The world needs more queer Westerns.
So thought writer/director Anna Kerrigan when she developed her new film Cowboys. After spending a decade working on TV series like Fridays, she’s returned to her first love of feature films. What began as a mediation on masculinity grew up into a story of a transgender boy (Sasha Knight) and his drug-addict dad Troy (Steve Zahn), on the run from the law on horseback. Set in Montana, the film follows Troy and Jo as the pair try to evade their problems. Jo’s mom Sally (Jillian Bell) doesn’t accept that she has a transgender son, and when Troy’s erratic behavior gets him in trouble with the law, father & son resign to escape to Canada.
What could have easily become a weepy movie-of-the-week premise, Kerrigan elevates to a moving character drama. Zahn won the coveted Best Actor award at the virtual Tribeca Film Festival where the movie premiered; the actual festival was canceled due to COVID-19, though the juries still were allowed to screen and vote on their favorite films.
We caught up with Kerrigan to chat about her inspiration in writing the film, and the steps she took to ensure authenticity. Cowboys is currently seeking distribution.
This is your first feature in 10 years. You’ve said that it began with the 2016 election. Why did you want to tell this story about a transgender child specifically?
Well, I’m not transgender. I’m a straight, cisgender woman. For whatever reason, my world has always included a lot of LGBTQ people, including trans people. That goes back to college where I was the RA at the “queer dorm.” I started out in theatre. I didn’t set out to be an ally, but all of my projects happen to have queer and trans characters. When I set out to write Cowboys I didn’t know the lead boy was trans. The way I write, I just start.
With Cowboys, I had gone to [Montana] as a kid. I loved the area. But as I started to talk to people as I got older, I noticed people are really homophobic. The friends of mine in LA and New York—it’s not safe for them. So when I started writing the movie—I didn’t know why I was writing the movie—but I knew it was about a father and son on a horse going to Canada. And it evolved.
For me, I was interested in The Western. I come from playwriting. I’m very interested in character. I’m much more about performance-driven movies than genres. So it has a “western-ish” shell. In exploring the idea of an outlaw—when you think who are the outlaws? I actually started writing the movie in 2014.
Oh, I didn’t realize.
I was working on it when Trump was elected. If I have to analyze myself afterwords, that’s [why it became] a trans kid and his mentally ill father. They’re the outlaws. In terms of how I personally relate to Jo, I didn’t struggle with gender identity growing up, but I did feel like an alien. I sometimes was wiser than my parents. And that’s a theme that comes up in a lot of my writing. But don’t tell my parents…
I think a lot of us can relate to that. And I think a lot of LGBTQ people feel like aliens growing up.
Totally. I wanted to make a movie that someone in Montana could watch and relate to the trans kid. He’s relatable. My goal was that someone who had preconceived notions about a transgender person could watch the movie and feel compassion towards him.
The key to this film is Sasha Knight, who plays Jo. How did you find him? He’d never acted on camera.
That is true. I had a project called The Chances that played Outfest. I’ve done mentoring for Outfest, bringing young LGBTQ filmmakers in and mentoring them. I mentored in writing. So I reached out to them. They said I should talk to Nick Adams at GLAAD. So I reached out to Nick at the script level. He didn’t give me a crazy number of notes, but he was very helpful. He also runs a group for transgender kids and their families. So he was very well versed, and it meant a lot to him.
He acted as a consultant during casting. I worked with Eyde Belasco, who cast Transparent. I really really liked her. I knew we had similar tastes. The problem was that we didn’t have a lot of money. [We were] doing a nationwide search on a limited budget. We did normal outreach, and then we did outreach through support groups. GLAAD helped as well. A lot of the kids were not actors, which I was very nervous about. That was something Nick and I spoke a lot about. Child actors who aren’t 18, you’re working with the kid and working with their family.
You want to be sure it’s something they actually want to do. I was particularly concerned: what if we find a kid who has just come out? If this kid doesn’t want the world to know that he’s transgender, it’s out there on the internet. So we wanted someone who wanted to be an actor. I’d talk to families on Skype. It was difficult.
I would imagine so.
I’d be working on a scene with someone and there’d be multiple cell phones involved. But, it was great to talk to all these families. Often times, parents and children would read it together and find parallels in their own lives. For me, it was encouraging on that level. Nick had also arranged for me to talk to his group in LA. And as soon as I saw Sasha’s tape, I was like, who is this kid? Eyde did a number of in-person sessions with him. Then I met with him for a few hours, and we just worked together on various scenes. I talked to him about the character, and I was really impressed with how much he understood what was going on. It was very clear that Sasha was the kid.
As soon as he got cast he was looking up what Jacob Tremblay wore to premieres. I was like let’s make the movie first.
The Troy/Sally relationship, which you’ve already alluded to, is one of the most interesting elements of the story. It feels very real. They obviously love each other, but allow things to get dramatic rather than listening to one another.
