Sundance 2013 Interview: January Jones and Jason Isaacs

The stars of Sweetwater talk the allure of guns, the return of 'Mad Men' and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Sweetwater was perhaps my biggest surprise of Sundance, a western unlike even the most atypical westerns I’ve seen, and January Jones like we’ve never seen her. Jones plays Sarah, a woman out for revenge against the men who killed her husband, Miguel. Jason Isaacs plays Josiah, a prophet as he’s referred to by his followers, the leader of the gang who continually wronged Sarah and her family. When I got to interview Jones and Isaacs the day before their public premiere, I was careful to ask questions in a vague way to preserve any spoilers for when the film is ultimately released. A google search may reveal all, but we’ll keep our spoiler warning mild and the actors were good about speaking cryptically while delving into the subject matters of Sweetwater, the second film by writer/directors Noah and Logan Miller.

And make sure to check out all of CraveOnline's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival here!

CraveOnline: Did you each think about the lady vengeance myths that range from Lady Snowblood to Kill Bill?

January Jones: I did not. I’ve never seen Kill Bill but I’ve heard a lot of comparisons, at least because it’s a female character that’s the one stalking everyone, towards the end anyway, but no, I didn’t. I thought of Jaws theme music or something stalking [its prey]. I didn’t have a hard time relating to her because if I had to live that life and had something like that happen to me, I might seek revenge as well. And in that time as place, there weren’t as many repercussions as they are now.

Jason Isaacs: I didn’t think about the lady vengeance myths because I have no idea what that is, but I’m very impressed by it. I read a book that the boys gave me called Under the Banner of Heaven which is about fundamentalist preachers who act on revelations and give themselves license to do whatever they want to anybody they come across, including their own family members. That I found horrifying and also quite provocative and helpful.

Is Josiah a fascinating villain because he seems to genuinely believe, yet he still acts on his own basest desires?

Jason Isaacs: Well, he does and he doesn’t. You’re absolutely right. You’ve hit the nail on the head. He does believe. In the first draft I read, he was a preacher but he was also raping and killing, all this stuff. I said to the boys, “Does he believe in God? Does he think God is telling him to do these things?” And they said, “We’re not sure. What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, either behind closed doors he realizes that’s all just bunk but he does it just to get money off the population, or he’s actually acting on divine orders.” They said, “We prefer that version,” and they firmed me up and gave me this book about fundamentalist preachers and people who have their own cults, many of them from Utah originally. That led us down the path where he really does believe, so he’s not taking license. He hears in his own head God telling him to take land, rape [women], kill whoever it is that crosses his path or insults his ego. There’s no part of him that thinks he’s doing anything wrong.

We don’t want to spoil the awesome river scene, but did what you got to do with the gun make you comfortable with what else you had to do in that scene?

January Jones: Well, that was the scene that stood out most to me for my character when I first read the script because I thought it was awesome that instead of maybe in other westerns or other movies, when a woman kind of turns into a very strong almost male character, she tends to dress in male clothing. I love that in Sarah’s case she uses her feminine wiles to lure these guys in. I’m sure her past, Sarah’s not uncomfortable with that but for me, I just felt it was really important in the storytelling. As I’ve gotten older I’m a lot less modest I think.

It’s pretty badass to hold a gun like that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

January Jones: Yeah, I thought so too.

How did the fabulous purple dress compare to, say, your “Mad Men” costumes?

January Jones: Well, it’s a completely different time period but it was restricting in many ways just because it was very hot and had many layers. I didn’t do a corset. We initially were going to but I just couldn’t crawl around and ride horses in a corset. It was certainly beautiful and a lot of thought was put into that dress and that color and designing that dress just because they wanted it to stand out against the landscape. They didn’t want her to be hiding, they didn’t want her to be camouflaged, they wanted her to stand out.

I imagine it must be rather emotional to shoot a gun, as well as any of the practical matters involved with it. How did you find gun work and gunplay?

January Jones: I’ve done quite a bit I think. I don’t know that holding a gun in a scene makes it emotional. It’s whatever is going on in the scene that makes it emotional. I think there are scenes when I was holding a gun where it was very emotional, when she comes upon the grave where they’re digging up Miguel. But for the majority of the film when I’m holding a gun, there’s a lack of emotion. She’s just going to kill everybody.

Jason Isaacs: I’ve fired a lot of guns. I’ve played a lot of soldiers and I’ve played a lot of cops. I’ve fired guns and the thing that I find horrifying is how much intellectually I disagree with easy access to them and how I can see how access to them causes such mayhem and carnage everywhere. And yet, when I have them in my hand, like when I was seven years old, it’s addictive and fun and the adrenaline flows and you feel all too powerful. They always have to be wrestled out of the actors’ hands. You do have to be über safe on the set. There’ve been many accidents in the past because people play with them because they’re great, great grown-up toys which is the most horrifying thing about them.

That’s why I imagine the magnitude of the power that comes out of guns must affect you, even if it’s blanks on the set.

