‘The Harder They Fall’ Cast Q&A with Idris Elba, Regina King, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz

The Harder They Fall
ZAZIE BEETZ as MARY FIELDS and JONATHAN MAJORS as NAT LOVE in ‘The Harder They Fall’ (Photo Credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2021)

Netflix recently hosted a Q&A for members of the Critics Choice Association with four of the stars of The Harder They Fall as well as writer, director, and producer Jeymes Samuel. Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, and Zazie Beetz joined Samuel to take a deep dive behind the scenes of the gritty Western that brings a realism to the genre that was previously missing.

Samuel doesn’t want audiences to view his film as an alternative viewpoint but rather one that reflects the true Wild West. Samuel hopes The Harder They Fall will spark interest in the actual people portrayed by his incredibly talented ensemble in this fictionalized tale set in the late 1800s.

Emmy nominee Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country) stars as Nat Love, the fearless leader of the Nat Love gang who’s bent on exacting revenge on the man who murdered his parents. Emmy nominee Idris Elba (Luther) plays Rufus Buck, a legendary outlaw and the target of Nat’s rage. Emmy nominee Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) is Stagecoach Mary, an ex-lover of Nat’s who’s powerful in her own right and owns multiple saloons. And Oscar winner Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) plays Gertrude “Treacherous Trudy” Smith, a fierce fighter and Rufus’ second in command.

During the lengthy Q&A, the cast and The Harder They Fall writer/director Samuel discussed the Western genre, working with this incredible ensemble, and the challenges of shooting during the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Broadening the Western Genre:

Jeymes Samuel: “I think it’s very important because if you remove a piece of history then it has a domino effect on all of history and everything becomes kind of skewed or blurred, as it were. And growing up I loved movies, and Westerns have always been my favorite genre but we’ve been given only one kind of narrative – the white male centric. Women were always subservient and people of color were always treated less than human. It was these very narrow, stereotypical viewpoints of what the characters were that weren’t really white males. So, if I’m going to contribute to that genre, I have to kind of broaden the landscape – kind of let me look at either side of that (narrow lens).

I think it’s humongously important. And also just giving people who watch Westerns, or people who just watch films, just giving them another viewpoint of just because you’re a person of color or you’re a woman and this is a period piece, it doesn’t mean we have to be subservient or be underneath some overseer or oppressor of some kind. I just think it’s important in cinema, in general, to have these other vantage points.

[…]I actually think it’s just being real, showing life.”

The Harder They Fall

On the Impact of Portraying Real Black Western Pioneers:

Jonathan Majors: “One of the great things about being an actor or an artist is you get to kind of bring your life experience to the story, to a character. And then there’s sometimes where the character gives you an opportunity to learn more things about yourself and where you come from and who your people are. That’s kind of the opportunity that Jeymes presented with the Western genre, specifically for me.

I grew up in Texas. I grew up around cowhands – farmhands – not necessarily a ‘cowboy’ but cowboys and rodeo folks, nonetheless. And so to be able to step into a world like this and then to attempt to embody a character like Nat Love…also known as Deadwood Dick…it gave me the opportunity to do more epistemological research on where I come from. Finding Nat Love and seeing that he was a former slave or, as Jeymes said once and I think it’s just really, really important to keep hitting it, that Black people were not slaves; they were enslaved. It seems like common sense to me, but I’ve never heard it said so directly like Jeymes said it. So, with Nat, bringing this guy to life was a huge responsibility for myself, for where I come from, and for the Western genre.”

Idris Elba: “The impact on me personally is one thing but I think what we should be celebrating – and what we have been celebrating here today – is the impact, essentially, what it is on film and cinema and storytelling. My daughter is at NYU; she’s 19 years old and she came to see the film and she immediately went back, and it changed her life because she saw historical figures that she had no consciousness of in a genre that she’s not attached to. I love Westerns but she never watched a Western with me, ever. I watched them with my dad. But what that impact is, that sort of ripple effect is going to help cinema and filmmakers to diversify their lens a little bit in how you tell stories of Black folk.

