As the film's writer Scott Z. Burns confirmed to us recently, Clooney wanted to do it, but had to bow out because a long-standing back injury, and some imminent surgery, meaning he wouldn't be able to deal with the "physically intense" action sequences that Soderbergh is planning. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. is moving ahead with the project, and The Wrap has learned some of names that they're eyeing for the other principal role, Ilya Kuryakin, the Russian agent played by David McCallum in the original series.
Citing an individual close to the production, the site is saying that studio executives are assembling a wishlist, topped by three names in particular: Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Alexander Skarsgård. Gosling and Gordon-Levitt are pretty obvious as they're on top of most such lists for parts in their age range. Skarsgård is more of a stretch -- his first significant movie lead comes this weekend as the antagonist in "Straw Dogs" -- but he is a lead in next summer's "Battleship," and his Scandinavian heritage probably gives him a heads-up when it comes to being a good fit for the Russian character.
It's pretty early days, and we imagine this is all before Soderbergh's input (we wouldn't be surprised to see some of the youthful cast of "Magic Mike," including Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer, being considered too), but if it is true, it's interesting to know how high the studio are aiming for a film described as "a buddy movie -- an action-comedy with a tone like 'Lethal Weapon,' and, like the TV show, set in the 1960s."
The film's success will also depend on who ends up taking over from Clooney as Napoleon Solo, the role played by Robert Vaughn on TV. It's clear that Warners are in search of an A-lister, one probably between 35 and 55, with enough gravitas to play the senior to someone like Gosling or Skarsgård. It's complicated by the fact that many of the suitable actors either have their own spy franchise already -- Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise, even Soderbergh's regular collaborator, Matt Damon, would be an obvious choice were it not for his association with 'Bourne' -- or are otherwise committed to big shoots in the first part of 2012 -- like Hugh Jackman on "The Wolverine," Tom Hardy on "Mad Max: Fury Road" and Christian Bale on a number of possible projects that would seem to take precedence. Another obvious candidate and former Soderbergh chum, Brad Pitt, also seems very unlikely, considering that he sided with Sony when the plug was pulled on the director's take on "Moneyball."
And so we've racked our brains for five actors who could feasibly step in for Clooney on the project. They need to be capable of some ass-kicking, clearly, and would need to fit in with the 1960s setting (but not too well; Jon Hamm could be a candidate, but it would only end up coming across as Don Draper-goes-to-spy-school). Unless the series has been seriously reinvented, the film should fit with Vaughn's version of the character, an urbane, laid-back, charming superspy with a killer wardrobe. With no further ado, five possible Napoleon Solos:
Robert Downey Jr.
One of the most popular movie stars on the planet right now, Downey Jr.'s been a little commitment-phobic to big tentpoles outside of his existing Marvel and "Sherlock Holmes" franchises; the actor bailed on Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens" and Sam Raimi's "Oz: The Great and Powerful" in the last couple of years. But he's a very strong fit for the part, and he and Soderbergh would be a tantalizing team. They previously paired on "Equilibrium," Soderbergh's segment of the omnibus "Eros" and RDJ has starred in Soderbergh-produced films "A Scanner Darkly" and "Good Night and Good Luck" as well. However, there's a question of scheduling here; he'll wrap "The Avengers" in the next few months, but with "Iron Man 3" already set for a May 2013 release, that'll need to start shooting some time in the first half of next year. Were 'U.N.C.L.E' going sooner than February, it might be possible, but we suspect it'll be too tight a turnover for the actor to take the part.
Only Depp, and maybe Will Smith (who'll be shooting M. Night Shyamalan's film in this time frame) are able to compete with Downey Jr. for appeal right now, but the former megastar is in an unusual state of limbo. He was meant to shoot "The Lone Ranger" this fall, but budgetary issues have caused problems for Gore Verbinski's western. A new, lower-cost version was turned in to Disney at the beginning of the month, but there's been suspiciously little word since. If that project is indeed scrapped, Depp doesn't currently have anything else lined up immediately once "Dark Shadows" wraps, with Rob Marshall's "The Thin Man" the only thing even half-way ready to go any time soon. A ready-made tentpole could be appealing, all things considered. The only issue is whether the actor and Soderbergh's truth-led process would be a good fit, and whether Depp's still capable of playing anything other than either Jack Sparrow or yet another entry in Tim Burton's gallery of freaks.
One of the big 2011 breakout stars, currently getting huge acclaim for his performance in Steve McQueen's "Shame" and having made his blockbuster debut in "X-Men: First Class," Fassbender, at only 34, is certainly on the younger edge of the age range for the character (although he's actually two years older than Vaughn was when he started on the show). But he's got a natural authority that means he could still work alongside a Gosling, and he's able to be both charming and intense. Most importantly, he's got form with Soderbergh, with an action-packed cameo in next year's "Haywire," the film that seems to be the closest counterpart to 'U.N.C.L.E.' in the director's filmography. He is meant to be shooting Jim Jarmusch's vampire movie early next year -- though word has gone quiet on that one lately -- but both might be possible, and if push comes to shove, he could well go with the Soderbergh film. A very strong candidate.
Since picking up his Oscar for "The King's Speech," Firth has seemingly made an effort to step away from the rom-coms and period pieces that he's known for. He circled the dark drama "Stoker" and Danny Boyle's "Trance" for a while, and has the caper film "Gambit" in the can. For the first time he's prominent enough to headline a film like this, and his debonair turn in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" serves as a nice little audition for the project. However, he's never had much action experience (nothing that a few months of training couldn't sort out), and he's never flourished in American roles (of which he actually has played very few -- witness his tortured accent in this summer's "Main Street"). Not a bad call, particularly if they're committed to sticking with someone around Clooney's age.
Hear us out. McConaughey might have squandered his promise in the last few years, but he's suddenly woken up with a string of interesting roles, a solid turn in "The Lincoln Lawyer" being followed by an astonishingly good performance in William Friedkin's "Killer Joe." He's never had an action franchise to call his own (well there was the failed "Sahara"), but it'd be a good move to get one, and he could carry off Solo's laidback charm with his eyes closed. Furthermore, the actor is just about to work with Soderbergh on "Magic Mike," giving him a leg-up on most of these other names. So long as he can tone down the fake tan, and work in a period setting (something that wasn't a problem back in the "Dazed and Confused" days), he could surprise here.
Other Contenders: Hugh Jackman was meant to star in "Cleo" for Soderbergh, so there's some prior relationship there and he's a really good fit for the part. But he's shooting "Les Miserables" and "The Wolverine" back to back, so we can't see where he'd find the time. Leonardo DiCaprio might be possible, although there's a potential clash with the "Django Unchained" shoot, while Josh Brolin's a good shout too, having just done a '60s-set tentpole with "Men in Black 3." Jude Law probably can't carry the film on his own, and the same goes for Clive Owen and "Haywire" star Ewan McGregor.
Javier Bardem might be an interesting choice, but he's committed to Sam Mendes' Bond film, and likely wouldn't do the two films back-to-back. Sean Penn, Liam Neeson and Russell Crowe aren't well-suited to the part, Tom Hanks seems like a stretch, and Viggo Mortensen is probably a little too intense. As we said, Matt Damon would make sense, were it not for the 'Bourne' associations, which would seem to rule him out, and Pitt's almost certainly burnt his bridges with the director after the "Moneyball" debacle. Christian Bale hasn't officially committed to his next film, but with a number of suitors gathering, including "Oldboy" and Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," we're not sure this will fight its way into the mix. Mark Wahlberg is possible, but a busy bee.