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The Real Magic Behind Wes Anderson’s Quirky Casts

The idiosyncratic director always stretches obvious talent to their limits.
Wes Anderson And Tilda Swinton
Fox Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on December 3rd, 2018

Production for Wes Anderson‘s 10th feature is underway, and it’s turning out a little different than what we first anticipated. Previously thought to be a movie musical, the film has been revealed by IndieWire to be an epic tri-story period piece instead. Anderson is currently in France shooting this newspaper-set “love letter to journalists,” which is called The French Dispatch, with both familiar and new faces filling out his next delectable onscreen playground.

The likes of Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton will once again flit in and out of Anderson’s classic, impeccable live-action frame. Meanwhile, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, and Timothée Chalamet make up the newer additions. There are a few more rumored names floating around in the ether, as well, including Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman, and Léa Seydoux. All three have worked with Anderson to varying degrees in the past. However, I’m far more excited about the people who are completely green to the stylish director’s world.

Ever since his feature debut Bottle Rocket, Anderson has continued to refine the precision of his aesthetic in order to deliver memorably jaw-dropping images. Of course, these depictions either come across as delightfully idiosyncratic or infuriatingly deliberate. The symmetry, the colors, and the varied set pieces make for an easily recognizable amalgam of Andersonian technicalities. The use of deadpan humor, musical cues, and calculated camera angles further ensure a concise world-building that is uniquely ethereal.

Yet, Anderson’s films don’t just look good. His seemingly inordinate concerns with rich visuals are effectively counteracted by the darker, surprisingly existential plotlines inhabiting these stories. His movies are undeniably comedic. Regardless, every detail of the hyper-controlled, perfectly balanced mise en scène in an Anderson flick is quietly and tragically contrasted with his penchant for broken characters; ones whose lives are in such destructive disarray that it’s impossible for even the most refined images to sugarcoat their struggles.

These fictional people wouldn’t be half as good or relatable if Anderson hadn’t had immense luck with his actors. His fans are surely well-versed in the big-name ensembles of his movies, to the point where spotting an erstwhile associate popping up for the umpteenth time constitutes a lovely throwback. For instance, Murray has recurred since Anderson’s early days, while Swinton and McDormand have become mainstays in his most recent ventures.

Still, not only does Anderson enlist high-quality performers in all of his projects, but he also happens to know how to get them out of their comfort zones. Dramatic actors such as Swinton, McDormand, and Willem Dafoe are more likely to open up to a more off-kilter beat in one of his movies. On the flip side, performers with extremely broad appeal like Owen Wilson get to tap into a more sensitive, ruminative side of their acting personas.

An excerpt from Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel allows us a peek into the process of Anderson’s casting methods, especially in relation to his existing family of collaborators. Published in part on Vulture, it establishes that Anderson highly appreciates layered approaches to his material that, more often than not, seem to come naturally to his acting talent. When speaking of the magnificence of Swinton and Dafoe in The Grand Budapest Hotel, in particular, Anderson defers to their inherent charisma and broad performance palette when describing their off-the-wall characters. He says:

“Willem and Tilda Swinton are both people who love to act, who just love to do this. But they aren’t really just actors. They’re more performance artists. […] In our movie, Willem and Tilda are both playing characters and continuing their personal tradition of making things, outside of playing roles.”

Frankly, Anderson’s movies demand that kind of dedication. In the same Vulture article, he preferred to call The Grand Budapest Hotel a “sad comedy” as opposed to an exercise in absurdity, despite the film pushing so many visual and storytelling boundaries compared to other Anderson ventures at the time. A duality clearly exists in every nitty-gritty detail of his projects that even those who make frequent reappearances in his work understand that sense of communal artistry. Jeff Goldblum, who has roles in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Isle of Dogs, remarks to GQ, “People around Wes are particularly generous. He makes people put their best feet forward.”

Hence, I’m absolutely aware of just how talented del Toro, Wright, and Chalamet are. They are each conquering different facets of Hollywood on the big and small screen alike. Nonetheless, I’m also confident that we’re about to see them put to the test in The French Dispatch by assimilating into the dizzying spectacle of an Anderson feature. More than simply delivering dry humor to great effect, the quirk of his casts are always multidimensional and a fine balance to master.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)