At the five-minute mark of the Oscar-nominated film The Revenant, actor Joshua Burge comes into frame wielding a rifle while trudging through deep woods alongside a sea of other frontiersmen.
While it wasn’t the Grand Rapids native’s first acting gig, it’s surely his entrance into mainstream Hollywood. Prior to landing the role of Stubby Bill in the $135-million Western revenge film, Burge cut his teeth in a string of acclaimed West Michigan-made indie films alongside director/writer Joel Potrykus — and fronting his local rock band, Chance Jones.
Burge, 35, chatted with Revue from his Highland Park apartment in Los Angeles. Here’s what he had to say about working alongside writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and the film’s megastars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
Where were you when you first heard you’d landed a role in The Revenant?
It was a Monday night around 8 p.m. or so, late July 2014, so the weather was nice. I was walking into Donkey Taqueria on Wealthy. I was going there with my girlfriend to have dinner. We walked in, sat down, maybe ordered drinks and some chips and guacamole. We were getting ready to order some tacos and I got the call in the middle of that. I went outside to take the call and they said, ‘You got the part. Pack your bags and get ready because you’re coming to shoot this movie.’ I walk back inside and my girlfriend said I was ghost white. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t order dinner.
Who were the ﬁrst Revenant castmates you met when you arrived for production?
One was a Londoner named Paul Anderson [who plays “Anderson”]. The other was a Norwegian named Kristoffer Joner [who plays “Murphy”]. They were both just really nice, cool guys. I thought, ‘Hey, this is going to be all right.’ I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first big thing. Everybody else was a vet. They knew the ins and outs of everything. I didn’t know if everyone would be jaded and hard at this level, but everyone — immediately — was so nice, welcoming and warm.
Working with Leonardo DiCaprio must have been pretty surreal. How was he?
It’s one of those things where you don’t know what to expect. What do I know about Leo that I didn’t see on television or read in magazines? He’s the biggest movie star in the world, so what am I imagining about the biggest movie star in the world? How do they act? Are they treated differently? I had all of these notions going into it that I tried not to have, but you have concepts of what these people might be like. He destroyed all of those concepts for me. He was funny, down to earth — very welcoming and generous. He made it really easy for me to be there. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable.
There’s a pic of you and Leonardo on a red carpet floating around on the Internet. Where was that snapped?
That was on the red carpet before The Revenant premiere. I was saying hello to Leo and shaking his hand. He kind of did a double take when he realized it was me. He’d never seen me clean-shaven before. I was clean-cut and my hair was combed, I had my glasses on. He was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I didn’t recognize you!’ Then he hugged me. We cracked a couple jokes and headed into the theater — that’s when they snapped that photo.
The film looks astonishing, but it looks like it was a difficult shoot.
We were doing some pretty physically taxing things up in those altitudes. There were times where I got lightheaded. It was tough. The crew — what they went through — I don’t even have words for it. I was in awe with everybody, what they were building and creating — moving locations and the amount of work that went into it. I had no idea. I was just shaking my head. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. I was in awe constantly.
Where did you stay during the filming?
It depended on the location. It moved around a lot. The main one I stayed at was in downtown Calgary. To shoot, we’d drive out anywhere from one to two hours into the mountains outside of Calgary. That was a big part of it, just being in the mountains — it was beautiful out there. For the first scene, we had kind of a different lay of the land. We were still in the woods but they wanted a river. The mountains were more of a backdrop for that first sequence. But after that, we were up high. We were definitely in the hills.
How long was the filming process for The Revenant?
The whole process was about seven months, from September to April. The first week was all costume and makeup. Then we did three weeks of boot camp where we learned how to ride horses and load flintlock rifles.
The Revenant is nominated for 12 Oscars. Do you plan to attend the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 28?
I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I want to watch them somewhere and celebrate. It’d be cool, I guess, to see the spectacle but I’m not sure I’ll actually attend.
You’re living in Los Angeles now. When did you arrive out there?
I got out here right after the 4th of July. Originally, I was only going to be out here for a month or two but things started picking up a little momentum. So I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to go home now and kill all of this momentum.’ One thing led to another, then I got busy with the fall premiere so I thought, ‘Well, I might as well not go home now.’ So I stayed through that. Then I hear, ‘After the first of the year you’re going to be really busy with pilot season — you might want to stay for that.’ I’ve been warned I’ll be slammed from now until April. By the middle of February, I could be getting three to four a day. I just keep kicking the stone down the road, you know?
Do you have a typical daily grind in Los Angeles?
