With his deep-set, piercing blue eyes and soulfully intense screen presence, Barry Pepper has been a favourite among great directors since his breakthrough portrayal of a religious sniper in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. He'll soon be seen as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper in the Coen brothers' adaptation of Charles Portis's novel True Grit, and in January's Casino Jack as disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff's amoral right-hand man, Michael Scanlon. He just finished playing a priest for the legendary Terrence Malick.
Married with a 10-year-old daughter, the 40-year-old British Columbia native (he was born in Campbell River, the son of a retired lumberjack) couldn't be looking at a brighter future with those increasingly famous eyes.
Was it much of a stretch to play a guy called Lucky Ned Pepper?
Well, I didn't have to look too far to find this character; he's a Pepper too! Seriously, I just remembered all the stories of my outlaw in-laws. We come from hardscrabble pioneer stock.
My father's mother, Gramma Pepper, in late September in Northern Canada, rode horseback from their homestead about eight miles through the forest to give birth to him in the nearest town. Then she rode back home with him. And that's only one generation removed; happened about 60 years ago. So you don't have to look too deep into our bloodlines to find that.
They talked kind of funny, but beautifully, back in the Old West, at least if the lines you all speak in the movie are accurate.
Charles Portis has this incredible ear for authentic period dialogue. I call it hillbilly Shakespeare. It has this sort of musicality and rhythm to it, like the iambic pentameter of Shakespearean dialogue. I've never worked with such structured dialogue before. It was so precise, but when you hit it, it absolutely sings.
All that and you got to wear woolly chaps through the whole thing. Looked like they might have been itchy. Were they uncomfortable?
Naw, they were fantastic. In fact, I own them! They let me keep them after the production. Would you like me to model them?
No, thank you. Tell us a little bit about your background. You spent five years sailing around the South Pacific with your family as a kid, right?
I was born on Vancouver Island. My parents built a 50-foot, fiberglass sloop in a big barn behind our house and launched it in 1975. Art became a very big part of my life while growing up on the sailboat; we had no television, so we really had to entertain ourselves with books and plays and art.
You got more into drawing than acting initially.
That's what I ended up winning scholarships for, yes. But when I went to college in Vancouver, I was always seeing Johnny Depp everywhere making 21 Jump Street [the 1987-1991 TV series, which was filmed in Vancouver] That's really how I got the acting bug. At first, I thought being an extra was a way for a starving artist to make a little money. But from the moment I took my first acting class, I was absolutely hooked. I didn't stop studying for the next five or six years solid before I really started working. Never did get to do a 21 Jump Street, though.
Roger Maris. Dale Earnhardt. Bobby Kennedy in an upcoming TV miniseries. All kinds of cowboys and U.S. military guys. What's a nice Canadian boy doing playing so many iconic American roles?
I don't know why I keep ending up playing Americans. I don't think there's any rhyme or reason to it.
Something clearly attracts you to projects with social and historical heft, though.
I just enjoy serving stories that are similar to my own moral sensibilities, ultimately, in the final analysis of what they're trying to say to the audience. Whether I'm playing the villain or the hero or a supporting character, that's generally what fuels my desire to be a part of it. Working opposite Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack, the guy I was playing was an absolute scoundrel who stands for nothing I believe in. Yet the story is a cautionary tale of politics in Washington, and how our democracy is drowning under a tsunami of corporate greed.
You're a naturalized American now. Has that affected your Canadian identity much?
I became a U.S. citizen after spending so many years here. Being a taxpayer, I figured, hey, I might as well be able to vote. But I spend quite a bit of my time on the west coast of Canada. My wife [Cindy]runs our budding production company and also, being that we're dual citizens, we have corporations both in the U.S. and Canada.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail