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When the news broke a few weeks ago that Noah Baumbach would be handling the screen adaptation of Claire Messud's novel The Emperor's Children, I was excited but cautious-- I hated Baumbach's new film Greenberg, but had to admit his knowledge of the New York intellectual elite and skill with handling difficult characters made him pretty perfect job.
Plus, he brought on Keira Knightley, Richard Gere and Eric Bana for three major roles, each of them totally perfect for the roles they'll presumably play. And now that The Wrap is reporting that Baumbach has met with Michelle Williams to take another lead role, I think I might be sold. Baumbach is assembling pretty close to the perfect cast for this thing.
There are three more significant roles left to be cast, two of them particularly difficult given the usual demographic of Hollywood actors (i.e. white and attractive), plus Williams isn't confirmed yet. But let's run down the casting so far and then try to figure out who Baumbach might want to bring on next. That's right, it's time for a Slow News Day Fantasy Casting Session: Literary Geek Edition!
Keira Knightley as Marina Thwaite. One of the three main characters, all Brown graduates nearing 30, Marina is a striking beauty and the daughter of privileged Upper West Side New Yorkers, who thinks she's worked throughout her 20s but in reality has been procrastinating on a book pitch for nearly five years while living off her parents' money. Knightley's looks are clearly an important part of the role, but she's also an instantly sympathetic screen presence, which will be key for keeping Marina's "poor little rich girl" situation from being instantly irritating. It will also be Knightley's first prominent role in which she'll have to put on an American accent-- a really interesting challenge for an actress who has kind of defined young British talent for the last few years.
Michelle Williams as Danielle Minkoff. Danielle and Marina are best friends, but as the plainer, poorer one making her way through New York without the connections of her parents, Danielle is understandably permanently jealous of Marina and somewhat disdainful of how unaware she is of her privilege. Williams isn't plain by any means, but when she dresses down it really works-- a short brown haircut made her totally anonymous in Wendy and Lucy, for example. Most crucially, Danielle's character is incredibly insular-- she spends a lot of time brooding to herself, alone in her apartment-- and Williams' face is uncannily capable of expressing emotion. Perfect, perfect casting.
Eric Bana as Ludovic Seeley. An Australian magazine publisher in the model of a younger, hipper Rupert Murdoch, Ludo is confident and brash and kind of an asshole but with charm to spare-- basically exactly the role Bana pulled off marvelously in Funny People. He's the source of a lot of tension between Danielle and Marina, as Danielle falls for him first but he goes after, inevitably, the prettier one. But he's also required to woo pretty much everyone in the novel, including Murray, who sees Ludo as kind of an upstart heir to the world he's part of. Sounds like Bana's energetic charm and his dramatic chops have finally found a happy medium.
Richard Gere as Murray Thwaite. Think Frank Rich without the theater interests, or Seymour Hersh without the reporting skills, or Ted Kennedy as a writer instead of a politician. Murray Thwaite is the classic "limousine liberal" living in a penthouse but writing about the tyranny of the upper class, and in his old age has gotten pretty fat and lazy about the whole thing-- he drinks too much, he hits on younger women, he doesn't seem to much care about the job that's gotten him where he is. It's a stretch for Gere, who still seems a little young for this kind of role, but then again, way more interesting for it.
Julius Clarke. A gay, half-Vietnamese aspiring writer who hides his middle-class Michigan roots, Julius is a toughie to cast, and not only because there aren't too many skinny half-Vietnamese actors out there with any level of fame. Julius is dazed and confused, like his best friends Danielle and Marina, but he also actively takes part in the downtown New York gay scene, sleeping with many, many men over the course of the novel. Playing gay is less and less risky as the years go by, but playing a sexually active gay man is pretty much unheard of in mainstream films. Of the three ostensible main characters, Julius is maybe the least important, which means they could cast an unknown here. But the most obvious famous choice to me is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who already played a gay hustler in 2004's Mysterious Skin and is the right age for the role. He's not half-Vietnamese and doesn't quite have the lithe frailty described for Julius in the book, but if Baumbach wants to go for famous name (and infinite talent) rather than physical perfection, Gordon-Levitt is by far the best choice.
Annabel Thwaite. Murray's wife and Marina's mother, she's a minor character but still an important one, a wealthy woman who still works for a non-profit that helps underprivileged kids, and kind of the moral compass for the self-absorbed Murray and Marina. It's a role that could have Meryl Streep's name written all over it, but is probably too small. So how about Glenn Close? She fits the physical description-- blond, trim, slightly intimidating-- and has done great work on TV in Damages but hasn't had a good screen role in years. She's also someone you could believe would passionately care about underprivileged people even if her life is so far removed from that world. I'd love to see her and Gere face off.
Bootie Tubb. The name alone should tell you this is the trickiest role of all to cast. Bootie is Murray's 20-year-old nephew, son of the sister still living in the depressed upstate New York town that Murray was desperate to escape. Bootie has super-pretentious literary ambitions and comes to New York to learn what he can from his famous uncle, but soon becomes disillusioned with him and moves downtown, becoming more and more insular and plain bizarre. Bootie is overweight and awkward, and it's an important character trait that distinguishes him from the glamorous Thwaites; for that reason it's almost impossible to think of young actors who fit the bill. This seems the likeliest role to go to an unknown, but if we're thinking Hollywood...Josh Hutcherson is the right age (17), can do the gawky thing and is great in this summer's The Kids Are All Right, but he's growing up a little too hunky to pull it off. So how about Josh Peck, who is no longer "the fat kid from Nickelodeon" but still carries around some of the awkwardness and vulnerability, as he displayed excellently in the underseen 2008 film The Wackness.