How Caren Pistorius Won the West

Published May 20, 2015

ABOVE (LEFT): CAREN PISTORIUS IN SLOW WEST.

It isn’t until the tail end of Slow West, John Maclean’s visually arresting Western fable, that a woman really comes into her own. When she does though, it’s only to prove herself the most capable person in town—and land South African-born actress Caren Pistorius on Hollywood’s “Most Wanted” list. Slow West tells the story of the Scotsman Jay Cavendish, a stripling lord played with dreamy naiveté by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and his quest to find the lady-love who’s fled to Colorado in the wake of an accident back home. The fugitive’s name is Rose Ross, and she and her father—Rory McCann, last seen dying on a hillside as Game of Thrones‘ Sandor “the Hound” Clegane—have a price on their heads. This attracts the interest of Silas, the bounty hunter played by a typically laconic Michael Fassbender, who agrees to be Jay’s guide.

While onscreen a comparatively short time, Rose is the center of the film, having been discussed, dreamed ofm and sought-after long before she appears.  She’s magnetic in that final scene and, as shooters pop up and down out of a wheat field like so many whack-a-moles, proves herself a dab hand with a gun. Unlike the Annie Oakley-types of former years, however, Rose’s toughness is inseparable from femininity; the frontier-hardened exterior not contradicting, for once, the woman’s softness and grace. This is, in part, what drew Pistorius to the role.  “A lot of the time, when females are written, you could almost put the same one in all the scripts,” the 30-year-old actress says. “They all sound the same.” With Rose though, she’d found that rare part with depth: “It’s definitely got some other flavors in there,” she says. “She’s not just one-dimensional. There’s color.” Pistorius gives these depths an unadorned beauty projecting a full range of openness, vulnerability, caution, and strength.  For inspiration, she says, she turned less to the usual representations of women in the West than to some of cinema’s greats: Gena Rowlands, Daniel Day Lewis (“even though he’s a man”) and especially, she says, to Maria Falconetti’s legendary work in The Passion of Joan of Arc. “Her performance is mind-blowing,” Pistorius says. “She goes to deep places that you very rarely see, and is also just really human. I like showing that a person can be fluid. I love showing the flaws and the cracks.”

Pistorius, who emigrated to New Zealand with her family at the age of 12, came to acting, counter-intuitively, out of shyness. Not wanting to be the only girl in her high school graphics class, Pistorius ended up in drama instead. “I was mortified,” she says. “But I fell in love with it.”  While at Auckland University of Technology studying animation and illustration, Pistorius put those acting skills to work, finding roles in commercials to pay her way through school.  She’s happy to have moved on: “Having to drink drinks and be constantly brushing my teeth…it’s not very creatively fulfilling,” she says. Pistorius returned to the theater after a brief foray into graphic design—”I was like, ‘I don’t want to be sitting in front of a computer all day'”—and quickly found roles on television in New Zealand and Australia, making her film debut in the indie love story The Most Fun You Can Have Dying. She’ll soon team up with Fassbender again, appearing in Derek Cianfrance’s forthcoming romantic drama The Light Between Oceans.

When not reading scripts—which, after making a splash in Slow West, she’s doing more of than ever before—Pistorius is indulging her wanderlust. Part of what resonated with her in Rose was the character’s status as an immigrant, a sense of displacement that the actress seems to actively seek. Pistorius says she was in Guatemala, where she’d been studying Spanish, when she got the audition for Light Between Oceans, and found herself Skyping with Cianfrance in a tiny village hut. “I think there are thunderstorms in my audition tape,” she laughs. “It was quite surreal.”  Even as her career in film heats up, Pistorius hopes to continue to roam. “An ideal life would be to shoot a film and travel, shoot a film and travel,” she says. “I’d like to see every nook and cranny of the world.” It seems likely too, before long, that the world will also see her.

SLOW WEST IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE ANGELIKA FILM CENTER IN NEW YORK AND ON DEMAND. IT WILL EXPAND TO SELECT THEATERS THIS FRIDAY, MAY 22.