It helps too that you have two very brave and very overlooked actors as Joe’s parents, Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell. How do you get your actors—especially when one is an untested child—to work together? How do you help them find the right tone?
Some of that is just natural chemistry. As soon as I cast Sasha I introduced him to Jillian and Steve. They started a relationship before [shooting]. And Steve and Jillian actually had met each other, and they got along like gangbusters. They’re professionals. Both Sasha and Steve came to Montana early. I wanted to rehearse, and there was stunt stuff they had to be there for. Horse stuff. And Steve lives on a horse farm in Kentucky, and is very savvy at all things animals. Sasha had ridden as a kid. He’s a natural athlete.
And the two of them were in the same hotel together. We encouraged them to hang out alone together, and I came by the hotel every now and again. They ran lines together in the hotel when I wasn’t there as well. They had natural chemistry as well. Steve, he’s the fun dad everyone wanted as a kid. He is that guy.
The fact that it’s the father who embraces his child’s gender identity is something of an inversion of the stereotype. Why do a father-son story?
I mean, it’s interesting in terms of what you’re saying: to see it as an inversion. I think that one thing I was interested in exploring with Sally is that so much of your expectations around your child’s growing up is about your own ego and your own identity.
That’s very interesting.
So when a child comes out, or in a smaller way, when you want your child to be a lawyer and he becomes an artist—whenever who your child is does not meet you expectation, I think it can shatter a sort of fragile parent sense of self. So I was interested in exploring that.
But the film isn’t just about masculinity; it’s also about self-loathing of femininity. Sally articulates that well in one scene where she refers to herself as a piece of sh*t.
For Sally, she’s so self-loathing that she’s a woman. She has low self-esteem. I imagine her as a character that didn’t get a lot of male attention until she met Troy. So she’s sort of addicted to that attention, and his validation and is jealous of how much validation he gives to their kid. I was really interested in Sally as a character who is always searching for identity. She’s a girlfriend, she’s a wife, she’s a mother. When she becomes a mom, she imagines their child will wear dresses like her and they’ll do all these “girl” things together. It’s a super feminine idea of what a mother and daughter do together…which, by the way, is never what I’ve done with my mom.
And I see that in Montana. One thing about this part of Montana that really struck me is how “genderized” everything is. If you go into a woman’s bathroom, more so than LA or New York, you see human smell masking candles, and vanilla shampoos. There’s this uber-performance of femininity, and I think [Sally] is locked into her gender in her own way. She doesn’t know who she is, so she ascribes to this idea of what a woman is. When Jo comes out, she can’t comprehend it because it shatters what she thought about herself.
That’s profound. So, one big question I have looking at the film…when you set out to make a movie about a transgender child, what kind of “unsolicited” advice do you get? Do people discourage you from tackling the subject?
Interestingly I was pleasantly surprised. I think Hollywood understands now, that when I said it needed to be a transgender kid everybody agreed. I did not encounter resistance.
That’s fantastic, and encouraging. I’ve talked to so many directors who have the opposite experience.
I think at this point, I wish [that acceptance] was coming from people’s hearts. But there’s also a reality that people have had their voices heard. I think even if, in a producer’s heart, they’re like who cares, they’ve seen what happens. Activism is effective. Thank God. We need more of it.
May I ask, do you identify as queer?
I do not. And actually, I think that was more of a question for people.
I didn’t encounter it a lot, but I had one person ask me why I had the right to tell a transgender story. That scared me. And look, I want more transgender voices out there as directors, writers, actors. I want them to be able to make stories about whomever they want. And I’m glad that people ask. For me, Jo is the center of the movie, but it’s also about a family. It is really interesting when you get into questioning who has the right to tell a story. And I don’t have a fair answer, honestly.
It’s a sticky thing for sure, especially right now. This is another subject I’ve encountered with a lot of directors recently. But it sounds like you did your research. You did the right thing by going to GLAAD and involving them and encouraging input. You cast a transgender actor. You wanted to do everybody justice. I think the bottom line is no matter what story you’re telling, do your research. Involve the people you depict.
Right. And we also did our best to involve the community in Flathead County [Montana]. That’s limited; I think a lot of people are afraid to come out of the closet or leave. But our craft services officer was a transgender woman. And the Montana film office was amazing in that, the first time they flew me up for a location scout, they arranged for me to have dinner with five transgender people in Missoula.
I was like, go Montana film office. It was pretty amazing. One of those people is a transgender woman who specifically works with transgender kids in Montana. So I had her look at the script as well, and I talked to her about it and what a transgender child’s experience is like in Montana. It was also such a reminder: a lot of the people I spoke to didn’t come out until they were middle-aged. It’s painful anywhere, but how much more painful there.
There was won woman there who worked at the railroad. It was an office job, but a pretty male, pretty heteronormative work environment. But she came out and kept her job there after transition.
So bold. When the dinner first started, I could tell there was a little more fear and anxiety than I would encounter here talking to someone who was transgender. So that was so encouraging too.
Cowboys is currently seeking distribution.