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Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman,Bryan Cranston & cast–Take Us Down To Asteroid CIty

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Hope Davis, Maya Hawke, Jake Ryan and Wes Anderson

Take Us Down To Asteroid City

by Jay S. Jacobs

No one in filmmaking has such an eccentrically idiosyncratic narrative voice as Wes Anderson. The acclaimed writer/director has been putting his very distinctive stamp on films for nearly 30 years, producing such unique entertainments as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonlight Kingdom and The French Dispatch.

Anderson’s latest ensemble piece is Asteroid City, the story of a bunch of strangers who meet in a desert town in New Mexico in the 1950s right in time for an alien landing. (Of course, like all of Anderson’s films, this thumbnail sketch only touches on the levels of the narrative.)

As often with the cast, the film has a star-studded ensemble of stars who were dying to work with the filmmaker, including Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Hope Davis, Maya Hawke, Jake Ryan, Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, Live Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Ed Norton and Willem Dafoe.

The below discussion is culled from a virtual press conference which we attended in which many of the stars and the writer/director of Asteroid City discuss the experience of making and the meaning of the film.

On the inspiration for the film:

Wes Anderson: Oddly, that's not a question I've been asked specifically. The quick answer would be usually, for me, starting to write a script is usually not an idea for it. It's a couple of ideas. Two or three things… Roman Coppola and I wanted to write a part for Jason Schwartzman at the center of a movie that would be something he hadn't done before. We didn't really know what it was, but we had a few notions about what this character was going through. We were interested in the setting of 1950s New York theater. [A] golden age of Broadway-ish thing. We thought we'd tell a story of the play they're putting on. The original thing was it was a play called Automat and was going to all be in this automat. Then we decided it's too small. So we expanded it to the desert. I guess it then became something like this interaction of a black and white New York stage and a color cinema scope-ish western cinema story. Everybody's both an actor and the role they're playing, they mix together. That is how I got the idea for Asteroid City.

On finding out they would be a part of the film:

Jason Schwartzman: It was July of 2019. July 11th, 2019, actually. It was my anniversary. I was going [out] with my wife, but Wes was calling, so we pulled over. He said what I'm sure everyone here gets excited to hear, which was, "I've got an idea for something. I'm working on it with Roman. I can't tell you much, but we have an idea for you for something. We're going to work on it, and we'll get back to you when it's more completed. But you should be excited." That's a really rare, nice thing to get.

Tom Hanks: I met Wes at a restaurant in Rome about, I'm going to say, 15 years ago. It was a long time ago. Ed Norton said, "Hey, we're having dinner at this place in Rome."

Wes Anderson: Nino's.

Tom Hanks: This sounds like a movie from the 1960s. We were there, and part of it was like, "That's Wes Anderson?" I would imagine, the spectacle, the pompous or smoking a pipe, like what you did. We didn't talk about anything at all. I don't know if I said at that point, "Hey, come on, man, let me into that rep company of yours. Give me a call." And [years later] this came about literally because of a lovely email that said, "Would you like to come and join us?" And I said, "Yeah. Sure….” 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. 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. I can do that.”

Jake Ryan: Yeah, after Moonrise [Kingdom], we sort of kept in touch. You had me be a part of a bunch of different projects that you were working on at the time. I would like to think that I had matured a little bit and [laughs] vaguely understood what I was doing at this point. So when I got the audition for this, I mean, you knew me.

On working on the film:

Bryan Cranston: I remember writing to Wes a little earlier after we had finished the film, and I said, "How are you feeling about it?" Quite honestly, Wes said, "I think it might be a really nice poem. I don't know about a film just yet." Because you were still in the throws of post and editing. He was just still trying to figure out where it was going…. 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.

Jeffrey Wright: It was really like an equation that we had to figure out. And we figured it out. It was the wildest, strangest thing. I loved finding the answer.

Scarlett Johansson: What's unique about it is we're all circling the same thing. It's that sense of comradery that you have. One of the things that really touches me about the movie was how supportive all the performances are of one another in this way that's very noticeable. Maybe because we're all inside it but every performance stands out, but they make this beautiful sort of orchestra, the pieces all together.

Tom Hanks: For the end-up days to the Wes Anderson gravy train, the folks that were there for the first time, I wondered if we got to have ideas. Do we get to come in and say, "I was thinking about this?" We asked some of the veterans of it. "Do we get to say, 'How about this?'" And they said, "Yeah, sure. Sure, sure." We would, but then you would say, "Well, we don't have enough set to shoot that." That would be something. But I found you to be just as flexible as anybody would be, provided you're not going so far out of the realm of what you're going for.

Scarlett Johansson: Wes and I talked, tried to figure out the old Hollywood star. I was the Midge Campbell character. We 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 mean, I liked Bette Davis. She felt like Bette Davis feels. 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.

Wes Anderson: Like Bette Davis, you said, "comfortable in her space," and it's a space that she's created, and a voice that she's cultivated – you know, an invented one.

Rupert Friend: There was so much freedom in that. One of the things we've talked about a lot is that 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?" It was like, "Oh, yeah, another time, another time." We got there, and we hadn't had any of that. It was just a kind of go for it. That feeling of exuberance. I remember it was actually an amazing moment.

