You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know the name Elvis Presley. The recognition level if you mentioned the name Jimmy Harrell would not be anywhere close to the same as the King.
The fact that these two newsmakers have different levels of notoriety was never a concern for Kurt Russell when he portrayed them in movies. He played Elvis in the 1979 TV movie, “Elvis,” and Harrell in his latest feature, “Deepwater Horizon.”
Harrell’s notoriety comes from being in charge of the crew on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that exploded in 2010. There were 11 deaths, but that number would have been higher were it not for Harrell.
“I feel the same obligation no matter how famous the person is,” Russell says. “This is a real person that I’m portraying, and I am going to take every possibility to know who this person is.”
The best source for knowing how a person acted and reacted during events being depicted in a movie is to go to the real person. Russell’s not certain why, but despite numerous attempts, he could not arrange a meeting with Harrell.
That meant Russell had to bank on conversations with Mike Williams (played by Mark Wahlberg), who was the chief electrician on the rig. Another big help in playing Harrell came from news reports and written material about the disaster.
In many ways, playing a role like Jimmy Harrell is no different than Russell’s work as Jack Burton in “Big Trouble in Little China” or Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York.” Except that these are characters in a script.
Russell says he cannot help but to feel a deep obligation when he plays a role based on a real person as he did in “Silkwood” and “Miracle.” In the case of “Miracle,” he says that when he met U.S. Olympics hockey coach Herb Brooks, Russell was surprised that the man depicted in the screenplay was very different from the real Brooks.
As for his portrayal of Harrell, Russell says that he hopes that when Harrell sees the film, he likes the way he’s portrayed.
The portrayal of Harrell is just part of this story. Russell remembers the news reports about the explosion that created a fireball that could be seen 40 miles away. Most of the news reports focused on the millions of gallons of oil that was being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
“When I read the script, it became apparent I was aware of some of the events, including the oil spill. But I didn’t know anything about the 11 people who died there or about the 100 plus who had survived,” Russell says. “Everything I knew was about the ecological impact and nothing about the human aspect.
“I felt those people had been forgotten. This was a human experience, and I am glad someone wanted to tell the story. And the story is told with such size and scope, you get the massive impact of the events and feel the emotionality of the human beings.”
Once filming started, it was easy for Russell to get a sense of what it was like to work on the rig. A massive floating set was built not far from where the disaster occurred.
The combination of real flames and some computer work helped mimic the inferno that the rig workers faced. Russell was impressed how much special effects with fire have improved from the days when he made “Backdraft,” where the special effects amounted to putting glue on the walls and setting it on fire.
Stepping on such a massive set is like hair, makeup and wardrobe for Russell as it all helps him in playing the role, the latest of many since he made his professional acting debut in 1962 on the TV series “Dennis the Menace.”
He has been acting almost his entire life, but the 65-year-old Russell says he is still having fun.
“It’s always interesting because I’m always trying to create the best performance I can. I want to create something the audience will enjoy. That never gets old,” Russell says.