Everything is connected in the world according to Kodi Smit-McPhee. The Australian actor doesn’t believe it was merely luck that his role as a 19th-century Scottish immigrant in the Sundance hit Slow West came to him at the moment he was searching for a project to complete his transition from child actor to leading man. “This is a fairly grown-up, independent guy,” he says of his character. “I was looking for a smart part to show people something else about me. And suddenly it arrived.”
Smit-McPhee is best known for two of the most thoughtful child performances in recent years: He played Viggo Mortensen’s sensitive son in 2009’s postapocalyptic drama The Road and then starred as the lonely, curious neighbor of a girl vampire in 2010’s Let Me In. Since then the actor, now 18, has stretched to 6′ 1″ and landed supporting parts in even bigger movies, including last -summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Slow West is not a big movie in terms of budget, but for Smit-McPhee it has become a kind of touchstone. He plays the lead role of Jay Cavendish, who at the film’s start is hiking through the 1870s Colorado frontier to find the older girl he loves. After reading the script by first-time director John Maclean, Smit-McPhee was eager to jump in. “The writing had such a balance of humor, with the vulgar absurdity of the West, but also these European feelings of emotion and love,” he says. “And my character might in some ways be immature in age, but he also has a very philosophical, intellectual mind. That really connected with me.”
Michael Fassbender costars in the film as a bounty hunter who befriends Jay. Their onscreen relationship, Smit-McPhee says, mirrored real life. “With Fassbender it was a very personal mentoring experience,” he says. “He’s made me appreciate all hardworking actors as the people they are, rather than the celebrity veal we see them as.” He also cites his actor father, Andy McPhee (a tattooed bruiser on Sons of Anarchy), as an inspiration. “Like a lot of people in the world, he looks scary but has a great heart,” he says. “He’s kept me grounded while always being there as this third-person point of view.” Though, he says with a laugh, “even when I was a kid he told me that the stuff I was talking about was too deep for him.”
That stuff includes… well, let’s let him explain: “The consciousness and the unified field and quantum physics, and Eastern religion, Western religion, and ancient philosophy,” he says. “These are just things I like to research in my downtime.” Fun! And his interest in Hinduism is in sync with, of all things, his biggest role yet, the blue-skinned Nightcrawler in X-Men: Apocalypse, which he’s shooting now in Montreal. “I believe there are as many quality stories within franchises as there are in indie films,” he says. “Nightcrawler is in love with the Kanha god and expresses the laws of the universe to people and helps them in that way. So I see no coincidence in me getting this role.”
Last month, Apocalypse director Bryan Singer posted an image on Instagram of Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler. The move sent blue-vapor shock waves through the fanverse. “I was a little baffled at first that [Singer] did that, but now I see the genius in it,” he says. “He’s getting information out there before anyone else can.”
Even before Smit-McPhee himself. The actor has an active Instagram account of his own, which features photos of his original artwork and poetry (and his girlfriend), but he can reveal nothing about Apocalypse, except that he’s working on his German accent to play the Teutonic mutant. He says when he was a much younger actor—as in, two years ago—he would maintain his characters’ accents in between takes to avoid losing them. But he’s stopped doing that. “Once you put enough work into it, it kind of clicks,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep that spark lit.” Which sounds like a pretty good career philosophy, too.