Stars Steve Zahn and Sasha Knight discuss the love they felt filming their next family western, Cowboys.

Steve Zahn explores nature in Cowboys as you take your child on an adventure meant to show your love and acceptance. The already acclaimed family drama, which hits theaters on February 12 after an Outfest premiere last year, doubles as a modern western that explores topics relevant to parents and children alike.

Troy (Zahn, Uncle frank) and Sally (Jillian Bell, Godmother) reached a time even more difficult than their separation when Troy eloped with their young son, Joe (Sasha Knight). Although technically a kidnapping, Joe is also very appreciative of it, as he wants to be free to identify as a child against his mother’s wishes. What follows is an exploration of not only the land around you, but also your inner humanity.

Related: Jillian Bell Interview: Godmothered

Zahn and Knight spoke with Screen Rant about their reasons for choosing the project and the real-life excitement they felt during filming.

cowboys - landscape

What did he really tell you about Cowboys and did you get involved in it?

Sasha Knight: Joe is definitely trans, because I didn’t tell a lot of people when we read the script. But my mom read it, and we were both impressed. We thought, “Wow, this is going to get to people. It’s amazing.”

Actually, I wasn’t allowed to audition on camera, but my mother said, “Okay, you can do it.” Because it was just amazing.

Steve Zahn: It’s this incredibly important story to tell that has the backdrop of a western and is filmed in Montana on horseback. What are these two things that you wouldn’t think would fit, or that a Westerner would carry this kind of story? And yet it is perfect.

Troy is a really troublesome, flawed guy who does the best he can, and this story blew me away and was really moved. It’s this kind of parent-child journey; all he cares about is [his son]. You don’t care who your child is, it’s just unconditional love and you just want to make him happy. That’s all there is. It just touched me.

Joe has a really complicated dynamic with both parents, because as Steve just said, his father only wants the best for him emotionally. But her mother is perhaps the one who provides the most physical security. Can you talk about how Joe feels about his parents and how that grows over the course of the movie?

Sasha Knight: I feel like Joe definitely favors his dad over his mom, obviously. He just wants to be himself, and his father provides it when his mother is protecting his beliefs. But in the end, it’s all just to protect Joe; that’s what she sees as protecting Joe, but Joe sees that it hurts him.

I think what he was trying to portray is that Joe still loves his mom, he just has trouble loving her compared to his dad.

You mentioned that the movie is a western, and you guys were really in the desert environment. How did the use of the physical environment help the character and the story?

Steve Zahn: Well that’s the beauty of movies. That’s the real fun of shooting movies. You can sit a lot and film in a studio, and it feels like a prison. But when you’re in an environment like that, it’s so much easier to pretend. It is much easier not to lie; it’s so much easier to be honest.

Because you have this other character who is playing with honesty around you. I know it sounds deep and all, but it really is true. It takes all the pressure off, in a weird way. You are riding a horse and you are supposed to respond to what you see. When you read that, you think, “How am I going to do this?” And then when you’re there for the day, it’s pretty easy. Those are the good jobs, man; Those are the ones that are fun. Those are the ones where you’re cold and wet, but in the end they’re more fun.

Sasha, did you have fun setting up and learn any camping or horse riding tricks?

Sasha Knight: Yes, I had a lot of fun. I already knew how to ride a horse; it’s really fun to do. I’ve never ridden with someone else before so that was great.

Steve Zahn: It was like, “Hey, we’ll teach you how to ride the horse,” and it was like, “Come here!” And it was done.

More: The 10 Best Westerns of the 21st Century, Ranked (According to Rotten Tomatoes)

Cowboys opens in theaters on February 12.

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