“Lucky” Ned Peppers (Barry Peppers) – True Grit 2010
Project Updated 30 Sept 2012
The scarred and snaggletoothed outlaw ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper came on only in the last third of the Coen brother’s 2010 remake of True Grit. Barry Pepper’s small, memorable role of a murderous outlaw with a thief’s honour was perhaps more dimensional than the members of his gang, but it was the manner his character was dressed – Alpaca wooly chaps, turned up hat brim and snarly scarf – that made me think one of Frederick Remington’s bronze sculptures came to life and walked onto the set.
In my research on Pepper’s role and how his character was created, I came across a couple of insightful interviews done by movieline.com and blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy which are ‘must read’ if you want to know more about those awful teeth and wooly chaps!
Barry Pepper Movieline interview
Movieline: Congratulations on your success with True Grit. You don’t see that many Westerns these days that do well with both critics and audiences.
I was so pleased that it has done so well. Westerns are always so difficult to predict whether or not they will reach an audience but I think that the success of this one is a testament to the brothers’ fidelity to the rhythms and richness of the original storyline and the language of the Charles Portis novel. It is a fantastic novel. I highly recommend it. I think [True Grit] is going to do very well on DVD, too. There’s a lot of people who didn’t get to see it in the theater who will really enjoy it.
Why do you think it appealed to such a broad audience?
What’s cool about the film is that die hard fans won’t be disappointed but the Coens created this as a family film so it really reaches a wide audience.
You were paid so many compliments for your portrayal of “Lucky” Ned Pepper. Did any review of your performance stick with you in particular?
I honestly don’t follow it. I don’t really read the press, but I think in the early stages of production, the viral chatter was kind of negative about the retelling of this classic John Wayne film, and audiences and fans of the original didn’t realize that the Coens were going back to the original source material — the Charles Portis novel, which was so highly deserving of a faithful re-rendering — that when the film did finally come out, and it finally put that chatter to rest, it was a great moment. It really vindicated the Coens’ vision and their passion for the story. The fact that it did so well in the box office was just a real testament to their extraordinary ability as filmmakers. That is what I was most pleased about. Westerns are very difficult to predict whether they’ll reach an audience or not.
Robert Duvall played Ned Pepper in the original film. Did you get any feedback from him?
I did. I spoke to him after the film came out because I hadn’t seen the original Henry Hathaway film. I’m actually glad that I hadn’t seen it in hindsight because I was able to formulate my own version of the character. Then someone told me that he played the first “Lucky” Ned so I watched the original film. But I called Bob after our film came out in theaters just to let him know what an honor it was to reprise a role that he had originated and he was very kind, saying that we all did a fine job. Then we were able to talk about his experience on the Henry Hathaway set which was a great conversation.
I read that the True Grit chapter of your life began when your wife taped your audition for the Coen brothers?
[Laughs] That’s right, yeah. Well, I read the screenplay and thought that it was so extraordinary that I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of being involved. The Coens, I guess based on my filmography, didn’t really envision me as the character. So I thought, “I can’t let this opportunity pass me by so I better put a character on film for them.”
Were you in costume for your audition tape?
Well, I didn’t have the woolly chaps. That was something I didn’t have in my costume trunk. After I had been offered the role, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing costume designer named Mary Zophres who had hand built these amazing Alpaca woolly chaps that were just really incredible. Woolly chaps hadn’t been seen onscreen since Buster Keaton so we were all a little bit nervous about how that would come off.
You and the Coen brothers put a lot of thought into Lucky Ned’s facial appearance as well. Since Rooster shot Ned in the face before the movie opens — a detail that was in the novel — you wore prosthetic makeup to make Ned seem like his jaw had been broken. You sat through two hours of makeup a day and you wore the most mangled set of movie teeth I’ve seen onscreen years.
I think the Coens are just so dedicated to a faithful rendering of the original book that they really wanted those details to be as precise as possible. It was cool to wear that for sure.
Do you still have those mangled Ned Pepper teeth?
Yes. [Laughs] But who else would want them?
Your character spends a lot of time on the back of the horse. Did you do your own stunts?
Well, I did one stunt that the Coen brothers really didn’t want me to do. They had brought in the stunt men to do this horse stunt in the first scene in which they introduce Lucky Ned and his gang, my horse is shot out from underneath me. Rooster shoots my horse and I fall to the ground and one of my gang members rides by me, I grab onto the saddle as he gallops by and I hoist myself onto the back of the horse. Well, they had designed the entire stunt with a stunt man and didn’t invite me to try it myself which I was a little put off by. So I just did it on camera without telling them on camera that I was going to do that. Fortunately, that was the shot that ended up on film. It was a lot of fun but sometimes the producer is very nervous that you’re going to get hurt or they don’t think that you are capable so they don’t think to even ask you.
My favorite scene in the film is the final shootout when “Lucky” Ned yells “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man” across the plain at Rooster. What do you remember about filming that shootout scene with Jeff Bridges?
I remember being so amazed at watching Jeff gallop up with his pistols in each fist and the reins in his teeth. I was just so impressed that he was as involved in the recreation of that scene as he was. Normally a lot of that work falls to stuntmen but that was one of the most memorable moments for me from the making of True Grit — watching him gallop up on me as I’m firing my rifle and charging towards each other on the horses. To see him be so involved in each of those sequences that we shot over the course of several days was really impressive. He just handled the horse so beautifully and the pistols like an old pro. He had done several Westerns before so he was very comfortable on horseback and with firearms. It was a joy to work with him.
Barry Pepper Speakeasy interview
Speakeasy: How important was your appearance in terms of defining or figuring out this character? Particularly because in a way, he’s sort of the nicest character in the movie to Mattie.
