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Wes Anderson and Cast Pay a Visit to Asteroid City

For nearly three decades, writer/director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Royal Tenenbaums) has been cutting his movies from his own peculiar cloth. His latest sojourn into his uniquely stylized blend of comedy and cartoonish art direction is Asteroid City, a Russian-doll narrative of a group of a disparate eccentrics dropped into a desert town where an alien lands… and all the (fictional) actors playing said eccentrics.

This play-within-a-play conceit and 1950’s setting gives Anderson his biggest canvas yet in which to take his proscenium arch style to the next level.

Wes Anderson and Cast Pay a Visit to Asteroid City

Vital Thrills had the chance to attend Focus Features‘ press conference for Asteroid City with Anderson as well as many of his ensemble players including Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Bryan Cranston, Rupert Friend, Stephen Park, Hope Davis and Adrien Brody.

You can read their lively comments below, and check out the movie playing in limited release now and expanding wide on June 23.

Wes Anderson

“We wanted to write a part for Jason Schwartzman at the center of a movie that would be something he hadn’t done before,” said Wes Anderson of his Asteroid City origins. “That was number one. That’s the beginning. We didn’t really know what it was, but we had a few notions about what this character was going through.

“The second thing was we were interested in the setting of 1950’s New York theater, a golden age of Broadway-ish thing, the Actors Studio variety of it. We thought we’d tell a story of the play they’re putting on. The original thing was a play called Automat, and was gonna all be in this automat.

Wes Anderson

“Then we decided, you know, Automat, it’s too small. So we expanded it to the desert. It then became something like this interaction of a black and white New York stage and a color CinemaScope-ish western cinema kind of story. Everybody’s both an actor and the role they’re playing, and they kind of mix together. That is how I got the idea for Asteroid City.”

Schwartzman, who previously played lead roles in Anderson’s Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, takes the nominal lead in the proceedings as Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer and recently widowed father.

Wes Anderson

“It’s rare to know someone for a really long period of time, and to be able to work with him is a really special thing,” Schwartzman said. “I think the one thing I value the most about our relationship is that it seems like it’s as it was when we first met. The second we met we start talking about music. It’s about sharing things that we were interested in.

“Over the years, we’ve been through so many different things. But it’s fun to come back and to share the things that you’ve experienced with someone that you know and love. It’s about going off and having adventures. It’s like kind of like Halloween, dumping out your stuff, seeing what you’re interested.

“So when I read a script, like for instance, this, ‘Oh, I see alien…’ I’m catching up with my friend in a way too. The idea of enthusiasm and curiosity about something else being out there, that’s the fundamental thing of our relationship, and I think any good relationship: let the other person grow and then bring it back.”

A newcomer to the Wes Anderson players is arguably the biggest star to ever appear in one of his films: two-time Oscar winner (and America’s dad) Tom Hanks.

“I met Wes at a restaurant in Rome about 15 years ago,” explained Hanks. “We didn’t talk about anything at all, but I don’t know if I said at that point, ‘Hey, come on, man, come on. I mean, let me into that rep company of yours. Give me a call.’ We had met since then a couple of times, and this came about literally because of a lovely email that said, ‘Would you like to come and join us?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Sure.’

“What is odd is he sends you a version of the movie that doesn’t really need you. You see a complete animatic version of the movie, which I saw, and I called you up and said, ‘Well, I’m in, but I don’t see how you need anybody to do this now.’ It looked like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to us.

Wes Anderson

“All this stuff that you hear about turned out to be true. I haven’t seen a Wes Anderson movie that I didn’t wish that I was in, so it was great to be a part of this, and the role was great. I think you used the reference of, ‘We’re looking for a retired Ronald Reagan type.’ And I go, ‘I’m your man.'”

Bryan Cranston is no stranger to Anderson’s fondness for animation, having previously played the lead in the entirely animated Isle of Dogs. “I remember writing to Wes a little earlier after we had finished the film, and I said, ‘How are you feeling about it?'” he said.

