SANDISFIELD — An odd thing has happened along the way in Bob Tarasuk’s simple plan of living happily ever after. He became the muse for a French filmmaker.
It’s true that, two weekends ago, Tarasuk was home, butchering chickens. But, it’s also true that just a week before that, he had walked the red carpet at the Austin Film Festival and was seated next to one of the biggest gangsta rappers on the planet right now, Freddie Gibbs.
The two of them, Tarasuk and Gibbs, were seen giggling, elbowing each other and weeping together at the American debut of the feature-length film they star in, “Down with the King.” After a standing ovation at the historic Paramount Theatre, the two, along with filmmaker Diego Ongaro, took questions.
Yes, it’s true, “Down with the King” also was well-received in July, at the Cannes Film Festival, in “that low-rent French Riviera place,” Tarasuk said. It’s true that in “Down with the King,” which was shot one year ago, and the 2015 film “Bob and the Trees,” Tarasuk pretty much plays himself.
You could call Tarasuk a character actor. In real life and in film, he plays Bob Tarasuk, a weather-beaten Sandisfield farmer, forester and logger who survives in the backwoods of Western Massachusetts on the meat and vegetables raised on the farm he runs with his wife of 47 years, Sue.
He sports a mustache that serves as a thick canopy that shelters a mischievous grin. He finds quiet moments in the day to tee up a golf ball and blast it off into the high lonesome.
In real life and in film, he loves hardcore, underground rap music. Do you want him to sing a favorite, by the Peruvian rapper and urban activist who goes by the name Immortal Technique? He will, whether you want him to or not. His lambs, his sheep, his chickens, his pigs — they are used to it.
Tarasuk never had aspired to acting or to walking a red carpet, yet, he has: at Austin, at the Sundance Film Festival, at a festival in the Czech Republic and many others.
“No, this is ridiculous,” Tarasuk, 67, admitted. “It’s hysterical, is what it is.”
Bob is ‘discovered’
To reach Tarasuk and his farm, you need to downshift and climb up, up, up South Beech Plain Road until you reach a spot where everything suddenly looks like Ireland. With some abandoned ironworks and machinery tucked into the weeds, it’s more like Ireland’s stunt double.
To the right, the rolling meadows, the barns, the greenhouses, the livestock, that’s all Snow Farm. That’s the place. Park the car. A rafter of wild turkeys might give you the once-over, coming so close you can high-five them.
That guy wearing the grubby ball cap and the fleece sweater speckled with chicken feed, hay and sawdust, that’s Bob Tarasuk, film star.
Bob was “discovered” on this farm of his a little more than a decade ago, by Ongaro.
Ongaro, originally from France, moved to Sandisfield with his wife, the novelist Courtney Maum. (They since have moved across the border, into Connecticut.)
Sandisfield being Sandisfield — it’s a small town with few human beings — they all met. Maum fell in with Sue Tarasuk’s weekly “stitch and bitch” knitting group at the Tarasuk home. Ongaro fell in with Bob Tarasuk’s simultaneously scheduled “drink and drink.”
“Bob was such an interesting, unique character,” Ongaro told The Eagle this week. “He’s bigger than life, and he’s endearing.”
After about a year of hanging out, Ongaro asked Bob if he wanted to star in a short film.
“I was like, ‘Hmm. Yeah, why not?’ ” Tarasuk recalled.
In 2011, they made a short film, a snapshot of the life of a New England logger that was well-received and eventually became the feature-length film “Bob and the Trees.” Filmed at Snow Farm and other South County locations over a span of 15 days during a polar vortex in 2014, “Bob and the Trees” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. It mostly featured non-actors, including Tarasuk’s son-in-law, Matthew Galagher, and other locals.
It took the top prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Tarasuk was there, with a suit jacket and Sandisfield dirt under his fingernails.
Last year, Ongaro once again asked Tarasuk, “Do you want to do another film?”
“What do I got to do?” Tarasuk asked.
“Just be you, man,” Ongaro said.
“All right,” Tarasuk said. “I can do that; not much of a reach for me.”
In “Down with the King,” Gibbs was brought in to play a disillusioned rapper, Mercury Maxwell. In the country (Sandisfield), he befriends a farmer (Tarasuk), and he reevaluates the meaning of life. The film has been purchased by Sony. It will be released in 2022.
“People are loving it. They loved it in France,” said Tarasuk, looking amused and just slightly alarmed.
Trial, error – and action!
Tarasuk was living happily ever after long before Ongaro came along. After all, Bob and Sue were farmers on beautiful land. They were broke, financially, most of the time, but so are most people.
They first started dating as teens in Bridgeport, Conn. He eventually earned a degree in forestry. She earned a degree in horticulture. They would settle on a rented 50-acre spread in Sandisfield in 1980.
At first, they didn’t know anything about farming. Tarasuk recalled bringing home the first sheep they ever had purchased. They put it in the pasture. Tarasuk had to call the farmer he purchased the sheep from and ask, “Was I supposed to fence him in? Because I can’t find him.”
Everything was trial and error.
They raised three children in Sandisfield — Emily, Vanessa and Cole — and they now have four grandchildren. The family members remain local.
With the help of the previous owner, who was friendly with the price, the Tarasuks eventually purchased Snow Farm in the late 1990s. They now sell vegetables, flowers and skeins of wool. They raise enough meat to feed themselves, their children and grandchildren.
Separately, as a forester, Tarasuk manages about 20,000 private acres in the county, along with his son, Cole. He has lost his shirt in various farming and logging enterprises through the years.
“Bob and the Trees” and “Down with the King” draw upon some of Tarasuk’s experiences.
When Gibbs flew in from Los Angeles to begin the five-week shoot last fall in the Berkshires, he and Tarasuk had instant chemistry, Ongaro said.
“I mean, he was freezing at first, and it wasn’t even cold out,” Tarasuk said, laughing. “But, pretty soon, Freddie was picking me up and hugging me and carrying me around the yard like a rag doll.”
Gibbs rented a house up the road for the shoot. He had two handlers: a couple of big guys, one named “H” and another named “White,” who both appear in the film.
“We all just got along so well,” Sue said. As was the case with “Bob and the Trees,” Sue makes an appearance in the film. In the latest, she plays a clerk at Carr Hardware in Great Barrington.
But, why Bob Tarasuk? What’s his star power?
“Yeah, huh?” his wife said, looking at him up and down. But, she is kidding. She answers the question. “His personality. He’s always funny, the one-liners all the time. Everyone always feels relaxed around him.”
As for acting, before Ongaro came along, Tarasuk had zero experience. Ongaro insisted upon ad-libbing.
“So, all I had to do is be me,” Tarasuk said. “I didn’t have to be Luke Skywalker or anything.”
He has made very little money in his film career, thus far. If “Down with the King” takes off next year, some checks will be coming his way.
Regardless, the work continues on Snow Farm. For instance, this past Monday, Tarasuk was fixing a stone foundation to a paddock, and all the while he was thinking about dinner. They had planned for smoked ham.
“It’s going to be awful,” Tarasuk said with a firm nod. But, then he cracks a mischievous smile. “Nah, kidding. It’s going to be perfect. Perfect!”