Montana Story is a quiet and measured film, but there are intense, messy emotions bubbling beneath its surface. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the film focuses on the troubled relationship between a pair of estranged siblings, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) and Cal (Owen Teague), who find themselves unexpectedly reunited on their family ranch. Assembled by their father’s failing health, Erin and CAL spend most of it Montana Story dancing around each other, making brief attempts to reconnect, but never acknowledging the traumatic event that separated them in the first place.
The film forces Teague and Richardson to carry the full weight of their story on their shoulders. If the performance of both actors did not feel authentic, then Montana Story would fall apart in itself. Fortunately, both Teague and Richardson are capable young actors and their performances in Montana Story are amazing. In the case of Richardson, her work here only feels an additional notch in the belt of an actor who has been constantly turning in star-studded performances for several years.
With Montana Story hitting theaters, Richardson recently spoke with Digital Trends about what it was like to make the contemplative new western. The star, who is currently in Italy filming the second season of HBO The White Lotusalso disclosed why Montana Story‘S “deep” production design and isolated setup helped her get into the head of someone who made a habit of bottling her emotions.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: The film looks beautiful, but the conditions also seemed like they could be harsh at times. What were your experiences as a shooter in Montana?
Haley Lu Richardson: I mean, it was quite windy for a few days [laughs]. I was like, “Will this video be usable?” But I don’t remember the elements being that difficult. I think the hardest thing for me was just the emotional space I had to be in to play Erin and, at times, that was heavy. But also, at other times, it was really cathartic and beautiful.
You are very isolated in the movie. I guess that helped get into the character’s headspace?
Oh, yes, of course. I think the more specific you can make the world around you while you’re filming, the better the process because it feels more real. There is more to it than just plugging in and pulling out. When we were in Montana, we were filming right outside Bozeman at this ranch, which is in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to run away or hide, so you feel like you have to surrender to that kind of life and that kind of energy. I loved that. I think it certainly helped.
I always find it interesting when actors have to give slow burning performances and keep many of their cards close to their chest. Erin is really only allowed to fully open near the end of the movie. How did that affect your process this time around?
I didn’t really think about it that way. I thought about how Erin would feel about having to go home. I don’t think she is deliberately holding back or just suggesting her emotions. For her, it’s more like the only way she’s able to function in these circumstances is by closing. She has big barriers and boundaries up, and she still suppresses so much the anger and the truth of what she really feels. The vulnerability doesn’t come to an end, but oh man, it’s heavy.
I think the reason it works in the broader context of the film is that the character honestly can’t express more until something happens, which is a catalyst that allows her to express what she feels.
The first time we see your character, in the film she wears very brightly colored clothes, which makes her stand out from the rest of the characters in the film. Was it a decision you made yourself or something you came to with your cooperation?
I thought about what Erin would look like, but it’s great when you meet the costume people. It’s a fun collaboration and you can get ideas from them that you never thought of or vice versa because you’re really capable of creating something together. We seem to have figured out what Erin’s life has been like in New York City since she ran away from home and thought about who she became and how she expresses herself. It’s a very unique look, especially the coat she wears when she first arrives.
You can tell she’s shopping at thrift stores and she’s almost a granny. I felt like she was a little silly, like grandma. There’s something that’s so adult about her. I think it comes from her trauma and her trying to find things that feel like her or that feel like home. Things that give her some form of comfort.
The designs of Erin and Cal’s rooms in the film also feel very specific. Was there anything in Erin’s room that you thought was important or that helped you with your performance?
Haley Lu Richardson: Well, the production design of the whole movie and the ranch house is so good. Scott McGehee’s sister, Kelly, was the product designer, and she did such a good job. I thought everything was so deep and real and lived and specific. I love that because, again, when you’re around such a specificity, it’s much easier to connect to this character that you’re basically creating from a page and your own thoughts. The production design was really helpful throughout this process.
But I thought Erin’s room, in particular, was so soft that I found it so annoying and sad. You know, I think Cal has a line in the movie about how Erin and her dad had a lot in common. They were both kind of fiery and opinionated. But I do think it’s this gentle horse-lover and ranch-life lover inside Erin, and that was tainted by what happened to her. It is sad to me that her gentleness has been somewhat tarnished and lost. But, again, I don’t think it was lost forever because, finally, her vulnerability and love reappears.
Montana Story now plays in theaters.