We found ourselves in a little bit of a hamster wheel wanting to regurgitate stories about history but only from a specific lens. This film takes a genre that we’ve been ignored from and throws some history in it. So, what I’m expecting filmmakers to do now is go ahead and make a Star Trek or a space movie that has Black people in it and let’s talk about astronomy and let’s talk about the ancient history of those who decided what space looks like. Let’s do that because that’s opening up the lens, if you like, for storytelling. That’s the impact that I’m really interested in.

You know, we’re at this juncture right now where we’ve been knocking at the door. We’re saying that culturally we have been left out of a lot of the cinematic landscape. Okay, so no more. You’ve seen The Harder They Fall, let’s just make this the moment in time where we can say, ‘Okay, cool, now we can tell stories on a really big spectrum. We don’t need to be specific to any genre and we can certainly teach you about some history that you may not know about.’

That’s what the impact is to me.”

Zazie Beetz: “I agree with Idris. I feel like for myself it has shifted the way that I see Westerns and this genre in general. While we were shooting, I was watching a bunch of Westerns. And as I was doing research and learning about our presence in the Old West, it shifted how I watched these films. The inaccuracy of the representation hit me in a way that I think it hadn’t before because I was so immersed in sort of the alternative history of how present Black people were in the Western world.

I also found myself just really enamored with reading about all of the characters in the film and beyond, and sort of hearing the tenacity and the survivor spirit. Everything that we did and accomplished and how we were able to thrive in the West and how we really made our own communities…all of that is real. I like that this film celebrates that in its own kind of fantastic, fiction-y, heightened world but is also grounded in certain facts and reality. That was very inspiring to me, just in the general development of my character and in reading of all of these wonderful people there. We’re bringing a few names into the light but there were so many.”

Regina King: “I mirror a bit of what everyone has said here. I think what Jeymes has done has given all of us – when I say all of us meaning the audience, everyone – the opportunity to go back and actually learn our history. There’s so much that we don’t know, even those of us who are so well read, don’t know about ourselves or our journey.

In playing Trudy, I had the opportunity to play with a bit of that with the dialect. The thing that’s so magnificent about our people is that we are the most resilient human beings on the planet. And when you look at all that we’ve traveled – and Jeymes shared that with me that Trudy’s someone who’s traveled – I’ve thought about our history and how we are. The perfect example is the music and how Jeymes […]explained how the Caribbean connects with the African connects with the American, and different places in America. I felt like here’s an opportunity through dialect to show where all of that exists. You listen to Trudy and you shouldn’t be able to pinpoint where she’s from. She sounds like she’s from everywhere, and that’s kind of all of these characters. They are from everywhere. They are nomads and we’re meeting them in a space that Jeymes has created that although they are real people, he created a space for the audience to be introduced to them together.

I think that’s huge. People are going to go back and get on the Google and want to learn more, want to nurture that thing that hasn’t been satiated inside them because I know that it hasn’t been satiated inside me. I’m not a fan of Westerns but if Westerns looked like this or felt like this or sounded like this, I’d be a huge fan.”

On Action Scenes and Fight Training:

Zazie Beetz: “I think for everybody we all had an element of physicality. We did Cowboy Camp where we were riding horses every day and doing gun training. Everybody had their own specific things they needed to do…different kinds of stunts, whatever tricks you had to do. We were doing that and practicing it, so it felt like it was second-hand. In particular with the horses, you needed to get to know your horse and its personality.

But then specifically for Regina and myself, for our big fight scene we really fought to get rehearsals in. Production was sometimes like, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out.’ And we’re like, ‘We’re doing this,’ so we carved out time with our stunt doubles.

