Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cast the Book: The Underworld, U.S.A. Trilogy

James Ellroy's magnum opus is a series of novels collectively referred to as The Underworld, U.S.A. Trilogy. (An appellation borrowed from the 1961 Samuel Fuller film of the same name.) The trilogy is comprised of: American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and the magisterial concluding volume, Blood's A Rover. In a move that stimulated every particle of my geeky body, HBO has announced that the trilogy will be adapted into a miniseries. The series will be produced by Playtone, the production company headed by Tom Hanks. This is a virtual guarantee of quality, as Playtone was the force behind the acclaimed 2008 miniseries John Adams. The screenwriter on the John Adams series was Kirk Ellis, a man now faced with the Herculean task of adapting Ellroy's nearly 2,000 pages of densely written prose into a workable teleplay.

Casting will also be a challenge. In addition to the primary protagonists, there are a host of second and third tier characters. Several characters vital to the narrative are fictionalized historical figures, which should make casting that much more difficult. Fortunately for the producers at HBO, I've decided to go ahead and do some of the casting on my own. I'm sure my input will be appreciated.

General casting notes and advice for the producers:

Do not attempt to find actors who can portray John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I suggest these characters be seen only via archival footage. Much of the novel's tension derives from the ongoing threat to these two iconic historical figures, and that tension will be much more palpable if the viewer is seeing the actual people and not actors portraying them.

Pete Bondurant (a.k.a. Big Pete, a.k.a. The Frenchman) is the toughest role to cast, primarily because of the physicallity of the character as written. He is said to dwarf the other characters, and easily instill terror in those he wishes to intimidate. A cabbie mistakes him for Robert Mitchum. Now, where do you find an actor that meets those very particular specifications? My pick is Viggo Mortensen, which would seem to contradict the Robert Mitchum comparison and discount the size of the character. But, here's the thing: Mortensen's collaborations with director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) mark him as an ideal candidate for the role of an imposing multiple murderer and shakedown artist who somehow manages to convey a sense of Mitchum-like soulfulness.

Kemper Boyd is another tough one. Bondurant declares Boyd, "Too handsome to live." George Clooney might seem like the default decision for the role of a devastatingly handsome middle-aged F.B.I. man with a penchant for finely tailored suits. While Clooney could absolutely provide the necessary charm, I doubt his ability to convincingly portray the character's considerable dark side; the social-climbing, mercenary, violent aspects of his life. Alec Baldwin might just fit the bill. We know he's a charmer, and his early-'90s roles in Glengarry Glen Ross and Miami Blues are proof of his capacity for onscreen villainy.

Imagine Alec Baldwin, Chris Cooper, and Gary Sinise in buzz-cuts and Fed gray suits and I think you'll see what I'm going for.

Wayne Tedrow, Jr. is a Mormon-raised Las Vegas Police Department Sergeant with some profound daddy issues. He is easily one of the more complex characters in the trilogy. His allegiances - in fact, his entire value-system - evolves over the course of the series. I'd very much like to see Casey Affleck take on the role.

Don Crutchfield is a young, politically malleable character struggling to hold his own with some very dangerous men. I'd like to see Paul Dano in this role. As we've seen in There Will Be Blood, Dano's boyish appearance can be used as a powerful counterpoint for personal demons. And, a young actor who has gone toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis is not likely to be intimidated by the more mature talent.

Crutchfield spends many of his days drinking in a parking lot with a group of raunchy young hot-rod enthusiasts. The kinds of guys who spend all day every day talking about women, without knowing anything at all about them.These characters should be cast from the Judd Apatow crowd. Pick of the Apatow litter: Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel, and Martin Starr.

Barb Jahelka is the red-headed bombshell who steals Pete's heart. She earns her living as a shakedown artist and as a singer riding the popularity of the 1960s hit "The Twist." The rightness of Christina Hendricks for this role should be self-evident.

The fictionalized role of Chicago Outfit boss Sam Giancana should be played by Stanely Tucci. Having ably portrayed Frank Nitti in the 2002 film Road to Perdition, this would be Tucci's second role as a Chicago mob chieftain.

Ellroy's overarching theme could easily work as the show's tag-line: "The private nightmare of public policy..."

 The primary protagonists:

Pete Bondurant = Viggo Mortensen
 Kemper Boyd = Alec Baldwin
 Don Crutchfield = Paul Dano
Dwight Holly = Chris Cooper
Ward Littell = Gary Sinise
Wayne Tedrow, Jr. = Casey Affleck

A few secondary characters: 

Nestor Chasco = Nestor Carbonell

Barb Jahelka = Christina Hendricks
Joan "The Red Goddess" Klein = Patricia Clarkson
Celia Reyes = Rosario Dawson

A few fictionalized historical figures:

Jimmy Hoffa = J.T. Walsh
Sam Giancana = Stanley Tucci

J. Edgar Hoover = Brian Cox
Sonny Liston = Idris Elba