Rare is it to find a young actor who aligns so perfectly with the role he’s been cast to play, though such is the case with Kodi Smit-McPhee. The Australian actor, known to fans of the X-Men franchise as Nightcrawler—that mysterious, teleporting blue mutant—easily transforms by finding the reality in fantasy, and by meditating. “I realized when I started studying comics, that everything in fantasy in somewhat based in reality,” he says ahead of the release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, in which he is reprising the role. “He has the whole spiritual side to him, which I love. There’s the story where he’s kept in the circus, and he’s going through a lot of suffering and frustration and confusion, but he finds God through that.” But before finding himself behind the thick mutant makeup, the long-limbed 22-year-old was already racking up film credits alongside cinematic titans. Since winning the Australian Film Institute’s Young Actor Award for his first-ever feature, Romulus, My Father, in 2007, Smit-McPhee has starred opposite Viggo Mortensen in The Road and alongside Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, and his own father, Andy McPhee, in Slow West. As the Dark Phoenix rises, Interview caught up with the actor to discuss his affinity for obnoxious sports cars, his daily meditation ritual, and the art of becoming, in full form, the multifaceted—and blue—mutant.
MACIAS: When did you come across the X-Men franchise? Were you a fan?
SMIT-MCPHEE: I came across it about 4 years ago. To tell you the truth, no. I was into comic books, but I wasn’t into superheroes. At that time, I was reading more factual things. I had trouble in school, and when I left I discovered I was more passionate about things like philosophy, religion, spirituality, and history. I kind of avoided reading fiction. But then I realized when I started studying comics, Nightcrawler specifically, that everything in fantasy is somewhat based in reality—they just use the symbols of fantasy to express very real subjects. I fell in love with them.
MACIAS: What was it like when you first saw yourself as Nightcrawler?
SMIT-MCPHEE: Insane. The first make-up test was four hours.
MACIAS: Is that how long it takes every time you have to get in character?
SMIT-MCPHEE: No, luckily we got it down to a science of an hour and a half. It looked amazing. I’ve always wanted to push the boundaries of what I can express as an actor and to push the boundary into something that’s not human. That’s the best you can do.
MACIAS: He’s a very mysterious character. How did you prepare to embody that?
SMIT-MCPHEE: There was the difference with creating the past, present, and future–the whole life of this character. The motivation was different than where I start with other films, which is usually from scratch. But this being a comic with such a cult following already, specifically for this character, there was so much material I could dive into. I went through every popular creation of Nightcrawler and studied the character within every genre. He has a timidity, a vulnerability, and a grounded nature. He’s also very wide-eyed and curious. But when it comes to being on a mission, he can be very savage and animalistic. He has the whole spiritual side to him, which I love. There’s the story where he’s kept in the circus, and he’s going through a lot of suffering and frustration and confusion, but he finds God through that.
MACIAS: Are you a spiritual person?
SMIT-MCPHEE: Absolutely. I find that a lot of things I express naturally in Nightcrawler is because I’m a lot like him—aside from the fact that he’s a blue mutant with superpowers. I have a huge love for spirituality and philosophy and mythology. I have a huge passion for educating myself about myself in relation to the universe.
MACIAS: What’s a book you’ve read lately that guides you through that spirituality?
SMIT-MCPHEE: There’s a book called Be Here Now by Ram Dass. I call it the little blue book. It has beautiful little illustrations expressing the life of Ram Dass. He was so successful in the Western world, materialistically and financially, but he kept questioning his life. He studied science, psychedelics, and he questioned the use of psychedelics and their effect on humans–sometimes healing depression, sometimes answering the mysteries of life itself.
MACIAS: Do you meditate daily?
SMIT-MCPHEE: I used to when I was younger. It got harder as I got older – the more I took on in life, the harder it got to quiet my mind. It showed me amazing things, doing it on a continuous basis. I was practicing self-hypnotism, astral travel, lucid dreaming, karmic breathing, and all of these beautiful things that many people don’t really discover. It’s hard, and I’ve got to get back into it.
MACIAS: You got an award for acting in your first feature film, Romulus, My Father. What was that experience like for you?
SMIT-MCPHEE: To tell you the truth, I was ecstatic, but I was always in a very humble place. I think it was just due to the way my dad made me think about the industry when he got me into it at 8 years old. It was a token of appreciation. I don’t think I really could even think about what it meant at that age. I was maybe 11 or 12. I guess that was a blessing in disguise, because I didn’t let any of it get to my head. Eventually the trips to America started, until eventually I booked The Road with Viggo Mortensen after three auditions. The whole journey continued from there.
MACIAS: Compared to other people’s careers, that’s a pretty easy transition, especially as a young actor.
SMIT-MCPHEE: I’ve always been grateful for it. My dad taught me that a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their head around it – they go to numerous acting classes, they spend a lot of money, they think it’s their agent, all of the things. They’re looking externally for an answer when it’s just simply replicating what you can do inside.
MACIAS: I’m sure you’ve taken acting classes
SMIT-MCPHEE: No, I didn’t take any acting classes. My father was the one who taught me everything I know. I’m sure he took some acting classes in his time, but he kind of sees them as superficial, in some way. It’s about giving that natural reality to the characters, to the life that they’re in. I was kind of nervous. I didn’t think I was capable of continuing without his help, but I quickly realized that everything that he taught me was within me, and I kind of established my own way of the craft.
MACIAS: I read somewhere that you’re into cars. What sort of cars are you into?
SMIT-MCPHEE: I’m really into old poppers. That started when I was really young. I collected toy cars, like Hot Wheels, and before acting, that was like my passion. I think it serves as a form of moving meditation, because when I’m driving I’m not really thinking about anything but the moment, the road, and the car itself. It’s kind of like a dance. I’ve always had two-door sports coupes—very obnoxious and loud. I had a 2014 Corvette Stingray, but someone crashed into me, so I had to sell that. Now I have a wide-body tuned BMW, and it has a camouflage wrap. It’s probably the most obnoxious thing I’ve ever had. I think I have to take the word “meditation” away from it now because it’s just so damn loud. I’m actually trying to sell my car to get a more practical one. Maybe a Tesla. There’s no noise and it being green and efficient for the world is good.
MACIAS: What’s next for you?
SMIT-MCPHEE: I did a Netflix movie called Dolemite Is My Name. It’s sort of a remake of the movie from the seventies. It was supposed to be an action movie, but it turned out to fall into the comedy category because it was so cheesy and B-grade. It kind of leads on to things like Austin Powers and shit like that. The version that I did was a biopic, so it was about the making of Dolemite. Eddie Murphy and a lot of amazing A-List actors are in that one. It comes out early next year. It’s great because it’s my first opportunity to express myself in a comedy. I did a futuristic teen movie called 2067, which is about a dystopian world that has run out of oxygen and trees, and the whole melting pot of civilization is living off synthetic oxygen, which is slowly killing them. My character is on a journey into the future to find a cure.
MACIAS: That sounds really dark, but not too far off from what could happen.
SMIT-MCPHEE: Exactly. These kind of shows would have fallen in the category of sci-fi or fantasy, but today they’re falling into something more like reality. Hopefully it’s going to make people ponder. There’s a lot you can take away from it.
Groomer: Stephanie Hobgood at Cloutier Remix