We just ran the choreography. We both wanted to feel really safe. We wanted to feel like it was a dance where we had the muscle memory. There’s just like a lot of moving parts in it, so we wanted to feel really comfortable when we shot it. It took a couple of days to shoot and I remember when we were done I felt very girl-power, like, ‘We did that together.’ We really leaned on each other. We really trusted each other, and if things weren’t working out we changed it.

That was a couple of weeks of intense practice together, but I think it was also a really nice bonding moment for us. And so, yeah, we all had the general thing and then Regina and I had our own little rehearsal.”

On Playing a Complex Character with Hidden Motivations:

Idris Elba: “It’s interesting. (Producer) Shawn Carter and I had this really great conversation at the premiere in London after the fact and we spoke about love and loss. We spoke about just as men just the exploration of that – what that feels like and how that comes across. Men generally are guarded but Black men tend to subvert their emotions. And so we talked about the film, watching the film again and whether once you’ve seen the film one time you see it again are there any clues and Easter eggs to the performance as you watch it that tell you where it’s going? It was a really detailed conversation, Jay’s analysis of it.

Jeymes and I plotted that. It was something that Jeymes is really conscious of because the movie really does culminate at the end of that scene. It’s where it all comes together. It’s the a-ha moment. So plotting Rufus’ journey was really intricate. Jeymes and I really thought about how bad is he, how bad is he at this moment.

As an actor I live for characters that offer me complexity, especially bad characters because no one is bad for no reason. This character really had a lot of depth for me. Obviously, what you find out about him at the end is his entire motivation. But you don’t realize that until that end so how do you keep them interested throughout that cycle? That’s like a gift of a part. I have to give it up to you, Jeymes, for writing that for me, man, because it was really special to play.”

Jeymes Samuel: “Thank you, brother. I think it’s also important to know that on second viewing when you look at everything Rufus Buck does and why he does it, to ask yourself is he actually bad? You know, we see things in a film when we’re introduced to characters like the way we’re introduced to Rufus Buck. He is a baddie. He’s the most despicable human being that ever lived. But when he beats up Wiley Escoe he says to him, ‘A man like you would have us all living in subservience till the end of our days so long as you can buy a house and those goddammed gold teeth.’

‘A man like you would have us all living in subservience till the end of our days’ – so when he’s giving that guy a beating, that’s actually…you know when you hear the phrase ‘The Hand of God’…for me, for everything that we’ve been through you’re actually going to put us back in that scenario.

When I look at the Rufus Buck gang, I just think of the layers of the question why we think or what makes us assume they’re bad. They do bad things but why are they bad? When you look at the Nat Love gang, it’s the same thing that Jonathan always says. It’s about one of his main motivations is about fear. But when you meet the Nat Love gang, they are taking out the Crimson Hood gang in cold blood. The Rufus Buck gang doesn’t do that. They did it to the Army but those guys were weak. So the whole thing makes you think.

It’s like Jonathan says, his whole motivation’s about fear evening the playing field. But you take that through the movie and look at everyone’s motivations and it’s like who is bad and who is good? Is anyone actually good? Is anyone actually bad, so to speak?”

The Harder They Fall

On Working With This Talented Cast:

Jonathan Majors: “It was like the Olympics in a way, you know? I guess it would be like the Super Olympics, right? You’d take the best specialized ballplayers from all over the world and you make one team. The goal is to win the game. It was a place where there could be all no-look passes.

I had the opportunity to work very closely and very intimately with each of these actors in the scenes, one-on-one. Zazie and I had a way of working where we’d just move through it. There were a lot of unspoken things. We had our own way of training for the game and then it was game time.

Regina and I were literally across the field from each other and had to bang heads. There was a lot of trust in it – a whole lot of trust. All of that really culminates in, for me, the experience of when Nat and Buck come together. That moment is a culmination of how we all worked as a cast in that moment. He being Rufus Buck, leader of the Rufus Buck gang, and me being Nat Love of the Nat Love gang, coming together. Those two cultures coming in, which was the culture of the entire film. My coach, Jeymes Samuel, put us all together so in that moment it was very easy in a way, but it took a lot of constant, radical vulnerability, especially to play tough with each other.

