We Read It: Casting Ridley Scott & Cormac McCarthy's Bleak, Beautiful Collaboration 'The Counselor'

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
February 28, 2012 12:00 PM
22 Comments
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Accusations of ageism fly around Hollywood all the time, but they seemed to be fairly definitively refuted in recent weeks when a 78-year-old became the hottest screenwriter in town after his film sold, attracted Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender, and was fast-tracked into production this May. Of course, it helps if that 78-year-old is Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Blood Meridian," "All The Pretty Horses," "The Road" and the source material for Best Picture winner "No Country For Old Men." But it's still a rare achievement, to get a film from the page to a greenlight, with A-list talent attached, in only a matter of days.

As so often happens with hot spec scripts, McCarthy's screenplay "The Counselor," leaked almost immediately, and like many others, we managed to get our grubby hands on a copy. And as one of the most talked-about scripts in a while, we thought we'd take a stab at casting the project, as we did with Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" last year.

Set mostly in the border country where McCarthy's stories often take place, the screenplay (which is laid out in a play-like format, much to the ire of amateur screenwriters all over the internet) opens with a couple, the Counselor of the title -- we never learn his name -- and Laura, in bed. They're clearly besotted with each other, as they share some very sexually explicit dialogue. Across the border in Mexico, a septic tank truck is specially modified and loaded up. And in the desert grasslands, another, very wealthy couple, Reiner and Malkina, take their cheetahs out hunting. Yes, cheetahs.

The Counselor is, as you might imagine, an attorney, but is also in search of a big payday after he proposes to Laura. So he hooks up with Reiner, an acquaintance with deep criminal ties, for a new business proposition: they'll take $20 million worth of cocaine from south of the border and offload it themselves, aided by the no-good Westray. As you might imagine, things do not go well for anyone involved.

If you know McCarthy's work, even just from the recent film adaptations, than you'll have a good idea of what to expect here: blood and savagery, much more so than even 'No Country.' There's also a thick vein of sexuality running through; mostly verbal, it should be said, but more than enough that the film may hit ratings issues down the line, even without the incredibly extreme violence. It'll be an interesting test case, anyway.

So does it work? Very much so: it's pure uncompromised McCarthy, with an atmosphere of looming menace from the first frame, with things only getting bleaker from there.  Some characters are perhaps a little thinly drawn, but there may be some redrafting. McCarthy's scripting technique might aggravate Robert McKee disciples, but we have no desire to swap his prose for more sparse stage directions. And while it's very talky -- with multiple page monologues and long dialogue scenes: there's also some indelible images that haunt us still, days after we read the thing. There's also an explicitly political tint that feels new from the writer.

For the record, some incorrect info has been doing the rounds: Deadline referred to a villain, a part being circled by Brad Pitt, Jeremy Renner and Javier Bardem, but there is no real villain per se (we'll get to that in more detail below). Meanwhile, there's one female part that could arguably be described as a villain, but even that doesn't quite give the whole picture.

What we can't work out at this point is what Scott will make of it. Genre wise, it's very different from anything he's ever tackled; while he's displayed lashings of gore in his work before, there's a nihilism to it that feels very different for him, and he wouldn't be the obvious director to come to mind when reading the script (in fact, his brother Tony, in "True Romance" mode, might seem like a better fit, in some ways). But we're glad he's pushing himself, even as he approaches his seventy-fifth birthday, and we're dying to see how it turns out. So, let's have a look at the characters in the film, and who would be a good fit to play them.

The Counselor

The Character: A moderately successful lawyer in an unnamed town near the border with Mexico (who is 43 years old in the script), The Counselor is a fundamentally decent man, undone by greed, and his absolute love for Laura.
Ridley's Choice: Michael Fassbender is locked in obviously, reuniting with his "Prometheus" director. And it's a damn fine choice: Fassbender can carry off the moral ambivalence and the raw sexuality, while also filling in some detail where the script leaves him something of a cypher. The part is kind of an everyman, but in Fassbender's hands, it should turn out to be something far more interesting.  