Barry Pepper: Well, the film is a pure reflection of the novel, so everything is gleaned from it. Beat for beat the film portrays what Charles Portis’ original vision was. So the Coen brothers and each of the cast members, that was our source material the entire time.
So you sort of pick up bits of information, like the fact that Ned and Rooster have this long history and this back story that explains why they’re such nemeses, and it explains that in the year previous, before the film begins, Ned and Rooster’s paths crossed and Rooster shot Ned in the face, and that’s why Ned’s teeth are all busted up and broken.
He’s got this wicked scar in his moustache, and that’s why when we first meet Ned, he’s very upset about the fact that Rooster infiltrated his mountain hideout, and that this no- good simian-like thug that he hired on to his gang, Tom Chaney, has really brought wrath down upon him unnecessarily.
So you see just the vitriol and the anger spewing from Ned’s face when we first meet him as he’s screaming down the mountainside to Rooster. They have this wonderful banter back and forth, and then they journey up into the camp, and he starts to interrogate Mattie as to what she’s doing there, and you start to see him soften, and kind of appreciate this little 14-year-old frontierswoman with such bold, brash courage in the face of these sketchy banditos. I think that’s why Ned really admires her, the true grit she shows in that confrontation, and ultimately sacrifices Tom Chaney in the end and honors his fair play deal that he’s cast with Rooster.
Ned seems unlike other movie villains in that when he says “we have a deal,” he means it and he sticks to it. In many ways this is a classically-executed Western, but the characters are much more multidimensional. Is it the book that gives you the inspiration to follow through on a certain approach or tone, or is it the Coens or some other element?
They will confess themselves that they were guided entirely by Charles Portis’ material, and it is such a genius literary work. The dialogue alone is so rich and wonderful; it’s like this American Shakespeare in a way – it has its own sort of rhythm and musicality, like Shakespeare has iambic pentameter. It’s very specific in its delivery, and that’s why even though it’s kind of odd to the ear at first, you’re hearing this really unique way that people spoke 150 years ago that really isn’t present in a lot of Westerns because of the anachronisms that sort of overwhelm a lot of Westerns. But the Coens have such an incredible ear for it that this material just fit them like a glove; you understand immediately why they wanted to adapt the book faithfully, and why it was so deserving of a retelling. And the 1969 version of the film really never came up in conversation; in fact, I’ve never seen it. I’ve had my head so deep in the sand I didn’t even know Robert Duvall had played Lucky Ned Pepper in the original. So in hindsight, I felt really blessed to have the opportunity to create the character from scratch, or from the Coens’ screenplay before I knew that Bob had played him. Because I’m such an admirer of his, I surely would have been influenced if I had seen the original film.
But everything we needed was within the pages of Charles Portis’ book, and the film really is beat for beat, the way it develops. It’s funny, I hear people say ‘were you concerned that the final shootout in the pasture between Ned’s gang and Rooster was so similar to the 1969 film?’ And yet that’s just a testament to how beautifully the brothers adapted the novel, that it is beat for beat the way it reads in the book. So it was great to work with them on that level, and getting in on the early stages of the production and seeing everyone develop their characters and developing my character with this incredible team that the Coens have; the makeup designer, Christien Tinsley, an Oscar winner, Mary Zophres is just an extraordinary costume designer, and then Keith Walters, the prop master, they’ve all worked together and they’re a part of the Coen family, and so they have a fantastic shorthand and a very precise vision of what the Coens want. But they’re also really inclusive; when you come to the table and say, this is how I see Ned, this is the kind of pistol I want, and I want the handle to be black ebony, and I want my knife to be built in such a way, and the hat has to be this, it’s just a fantastic process.
It sounds like as collaborative as the group is, you had a lot of room to bring in your ideas.
Pepper: The boundaries were set by the dialogue, because it is so specific and it is so musical and particular to the period that there wasn’t a lot of improvisation in that respect, which was much like doing a Shakespearean play; it was very specific. And unlike many films that you’re involved with where there’s daily rewrites and the script is constantly changing, this one was locked at the beginning. But yeah, in terms of the design of the character and all of those aspects of bringing him to life, it was very, very inclusive and collaborative.
How are the Coen brothers as directors? They seem to give you a lot of freedom to bring in these ideas beyond the parameters and the cadence of the dialogue.
Pepper: And of course the parameters of the source material, too. I mean, you pull everything from that, but beyond that, there’s a lot of interpretations as to what type of boots, what type of hat, what type of pistol, how the character walks and talks, and all of those things were informed subtly by the descriptors in the novel, but there’s a lot of elements that aren’t there that you really have to come together on, and the fact that Rooster shot Ned in the face, I assumed that it probably would have busted up his jaw, busted up all of his teeth, and so that started to be the foundation from where we started to design the character. So in that process there, which is obviously really collaborative and inclusive, it’s a joy to work with them. And also to watch all of the other characters unfold, or come to life; seeing Matt’s choices, and Jeff and Josh and Hailee and all of their choices in defining their characters.
I was only there for a few short weeks and maybe 15 minutes on screen, but it was an extraordinary adventure. Just because of that reason, that [the Coens] are such calm, cool, collected people and it’s such a calm, cool, collected environment on that set; there’s no chaos and there’s no sort of racing against the sun to try and make the day, and you never get the sense that there’s budgetary concerns. They just have an effortless grace as filmmakers, and I think that comes with being such cohesive brothers that they can kind of cover a lot more ground.
I’m always impressed by Peter Mile’s headsculpting talent and just had to commission him for this Barry Pepper snaggled tooth headsculpt! Here is how I went about painting the headsculpt with layers of acrylic+medium tints.