In a parallel universe, Kurt Russell the actor doesn’t exist.
His classic movie roles, like John “The Hangman” Ruth in The Hateful Eight and Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, never happened or were played by somebody else. All those awesome eyepatches, mullets, and shaggy mustaches never made it onto celluloid.
Instead, you’d know Kurt Russell as a baseball player. Up until his mid-20s, that’s the career Russell had his sights on. He played on Minor League teams like the Portland Mavericks over four seasons, and was well on his way to a Major League career. The only reason he got into acting at all was, ironically, because of baseball. At 11 years old, he went to his first audition, for a movie called Safe at Home, just for the chance to meet his heroes Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
But fate had other plans for Russell. This month, instead of taking the field for baseball’s opening day, he’ll be out promoting his newest movie, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which hits theaters May 5th. (He plays Ego the Living Planet.) He won’t be catching any fly balls or hitting any homers this spring, like he dreamed of doing when he was a kid. Instead, he went with his plan B: He became a multi-millionaire movie star.
We called Hollywood’s reigning king of cool to find out if the choice is still bittersweet.
Field of (Broken) Dreams
When baseball season starts up again in the spring, do you ever get pangs of regret?
I used to. Up until I was 30 or 31, I had a hankering every spring. When you spend as many thousands of hours fielding ground balls and taking batting practice, it’s how you identify yourself. It informs not just your body, but your mind. I still wanted to play.
Acting wasn’t as fulfilling?
They’re just completely different things. They’re not even like apples and oranges. They’re like… a race car and a TV remote control. There’s no connection.
Do you not get a similar adrenaline rush from making movies?
Sometimes. When you start cranking into a character, and you can feel the other actors go, “Yeeeah, that motherfucker is bringing it, here we go.” That’s when it gets good. You get that same thing in baseball, when the intensity starts heating up, and you and your teammates are really connecting, and you think, “Yeah, bitch, let’s go. Let’s play ball.” It’s a great feeling. It’s the crackle.
Why’d you give up playing pro-ball?
I tore my rotator cuff.
During a game?
Well, no. It was a couple of things. I was using my arm more than I should. I took a hundred ground balls before every game. And then one night I was out celebrating, had a few too many, and blew out my arm playing air hockey.
You can do that?
You can if you play for three hours straight and throw your arm into it way too hard. I found out it was over from a doctor who had a terrible bedside manner. He examined me and said, “Aren’t you an actor too?” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” And he said, “Well, you’re an actor all the time now. [Laughs] That was it. He just walked out of the room. I sat there for like ten minutes, not knowing what to do. I was like, “Is that it?” A nurse had to come in and get me. I was just devastated.
Six Action Figures (and Counting)
Is it true you came up with the idea for Snake Plissken’s eyepatch?
Yeah. I pitched it to (Escape From New York writer/director) John Carpenter and he immediately said, “Yes. Do it.” I knew then that I’d made the right decision to sign on to the movie. Some directors hem and haw, they’re like, “Hmmm. I don’t know.” But with John, it was immediate. He trusted me.
Did you invent a whole backstory? Did Snake lose an eye or something?
Maybe. I don’t know. [Laughs.]
I really don’t.
Stop holding out on us!
I think it should be mysterious. That was the point. We know he was a war hero. But what happened to him? What’s underneath that eyepatch? Maybe he was hit with an infrared beam and it burned his retina and fucked him up really badly. Whatever it is, it still kinda hurts.
Snake does always seem to be grimacing.
That’s right. He’s always in pain, but he’s just gotten real used to it. It’s a tired, dull ache. Probably comes from whatever radio waves they put into his eye. Maybe they tried to give him a bionic eye and they fucked it up.
That mystery is more fun for the audience too. It keeps us guessing.
I always try to look for the things that would make me want to see the movie. I want to be in the audience thinking, “Why the fuck is that guy in an eyepatch? They never explain it!” It keeps you on your toes.
It’s rare enough for an actor to create an instantly recognizable, iconic character like Snake. But you have a resume filled with action figure-ready roles.
That’s exactly right. I had one of those toy-manufacturing guys call me up and say, “Did you know that six of your movie characters are action figures?”
Snake, O’Neill from Stargate, Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, John Ruth from Hateful Eight, MacReady from The Thing and, uh. . . dangit, who am I forgetting?
Yes! He told me it was unusual not just because of the number, but because they’re all original characters. They’re not comic book characters or Star Wars characters. They’re something I helped create. They all have a distinctive look that I contributed to.
You have a chance to make it seven with Guardians of the Galaxy. You’re playing an actual planet.
That was a first for me, yeah.
Is it more difficult playing somebody with his own solar system?
Nah. I like doing characters that couldn’t be more different from me. I don’t want to play myself over and over and over again. That’s boring. I’d rather be a god. [Laughs.]
The Best Kurt Russell Movies To Make Love To
Which hairstyle do you regret the most, the mustache from The Hateful Eight, or the mullet from Overboard?
If you ask Goldie [Hawn, his girlfriend since 1983], she’d definitely say the mustache. Not even that one in particular. I think she didn’t like the Wyatt Earp one more.
Wasn’t that your first big movie mustache?
That’s right. It was definitely an adjustment for her. She’s not a fan of the woolly mammoth. I felt bad for her.
But she’s okay with the Overboard mullet?
I think she was. We saw Overboard again recently. We were getting into bed, the TV was on, and boom, there’s Overboard. We hadn’t seen it in at least 30 years.
Did you watch it?
We watched all of it! And we don’t usually watch our own stuff. With most actors, you see it once when it’s finished, at the premiere or something, and that’s it, you move on. It was very weird to see it again, after all these years. You remember things you didn’t realize you remembered, and you’re completely inundated with the sweep of memory.
And then you made sweet love while watching it?
Well. . . [Laughs.]
You did, didn’t you?
You know what’s interesting? Overboard has what may be the most risqué line ever in a PG-rated movie. Goldie says, “Caviar should be round, and hard, and of adequate size, and should burst in your mouth at precisely the right moment.” [Laughs.] I mean, Jesus Christ. How overt can you get?
That is pretty dirty.
And you’ve got Goldie Hawn saying this! What the hell? It’s so filthy, and it goes right over everybody’s head. [Long laughter.]
What other Kurt Russell movies are worth watching again while having sex?
You’re asking me?
Our vote is for Tango & Cash.
It’s got that scene with you in a dress. We’re just saying. . .
Honestly, I have no clue. I try to avoid watching my own movies. There are certain ones you can’t avoid stumbling upon on TV. Every once in awhile, I’ll watch a little of it. But never from beginning to end.
Is there any role you thought was cool at the time but in hindsight you wish you could take another crack at it?
No. I don’t think about it enough to have that question. Once it’s done, it’s done. Time to forget it. That’s the greatest thing about our business, and also the most difficult. When I finished doing Hateful Eight, I was so sorrowful. It was such an amazingly positive experience, I didn’t want it to end. But that’s just part of this business. Sometimes the circus has to move on, and you’re not going to be leaving town with it this time.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 2017 issue of Men’s Health.]