Reiner

The Character: A criminal acquaintance/client of The Counselor, who drags him into the underworld, Reiner had done pretty well out of the drug trade so far, living an opulent life that includes his two pet cheetahs. He's something of a racist, and is wounded by his last girlfriend leaving him for, in his words "a negress," but is deeply in love with Malkina, even while he knows that he can't trust her at all, and suspects that she'll one day be his undoing.
Our Choice: It's tricky, this one, in part because McCarthy doesn't specify an age. Our gut says that he's someone not far from The Counselor's age, possibly even a little younger (he's more hot-headed than his friend). We can't imagine Pitt or Bardem in this role, although it's likely that this is the one that's attracting the attention (it's the second largest male part in the film), although Renner's certainly feasible. Our first choice, however, would be Joaquin Phoenix, who'd bring his trademark unpredictability to the character, and given his post-comeback trend of working with top directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and James Gray, he might be attracted to a reunion with his "Gladiator" director. He's meant to be shooting Spike Jonze's next film shortly, but maybe scheduling could be worked out.
Other Options: Assuming we're on the right track with someone vaguely around Phoenix or Renner's age, there's a number of options on the table. One that sprung to mind immediately was Scott's "Matchstick Men" star Sam Rockwell, who could bring a nice nerviness to the character, and play well off Fassbender. Along not disimilar lines would be Adrien Brody, Colin Farrell or Oscar Isaac, the latter of which is hot at the moment thanks to working with the Coen Brothers, and was in "Body Of Lies" and "Robin Hood" for Scott. Tom Hardy would be an excellent choice, except that he's going to be shooting "Mad Max: Fury Road" for much of the rest of the year, and will therefore be unavailable. On the younger end of the scale would be Ryan Gosling, Ben Foster, James Franco or Justin Timberlake, while an offbeat, but fascinating choice would be rising star Rafe Spall, another member of the "Prometheus" crew. Going a touch older, Guy Pearce, Patrick Wilson or Eric Bana would all be interesting.

Malkina

The Character: Probably the meatiest part in the script, Malkina is an incredibly attractive Argentinean woman who's hooked up with Reiner, although doesn't seem to show any particular affection towards him. She's also hyper-sexualised: arguably the most indelible scene in the script involves Reiner relating a time when his lover fucked his car in front of him. She's an almost Almodovarean femme fatale, with a mysterious, possibly traumatic past that she hints at, without ever revealing it. To say any more would probably give the game away.
Our Choice: While there's a host of actresses who could pull this one off, there's one that stuck out for us: "The Skin That I Live In" star Elena Anaya, who's already demonstrated that she can play complex, vengeful female roles with aplomb. She might not be as domineering as some possibilities, but we think she could do something special with the part.
Other Options: We're sure Penelope Cruz is high on executive wish-lists, but we don't quite see her in the part; Paz Vega might be a better fit, or possibly Catalina Sandino Moreno or Ana Claudia Talancon. As for American actresses who might be able to pass it off, there's Eva Mendes or Genesis Rodriguez ("Man On A Ledge"), but we're not yet convinced that either has the chops to pull off McCarthy's dialogue, although Mendes' role in "The Place Beyond The Pines" might change our minds. And if Scott isn't too attached to casting true-blue Hispanic actresses (we would argue it's kind of crucial), Eva Green or Marion Cotillard could both be excellent choices.

Laura

The Character: The Counselor's fiancee is sadly a little underwritten in the script. That being said, she's got some intriguing character traits, and a couple of great scenes, including the opening, and a heart-to-heart with Malkina over the phone. In terms of size and importance, Kelly Macdonald's part in "No Country For Old Men" is a good guide.
Our Choice: Laura is 36 in the script, but probably going to be cast younger, given the scale down to Fassbender. Given that the actress needs to be fearless, attractive, and to play well opposite Fassbender, the obvious choice for us is Jessica Chastain. Once she wraps Kathryn Bigelow's latest, she's got a perfect gap in her schedule before going to Broadway in the fall, and Scott would be a fool not to want her.
Other Options: Given the level of talent involved elsewhere, we imagine they'll probably be able to attract a better calibre of actress than the part necessarily demands. For instance, one of our first thoughts was Amy Adams, who's capable of much more than the aw-shucks types she tends to get given these days, although as with Phoenix, it depends if shooting on Spike Jonze's latest is done in time. Other possibilites include Michelle Williams, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rachel Weisz, while if they go for slightly smaller, younger names, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan and Mary Elizabeth Winstead might all work.

