matter of fact, that’s how Sam Rockwell and I bonded when I was on the set of Cowboys & Aliens. We both box at the same gym and now we work out together, which is bizarre.
Do you remember that famous story about your granddaddy and Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard?
It’s been told to me. He and Sinatra ended up being friends after that, but I don’t know what happened to the bodyguard. I feel bad for the guy. I remember, as a kid, my granddaddy’s hands were as big as my chest. I don’t think I’m exaggerating, I really don’t. They were the biggest things I’ve ever seen.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario. You’re at a hotel. Frank Sinatra Jr. is hosting a party in the room directly below you. It’s so loud that you can’t sleep, so you go downstairs and ask them to keep it down. Frank Sinatra Jr.’s bodyguard gives you some guff. What do you do?
If somebody’s willing to give me guff, they better be willing to take my fist to their chin, because I’m going to do it.
Damn, bitch, I guess you do have the Duke’s blood in you.
I’m not a hothead. I’m not running around like a young Sean Penn. But if I see other people being wronged, that tends to make me want to fight. I’ll give you an example. I was in Westwood with two of my brothers, and a bunch of college kids who thought they were really cool were messing with this shop owner. They ran him out of his own store. Before I even knew what was going on, I ran up to them and I said, “Back off!” And my language wasn’t that PG. One of them was like, “You got a problem?” And before he could finish the word “problem,” I hit him square in the mouth. His two buddies went to jump on me, and thank God my brothers are built like our grandfather, because they took them down. It was a beautiful moment. The cops came and took them away, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but they were like, “I can’t believe this kid fell down and banged up his face on the pavement.” I was like, “No, that’s not what happened.” But they cut me off. “He hit. His face. On the pavement.”
Did they know you were John Wayne’s grandsons?
We refused to acknowledge any of that. We didn’t give our names, and they didn’t ask for them.
Did you call any of them “pilgrim”?
Are you kidding? That would’ve been a dead giveaway. It’s funny, my mom always portrayed my granddaddy as somebody who was willing to stand up for the little guys. But he also just liked to fight. He and [frequent co-star] Ward Bond used to fight all the time. There’s a famous story about them that I can’t tell you, but if you ask around, somebody will tell you, if they’re still alive.
Can you give me a hint?
He and Ward Bond were fighting at the Hollywood Athletic Club, back when it was a place where guys stayed in between fights with whoever they were loving. Ward threw a cue ball at John and it went through the window. And… [Laughs.] Okay, I guess I’m telling you the whole story anyway.
Who am I going to tell?
The cue ball hit a car that was driving by. Thank God it didn’t happen today, because it’d still be in litigation. They ran outside to make sure nobody was hurt, and the guy in the car whose windshield was smashed was screaming, “You sons of bitches!” But then he looks up and it’s Ward Bond and John Wayne, and he’s like, “Could I keep this cue ball?”
Didn’t John Ford once catch your granddaddy taking a piss in Ward Bond’s whiskey flask?
Yes! He was like, “Duke, what are you doing over there?” And John is like, “I’m just filling up Bond’s flask.” And they didn’t tell him! That’s what kills me about it. That’s the best part of that joke.
And this provides the perfect segue to ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask this entire interview: Exactly how much of your urine did Harrison Ford drink on the set of Cowboys & Aliens?
I can honestly say… that I decline to answer. [Laughs.]
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com