“And quite honestly, Wes said, ‘I think it might be a really nice poem. I don’t know about a film just yet.’ He was still trying to figure out where it was going. I think it’s the animatic that really allows us to see where it’s going and the types of characters that he is imagining in his head. We can only take a glimpse into the head of Wes Anderson. We can’t live there. That’s his domain. We can only visit.”

“Wes has set the parameters, and we’ve seen the animatic and the script and everything, so it’s cozy,” added Stephen Park. “We had so much fun and we definitely are going for something that’s light and fun, and hopefully funny.”

“Wes has cut all the fat and ridiculousness out of the moviemaking process,” enthuses Maya Hawke, another newcomer to Wes Anderson country. “So many times when you have a scene partner, you have to establish a bond. You have these chemistry reads. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re all gonna meet, and we’re gonna talk, and you guys are gonna get to know each other.’

“Instead, Wes is like, ‘Why don’t we just have dinner every night together? Wouldn’t that be fine? And actually, you guys are off tomorrow, and you should go for a walk.’ And we just did. We went for a bicycle ride. So often you’re on hold when you’re doing a movie. You get brought in and you sit in your trailer, and you wait. Wes has fixed that…

“You’re just always on hold 100 percent of the time, but you don’t feel like you are ’cause he’s taken you out to this magical, wonderful place where you get to be engaged in other people doing their work. I remember sitting and watching Scarlett and Jason do those incredible scenes between that window. I would come and sit next to Roman at his little monitor and watch them.

“Then after a little while Adrien would come over and he’d be sitting there, too. We were all engaged in the movie as a whole. It never felt like, ‘Oh, this is my part, this is your part.’ It always felt like everyone was lifting each other up, and that built chemistry really quickly and easily.”

“There was so much freedom in that as well,” chimed in Rupert Friend, who plays a wayward country musician. “Wes wrote one of his more succinct stage directions in the scene where we have our musical number, and it just said, ‘They dance.’ That was it.

“We kept saying, ‘When’s the choreographer coming? When’s the rehearsal?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, another time, another time.’ We got there and we hadn’t had any of that, it was just ‘go for it.’ That feeling of exuberance, I remember it was actually an amazing moment.”

Scarlett Johansson got to step out of her Marvel Studios wheelhouse to play a movie actress modeled at least somewhat (in appearance) on Kim Novak, but drew inspiration from others. “I was the Midge Campbell character,” said Johansson. “Wes and I shared some ideas about what type of a person this could be, or what kind of career she could’ve had. Did she come through the actor’s studio? What did she sound like?

“I liked Bette Davis, ’cause I thought her career was a good shape. When you watch her, she seems comfortable in the space she takes up. I felt like that could be a good beginning. Also her voice, actually. She has a little bit of that Mid-Atlantic thing. Understanding where that came from, all that stuff was helpful.”

“As the regional headmistress of the Cookie Troopers, perhaps the only title she will ever have in her life, my costume was everything,” Hope Davis said of her own character. “When Milena Canonero put me in that costume, everything was decided. I just had to walk around in that costume. You see a housewife from the ’50s who is supposed to get all hot and bothered over getting a new washing machine. That’s the most excitement she’s ever had in her life.”

Another Wes Anderson regular, Oscar winner Adrien Brody, plays the director of the play-within-a-play, who seems reminiscent of Elia Kazan.

“I play the director of the play… it’s funny to play a director,” opined Brody. “The actor always knows his place. There’s always the director. It was really a special moment of the film because part of what’s so beautiful about the storytelling is there’s a bit of nostalgia for this time and place in ’50s Americana. Also the West and cinema, and also a love for theater and the performances and the art of that, which is something that we’re all a part of.

“That time in history was a big shift for acting and directing… actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and directors like Elia Kazan. There was a chance to infuse some of that which is, I’m sure, something that Wes appreciates very much as well. It was really lovely to infuse all of that as a part of this vast storytelling.”

Wes Anderson