The morning air is crisp, bitter almost. The leaves crunch underfoot as I walk through an anonymous Oregon woodland area. Outdooring is hardly my idea of a good time—hell I had to buy hiking boots just for this outing—but on the occasion, it’s a worthwhile venture. Using a hand-drawn map provided by Kelly Reichardt herself, I’ve made my way here.
First Cow’s filming location is a closely guarded secret, Reichardt didn’t want interlopers stumbling in and ruining her carefully crafted air of 19th century frontier tenderness. To get here I’ve walked for hours, scaled several hills that are few degrees off being a cliff-face, and clambered over more fallen trees than I care to count. I round a particularly voluminous piece of underbrush and stumble upon it: the filming location. And there, at its centre, looking stately and refined, Eve the Cow.
I read over Reichardt’s instructions: greet Eve like Harry does Buckbeak in The Prisoner of Azkaban. I bow my head. After several tense moments (I’m poised to flee should Eve not take a liking to me) Eve bows in return. Relieved, I approach. Eve is even more gorgeous up close, well groomed, cow eyeliner on fleek, and smelling vaguely of lavender and poppy.
As I prepare to interview John Magaro sets up a stool and pail. He begins to milk Eve. Eve is unphased.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Eve.
Josh: I guess we should start at the very beginning. I saw First Cow at MIFF this year and I was thoroughly entranced the entire time.
Josh: Really! I’ve been coming around to nice-core films over the past couple of years—a product of my moving from edgy adolescence into adulthood, I suspect—and this film really is a perfect case study into the virtues of the genre.
Eve: Moo, moo moo. Moo (moo) moo, moo?
Josh: First Cow fully fits I would say. I don’t think nice-core is necessarily dependent on the plot being light the whole time, but rather on characters’ reaction’s to the plot. Does that make sense? I guess nice-core is more of a mentality than a specific set of generic structures. You’re actually a big part of the film’s success as a work of nice-core, I found myself surprisingly moved by the scenes where John Magaro milks you, much as he is doing right now.
John: It’s very soothing work.
Josh: Look’s it, John.
Eve: Moo moo, moo moo moo moo. Moo moo moo moo.
Josh: Oh, I’m glad to hear that. You and John have such wonderful on-screen chemistry, and I was just wondering if you could speak to how you built that rapport?
Eve: Moo, moo moo moo—moo moo, moo—moo moo. Mooooooo. Moo, moo moo moo.
Josh: So, you could say that it’s really about taking that on-screen tenderness and extending it off-screen?
Eve: Moo moo, moo.
Josh: That’s just lovely. Do you have anything to add John, before you head off?
John Magaro’s pail is full of milk.
John: Oh, not much, just that Eve was such a wonderful acting partner, I mean just so generous with her performance. There was one day where I was having real trouble with my lines and she was so patient, a real gem.
Josh: Eve mentioned just now that you did a few things to build your rapport before you started acting together, like more than just running lines. She said you did some team building activities, trust falls, that sort of thing.
John: Great couple of days.
Josh: I was just wondering if you had anything to add?
John: Before filming started, I thought it was important to get to know each other outside of a formal context, so I suggested we go out bar hopping. It was a great night.
Josh: Sounds fun, if little rowdy for a Kelly Reichardt set.
Eve: Moo moo moo moo, moo moo moo.
Josh: Your secret it safe with me, cross my heart. Thank you, by the way, John.
John: No problem at all.
John wanders over to a small fire where he begins to cook small old-timey biscuits.
Eve: Moo, moo moo?
Josh: I agree, John’s performance in the film really is such a breakout moment for him. He’s being doing so much under the radar work for a while now, but I hope he’ll get more roles like this, likewise for Orion Lee, they have great chemistry together.
Eve: Moooooooooooo. Moo moo?
Josh: Not as good as you and John obviously, that’s the secret sauce that makes the First Cow work really.
Josh: Although I did want to ask you about that actually. While you’re ostensibly one of the film’s stars you’re used very sparingly throughout, so I imagine you had a lot of time to observe and dwell on other elements of the film, right?
Josh: Well I wanted to know how you read the dynamic between Cookie and King-Lu. There’s a lot of very gentle scenes between the two of them, where they do little more than tend to their small woodland hut together. First Cow is technically a Western, so I wanted to know what’s your interpretation on Reichardt—and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond—choosing to focus on a figure like him?
Eve: Moo… moo moo, moo moo moo moo moo. Mooooooooo? Moo moo! Moo moo moo. Moo moo moo, moo moooooo moo. Moo, moo moo moo.
Josh: That’s a really good way of putting it. I’ve been trying to quantify for a while now, what exactly First Cow is. You know, it’s not a traditional Western, not quite a traditional historical-drama, not even a traditional cooking movie really—
Eve: Moooo, moo moo. Moo. Moooooo.
Josh: Although more accurate, you are right. Sidenote: did First Cow teach you how to say clafoutis too?
Eve: Moo moo, moo.
