Playing the Same Character While Grappling with Godzilla: Kurt and Wyatt Russell Chat 'Monarch: Legacy of Monsters'

The debut TV series in the 'Monsterverse' isn’t the first time that this father-son pair have shared a role — but it is the first with the world's most-famous kaiju.
Sarah Ward
December 15, 2023

A terrific talent begetting another terrific talent: that's the Kurt and Wyatt Russell story. An on-screen presence since the 1960s, the elder Russell has basically done it all, from being a child actor to becoming a Hollywood legend. Since the early 2010s, the younger Russell keeps proving one of film and television's must-watch stars. Both weaved sports careers — Kurt with baseball, Wyatt with hockey — between their early acting credits. The physical family resemblance is also unmistakable. The father-son duo now play the same role in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the initial giant step into television by the Monsterverse, the franchise that's sprung up around the recent American-made Godzilla and King Kong movies (2014's Godzilla, 2017's Kong: Skull Island, 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2021's Godzilla vs Kong, with Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire on the way in 2024).

When we say that Kurt has virtually done it all, we mean it. He kicked Elvis Presley in the leg in his uncredited debut (It Happened at the World's Fair), became a Disney teen star (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World) and played Elvis in his first collaboration with John Carpenter. He kept working with the director (Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From LA), and acted opposite partner Goldie Hawn multiple times (Swing Shift, Overboard), including while playing Santa (The Christmas Chronicles and its sequel). He's stepped into Wyatt Earp's shoes, toyed around with Stargate, featured in Quentin Tarantino movies (Death Proof, The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and made both Marvel (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and Fast and Furious (Furious 7, The Fate of the Furious and Fast and Furious 9) appearances. Entering the kaiju realm is a first, however, although sharing the same part with the Black Mirror-, Ingrid Goes West-, Lodge 49- and Under the Banner of Heaven-starring Wyatt is not.

It was back in 1998 that Wyatt earned his first-ever screen credit, not by booting a music icon but as the younger version of his dad's character in Soldier. Twenty-five years later, the same dynamic exists in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which flits between time periods to deploy both Russells as Lee Shaw. In the 1950s, Wyatt plays him as another soldier, a colonel who helps found the titular Monarch with scientist Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto, Pachinko) and cryptozoologist Bill Randa (Anders Holm, Inventing Anna). Kurt follows in his son's footsteps this time, playing the elder version of Shaw in the 2010s, when the world knows about Godzilla but the titular government monster-hunting outfit is conflicted about how to handle it and its fellow titans — and about its history with Shaw, Miura and Randa.

If making the two Russells its biggest stars — well, its biggest human stars — doesn't immediately give it away, then getting mere minutes into Monarch: Legacy of Monsters' ten-episode first season does: this is a kaiju tale where people matter. That hasn't always been able to be said about the Monsterverse, and both series itself and the saga overall is all the better for the new show's approach. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters also happily nods to Kurt's past when it gets him battling creatures in icy surrounds, which took him back into The Thing territory. "Very much so. We flew up every day in a helicopter. And, you know, you put it all together — the helicopter, whiteout, ice, glacier — it took me back 40 years, 40 years plus, something like that," Kurt explains.

It might seem like an obvious choice to enlist the Russells to share the role of Shaw. It's certainly dream casting for viewers, and it's impossible to imagine Monarch: Legacy of Monsters with anyone but them in the part. But despite previous attempts to get them to work together again since Soldier, collaborating here — working together again at all, in fact — was a matter of being pitched something different.  

With Monarch: Legacy of Monsters currently screening its debut season on Apple TV+ — premiering in mid-November and running through until mid-January — we chatted with Kurt and Russell about only reteaming because the right project came up and getting into the same headspace. Also included in the round-table conversation: the opportunity to do something special, what they've learned from each other and their pre-Monsterverse experiences with the monster to end all monsters, aka Godzilla.

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ON SHARING A PART AGAIN, THIS TIME WTH ADDED GODZILLA

Wyatt: "It was the right project coming up. It wasn't ever something we looked for or actively sought out.

It was the idea that came from Ronna Kress, who is the casting director of Monarch, and Matt Fraction and Chris Black [who developed Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, and also co-wrote and executive produced]. They came up with the great casting idea, but we had never really actively looked to work together."

Kurt: "In fact, when we'd been asked that, we said nobody's done it before. Well, we had and we forgot about it. We forgot that we've done it before."

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ON EMBRACING A GREAT CASTING IDEA AND SEIZING AN INTERESTING OPPORTUNITY

Kurt: "It was a chance to really do something special, and do something that had really never been done: two known actors that were father and son playing the same character.

We actually recently just looked around about that — it had never been done. But we didn't even think about that. It was just like 'oh, this is an interesting opportunity and maybe we'll never get this opportunity again'.