Westray

The Character: The most enigmatic character in the script, one never quite knows what Westray's exact job is, but he's in the drug trade, and advises and aids The Counselor on his new sideline gig. Described as the same age as the protagonist, but feels older on the page.
Our Choice: It's very also possible that this is the part that Pitt, Bardem and maybe Renner have been linked to (although it could be Reiner too), and all could be interesting. But the one who came to mind for us was an actor who's proven a recent favorite of Ridley Scott: Mark Strong, whose performance in "Body Of Lies" led to his current omnipresence. The actor has the right kind of gravitas and look for the part (he was down to the last two, with Bardem, to play Anton Chigurh in 'No Country'), though with "Blood" and Bigelow's thriller on the calendar, scheduling could be an issue.
Other Options: Scott's most frequent collaborator of late, Russell Crowe, would fit in nicely here, but he's found himself in demand of late, with "Noah" and "Harker" competing to be his next after "Les Miserables." Idris Elba would also be a great fit, while names like Edward Norton, Demian Bichir, Michael Shannon, Don Cheadle, John Ortiz, John Hawkes or even Sean Penn could all be possible. 

We know some of y'all have read this: if you have, feel free to add your own picks below. Especially if your name is Ridley Scott.

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22 Comments

  • Stephen Davis | March 1, 2012 6:35 PMReply

    Fassbender as the Counselor's a fine choice, even though I read him as a mid-50s sort of loner who is finally marrying a longtime companion. I did picture Jessica Chastain as Laura, considering she's one of my favorite "new" actresses and is certainly someone who I feel is quite suited to McCarthy's writing. I actually pictured Malkina as less Latina and more of a darker-skinned woman, maybe Egyptian or even African (the tattoo is a clue). A younger, taller Sophie Okonedo type, maybe? I saw Reiner as played by an older man, well-off and athletic. The Alec Baldwin type, only not Baldwin himself. Jeremy Renner is perfect for Westray. And lastly, Demian Bichir is perfect in the brief role of the "jefe" at the end.

  • Aaron S. | March 1, 2012 5:09 PMReply

    How about hiring some America actors to play Americans for a change? Especially characters that are so American. I never think Brits or Aussie's are completely convincing.

    When did this invasion happen? We used to be proud of our homegrown actors.

    How about Timothy Olyphant, Jeremy Renner, Billy Bob Thorton or Josh Brolin as Westray? They have the chops to turn a great performance.

    Does every job have to be filled by a foreigner?

  • m | July 13, 2012 7:55 PM

    Fuck off, RACIST.

  • Lee | February 29, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    I just can't see Fassbender playing side to side with Brad Pitt. I don't think Pitt can pull it, Phoenix and Renner seem to be a nice pick to play with/against Fassbender.

    and as for Mark Strong.. Once in a blue moon, could someone please NOT to choose him for every. single. villain. the movie world ever made??
    I don't wanna see him being typecasted. he's a much better actor than that.
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy proved it.

  • Dsimolke | March 5, 2012 5:23 PM

    Thank you for noting Strong's performance in Tinker Tailor. No one seemed to say anything about him in that, and I thought he was flawless. Probably my favorite supporting performance of 2011. I too think he is capable of just about anything, but would love to see him in any McCarthy-written role, honestly. Whether it be villain or hero (granted these are simplistic labels).

  • Kanerwa | February 29, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    Scott should make adaptation of ''The Blood Meridian'' this would be veeery challenging.Maybe Russell Crowe would be good as Holden.

  • Kanerwa | March 2, 2012 8:08 PM

    Have you seen Romper Stomper with Crowe? In this role he shows he could pull off any semi-psycho characters.The high is not a problem,some special effects ( look at Maryl Streep in Julie&Julia) plus extra weight(no problem for Crowe),no tan, shaved everything (almost)and he appears as perfect judge Holden.I don't know who could be good as Glanton.And Kid (in polish translation it was Kid) should be played by real teenager ,not some twenty-something.

