Snake Pits? Corsets in July? It Comes With the Territory
By Susan Young
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 13, 2008; Y05
Val Kilmer wasn't quite sure what to make of his "Comanche Moon" character's belief that he was not a man but a flea.
Kilmer plays Capt. Inish Scull, an off-kilter New England aristocrat and war hero. Scull is captured by Mexican bandit Ahumado, whose trademark is torturing into madness those who displease him. Scull is suspended over a cliff in a wicker cage, where he captures birds and eats them raw to stay alive. And when he's tossed into a viper pit, he reacts by believing he is a flea.
In this six-hour CBS miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's novel, which bridges the years between "Dead Man's Walk" and "Lonesome Dove," Texas Rangers Gus McCrae (Steve Zahn) and Woodrow Call (Karl Urban) must rescue Scull.
Kilmer said when he first read the script, he felt compelled to call McMurtry to make sure he had understood the character correctly. "I had to find a way of playing this in a style that would be true under the circumstances," Kilmer said.
Needing a real-life peg to pin down his performance, Kilmer thought of his grandfather. While a miner living in the frontier days of New Mexico before it was a state, his grandfather suffered a cracked skull -- although the details were shady as to how. The man spent a year in a coma, Kilmer said, before waking up with a metal plate in his head.
"He had bouts of madness in the winter because the metal plate would be so cold, it would make him crazy," Kilmer said.
Kilmer, who owns a ranch not far from Santa Fe, N.M., said there's harshness to the land, and filming the miniseries in and around his ranch brings an element of realism to the production, he said.
Then there was the thrill of working with rattlesnakes during his stint in the viper pit. In his quarter-century of living in New Mexico, Kilmer said, he's grown used to the slithering critters, but acting with them raised new concerns.
"These were real rattlesnakes, and you never saw a crew move so quickly as it did the day a box of them fell off the golf cart,'' Kilmer said. "In my scenes, I was down in the pit with just a wrangler with a pole and a glass partition. I'm around snakes a lot where I live, but you really pay attention when there are 25 of them next to you."
Australian director Simon Wincer, who directed the original "Lonesome Dove," said the miniseries is for people who love the kind of offbeat characters McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana create.
"Inish is eccentric; he loves to be in the thick of it all, and that's his downfall," Wincer said. "I love that his character is typical of McMurtry. When you expect his characters to turn right, they always turn left. And that's the joy of it."
Producing a western comes with a unique set of challenges, including working with actors and crew members who may know nothing about equine eccentricities. Wincer said he was lucky that Kilmer, Zahn and Urban were accomplished riders.
"Still, everyone came back bloody sore at the end of the day, so we told them to wear women's tights under their jeans. It's an Australian cowboy tip," Wincer said.
The tights were the only comfortable garb on the set. But Linda Cardellini, who plays Gus's "true love" Clara in the film, appreciated the attention to detail, right down to using parts of the old "Lonesome Dove" costumes in the film.
"We were filming in July, and it's hard to concentrate when you are working in that kind of heat," Wincer said. "The ladies were so hot in those corsets, which were so tight they couldn't eat. But there's a certain carriage when you are wearing those clothes, and the body language is different, and I didn't want to lose that."
Cardellini agreed. "There's just something about getting into those costumes and being on those [western] sets. You get the immediate connection with those characters and understand what it was like living in those times. It allows you to believe you are that character."
Even if that means being a flea.
Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 p.m., CBS
'Lonesome Dove': A Chronology
Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and its sister volumes have spawned five television productions:
Dead Man's Walk (aired 1996): Best friends Gus McCrae (David Arquette) and Woodrow Call (Jonny Lee Miller) are young rangers just starting to build their legend.
Comanche Moon (airs this week): Now entering their middle years, Gus (Steve Zahn) and Woodrow (Karl Urban) struggle with their personal lives while rescuing Capt. Inish Scull (Val Kilmer) and bringing Blue Duck (Adam Beach) and others to justice. Meanwhile, Gus tries to forge a stable connection with Clara (Linda Cardellini).
Lonesome Dove (aired 1989): Gus (Robert Duvall), Woodrow (Tommy Lee Jones) and young Newt (Rick Schroeder) join their friends on a cattle drive to Montana, settling old business in the process. Meanwhile, Gus pines for Clara (Anjelica Huston).
Return to Lonesome Dove (aired 1993): Woodrow (Jon Voight), who has just buried his old pal Gus, plans on going back to his Montana ranch. Rick Schroeder returns as Newt.
Streets of Laredo (aired 1995): With most of his companions dead, elderly Woodrow (James Garner) is now a bounty hunter.