A version of this story about Kodi Smit-McPhee and “The Power of the Dog” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Kodi-Smit McPhee thinks back to his days on the New Zealand set of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” he remembers the darkened barn. In the film, playing the shy teenager Peter, an outcast on a Montana cattle ranch in the 1920s, Smit-McPhee had a crucial late scene with Benedict Cumberbatch in which the two men share a cigarette in the barn – which, on this day during production, had been wrapped in a tent of blackout curtains in order to simulate nighttime.
“It was so bright outside, but when I went into the barn it was quiet and very dark, ominous but kind of peaceful,” he said. “It was like entering another world through a portal.”
Thinking back, the actor was keen to spot the allegory in the moment. “I don’t think I’d ever felt like that before in my career,” he said. “It’s so fascinating how that feeling of diving deeper into something translated so perfectly.”
That scene, among many others in Campion’s sensual, mysterious mood piece, have thrust Smit-McPhee through another type of portal. Though he’s been acting since childhood (appearing memorably as Viggo Mortensen’s son in 2009’s “The Road”), now, at 25, he’s scored rave reviews, a big haul of critics awards, Including from the groups in New York and Los Angeles, and likely his first Oscar nomination. (Were he to take home a gold statuette in March, he’d be the second youngest supporting actor Oscar winner ever, after Timothy Hutton, then 20, for 1980s “Ordinary People.”)
And that buzz helps explain why Smit-McPhee, after a three-month press tour to promote “The Power of the Dog” around the world, is now enjoying the hot Australian summer at his family’s home on the outskirts of Melbourne. His new dirt bike is in the backyard, his pet cat is sitting on his lap, his soul is being steadily fed.
“Five minutes from here, I’m in the middle of fields and paddocks and cows and kangaroos,” he said. “So this is my time to duck out and rejuvenate a little bit, before going back into that lovely storm again.”
He’s still energized when he talks about the role, which he landed in 2019 after Campion employed a unique icebreaker during his audition. “She asked me to bring Peter alive in the room and then we talked to each other, as Jane and Peter,” he said, adding that the conversation made him uncomfortable, “but in the most positive way. Jane very consciously knows how to be a necessary antagonist. I would much rather work with a director that pushes me rather than one who lets me remain in my comfort zone.”
Smit-McPhee got an audiobook of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion’s source material for her screenplay, and would read along with it. “I related to a lot of aspects of Peter and his personality,” he said. “Just in terms of being a bit different, being a deeply curious person, being OK in isolated environments, being an outcast somewhat but also, as it turns out, being confident in embracing who he is.”
He believed that how own introspection was sufficient to understand the character, but Campion assigned Smit-McPhee a dialect coach and body-movement specialist to help hone his performance as Peter, who is mocked for his speaking voice and effeminate manner.
“It’s pretty scary the first time someone cracks your shell and the light breaks through and you think, ‘Man, it’s been safe in here,’” Smit-McPhee said. “I quickly realized that those thoughts were my ego trying to hold me back.”
The character of Peter is a masterpiece in misdirection. His voice, thinner and lighter than Smit-McPhee’s own, is the first thing we hear before a single image has appeared in the film and the last words we hear at the end. He’s long experienced with American accents, having lived in Los Angeles during much of his early career, but during filming, it wasn’t his accent that his director was concerned with. It was Peter’s lisp, an important characteristic in Savage’s novel. Smit-McPhee was under-lisping, according to Campion’s notes to him.
“Jane didn’t want (the lisp) to be too subtle and she was right,” Smit-McPhee said, while admitting that he was reluctant at first to go there. “It’s a wonderful, fantastic tic that brought something special to Peter. And what I love is that it is sweet or unsettling, however people choose to view it.”
For sure, in the film, Peter’s protective relationship with his widowed mother forms the arc of a narrative that requires the audiences’ close attention. His mom is played by Kirsten Dunst, like Smit-McPhee a former child actor, and their chemistry on screen does contain a trace of the conspiratorial, as if the two characters have a secret that we’ll never know.
“And we were like that on the set too,” Dunst tells TheWrap. “As soon as I met Kodi, I felt the deep connection to him as an actor and a human. He’s just such a good, solid person.” Among themselves, Smit-McPhee and Dunst agreed that their characters had a hand in the fate of Peter’s father – a secret they only told Campion halfway through filming, in fact.
Peter’s sexual orientation is cleverly never revealed in the film, one of the many tricks that compels us to carefully weigh what we see and hear in the story. Smit-McPhee dodged when asked if he and Campion did determine it for themselves. “I think that’s something better left unsaid by me. I try my best not to be that actor who says, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna reveal anything,’ but in this case the audience’s interpretation is so much more magnificent than knowing the absolute truth.”
However he does elaborate on the two interpretations that viewers might take away. “The idea that that Peter could have literally put on this whole schtick to reel in Phil and get him at his most vulnerable state – that is a mind-blowing thought,” he said. “But the other side of the coin, its equally fascinating and heart-wrenching that possibly this was Peter’s first experience of feeling sensuality and romance and he was getting so close to a love interest, but he sacrificed his own intentions for the betterment of someone he loves.”
One aspect of himself that Smit-McPhee has opened up about in recent years is his struggle with a painful disorder called ankylosing spondylitis. Peter, in the novel, is described as suffering from “a myriad of chills and fevers that sapped his strength,” an echo of Smit-McPhee’s own arthritis-like symptoms. His experience of working with Campion, and now basking in the film’s success and rapturous response, has proven transformative for him.
“It’s why now I talk about my autoimmune disease,” he said. “I’ve had very abrupt and intense reminders on how temporary life can be. And I’m so humbled to receive credit for this performance, and I love that I might get to be present during the awards-season events. But I’m also conscious of my priorities as a son and a brother and a human being. I really try to view the bigger picture all the time.”
Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.