Director Elizabeth Banks, and actors Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr., sat down to talk about their beastly new film Cocaine Bear.
These are just some words that come up during roundtable interviews with director Elizabeth Banks and actors Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. This lot are physically in New York but chatting to journalists worldwide about their new film, Cocaine Bear.
By now, you probably know Cocaine Bear is inspired by real events. In 1985, an American Black bear got its paws on 70 pounds of cocaine and dropped from a plane. It didn’t end well for the poor ursine.
“My first thought was that I was really sad for the actual bear because the real bear OD’d on the drugs and died. I was so tickled by the notion that this movie could be the redemption story for that bear. I could avenge that original bear’s death through making this movie,” director Elizabeth Banks says.
In her film, the bear goes on a wild rampage, searching for another bump and is prepared to annihilate any human standing in its way. As we said, the film is merely inspired by actual events.
A coked-up bear on a rampage is a crazy premise for any film, and the first trailer had people in stitches, becoming a viral sensation.
Actress Keri Russell, who plays a mother looking for her daughter who the bear took, says that the film’s sheer audacity was baked into the premise.
“That’s the point of it, to push the limits of it. And I think Banks was so right to go there and make it as crazy as she did.”
“It is bold and audacious. And I really felt that we needed to lean into that sensibility, there was no reason for us to be shy about any of our choices,” Banks notes of the film’s tone.
Banks received the script in April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole world was a mess. There were fires burning all across California at the time. I felt there was no greater metaphor for the chaos of life than a bear high on cocaine.”
Russell reveals that the all-CGI bear was nicknamed Cokey on set. Everyone speaks warmly of Allan Henry, credited as the ‘Bear Performer’ in the end credits. His job was to provide the actors with an accurate eye line and give them something physical to act with and, as Banks mentions, “to push against, to feel.”
“Although there’s not a frame of Allan Henry in the movie, I still feel his essence when I look at the bear.”
Another person who the entire team speaks very highly of is Ray Liotta. Liotta passed away in May 2022, and Cocaine Bear is one of his final on-screen performances.
O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays Daveed in the film, speaks of “the emptiness” the whole cast feels as if they’re doing press for the film without Liotta.
“It’s bittersweet now, we are doing our victory lap as a cast and crew, that Ray is no longer with us. Just a blessing to be able to work with him on one of his last projects ever.”
Liotta was known for his roles as gangsters and drug dealers, but he was an effortlessly charming actor.
“I love that he showed up and wanted to do Cocaine Bear. I think that tells you what kind of person he is and the sense of humour he has,” Russell says.
Banks remembers working with Liotta on The Details in 2011 and says Liotta was perfect for the role of Syd, a drug kingpin because the actor had “a little mischievous twinkle about him.”
“He said yes to everything I asked him to do. He came so joyfully to set, he just came so game and I’ll be so grateful for that till the day I die.”
Alden Ehrenreich plays Syd’s son Eddie. As he says, he was drawn to the film because it was so “unusual”.
“It’s something you haven’t heard about before. One of the things that really cinched it for me was when I talked to Elizabeth Banks and the feeling she had about these characters and their story and what was going on on the character-human level.”
“As a creator, you have to drool at the opportunity to do something out of the box. If you don’t take risks, you’ll just be where you are forever,” Jackson chimes in.
Cocaine Bear definitely wasn’t a safe bet. In a market that seemingly thrives on endless sequels and elaborate cinematic universes, Cocaine Bear seems like an anomaly. The film has already drawn some controversy for potentially glamorising drug use and involving a scene with kids doing cocaine.
“The fact that a studio made this movie called Cocaine Bear is so crazy. I think you want the kids to do it, because it’s so ridiculous. There’s a bear eating people’s faces off, it’s insane,” Russell says of the controversy.
“It is definitely a wild title, but I knew what I was getting into when I signed that paper,” Jackson chuckles.
Some have also questioned whether the film rides on its viral publicity campaign alone. Banks seems aware that with the film’s title and premise, it’s primed to be a viral sensation, but that played no part in how she approached the film.
“I always say this, you got to deliver the goods. You can’t just have something be viral on Tiktok. If that’s the best you got, you don’t have the goods. To me, all of that virality should always just be to whet the appetite. The full meal has to be served in the theatre. That’s how you win at the game.”
Cocaine Bear is Banks’ first directing effort outside of an existing franchise. She cut her teeth with Pitch Perfect 2 and went on to direct the Charlie’s Angels reboot. When I ask Banks how this experience of directing outside the confines of a franchise is, she says she never thinks about the IP. For Charlie’s Angels, she notes that they only took the basic idea of these women being recruited by a man called Charlie, but they still had to come up with new characters and dynamics.
“The IP, all that does to me is, it creates a little more pressure from the audience, because they have expectations. But for me, as a filmmaker, I’m always trying to cut through the IP. Frankly, I’m always trying to make something as original and exciting for the audience and unique as possible, regardless of where the material came from.”
Ehrenreich describes the set as a “super fun” place to be, and Russell praises Banks as a good fit for this type of film and a “pro”.
“She’s so steeped in the comedy world, so familiar and comfortable in that world, and completely capable and willing to take on this enormous, ridiculous movie, and [she] loves the gore.”
And Cocaine Bear is gory, very gory indeed.
“I think that the horror and the gore really help us process traumatic things that we’re seeing and feeling,” Banks says of the bloodshed in her film.
While Cocaine Bear is as funny as it is gory, the cast had to trust that Banks could deliver on the tone.
“We trusted that she was minding the store when it came to tone. She took what the characters were going through pretty seriously on the emotional level at the same time as having a tonne of fun with all the crazy shit that was happening,” Ehrenreich says of Banks’ directing.
Banks based most of the bear action we see in the film on some sort of reality. While the film requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, it has a level of realism. During her research, she learned that bears often don’t kill their prey before eating it, which is reflected in the film multiple times.
“I didn’t have to do anything crazy, the bear on cocaine was crazy enough. The job for me was grounding everything, making it as real as possible, finding those really relatable moments that the audience goes, ‘oh my gosh, that would be me.’ I just love the ensemble casting and I loved that we could tell all of their various stories with the backdrop of a bear high on cocaine”
Cocaine Bear is in cinemas on 24 February.