Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for “The Power of the Dog,” which is now streaming on Netflix.
What is Peter thinking? You never quite know with Kodi Smit-McPhee’s beguiling and full-bodied performance in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” He has venom in his marrow, but a kindliness and surgical precision in the way he crafts paper flowers for his mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst). He collects anthrax with the laser focus of an epidemiologist. He walks and moves at an otherworldly tempo, stalking the edges of cinematographer Ari Wegner’s frames like a fox — and that’s by design, as the actor chose the sly, bushy-tailed creature as his animal archetype while building his character.
“They’re very light on their feet. They’re very nimble, but they can also be quite fatal. And the way that they hunt is actually kind of cute in a way. But very vicious in the final moment,” the 25-year-old Australian actor told IndieWire, Zooming from the driver’s seat of his car in Melbourne.
The actor is only 6’1″ but in the movie, his willowy frame casts the illusion of infinite tallness. Peter moves almost like he’s prancing on stilts, tentatively but with the purpose of discovery. It’s written that way in the source novel by Thomas Savage that Peter, “who seldom smiled at anyone but his mother,” has a physical carriage that brings him unwanted attention and gets him labeled as a “sissy” by macho-posturing rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). Peter also has a slight lisp and a just barely askew posture, which Smit-McPhee cultivated through coaching and using the therapeutic Alexander technique to unify voice and body. (Its exercises are still used today to correct faulty posture and public-speaking habits.)
“These were things that were worked through with a body movement specialist and a dialect coach, which is something I’ve done many times before, having to do so many different accents over my career, and it’s something I’m always willing to revisit,” said Smit-McPhee, best known for starring in the American vampire remake “Let Me In” and lending his voice to the animated “ParaNorman.”
“A body movement specialist is something I hadn’t really done before. You feel like it’s being somewhat invasive toward your approach, but at the end of day, I completely relinquished all of those thoughts,” Smit-McPhee said. “They’re absolutely amazing at what they do and just loosened me up, and gave me settings and specific modes of movement to portray in any way, for example, when he’s walking, or running, or thinking, or standing still, it just gave me complete comfort and freedom and continuity in the way I express myself physically through Peter.”
Peter’s neurotic responses to stressful events, like plucking at the blades of a comb or vigorously hula-hooping in the backyard after dark, were all in Campion’s script — and all subtle machinations in getting Peter toward the denouement of his grand master plan. (The exact endgame of that plan we won’t spell out here.)
“Jane was very specific with where she wanted it, and to what degree she wanted it. [The comb] was something very important to Jane. It’s open to interpretation what that means, but for me, it was somewhat of a managing tool for [Peter]. First time through when you watch the movie, it can seem like an anxiety thing for him. But the second time through, I see it as a way of him managing how he’s going to do what he’s planning to do.”
He said that in terms of the psyche of a person — and Peter’s is certainly complex, always turning over another dark thought — “all of that is represented in the body, and I believe that.”
The emotional force of the deceptively chilly “The Power of the Dog” rides on Peter’s journey from outcast to master manipulator of his (and ultimately his mother’s) destiny. In the final moments of the movie, you might not quite grasp the implications of what he’s done. For Smit-McPhee, that same whiplash feeling of “did that really just happen?” overcame him when reading the script for the first time, and eventually the book (which doesn’t reveal itself fully until, literally, the last sentence).
“I had that whole twist-and-turn experience myself reading it. I got to the third and final act, and I finished the script, and I thought, ‘Did that just happen? Did I read that wrong? Did I space out in the last few pages?’ When I did confirm that, I had to go right back to the beginning because now the whole story was recontextualized. I had to go on that journey again, which was one of the many things that attracted me to the role,” he said.
There’s a scene midway through the film when Peter — after stumbling onto Phil’s secret trove of muscle porn hidden in the brush, bequeathed by his beloved Bronco Henry — sashays across a display of grizzled cattleman, who whistle and cat-call him in mockery. Peter knows what he’s doing: It’s a feint of psychic gamesmanship over Phil, obviously impressed by the boy’s confidence.
“There was a great deal of thought behind that scene,” Smit-McPhee said. “It’s very intentional what he does, because specifically it’s after the scene when he has been into Phil’s sacred place. He’s somewhat been revealed a secret that no one else knows. And I think he knows how to play his cards at this point. But there’s the question there: Is this something intentional that he does in front of Phil to find his way or initiate himself into Phil’s world, and [toward] his ultimate plan and goal? But at the same time, it takes a great deal of bravery, courage, and pride in who he is, and none of that is fabricated. He’s all of those things, and I love that about him. He doesn’t really care about anyone’s judgments and he doesn’t try to manipulate who he is to meet anyone else’s expectations. He has an unwavering spirit.”
Dunst and McPhee invented the potential backstory that Peter killed his father, who in the book was a respected doctor in their Montana small town, prior to the events of the movie. While the novel details quite grimly how his father actually hanged himself, Smit-McPhee was inspired by the suggestion that Peter could have cold-blooded killing in his DNA.
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
“We definitely use that, and it was an intricate part [of] our own thing that we didn’t reveal to anyone else that created this kind of strange, eerie but also strong bond between Rose and Peter,” McPhee said. “But it somewhat translated because a lot of people asked, ‘Did [you] kill [your] father?’ in Q&As afterward. At the same time, it was very important for me to also be dedicated to what the script and the book were, which were that I loved my father, and he did take his life.”
Smit-McPhee also had extensive discussions with Campion about who Peter was, before being cast in 2019. “When I met Kodi, I knew that that was Peter, and I felt actually that Kodi was better than the character of Peter as he was written,” Campion recently said while promoting the film.
“We just had a beautiful conversation. She wanted to know about me, which is a really lovely thing,” Smit-McPhee said of their first meeting. “It was playing, which is a recurring theme when you work with Jane, and when you’re just around here. There’s a great sense of innocence about her, and it uplifts the innocence in yourself. But also when the time is necessary, she can become quite the necessary antagonist in the way she can poke and prod and push you and challenge you to go into unexplored territory, and to revisit things you may have left in the past.”
Smit-McPhee has already notched a key win in the awards race this season, taking the Best Supporting Actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, which also awarded Jane Campion Best Director and Benedict Cumberbatch Best Actor. Next up, he stars as country singer Jimmie Rodgers in the upcoming Elvis Presley biopic from Baz Luhrmann, another Australian filmmaker who, like Campion, immediately tuned into Smit-McPhee’s idiosyncratic gifts. It’s a small role, but one he said he’s made an impact in.
“I remember my first day working with Baz, he’s always in a rush on set because he’s dealing with so much, and he only had a few minutes to knock on my trailer door and come in and say hello,” recalled Smit-McPhee, who admitted he couldn’t have been prepared for the challenge of playing Rodgers without his experience with Jane Campion.
“[Luhrmann] said, ‘Hey, I had this amazing idea. You were just supposed to be in the back of this scene… but I want you to be on the table. I want you to be singing, I want you to do this and that… all of these ideas coming at me and basically being initiated into his world. It’s such a fantastic thing because you have this option to say no and stay in your comfort zone or commit to your craft. And I did that with ease and with joy, and it was very rewarding.”