Montana Story is a quiet and measured film, but there are intense, messy emotions bubbling beneath its surface. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the film centers on the turbulent relationship between a pair of estranged siblings, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) and Cal (Owen Teague), who find themselves unexpectedly reunited on their family ranch. Brought together by their father’s failing health, Erin and Cal spend most of Montana Story dancing around each other, making brief attempts to reconnect, but never acknowledging the traumatic event that separated them in the first place.
The film forces Teague and Richardson to carry the full weight of its story on their shoulders. If either actor’s performance failed to feel authentic, then Montana Story would collapse in on itself. Fortunately, both Teague and Richardson are capable young actors and their performances in Montana Story are stunning. In Richardson’s case, her work here just feels like yet another notch in the belt of an actor who has been consistently turning in starmaking performances for several years now.
With Montana Story hitting theaters, Richardson recently spoke with Digital Trends about what it was like making the contemplative new Western. The star, who is currently in Italy filming the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus, also shared why Montana Story‘s “thorough” production design and isolated setting helped her get into the head of someone who has made a habit out of bottling up their emotions.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: The film looks beautiful, but the conditions also seemed like they could have been harsh at times. What were your experiences like shooting in Montana?
Haley Lu Richardson: I mean, it was pretty windy some days [laughs]. I was like, “Is this footage going to be usable?” But I don’t remember the elements being that difficult. I think the more difficult thing for me was just the emotional space that I had to be in to play Erin and, at times, that was heavy. But also, at other times, it was really cathartic and nice.
You’re very isolated in the movie. I’m assuming that helped get into the character’s headspace?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I think that the more specific you can make the world around you while you’re filming, the better the process is because it feels more real. There’s more to kind of connect to and draw from. When we were in Montana, we were filming just outside of Bozeman at this ranch that’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to run off to or hide, so you feel like you kind of have to surrender to that type of life and that type of energy. I loved that. I think it definitely helped.
I always find it interesting when actors have to give slow-burn performances and keep a lot of their cards close to their chest. Erin’s really only allowed to totally open up near the end of the film. How did that affect your process this time around?
I wasn’t really thinking about it that way. I was thinking about what Erin would be feeling having to go back home. I don’t think it’s that she’s intentionally holding back or just hinting at her emotions. For her, it’s more like the only way she’s able to function in these circumstances is by closing off. She has big barriers and boundaries up, and she’s still suppressing so much of the anger and the truth of what she’s really feeling. The vulnerability doesn’t come until the end, but oh, man, it’s heavy.
I think the reason that works within the broader context of the movie is that the character honestly can’t express more until something happens that is a catalyst that allows her to express what she’s feeling.
The first time that we see your character, in the film she’s wearing very bright-colored clothing, which makes her stand out from the rest of the film’s characters. Was that a decision you made yourself or something you came to through collaboration?
I had thoughts about how Erin would look, but it’s great when you meet the costume people. It’s a fun collaboration and you’re able to get ideas from them that you wouldn’t have ever thought of or vice versa because you’re really able to create something together. We sort of came up with what Erin’s life has been in New York since she ran away from home and thought about who she became and how she expresses herself. It’s a very unique look, especially the coat she wears when she first arrives.
You can tell she shops at thrift stores and there’s almost a grandmother element to her. I felt like she was a bit of a curmudgeon, like a grandmother curmudgeon. There’s something that’s so adult about her. I think it comes from her trauma and her trying to find things that feel like her or that feel like home. Things that give her some form of comfort.
The designs of Erin and Cal’s rooms in the movie also feel very specific. Was there anything in Erin’s room that you thought was important or that helped you with your performance?
Haley Lu Richardson: Well, the production design of the whole film and the ranch house is so good. Scott McGehee’s sister, Kelly, was the production designer, and she did such a good job. I thought everything was so thorough and real and lived-in and specific. I love that because, again, when you’re around that kind of specificity, it’s so much easier to connect to this character that you are essentially making up from a page and your own thoughts. The production design was really helpful during that whole process.
But I thought Erin’s room, in specific, was so gentle, which I found so eerie and sad. You know, I think Cal has a line in the film about how Erin and her dad had a lot in common. They were both kind of fiery and opinionated. But I do think that there’s this gentle lover of horses and lover of ranch life inside of Erin, and that was tainted by what happened to her. It’s sad to me that her gentleness was kind of tainted and lost. But, then again, I don’t think it was lost forever because, in the end, her vulnerability and love do surface again.
Montana Story is now playing in theaters.