Casting Away

Casting Away

Hollywood logic lets a Amuck play FAKE and a California girl go French-Canadian

Brian D. Johnson January 15 2001
Casting Away

Casting Away

Hollywood logic lets a Amuck play FAKE and a California girl go French-Canadian

Brian D. Johnson January 15 2001

Casting Away

Films

Hollywood logic lets a Amuck play FAKE and a California girl go French-Canadian

Brian D. Johnson

Juliet Lewis has been put through her paces by some of Hollywood’s most exacting directors. As a teenager in Martin Corpses?’s Cape Fear, she let a leering Robert De Nitro slide his thumb into her mouth. In Husbands and Wives, she played teacher’s pet to a lusting Woody Allen. Then, in Natural Boom Killers, Oliver Stone sent her on a mass-murder field trip. But last month in a Toronto recording studio, the 27-year-old American actress faced one of the toughest assignments of her career. Starring in Canadivan director Bruce McDonald’s new movie, Claire’s Hat, Lewis plays a Quebecois vagabond adrift in Toronto who cant speak English. The problem is,

Lewis can’t speak French.

“J’ai passé toute ma vie à Montréal,”

Lewis intones softly into the microphone, as she reads from a phonetic script. A dialogue coach from Quebec corrects her, one syllable at a time. She does it again, over and over until it begins to sound remarkably like French.

“Very good, now listen for the musicality,” says the coach, scanning the phrase as a series of beats. “Now try it in your lower register.” After a dozen takes, Lewis nails the line. Two hours later, the entire 50-word passage—a voice-over of her character reading a letter—is on tape.

Making Canadian movies is a bizarre business at the best of times.

But the idea of Lewis, a Californian, in the role of a unilingual French-Canadian takes culture-blind casting to new extremes. “Everybody knows I’m American,” she says. “I thought if I could just get it to a place where people aren’t distracted and believe me. The sound technicians were French-Canadian. And I felt encouraged because they gave me thumbs-up on the first day of shooting.” Luckily, although Lewis is in almost every scene, she has very little dialogue.

Still, you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just cast a Québécoise. But no Quebec actress was deemed bankable. McDonald’s previous films, from Highway 61 to Hard Core

Logo, have been critically acclaimed but commercially marginal. So by casting Lewis, along with American actors Gina Gershon and Mickey Rourke, Toronto producer Robert Laníos hopes the director may finally get the audience he deserves.

For Canadian cinema, recruiting star power from outside the country marks a shift in strategy. Sturla Gunnarsson just wrapped Rare Birds, starring William Hurt as a Newfoundlander. And Philip Seymour Hoffman (State and Main) is set to star in Owning Molony, the true story of a CIBC employee convicted of embezzling $17 million. But during the 1990s, director Atom Egoyan made his breakthrough with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter—two films that had no marquee names yet launched international careers for Canadian actors Sarah Polley and Bruce Greenwood.

The same day I watched Lewis struggle with her French, I saw Thirteen Days, a taut Hollywood thriller about the Cuban missile crisis starring Greenwood as John F. Kennedy. This, too, appears to be an unlikely bit of casting, but it’s much less of a stretch. Canadians have been playing American presidents since Raymond Massey was Abraham Lincoln. Greenwood—born in Noranda, Que., raised in Vancouver and now living in Los Angeles—didn’t have to adopt a foreign language, just an accent. And with his sandy hair, boyish good looks and intelligent blue eyes, he bears a more than passing resemblance to Kennedy.

Unlike Lewis, he was cast partly for his anonymity. “If you had a big star play Kennedy,” the 44-year-old actor explained in a recent interview, “you would have to get past one icon to get to the other, and that might be difficult.” But Thirteen Days, a $ 120-million studio movie, still needed a star to secure financing. So producer Kevin Costner took on the inflated role of JFK aide Kenny O’Donnell, affecting a weird, and distracting, Bostonian drawl. Greenwood, however, softpedals the JFK accent to concentrate on the character.

As a Cold War president trying to outwit both the Soviets and a hawkish Pentagon, he creates a Kennedy whose lowkey ambiguity is at odds with his public image—a Kennedy who seems almost, well, Canadian. When I mention this, the actor laughs but does not disagree: “We see him where we haven’t seen him before—behind closed doors. He’s not performing. The script doesn’t rely on Camelot and tousled hair and wooden sailing boats. And the more I read, the more I realized Camelot was a 50th of who he was. He was a voracious reader. He could quote poets and writers forever in profoundly appropriate ways.”

While shooting Thirteen Days, adds Greenwood, “I lay awake at night worrying I was not serving his memory. It’s a big vessel. You can’t fill it. As an actor... how can an actor do that?” As if to answer his question, a violent gust of wind suddenly ratdes the window of his Toronto hotel suite. “A lot of spooky stuff happened like that during the shoot,” says Greenwood. Such as? “I’d rather not say. It’s personal.”

The final day of shooting Claires Hat. In a frigid studio on the Toronto lakeshore, Bruce McDonald, dressed in a ratty black overcoat and cowboy hat, is filming a scene set in a police station. During a break, he lights a cigarette and talks about how he first tried to make the movie with a Montreal producer, but couldn’t persuade her to cast a Quebec actress.

“They wanted a star from Paris,” he says, “so the money all fell apart.” Next, Lantos moved in. When the Montreal producer was reluctant to sell the script, Lantos sent McDonald to Montreal with a leather bag full of cash—$50,000. As if buying a rug, McDonald started forking out wads of cash and slapping them on her desk until he closed the deal for just $10,000. Lantos then told him he could make the film cheaply with an unknown, or hire a star and do it properly. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to make this movie, I’ve got to play the movie game and cast a movie star,’ ” says McDonald. He ended up with a $ 12-million budget.

Semi Chellas, the Toronto screenwriter of Claire’s Hat, has nothing but praise for Lewis, but says: “I really do feel strange about [the casting] because there’s so much fine acting in this country.” Lantos, meanwhile, proudly points to the fact that the movie is set explicidy in Toronto. “I think it’s great that we are taking a Hollywood star and getting her to play a French-Canadian,” he says, mentioning a curious precedent—a 1941 British propaganda movie, Forty-Ninth Parallel, featuring Laurence Olivier as a French-Canadian trapper who encounters a Nazi U-boat crew in Quebec. But Lantos brisdes when reminded of another precedent—his own casting of Gabrielle Lazure, a French-Canadian, as a WASP princess in 1985’s Joshua Then and Now. In the end, he had an English-Canadian actress dub Lazure’s lines.

Actors, of course, are always pretending to be someone they’re not, from a Polish Meryl Streep to a blind Al Pacino. And the question is always the same: can they pull it off? ES]