To The Wonder, Actors Cut From Malick Films

We’ve all been there. Cast as the lead in a meaty, dialogue-heavy role in a surefire masterpiece from one of the most unassailable geniuses of modern filmmaking, only to be reduced to sifting through the finished film on freeze frame occasionally shouting "Look! That’s my shadow on that fern!" or "Hey! That’s the back of my head near that egret!" The one comfort we can take when this inevitability occurs, is that we’re in fine company on the Malick cutting room floor. The only question is, whose lead will we follow in reacting to our role’s excision or drastic reduction?

Terrence Malick has a storied history with actors, one that can only continue to get more thickety as his output increases, and as the casts for his films expand. But it was really only with 1998’s gorgeous hymnal to the brutalizing effect of war on nature and humanity, "The Thin Red Line," that his propensity for entirely removing whole roles and performances found real expression, and since then the mythos of the roulette wheel one spins when accepting a role in a Malick film has only grown. It's a little unfair -- "The Thin Red Line" always had an enormous cast (it's about a war, after all); many of those often referred to as having been cut never actually filmed a scene; and others had roles that were only ever going to be cameos removed. The key factor is that many of the affected actors on that film and since then have been very high profile, but again, Malick seems to attract big names in droves, so in droves they will fall by the wayside.

Malick's latest, "To the Wonder," in theaters and on (sacrilegious!) VOD this Friday, has also made headlines for who's not in it as for who is. So we thought we'd take this chance to run through the list of actors dropped from Malick's films, or those who had their roles greatly curtailed, and the various ways they dealt with the disappointment. Read, and judge for yourselves who did it best -- that way you'll be prepared when that phone call comes to let you know that "Untitled Malick Project" will not, after all your months of shooting in that cornfield, boast your involvement at all.

Mickey Rourke, The Thin Red LIne
Actor: Mickey Rourke
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 8/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: On the one hand, it feels like Mickey Rourke has kind of one of the more legitimate beefs. His role wasn't just whittled down, not a single frame made it into the finished film, and his performance, which he called in a 2005 interview "some of the best work I ever did" really only exists for public consumption in a couple of deleted scene extras on the Criterion release. And like so many other actors on this list, he seems to have felt a little betrayed or badly used by Malick -- from that same interview: "I'd gone through a really bad time and Terry knew about it so he incorporated it into the character. It really worked." 

On the other hand, a lot of his reaction seems out of step with what most observers would assume were Malick's actual motives behind the edit. While his track record makes it probable that Rourke was nixed for narrative purposes (Malick famously "finding" the film in the edit), Rourke claimed the reasons were much more personal: "There were political reasons why I was out of the movie. That really upset me... just because of the temperature of me and the industry, my scenes were cut." Even if Malick does not in fact float on a gauzy higher plane above the dirty dealings of Hollywood, it still seems unlikely to us that he'd have gotten rid of Rourke to satisfy someone else's whims, if he'd really loved his performance and felt it fitted within the film.

Adrien Brody,  "The Thin Red Line"
Actor: Adrien Brody
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Dramatically reduced from lead to support, dialogue down to a couple of spoken lines.
Bitterness Level: 7/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Adrien Brody, of course, is still in "The Thin Red Line," but his role was not the lead he expected, performed and read in the script and the book on which the script was based. Malick found his attention wandering from Brody's character in the edit and focusing instead on Jim Caviezel's, to the detriment of the former's screen time. We should remember that, significantly, this was Brody pre-"The Pianist" and it's clear he expected his role here to be his big break. In fact, he mentioned in a 2001 Independent interview (text here) that: "The pressure on that film was that I had to carry the movie with a cast of stars that I truly admired -- Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in particular. You hear horror stories about Sean Penn, that he can be a real bastard if he doesn't admire your work." 

But after a grueling 6-month shoot in "a filthy costume which they wouldn't wash," only disappointment awaited. Again a sense of betrayal comes through: "I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I'd already begun the press for a film that I wasn't really in. Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that..." He went on to suggest that Malick's own status as a filmmaker may be rather inflated: "You know the expression 'Don't believe the hype'? Well, you shouldn't."

Bill Pullman,  The Thin Red Line

Actors: Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Excised Completely
Bitterness Level: 0/10 lemons
What Happened & How They Reacted: Along with Rourke, only Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas definitely had filmed roles cut from the movie -- photos of both of them on set exist. However it doesn’t seem like their parts were ever huge, and as supporting players in a cast so stacked with A-listers, perhaps they weren't wholly surprised not to make the final cut. Either way, neither has gone on record in any major way about their disgruntlement, a sign of either class or resignation.

The Thin Red Line
Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: His voiceover narration track went unused
Bitterness Level: 0/10 auditory lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Billy Bob Thornton hasn't made a big deal out of his involvement, or lack thereof, in the finished film. However it is known that he recorded a 3-hour-long narration for the entire film under Malick's supervision. Of course the final film has the poetic, overlapping narration spoken by many actors, sometimes unidentifiably, and so it becomes a much more choral piece than a single voice could have achieved, adding to Malick's throughline about the universality of human experience. Whatever happened, nothing of Thornton's voice remains, and this is one case where we'd hazard that the reason was simply an artistic choice, and the decision was probably the right one.

The Thin Red Line
Actors: Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Never got to the shooting stage
Bitterness Level: 0/10 imaginary lemons
What Happened & How They Reacted: Gary Oldman never filmed a scene for Malick -- he never even got on a plane to Australia. According to this EW article, a role was written specifically for him, and sent to him. But before photography began, Malick realized he already had too many characters and the shoot was becoming unwieldy (and how right he was -- read all about it here), and Oldman's role was removed at script stage. Similarly, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Jason Patric were all mooted at some point, with Patric apparently largely a studio suggestion. The former two definitely participated in readthroughs, and received thank you credits for their pains, but there's nothing to suggest that their involvement or commitment went much further than that, and certainly they themselves aren't anywhere, that we could find, on record as complaining. And in Sheen's case at least, the experience seems not to have tarnished his admiration and gratitude toward Malick for providing him with his breakout role in "Badlands" -- in a 2004 interview he called Malick "a deeply spiritual, bright, articulate man who had a profound influence on me..."