Kodi Smit-McPhee is lugging around a giant backpack. What’s inside? He pulls out a pile of books: a few about Eastern religion, one about auras, another about psychedelics.
“This is one of my favorites,” he says, pointing to “The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life.” “It explains Egyptians’ religious structure and their gods and their metaphors. It’s just really about the universe and how the universe grows and expands.”
He then chuckles. “As you can see,” he says, “the acting is a really different part of my life.”
Smit-McPhee is now a tall 18, though you might still recognize him from the movies he’s been in since he was nine. Fittingly, they’re not normal child star fare: His breakthrough was in the film of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” playing the harried son of a wanderer (Viggo Mortensen) in the post-apocalypse. He’s done bigger films, but even those tend to be grim, such as last summer’s downbeat “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and next summer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” in which he’ll play Nightcrawler.
For now he’s talking about “Slow West,” a sometimes funny art-Western made by former Beta Band musician John Maclean. He plays Jay, a 16-year-old Scottish aristocrat who finds himself in the American Old West trying to locate his beloved, who may not even remember him. As in “The Road,” the actor shares much of his screentime with an established male presence, here Michael Fassbender, as an old fashioned taciturn outlaw.
It wasn’t the genre that attracted Smit-McPhee. In fact it’s not just Western movies he doesn’t know too well. “This can surprise people sometimes, but I’m not as educated within my industry as I should be,” he confesses. “That’s because I have a passion for the source of where films come from. The source has more abundance and wealth.” He prefers “abstract things,” even in his film-watching (he loves “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and he says he prepares not by watching other movies but by imbibing poetry, music, paintings. “It’s the same essence. That intrigues me more than focusing on one place.”
Indeed, it was the mishmash quality of “Slow West” that intrigued him. “Even though I wasn’t that educated, I knew it had a perfect balance of European-style film with that purity of going through the raw, lawless land of western America in the 1800s,” he says. “You just don’t put those two things together in your head. That was John’s fault for putting them together.”
In person Smit-McPhee — who is Australian but speaks in a kind of unplaceable, vaguely American accent — has a mixture of precociousness and the kind of youthful, earnest, ravenous curiosity that, sadly, often dissipates with age. He’s casual and comfortable, not ostentatious, with his intelligence, and even says he relates to Jay’s sometimes foolhardy actions as he traverses dangerous locales.
“He’s very vulnerable and very much reacting from his heart in every moment. That can sometimes be extremely blinding and immature,” he admits. “That’s what was so beautiful about him — the tragedy of his passion, and how powerful that can be. It’s that 16 year-old mindset of never wanting to give up, even when your heart is in the wrong place. You don’t know it.”
Despite his seriousness, Smit-McPhee has a self-awareness that betrays his sense of humor. “Slow West” has its comic moments, though none played explicitly for laughs, and he would love to do an outright comedy, much like the films he watched an even younger kid.
“It’d probably be pretty crazy to go from ‘The Road’ to big laughs,” he admits. “But if people will accept me, I would love to do them.” He likes that modern comedies tend to be rooted in reality, not cartoonish. “That kind of crafts seems foreign to me. Being real is all I know.”
Being real even goes back to the roles he did when he was younger, which have, for the most part, been dark, or at least comically dark, like the stop-motion “ParaNorman.” “We honestly didn’t want to sell out or do the Disney thing,” he says of choosing roles with his parents. “We wanted quality over quantity. Because I knew that would ultimately be my destiny, what I do now. I’m always aware of trying to broaden the horizons and show people different elements.”
In fact, there are few careers better suited to broadening horizons than being an international actor. “It’s taken me to some amazing places. I’ve seen culture in different ways. It’s just planted the seeds to be more inquisitive,” he says. “This is my life. It’s about the journey. I take acting as the journey. I never separate it. It’s all connected.”