So we really wanted to go hard and try to make it work, because we didn't want to do something that we felt wasn't going to be at least as good or better than the idea itself of us playing the same person."

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ON EARLY MEMORIES OF GODZILLA, AND THE EXPERIENCE OF JOINING THE MONSTERVERSE

Wyatt: "My earliest memories of Godzilla would have been when I was probably really young and I saw some Godzilla stuff on TV. I grew up in the 90s. I was thinking of this yesterday — I was a child of the 90s and I don't remember very many Godzilla things being around then.

They didn't really start making Godzilla movies — somebody will say I'm wrong and they'll be right — but they weren't big in [US] movie theatres until a little later. I just didn't grow up with it. So this is my first real introduction to to Godzilla. I obviously knew who he was.

Then joining it, we wanted to make something that was more character-based than what had been previously done, and previously the stories that have been told. Because it was a ten-part series, you could dive into characters, and that was relatively more interesting than just watching the monsters for for us. So I think that was a big, big reason."

Kurt: "I was young kid, probably six or seven. First monster I remember. There was also The Blob, which was truly terrifying to me. Godzilla was just kind of like 'that's awesome, he's cool'.

Then throughout the years, Godzilla was always around and stuff, but like Wyatt, I wasn't waiting for the next Godzilla movie to come out. I didn't really know much about it. I don't know much about the Godzilla lore — I learned more on this.

So this was really more of understanding that with Godzilla, it was going to be a big plate. It was going to be a backdrop. And we had the sense from talking to the guys that Apple was very, very much behind it, and all that stuff was going to be great. 

But what we needed to do was make sure that over the ten-hour period, the people that you were watching dealing with these monsters were as compelling a story as just watching the monsters themselves in terms of entertainment."

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ON BOTH LEARNING FROM AND TEACHING EACH OTHER

Kurt: "He has a very, very — I was always natural, but I was natural in my own way. Then when I wanted to play different characters, I would just invent them in my head, or maybe it was drawn off a little bit of somebody I'd seen or knew.

Wyatt is naturally extremely real. He's just extremely real. I think that's a great quality in an actor to be able to do that. It isn't necessarily yourself, it might be a different character, but to be real in that character, it's really fun to watch Wyatt do that.

I think I've learned that. Also patience. I watch Wyatt deal with certain things in a more patient fashion than generally have.

In our family when I grew up, it was baseball that was the focus. And as Wyatt was growing up, hockey was his focus. And therefore our business was sort of how we made our money to run the family.

Obviously Goldie and the kids all had to deal with the notoriety and whatnot. But Goldie, both Goldie and I, that wasn't a part of our home life. Wyatt didn't grow up in that kind of thing. So I tried to, I suppose, show him a world that naturally, to me, was a real one.

I didn't really pass anything down to Wyatt in terms of specific knowledge or direction, and we never had any conversation in our family like that. It just wasn't the way our family was. We were just a family living our life. And yeah, we did something that people would recognise us from, but the importance of that was given very little — in fact, most of the importance of that came from the fact that we just sort of dealt with it.

Sometimes, it was kind of in the way too much. Other times, you just avoided it. Other times, you understand you have to, it's time to go to work. You accept it. I guess you guys saw all of that. 

I mean, that's all I tried to pass — I didn't pass anything on Wyatt. Wyatt was Wyatt. He was always just Wyatt. I don't know how to say it other than that, he was just who he is. It's pretty much the same thing [now] with a beard — a five-year-old with a beard."

Wyatt: "I like my dad more so as a parent, nothing with acting specifically. He's just a good, great dad and I love being around him, and we have a great time together — and we got to spend a lot of time together, more than most dads probably, because when he was working I could go to set, and when he wasn't working he was just around all the time.

So yeah, it's like 'be a good person' and 'say please and thank you', and hopefully, you know, just being a good person. That's what I learned from my dad and my mum."

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ON GETTING INTO THE SAME HEADSPACE

Wyatt: "Everything that we do is uniquely its own, and so drawing on characters of the past, at least for me, was not going to help this character. Although I guess I did characters that were similar in certain ways, but I don't think I really referenced them."

Kurt: "I think that the obvious truth is you'd have to be pretending not to have seen things. You know what I mean? So I've seen a lot of what Wyatt's done, and vice versa. And so therefore, there's some things in our minds. 

We do know kind of where we are — I'll call them strengths. We also know our weakness. And what we wanted to do here, being in a Godzilla gigantic landscape, we didn't want to misuse that. We wanted to use it properly. 

So that was a focus of ours in co-creating the character, I guess you'd say, with the writer, head writer and the showrunner, Chris Black and Matt Fraction."

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Monarch: Legacy of Monsters streams via Apple TV+. Read our review.

Published on December 15, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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