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Asteroid City
Asteroid CityWes Anderson

Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s most eccentric film yet

Bryan Cranston, Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend share what it was like to work with the quirky director on his latest film, Asteroid City

Forget scientology: Wes Anderson might just be the biggest cult Hollywood has ever known. Each of his films arrives more elaborately gift-wrapped than the last, a cast top-heavy with A-list performers practising their best deadpan stares on the posters. With the exception of the great Gene Hackman, actors love Anderson, a fact that’s impossible to miss when the cast of his latest, Asteroid City, come out to bat for him at Cannes.

As for the rest of us mere mortals, mileage may vary according to how much of a sweet tooth you have for his style. But there’s no denying that his latest, Asteroid City, is the work of an auteur indulging his eccentric vision to the fullest, stuffed to the gills with just-so set design and meticulous mise-en-scene. (Even the way his characters hold a phone is precisely thought-out.)

Anderson’s film opens with our dapper Host (Bryan Cranston) informing us that what we are about to see is a recreation of a piece written by (fictional) playwright Schubert Green, a 50s-set caper about a junior stargazers’ convention thrown into chaos by the arrival of an alien. Among the play’s cast of characters are Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer trying to muster up courage to tell his kids that their mother has died; Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), his crotchety father-in-law; movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johannsson); and assorted brainy kids there to prove their mettle at the convention. (Brainy kids being to Wes Anderson movies what crotchety father figures are to, well, Wes Anderson movies.)

Also joining the melee are Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend (Obi Wan), as a harassed primary school teacher and a singing cowpoke brought close by this extraterrestrial turn of events. We spoke with the pair along with Bryan Cranston to learn more about their roles in the movie, and the gospel of Saint Wes.

Every new Wes Anderson film that comes along seems to have a bigger cast than the last. How does he do it? What’s the magic of Wes?

Bryan Cranston: The magic of Wes starts with his unique storytelling vision. He’s a person who takes big risks on telling stories that are not formulaic and so it’s always an adventure. He’s an auteur, and he’s up in the echelon. Every actor wants to do a Wes Anderson movie, [but] not every actor will be able to do a Wes Anderson movie: it’s challenging, because he’s very specific. In order to get that [feeling] you enjoy as a viewer of a Wes Anderson movie, you have to work specifically in his realm. So instead of me saying, ‘I think what I would want to do with this character is do this or that’, he gives you an animatic of the whole movie, and you see what he’s already devised. So it’s more working outside-in as opposed to what we normally do [as actors], which is to work from the inside out.

Rupert Friend: His films are so singular. At the moment you’ve got the studio system which is like working for a committee and, you know, that’s part of the job. You’ve got indies which are great but often difficult, never go anywhere, the director is often untested. And then you have this complete phenomenon called Wes Anderson, who makes art films without superheroes or violence or sex, that show in cinemas around the world and are loved. It’s a very rarefied space that he occupies.

He’s kind of a one-man industry at this point, isn’t he?

Rupert Friend: Yeah, I mean he has a lot of collaborators but it all comes back to him. I think we all find that inspiring and also sort of comforting, because you’re not having to run everything up the corporate chain to get answers on things – you can say ‘we’re cutting that’ or ‘take the hat off’, and we don’t have to wait to get approval from Amazon. It’s up to him. And so what that means is all of the fat is trimmed away: all the trailers, the trucks, the make-up, the buses; none of it’s there. Instead you feel part of a company of people who genuinely want to work with each other and support each other. It means you can have Tom Hanks as basically an extra in a scene and that’s not weird. It’s very egalitarian. The experience is very positive, and it comes through in his work.

Maya Hawke: Fundamentally people are having a good time [on Anderson’s sets]. I don’t know anyone who would watch a Wes Anderson movie and be like, ‘That didn’t look fun.’ Like, ‘Boy, that must have been miserable!’ 

Bryan Cranston: That is the other component, which is that it’s not just being in a movie to be in the movie. I can tell you honestly that if he wasn’t a kind, generous human being, I wouldn’t do another Wes Anderson movie. Because I want the full experience. I don’t want to be around people who don’t feel they’re lucky to be in this business, and who don’t respect others. And I don’t want to be around people who scream and yell and are disrespectful; I just don’t want to do it.

Would he just not put up with that kind of thing?