Maya Hawke: Wes has just sort of cut all the fat and ridiculousness out of the moviemaking process. 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 going to meet, and we're going to talk, and you guys are going to get to know each other." Instead, Wes is like, "Why don't we just have dinner every night together? Wouldn't that be fine? Actually, you guys are off tomorrow, 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 always on hold 100 percent of the time. But you don't feel like you are because he's taken you out of this magical, wonderful place where you get to be both engaged in other people doing their work.

Scarlett Johansson: That's how it feels on the set. When I got there, my work was truncated into a short period of time. I could not have done it without having my scene partner, Jason, there. He was immediately completely available, present, rehearsed. It was just like falling into this comfortable pocket, you know?

Tom Hanks: You know those old movies about Hollywood where they're on the lot, and somebody is a cowboy, and there's a showgirl, and there's a Roman gladiator, and there's a guy dressed up like he's in Charles Dickens? That's what it's like hanging around getting ready to work. We're all in our costumes all day long. [clears throat] We're all dressed in these different things. We're all on hold ready to go do the work on the set. We're just incredibly focused and concentrated.

Jeffrey Wright: Basically, you're trapped. [laughs]

Maya Hawke: But you want to be trapped.

Adrien Brody: Then we all stay in the same hotel, and then Wes will say, "Oh, we got to go." Several of us will hop on a golf cart with Wes fully dressed in character. And so they'll be alien and a cowboy and a…

Tom Hanks: … A showgirl…

Adrien Brody: … or some children hanging off the back. Then we just make our way with a golf cart on the edge of this road through town, through Spain, and arrive upon this magnificent set. That is just mind-blowing. That is just as spectacular as it looks in the movie. Show up fully ready to roll and jump right into the scene, and let's get cracking.

Wes Anderson: Well, we did it under COVID protocols. I realized, I think we've been bubbling our movies for 15 or 18 years. [laughs] It wasn't that different from the usual.

Rupert Friend: I don't know if you saw this, Wes, but when we did that [dance routine], I threw my hat in the air, and behind the camera that day, Bill Murray had come to visit set, and he just caught it at the exact moment. It was just perfect.

Maya Hawke: 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.

Jason Schwartzman: 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 Halloween, dumping out your stuff, seeing what you're interested in.

Bryan Cranston: It's so specific and so dense with detail that it is sometimes, I have to read it a couple times to really get a sense of what we're doing. This is a movie about a television show that's doing an expose on a theater piece. That in itself is kind of a Russian doll thing. Then there's the actors who are also playing. So when you read that in script form, it can be a little daunting.

Hope Davis: The piece feels theatrical… It feels very loose, the way my early days in the theater felt. We were all jumping around in the desert with air guns in our hands. It had that kind of looseness. Movie making can be very slow and dull. This just felt so alive and so playful. It reminds you why you got into it in the first place for me.

Scarlett Johansson: This is so vivacious. It feels so exciting. Even just to be a new actress coming on the set just to watch other actors performing. It's a very unique experience for a film, I think.

Tom Hanks: There’s a very convivial atmosphere that we are all very much attracted to. That is the secondary experience. The work that we do on the set is incredibly focused and there’s nobody who works harder at this than Wes. Because Wes doesn’t walk away saying, no, that’s good enough.

On experiencing the finished film:

Stephen Park: It's just a beautiful realization of everything that Wes has prepared us. To actually see the film, it's mind-blowing. I saw it first just with my wife. Then I saw it again at Cannes the second time, and I felt like I hadn't seen it before. I was really struck emotionally the second time in a way that I wasn't the first time. I feel like I'm looking forward to seeing it again tonight, because I know I'm going to see all these new things. There's so much to savor in this movie.

On the subject of grief in the film:

Jason Schwartzman: With grief, my experience is that there’s no wrong way to feel if you’re grieving. If you don’t feel sad when everyone else is sad, that’s okay. It’s worse to feel bad about not feeling a certain way that everyone else is feeling. You just feel the way you feel. That’ll be okay. Just trust that. I didn’t think about that while we were doing it.

Scarlett Johansson: It’s the enormity of this grief. My character says I don’t want that feeling so I’m just going to not have it. Which is so great and convenient. I mean, especially if you’re an actor. It’s perfect. You just do not have that feeling and erase it. Maybe you don’t want to either, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s the world that she’s living in.

Jason Schwartzman: When I saw the movie and Adrian’s character says, “Just keep doing it.” To me that’s what it is. Don’t feel bad about it. Don’t worry about how you’re feeling. Just feel it. It’s okay. Just keep going. This movement really kind of hit me when he said that.

Scarlett Johansson: It’s funny too, because I think when we have the conversation about what connects us… Not necessarily helpful for a father of four kids, but I think it gives them both permission to be living just in the moment that they want to be in and that’s fine. You don’t have to feel obligated to, as you were saying, have a moment they’re supposed to be having or whatever. That’s what they recognize in each other in that window of time.

Wes Anderson: I guess we have these milestones in our lives and particularly as you get older. The dead begin to pile up. You go through this thing where you start to say, “I cannot believe how often you say the person who I would actually like to hear his or her point of view is this one, and I’m never going to get the answer to this question I want to ask. I will never get the answer.” That just starts to happen more and more and more. Just the power of these losses, it’s among the key milestones. At least that’s my experience. I guess you circle back to these things that you can’t quite find the answers about.

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: June 21, 2023.

Photo #1 ©2023 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

All other photos ©2022 Roger Do Minh. Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features. All rights reserved.


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