Josh: Thank god, I didn’t want to be alone in that. Where was I…
Josh: Right, genre! So, it’s not really of any of those genres, aside from nice-core, obviously. But it’s also, not not those genre’s either. I think that term you used; “anti-frontier film” is really wonderful way of describing it. The connotations of especially; regular frontier films are so focused on conflict, machismo, conquest, and acquisition as a signifier of triumph over nature and fellow man, and by calling it an anti-frontier film you’re really speaking to how Reichardt inverts all those tropes.
Eve: Moo, moo moo, moo moo. Moo moo moo moo. Moooooo!
Josh: Well precisely, that really returns to the films basic philosophy of kindness. Like King-Lu didn’t have to take Cookie into his house, let alone start on a business venture with him. In fact, the more prudent thing to do at that moment would’ve been to screw him over—
Eve: Moo, moo moo, moo.
Josh: Well exactly, but instead they build this really beautiful thing together, and that one act of kindness breeds more kindness throughout the entire fort.
Eve: Moooooooo, moo moo moo moo. Moo, moo moo. Moo moo moo. Mooooooooo.
Josh: I was just getting there, god great minds right?
Eve: Moo moo!
Josh: I want to dwell on the sequences where Cookie milks you for a moment. A small element I was really taken by was how you two foster this–how do you put it–almost therapeutic space together? Like Cookie is clearly this complex man with a deep, and oftentimes very melancholic, interior life, and it’s in those moments of together that it all sort of comes out.
Eve: Moo moo moo.
Josh: It can’t have all been John though, you give a very understated but powerful performance in those sequences, they’re kind of the key to them working.
Eve: Moooo moo, moo moooooo, moo moo moo moo. Mooooooo, moo moo, moooo.
Josh: And that touches on another thing about those scenes that I love. Men are afforded so few chances to be, well, vulnerable like that on-screen. And that’s to say nothing of cows, you guys barely ever get roles with so much interiority!
Eve: Moo moo. Moo moo, moooo, moo moo moo.
Josh: How so?
Eve: Moo, moo moo, moo moo. Moo moo moo moo moo. Moo moo. Moo, moo… moo moo moo? Moo, moo moo. Moo! Moo.
Josh: It’s almost this symbiotic thing, by affording one demographic the opportunity to have more diversity and complexity in their roles, other demographics are allowed that too, just by principle of the reactive quality of good narrative writing?
Eve: Moooo. Moo moo moo, moo moo.
Josh: Kelly does do such a wonderful job of writing them, but I do think that you’re what really makes First Cow work, it all hinges on you.
Josh: Yes! Really!
Eve: Moo moo.
Josh: How do I explain… have you ever heard of the shopping cart theory?
Eve: Moo moo moo?
Josh: From 4chan, exactly. Well it’s like that; nothing dictates that you have to return the shopping cart, like there’s no laws or regulations, you’re not going to get fined, you just do it because it’s the right thing.
Eve: Moo moo moo moo?
Josh: Or you don’t because you’re bad, exactly. Ultimate arbiter of human morality. Well I think you function in a similar role in this film. You’re the first cow.
Eve: Moo moo moo moo!
Josh: Great Lady Bird reference.
Eve: Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Moo moo. Moo, moo moo. Moo moo moo moo moo moo. Moo moo. Moo, moo moo moo, moo moo moo, moo?
Josh: I agree, they’re both so good.
Eve: Moo, moo, moo, moooooo. Moo moo, moo.
Josh: I would’ve picked you as more of a Meg, honestly.
Eve: Moo moo moo.
Josh: Fair enough, Amy it is. But back to what I was saying, I think your role in First Cow functions the same way as the shopping trolley problem. Think about it, Cookie doesn’t have to be nice to you when he’s milking you in the film. There’s no onus, no clear reward, nothing really to gain, but he does it anyway.
Eve: Moo moo, moo moo moo moo moo.
Josh: Precisely it circulates around the one good deed, and upon that more good deeds can be built—Cookie get’s these small moments of emotional catharsis, and they give him the confidence to start baking, and because of that the people at the fort get their biscuits, and they become quietly tolerant, maybe even protective—
Eve: Moo moo moo, moo-moo.
Josh: You’re right, that last one is a stretch, but even tolerance is a huge thing ya’know? It’s a start, not enough, but a start.
Eve: Moo moo moo moo moo, moo moo moo.
Josh: That’s so kind Eve, and you’re welcome to come to Pride with me anytime. And that kind of attitude is it. I think that’s it, why you’re so important to the film. You don’t have to do the nice thing but you should because, well…
Eve: Moo moo moo moo?
Josh: I didn’t want to use those words, but, yes, you’re the shopping trolley of this situation. And I think what’s so powerful is every element of the film is built from that foundation, the writing, the casting of people like John and Orion, and you of course, it’s all about that small action, and the power it has.
Eve: Moo moo moo moo, moooo moooo moooo. Moo moo moo moo moo?
Josh: Well how Reichardt portrays capitalism as an anti-nice force, destroying everything Cookie and King-Lu built for the sake of purposeless ownership is certainly pointed, and worth discussing, but, I suspect, a topic we should save for another time.
Eve: Moo moo moo, moo moo, moo moo moo.
Josh: Well, thank you for meeting me today Eve, it’s been a real pleasure.
Eve: Moo moo, moooo, moo.
Josh: One final question, before I go, Cookie and King-Lu, do you think they’re gay or just good friends?