Is The Power of the Dog’s Kodi Smit-McPhee on the Verge of an Oscar Breakout?

And it is a little warrior-like for him to be here, on a promotional circuit that has included Telluride, Toronto, then Los Angeles for the opening of the Academy Museum, and now the New York Film Festival, where The Power of the Dog played to a rapturous response. At a packed Lincoln Center gala screening, I watched him delight the audience with a self-effacing joke, and then sweep through the after-party at Tavern on the Green in a Dior suit. (He left early. His stylist and friend Jared Eng told me, “Could he go to every single event and every screening and guild event? He could, but he might hurt himself. So he knows to scale back.”) Dog is a film powered by old Hollywood glamour—from the clout of its auteur director, Campion, who hasn’t made a movie in 12 years, to its cast of A-listers like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, who themselves turn in Oscar-worthy performances. But miraculously it is Smit-McPhee who both runs away with the film and feels like its bid toward modernity, playing a young man who is not masculine in any of the expected ways, and through his intelligence and confidence makes those expectations seem meaningless. Oh, and he seduces Cumberbatch’s character, Phil, sharing a cigarette with him in one of the most quietly erotic scenes of the year. “Trust, humor,” Cumberbatch says of what made their rapport work. “And trying to meet each other in the moment and switch off what we know of the plot so that the lines can truly blur as to who is doing what to who and who is really in control.” Cumberbatch was floored by Smit-McPhee in the role. “He doesn’t fit any stereotypes. He’s built with an extraordinary mixture of knowing and innocence. He’s visually unique and mesmeric on camera. Kodi is his own thing. It feels like watching the future.”

Smit-McPhee grew up in Melbourne not always fitting among the sporty boys at his school, a heterosexual young man with conspicuously ef­­fem­inate traits. “In my movements, and how I talk, and things that I like,” he says, “I was categorized as weird, an outcast.” And the example of his father, the television and film actor Andy McPhee, who has a successful career and was intent on teaching him street smarts, loomed large. “My dad is, like, six foot six, muscle-y, covered in tattoos, and rides motorbikes,” Smit-McPhee says. The two are close, but Smit-McPhee ultimately had to decide how to carry himself in the world. “One day, I remember actually saying, ‘Unfortunately, I’m never going to be like you. I have to just commit to being like me.’ ” When his parents divorced, he remained with his mother, younger brother, and older sister, Sianoa, who is also an actor, and visited his dad on alternate weekends (the two also traveled to Smit-McPhee’s film sets together). He says that the company of women at home helped him remain in touch with who he was. “I can still be masculine just the way I am,” he says. “I learned that facing my illness. I’m still strong. You know? I’m still a brave man. I’m still a confident man.”

“He’s such a beautiful-looking creature,” says Campion by phone from London. “And he lives in the world in a different way than a lot of men.” Smit-McPhee, who has a long-term girlfriend, takes care to separate what he calls his feminine side from any discussion of sexuality. The two are separate things, he says—though the chemistry between his and Cumberbatch’s characters in Dog leaves little ambiguity in the world of the film. In place of a traditional audition, Smit-McPhee won the role after a conversation with Campion about the character and the 1967 Thomas Savage novel her script was based on. “He was so quick off the bat,” Campion says. “I was going like, Oh my God, this boy is so smart and so fascinating. He’s also extremely courteous and very, very tender and sensitive.” Dunst, who plays Smit-McPhee’s mother, says she and her costar, Plemons, gravitated to him on the film’s set (on location in New Zealand, which stands in, ethereally, for Montana). “There are no airs with him, no pretense,” Dunst says. “He was just so kind and supportive with me and vice versa, and he loved Jesse and me. We talked about his girlfriend, we just talked about everything together.”

Meanwhile, Campion put her actors through their paces, asking them to work with a choreographer and in methods like the Alexander Technique. Some of this discipline was foreign to Smit-McPhee and very different from the freestyle, improvisatory training his father had given him. “She has a way of challenging your comfort zone,” he says of Campion. “She also saw something in me that possibly I didn’t see myself.”

The Power of the Dog is in selected theaters now and on Netflix on December 1st.

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

In one key scene he walks among the ranch hands like a runway model—a comparison Smit-McPhee endorses. He’s loved fashion since he was young. “My mother always told me to not be afraid of color, so I wore anything that I liked, no matter what social kind of category it fit you in.” There are few rules, of course, in menswear right now, and while Eng (who is also the blogger behind Just Jared) has been dressing him in minimalist tailoring (Celine and Dior mostly), he notes that Smit-McPhee is quite fearless in what he’ll wear: Nanushka, Australian brands like Strateas Carlucci, and expressive jewelry from Hirotaka and Celine. In November, Smit-McPhee walked his first runway—for Gucci’s spring 2022 show in L.A.

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