Jason Isaacs: Well, I remember passing my driving test, getting behind the wheel of a car and thinking that I was immortal because I could put my down to the floor and make it go very, very fast and skid around corners. Now I’m older, I’m horrified how I drove but at the time it just made me feel bigger and special because I was inside this giant piece of tin that I could propel through the air. Guns are the same things to grown-ups. It makes you feel artificially, and frankly dangerously more powerful than you should feel.

January, I think Sweetwater is going to change the way a lot of people see you. Was it a tough sell on the Millers to see you this way?

January Jones: They came to me. I don’t know who suggested me. I think it was the casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, who cast me in Three Burials years ago.

Jason Isaacs: Three Burials of…

January Jones: Melquiades Estrada. I can say it. Yeah, they asked me to read the script and I loved the script and I loved the brothers and talked about it. There was a lot of things that confused me about the script initially. Just reading it, there is no happy ending for any of these characters so I needed some things explained to me, and it ended differently in the script, the original draft I read anyway. But I loved it. I was very honored that they wanted me to do it.

What sorts of things were confusing initially?

January Jones: Well, initially at the end she ends up back in the whorehouse. I love the way it ends now. I thought that could be interesting but also I was wondering why after everything she would go back to that. I think that was my main question, and I also just wondered why Miguel and Sarah didn’t leave the town if they were treated so badly, but I guess that’s easier said than done. Just little things that were explained in a way that satisfied me and made me really, really excited about it.

So much of the action scenes were about posture and movement. Did either of you do body exercises and movement exercises to come to what’s in the film?

January Jones: I always try to shift my body language in a character just because it helps me feel like someone else. For this film, I tried to have a body language where I was a bit more slumped, like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders and she’s kind of broken down, farm wife, ex-prostitute. I just wanted her to look kind of tired all the time.

Does that change when she goes on the warpath?

January Jones: Yeah, she stands a bit straighter. She has a little bit wider gait. I did things about quicker. My movements were quicker I think. I tried to. It’s doing things that you hope that the audience sees but are subtle enough that it’s not distracting.

And for Josiah?

Jason Isaacs: I was the very opposite. I was inflated with, as far as I’m concerned, I’m riding on a cloud of divine intent. So my shoulders were back, my chest was out, my nose was high in the air and I felt, I acted as if I felt better, wiser and more powerful than everybody around me. Not even arrogance, supreme confidence.

January, are you going to be in X-Men: Days of Future Past?

January Jones: I don’t think so. Everyone’s asking me that. I don’t even know when it’s shooting. I haven’t seen a draft. I haven’t been asked to do it so I’m not sure.

Jason Isaacs: You’re working anyway, aren’t you?

January Jones: “Mad Men” shoots ‘til April. I don’t know when it goes. I have no idea.

That’s the great thing about that series. Anyone can be back, or skip one part. They’ve talked about some of the characters returning.

January Jones: All I know is the title. Days of Future Past. I don’t know when that takes place then, so I’m not sure if Emma Frost is in it or not.

But she’s not dead, so…

January Jones: She didn’t die.

Have you started season six of “Mad Men” already?

January Jones: Yeah, we’re midway through season six. We’re on episode six or seven.

I know there’s nothing you can say about that but what’s it like to be back at work?

January Jones: I love being back. In the four or five months we do each year, it’s kind of a little bubble and it’s always nice to see everybody. I’ve known them for so long now. Matt Weiner always gives me all kinds of crazy things to do and it’s fun and challenging.

Season five was such a great year for Betty. Is it equal or increasing magnitude for her in season six?

January Jones: I hope it’ll exceed everybody’s expectations.

What do you expect from your Sundance premiere?

January Jones: I’m nervous.

Jason Isaacs: I hope they stay ‘til the end. Everything else is gravy.

January Jones: Yeah.

Jason Isaacs: When you make these things and make a film, you never quite know which bits, you hope you know, you intend certain bits to be funny or shocking or surprising and it invariably surprises you because they are the bits the audience are gripped by. They suddenly laugh at something that was meant to be funny because it’s a relief of tension or because there’s some universal theme they’re recognizing. So you never quite know. You make this thing, you put it out there and it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to the people who watch it.

January Jones: And it’s also just a very vulnerable place to be when you’re sitting in an audience of people and you put yourself out there emotionally and physically and you’re just sitting there like everyone else, like, “Sh*t.”

Jason Isaacs: There’s something else about Noah and Logan, the Miller brothers, the twin writer/directors, they have a very unusual storytelling sense and they’re very unusual directors. So people may be looking at the poster and looking at what they think they’re going to see and have certain expectations. It’s a western, someone’s going to ride into town, there’ll be a bad guy and they’ll vanquish him and ride off. It really isn’t anything like that. It’s the clothes and the setting but it’s their own unique, rather twisted take on storytelling narratives. Partly because they’re unschooled and partly because they’re original people anyway, whatever training they’ve gone through. It’s their voice. It’s the way that they like to tell stories so we both thought it was really interesting and fresh, but now it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what the people who bought tickets think. 

Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.