I have a management team and they stay in contact with me about any possible jobs or meetings coming up. I’ve met with executives from every studio, every network. For the first two months there was a lot of that. Then it turned into being just auditions after that. It’s just not routine. I could be going out for dinner at 8 o’clock at night and then get an email saying, ‘You’ve got an audition at 10 in the morning.’ That’s what’s exhilarating about it. I’m out here kind of indefinitely. I mean, I’ve still got a house in GR. I still live there — all of my stuff is there. I have very few possessions here in L.A. In my head, I don’t see moving to L.A. as a permanent thing. It’s just where I have to be right now.
Did you have any formal acting training?
No. Originally, I went to school at Grand Valley to become a filmmaker. I was there 1998 through 2000. I didn’t finish, but during that time I got the songwriting bug so I got into music a lot. I did that for the next eight years or so. At one point, I had a band called Chance Jones; I was the frontman.
How did you switch from rock ‘n’ roll to acting?
I liked to perform a great deal, to entertain the crowds. A buddy of mine (Joel Potrykus) was about to make a short film and said, ‘You know, if you’re all right on stage doing this, you’d probably be all right in front of a camera. How would you like to make this movie with me?’ We shot the first one, Coyote, back in 2009, and then we made a couple more pictures together — Ape (2012) and Buzzard (2014). Things snowballed — now here I am.
When did you start to take acting a bit more seriously?
Ape is when I went and bought every acting book by Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Stanislavsky. I started reading as much as I could about acting. I was YouTubing online classes, studying it as quick as I could. In that movie, you can actually watch me go from bad to better. It’s very evident. There are scenes where I’m starting to get it.
Did you look to any Hollywood actors for inspiration?
I’m a big fan of the New Hollywood and the American cinema of the 1970s. When all of those guys were doing their thing in the ’70s — like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman — that was the pinnacle of what acting is. I look to those guys quite a great deal.
What did the media buzz from Buzzard do for you and Joel Potrykus?
Things really changed after Buzzard. We had our world premiere at SXSW. We hadn’t even made it to the fest yet and Buzzard was already being named as one of the ‘Top 10 Films to Catch at SXSW.’ We were like, ‘What is going on here? This is crazy — we’re not even at the festival yet. How is this even happening?’ Then right after that, it was announced we’d be able to join New Directors/New Films in New York and we screened at Lincoln Center and MoMA. The New York Times wrote about it. It was huge for us.
What happened after Buzzard?
The Buzzard reviews put me on the radar of a casting agency out here in Los Angeles. (In early 2014), I got a phone call to audition, to do a tape for a film called The Revenant. So Joel Potrykus and I made the audition tape and sent it off to (director) Alejandro (González Iñárritu). We just had one night to do the tape, cut it together and send it off. It was shot in my dining room.
So what happens after you send off the Revenant audition tape?
I was on a short list, so I just kept hearing back. It was like, ‘You’re down to the final 100’ or whatever. Every day I was expecting a call saying, ‘Well, they’ve decided to go another direction.’ I didn’t change my life because the odds were so insurmountable to ever be a part of something like this. I didn’t even want to read the book and get amped up about it. I didn’t have the part yet and I didn’t want to make it such a big part of my life that I’d be disappointed if it didn’t happen.
How did you end up doing the live audition for The Revenant?
It finally came to the point where they asked me if I could fly to Calgary to do a live audition and meet with Alejandro. It was a bit more intensive because Alejandro was there. I went in there with no representation, no head shots, no resumé. I was not in a union of any kind. I walk in and there are actors everywhere. I thought, ‘Oh man. Geez … at least I didn’t have to pay for the plane ticket.’ It was one of those, ‘Oh well — whatever’ feelings.
What did Alejandro Iñárritu have to say at your audition?
He was there with like a dozen people around him. He gets up, shakes my hand and says, ‘Please have a seat.’ He asked where I studied acting. I explained to him that I didn’t. I told him I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band — I was a performer in that fashion. He kind of got a kick out of that. After talking for a few minutes he explained who this character (Stubby Bill) was and who these kids were that were out on the frontier. I read the lines, took a little notation from Alejandro. He had me do a little improv. He had me laugh. Then he said ‘OK, great. Thanks for coming.’ The next week they called me with the good news.
What’s next for you?
I shot a film in October — it’s called 20th Century Women. I got to work with Greta Gerwig and the director is Mike Mills. It was an amazing experience. It will come out in 2016. It’s just a really short scene. There’s a really old adage, ‘I’ll believe I’m in the movie when I see myself on the screen.’ It’s because so much goes into filmmaking. You cut for pasting and rhythm — all of these things. So you never really know.