Is The Power of The Dogs Kodi Smit-McPhee on The Verge of An Oscar Breakout?

It’s not so much his height but the way he carries it, gracefully and a little delicately, as if he’s learned to move carefully through space. And it turns out that Kodi Smit-McPhee—who is probably the most exciting young actor to vie for awards this season—actually has. He’s had to.

He suffers from a condition called Ankylosing spondylitis, an auto­immune disease that irreversibly affects the spine and joints. It means that Smit- McPhee, who is six feet two, slender as a reed, and dressed on the morning I meet him in a soft mohair Song for the Mute jacket, lives with pain, sometimes a lot of it. “It’s something I’ve tried not to talk about,” Smit-McPhee says to me, over cappuccino in Manhattan. “Because I didn’t think it represented me well.” Such are the anxieties of an actor who started young (acting professionally at eight in his native Australia, then, getting his Hollywood break, at 12, opposite Viggo Mortensen in the dystopian thriller The Road) and at 25 is still navigating the vagaries of a developing career.

But on the heels of his performance in The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s magisterial period piece about male repression and longing, Smit-McPhee is in the midst of a breakout, and perhaps aware that he himself should be as liberated as the character he plays, Peter, a young man who flouts the norms of masculinity in 1925 Montana.

“Not talking about it actually did me a great disservice—and the people that I worked with,” he says. “I thought, I need to be a bit more vocal about this.”

So, speaking softly but evenly, he lets out a flood of personal information— about how the pain, when it’s bad, is like barbed wire wrapped around his body. About how he struggled to do what was asked of him on his first true action film, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and even ignored a related ocular arthritis that would eventually lead to the loss of vision in one eye. And how he fell into a zone of apathy and bottled anger over his condition, and what it might mean for his career, and the way the pain was always there, invisible to everyone else, like a chip on his shoulder. How he started seeing a therapist, a life coach who taught him not to think of himself as a victim. “I was a rookie in the world of chronic pain,” he explains. “So I had to learn to kind of transmute from the victim into, I don’t know, for lack of better words, a warrior.”

MELLOW YELLOW “He doesn’t fit any stereotypes. He’s built with an extraordinary mixture of knowing and innocence," says The Power of the Dog costar Benedict Cumberbatch.

And it is a little warrior-like for him to be here, on a promotional circuit that has included Telluride, Toronto, then Los Angeles for the opening of the Academy Museum, and now the New York Film Festival, where The Power of the Dog played to a rapturous response. At a packed Lincoln Center gala screening, I watched him delight the audience with a self-effacing joke, and then sweep through the after-party at Tavern on the Green in a Dior suit. (He left early. His stylist and friend Jared Eng told me, “Could he go to every single event and every screening and guild event? He could, but he might hurt himself. So he knows to scale back.”) Dog is a film powered by old Hollywood glamour—from the clout of its auteur director, Campion, who hasn’t made a movie in 12 years, to its cast of A-listers like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, who themselves turn in Oscar-worthy performances. But miraculously it is Smit-McPhee who both runs away with the film and feels like its bid toward modernity, playing a young man who is not masculine in any of the expected ways, and through his intelligence and confidence makes those expectations seem meaningless. Oh, and he seduces Cumberbatch’s character, Phil, sharing a cigarette with him in one of the most quietly erotic scenes of the year. “Trust, humor,” Cumberbatch says of what made their rapport work. “And trying to meet each other in the moment and switch off what we know of the plot so that the lines can truly blur as to who is doing what to who and who is really in control.” Cumberbatch was floored by Smit-McPhee in the role. “He doesn’t fit any stereotypes. He’s built with an extraordinary mixture of knowing and innocence. He’s visually unique and mesmeric on camera. Kodi is his own thing. It feels like watching the future.”

Smit-McPhee grew up in Melbourne not always fitting among the sporty boys at his school, a heterosexual young man with conspicuously ef­­fem­inate traits. “In my movements, and how I talk, and things that I like,” he says, “I was categorized as weird, an outcast.” And the example of his father, the television and film actor Andy McPhee, who has a successful career and was intent on teaching him street smarts, loomed large. “My dad is, like, six foot six, muscle-y, covered in tattoos, and rides motorbikes,” Smit-McPhee says. The two are close, but Smit-McPhee ultimately had to decide how to carry himself in the world. “One day, I remember actually saying, ‘Unfortunately, I’m never going to be like you. I have to just commit to being like me.’ ” When his parents divorced, he remained with his mother, younger brother, and older sister, Sianoa, who is also an actor, and visited his dad on alternate weekends (the two also traveled to Smit-McPhee’s film sets together). He says that the company of women at home helped him remain in touch with who he was. “I can still be masculine just the way I am,” he says. “I learned that facing my illness. I’m still strong. You know? I’m still a brave man. I’m still a confident man.”

“He’s such a beautiful-looking creature,” says Campion by phone from London. “And he lives in the world in a different way than a lot of men.” Smit-McPhee, who has a long-term girlfriend, takes care to separate what he calls his feminine side from any discussion of sexuality. The two are separate things, he says—though the chemistry between his and Cumberbatch’s characters in Dog leaves little ambiguity in the world of the film. In place of a traditional audition, Smit-McPhee won the role after a conversation with Campion about the character and the 1967 Thomas Savage novel her script was based on. “He was so quick off the bat,” Campion says. “I was going like, Oh my God, this boy is so smart and so fascinating. He’s also extremely courteous and very, very tender and sensitive.” Dunst, who plays Smit-McPhee’s mother, says she and her costar, Plemons, gravitated to him on the film’s set (on location in New Zealand, which stands in, ethereally, for Montana). “There are no airs with him, no pretense,” Dunst says. “He was just so kind and supportive with me and vice versa, and he loved Jesse and me. We talked about his girlfriend, we just talked about everything together.”

Meanwhile, Campion put her actors through their paces, asking them to work with a choreographer and in methods like the Alexander Technique. Some of this discipline was foreign to Smit-McPhee and very different from the freestyle, improvisatory training his father had given him. “She has a way of challenging your comfort zone,” he says of Campion. “She also saw something in me that possibly I didn’t see myself.”

“I love exploring,” he says, which goes double for his hobbies: digital art, painting, and music, all of which he takes quite seriously. Music, especially: He produces beats and raps, and also plays guitar—a skill put to the test on his next film, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, in which he plays the country singer Jimmie Rodgers. “I was originally going to lip-sync and just pretend,” he says. “But Baz flies by the seat of his pants, and he’ll throw challenges at you out of nowhere. And I wanted to go along that ride, so I played guitar and I sang, and I was very proud that I did that.”

His next move will be to slow down a little and regain a sense of routine back at home. It’s a cycle he’s learned in order to manage his condition, to find a balance between activity and rest and recovery. Relocating to Australia helped. He moved there during COVID, giving up his perch in Los Angeles—a city he’d settled in at 14. “I sold my fancy Tesla,” he says, with a laugh. For years anxiety about what was next had ruled him. “You feel like a bull at a gate, waiting for people to come see how passionate you are about what you do and the hard work you put into it.” Breakouts have a way of quieting your ambitions —for a bit. “I just love being with the land and getting dirty and riding my motorbike. I’m happy that I’m satisfied by something so simple. It’s like being a kid again, you know?”

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