We scuffled a lot. That’s what I would say – the Olympics with radical vulnerability across the board.”

On Shooting During a Global Pandemic:

Regina King: “I think the thing that’s really important to point out is that we were shooting this film during a pandemic, during a time that something unseen was ripping the world apart. And through that not just the cast members but the entire production, we had to lean on each other in a way that you normally don’t when you’re in the filmmaking process.

For me, I walked away with just a level of gratitude that the filmmaking family is one that can really survive anything. Like when Zazie was talking about just the preparation that we had to do for our big scene, we didn’t have the opportunity to have the preparation that you would normally have when shooting a [spoiler redacted] fight scene. But because of the circumstances we just bonded together and made a way. That’s a wonderful experience to share and we’re better because of it.”

Zazie Beetz: “I agree. The word ‘trust’ really resonates with me, and I think overall with acting that is such a big thing because you do have to be so vulnerable. In this case there was an added element of an edge. Nobody really knew what was going on; people were separated from their families for really long periods of time – from their children, their partners. We only had each other.

I really felt Jeymes, particularly, did a really good job of being this beacon of light and making it a playground. I’ve never really had a director who was playing music between takes and was constantly keeping the energy moving and motivated forward and upward. The director’s energy informs the entire space and I feel like Jeymes did a phenomenal job of making everybody feel like family and feel welcomed, and that it was safe place to be and to express in.

With Jonathan, I agree as well. I felt very much like I could lean on you and you would catch me in scenes. It was all very instinctual back and forth.

I think because of the circumstances, emotionally I think everybody was a bit scrappy but we all came together with so much joy and celebration to make this film. It felt like a space of trust for me.”

Idris Elba: “Just anecdotally, on the second day after I landed in New Mexico I went to Jeymes’ office, I went to the production office, and I saw Jeymes. I met everyone. Jonathan and I met for the first time and all the cast. We all hugged it out because we’re so excited to work with everyone. The very next day I was told that I had Covid at the beginning of the pandemic. I just remember sitting in this house that I was renting typing this email to each one of the cast members, CNN on in the background. I was like, ‘Man, what do I say? I’m sorry.’

At this junction in the pandemic it was really a lot of unknowns. But can I tell you I wrote that email to everyone and I said, ‘I’m really sorry, man. I think I have this. It’s positive. I know I saw you. I gave you a hug. Go ahead and check yourself out. Let me know if I can be of any support to you guys.’

Every single one of the cast members – every single one – wrote back to me. They said, ‘Dude, I have you, man. Just chill. You’ve got this. You’re going to be all right. I’ll go check myself out but don’t you worry, man. This ain’t your fault.’

I get emotional telling this story because it was at a time where I thought I was going to die. My wife hadn’t arrived yet. I didn’t know what was going on. And everyone – everyone – wrote back to me and said, ‘It’s cool, brother. We’ve got this. We’ll figure this out.’

That shows you a little bit of the bond the crew had from day one. Not to mention almost the year gap where some of us had other commitments, some of us were afraid to travel. We all came back. Some of us didn’t even leave – they stayed. Jonathan, you know what I’m talking about. Jeymes, you know what I’m talking about. We had to bond and we bonded beyond. So what you see on film right now is not only just a beautiful sort of harmony of writing and acting and filmmaking, but a bunch of human beings that were literally going through something together. It was like, ‘Yo, man, we have to do something. We have to put something on the map.’ And that makes me so proud of this cast. I’m so thankful that as a group we’re being awarded and being celebrated as a group because we are a group; we’re a tribe.

That’s my answer, man, before I burst into tears on you guys.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Jeymes Samuel’s impressive cast also includes R. J. Cyler, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Deon Cole, Edi Gathegi, and Damon Wayans Jr.

Netflix will release The Harder They Fall in select theaters on October 22, 2021 followed by a release on the streaming service on November 3rd.