Bryan Cranston: No. I’m sure there’s an actor or two or three here and there who doesn’t embrace the spirit of a Wes Anderson movie, which is about the focus on doing your role, on being prepared and performing, but it’s also familial; it’s like an actors’ company, we’re all part of a troupe. I can tell you that, except for Wes Anderson, in all negotiations for movies my agents will have a discussion on what kind of trailer I’m going to have, what’s going to be in the trailer, what’s my billing? But none of that is part of the discussion [with Wes].

“I don’t know anyone who would watch a Wes Anderson movie and be like, ‘That didn’t look fun’” – Maya Hawke

Let’s talk about the characters because I feel like we’ve got ahead of ourselves a bit. Could you tell us about the roles you play in the film?

Rupert Friend: So this is obviously a film where a bunch of completely unrelated people are stuck together or thrown together and then can’t leave. There’s ostensibly no connection between these different groups that end up in Asteroid City. And [my character] Montana is part of a group of cowboy troubadours playing music to make a buck and moving from place to place. They have no real sense of home and no sense of relationships other than with each other, no sense of belonging. So there’s definitely a kind of listless, wandering quality to them. And they come through the town, miss their bus and get stuck.

Maya Hawke: I play June who is a schoolteacher taking her students on a field trip which gets terribly interrupted by this alien arrival. June has to figure out how to process her own feelings of doubt and fear while trying to be a good leader for her students, especially Dwight, who’s always trying to run off and get into trouble with Montana. Montana has a different viewpoint on the arrival of the alien and she has her mind opened by this new foreign energy that she didn’t expect to like so much, you know, that she thought was just trouble. And that turns out to be a really positive influence on not only her students, but on her as well.

Bryan, as the Host your role is important because you’re the guy tasked with explaining all the meta layers to the story, which are quite tricky. Did you have any inspirations for the character?

Bryan Cranston: I did some research on the notable newscasters of American media back in the 50s and 60s – Edward R Murrow was one, Walter Cronkite too. People who use their voices for a living and also like the sound of their voices. I also remembered a very well-known newscaster named Ted Koppel, and his vocal qualities started to seep into me, you know? There’s a sense of gravitas and importance in everything he’s saying, but he seems to do it without opinion or emotion. I wasn’t trying to do it but it just kept becoming stronger and stronger. So I didn’t resist it any more.

At the same time, it’s not all expositional stuff that is required of your character – there are some playful moments in there too. The scene where he accidentally wanders into shot is priceless!

Bryan Cranston: That was something that was thought of the night before. I wasn’t supposed to work. And Wes calls me up and says, ‘I have an idea for a scene tomorrow that’s not in the script, can you come?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course. Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it!’

Wes is known as being a stickler for detail when it comes to the look and feel of his movies – is he like that with his actors or is it looser than that?

Maya Hawke: Well, [people often] refer to him as a stickler and I always wonder if there are some stories I don’t know about him having a conniption over, like, the wrong colour on a candy cane or something because he’s so precise about the specifics. But that’s not the feeling [on set]; the feeling is that he’s thought a lot about things and chosen his collaborators very specifically. That he cares deeply about what is happening in front of him. I mean, he works a lot with children, and if you work with children you can’t be a control freak, because they’re uncontrollable. And he’s so not that. He chooses his cast carefully but once you’re there, he’s so happy you’re there and in the same way that the [director of the play, Schubert Green] says in the film, [he’s like], ‘Oh, you are the character, don’t worry about it!’ He really makes you feel that way.

Rupert Friend: A lot of it is coming from pure instinct. [The film’s costume designer] Milena Canonero hand-made Montana’s jeans and all this stuff; the idea was for him to [wear a] cowboy shirt, open jacket and jeans. I go on to set for my first scene. Wes says hello, then he buttons my jacket all the way to the top so you can’t see a single thread of the shirt and says, ‘Let’s go!’ You look at it and you go, now that’s an iconic Texas tuxedo thing. And that’s coming from a place of trusting your instincts. It might look fastidious, but it’s actually from somewhere incredibly primal, I think.

Wes has a way with dialogue that’s somewhere south of deadpan. Is it difficult nailing the tone?

Bryan Cranston: It’s quick-paced. Wes never gives his characters permission to wink at the camera. [These people] do not think they are funny in any way shape or form; they don’t think what’s happening is funny. But it is a stylised form. And simply by talking quickly, you attain that to a certain degree. Every single actor on a Wes Anderson movie gets the same note. And that is, ‘Yes! I like it. Now I need it much, much, much faster.’

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