  • Kyle Harris | March 2, 2012 3:17 AM

    I think Crowe would be better suited for Glanton. I think for the Judge you need someone who has a hint of haunting malice about them. Something that lingers in his face and someone who isn't 5'11 like Crowe. I think Danny Huston could very well pull off the role of Holden I have seen him in the Proposition and in 30 Days of Night and he has something that he holds inside that is spooky. Shave his head and eyebrows, slap some makeup on there and give him a slight lift to his already 6'2 and you got something.

  • MT | February 29, 2012 12:35 AMReply

    Please no Zoe Saldana (a bit of an obvious and popular, but lazy choice for Malkina). The woman's adequate, but no thespian. I really like the inspired choices for the rest of the cast. Especially Elena Anaya/Paz Vega.

    Seeing that this project is still unattached to any studio, I'd bet that Ridley has (for now) free reign on his casting choices. Hope he gets creative and thinks out of the box, like he did for Prometheus. It's the kind of script and dialogue and either succeeds or falters on the performances' strength.

  • elizabeth | February 28, 2012 11:52 PMReply

    it would be shitty to cast a white actress in a role that WOC could just as easily play

  • James | February 28, 2012 9:26 PMReply

    The script that you reviewed is fake. Parts of it may be real, but large portions of it are not.

  • BD | February 29, 2012 5:35 AM

    How do you know?

  • Oogle monster | February 28, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    Eva Mendes? No no no no no Playlist. You guys are pretty great at this, so I'm going to excuse that absolutely mind-boggling option. Mendes is not attractive, a pretty terrible actress, and has zero range. When the words "incredibly attractive Argentinean woman" pop up, Mendes does not come to mind. I'm curious to see how she fares in Cianfrance's film, but I'm guessing it's a small enough role that she will likely be overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the big players, Gosling and co.

  • Arie | February 28, 2012 11:21 PM

    I liked her in the other guys but that part didn't require any acting chops, so i guess it's not a great gauge of her talent. i don't even know what else she has been in to be honest.

  • Christian | February 28, 2012 1:13 PMReply

    Great article. Keep doing these "We read it" casting articles!

  • Simone | February 28, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    Your picks are awesome! But I would like to see Zoe Saldana as Laura.

  • Linda | February 28, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    Jessica Chastain is of course perfect for Laura. WTF at the Lizzy Caplan suggestion amongst all the other real actresses. Internet fanboys have such a weird blind spot/hard on for random C-list TV actresses. Was she on a Joss Whedon show or something?

    Zoe Saldana would be the ideal Malkina, and I also like Marion Cotillard. An unexpected but inspired choice would be Berenice Bejo, who was actually born in Argentina. Why not use that new Oscar nomination to leverage some more challenging and different roles and stretch herself a bit?

  • Linda | February 29, 2012 12:20 PM

    Well she does to me. And describing her as dark could very well be referring to her skin color, how do you know it's not? Chances are she's not some pale white chick. Harping on this based on Saldana's race is weird but whatever, you don't have to like her, I don't really care.

  • mica | February 28, 2012 8:46 PM

    Nope. There is nothing in the script about her having brown skin. She is described as tall, with long black hair and very attractive. It's also said that she is dark, but who knows what does it mean. My guess is that it probably means she is Latino (I'm guessing because there is another character who is half Caucasian-half Latino and is described as "somewhat dark, part Mexican"). Sorry, but I doubt that a racist would date a woman like Zoe Saldana. I don't want to be harping about it, but she simply doesn't fit the description.

  • Linda | February 28, 2012 5:41 PM

    @MICA I believe Malkina is described as being Argentinian with long black hair and brown skin. Zoe Saldana is Latin American and fits this description.

  • mica | February 28, 2012 2:58 PM

    Zoe Saldana doesn't really fit description of any of the female roles, especially not Malkina. As was said in the article, Reiner seems to be a racist, so I guess he wouldn't date a black woman. And considering that he used the offending word "negress" in front of the counselor, I guess Laura is not black as well (I guess he wouldn't use that word in conversation with counselor, if his fiance was black, or at least counselor's reaction would be different).

  • b | February 28, 2012 12:10 PMReply

    Obviously, a no-brainer you guys would cast Jessica Chastain but am impressed you resisted the urge to cast Ryan Gosling

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