An adaptation of the cold war spy '60s TV show, 'U.N.C.L.E' is a Warner Bros. project that has languished in development for years, with several attempted iterations on a modern day bent that never quite clicked. Warner Bros. asked Soderbergh several times about his take on the project, and during the production of “Contagion,” green lit his and frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns’ (“The Informant!”) angle on the material -- a 1960s period piece set in London during the Cold War. With Soderbergh's retirement on the horizon, George Clooney suggested the director make one more project before he called it a day, and the film then immediately had its lead. While Clooney was never formally attached, it was understood between the three men (with WB aware) that if schedules worked and the script was solid, the former "E.R." lead would star as the American half of the U.N.C.L.E. duo Napolean Solo (U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and on the show it featured an American and Russian spy that worked above both nations battling against an organization known as the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity – T.H.R.U.S.H).
Now that Clooney has had to officially bow out because of a bad back (Burns explained why here, revealing that his script calls for strenuous and punishing physicality), names like Ryan Gosling, Alexander Skarsgard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were reported to have entered the mix. But that's only part of the story.
We've been hearing that Soderbergh already met with one person during Comic-Con for the second lead role of Russian spy Illya Kuryakin, that being Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish star of "Snabba Cash" (“Easy Money”) and one of the leads on AMC's homicide detective show "The Killing." The rising actor is gaining some heat of late, and by the time ‘U.N.C.L.E’ eventually lands in theaters, he will have appeared in the alien invasion flick “The Darkest Hour,” David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and upcoming indie “Lola Versus” (Kinnaman’s ‘Tattoo’ character also appears in all three books and thus would have a larger role in the 2nd and 3rd films in this franchise).
With Clooney as the American lead Napoleon Solo -- giving the film the star power it needed -- Soderbergh was essentially free to cast a lesser known in the secondary role. However, now that Clooney is out, Warner Bros. is putting an emphasis on big name actors for both roles, hence their desire for the likes of Gosling, Skarsgard and Gordon-Levitt. Of course, things are still at the wishlist level with only minor inquiries with agents about schedules, but this is the idea as of right now. WB is throwing other wishlist names around as well, including usual suspects like Bradley Cooper (a name that Soderbergh isn't entirely opposed to), Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pine, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jon Hamm, Russell Crowe and Robert Pattinson, hoping one of them will stick with the director.
Another name that everyone likes, including the director, is Matt Damon, who loved the script and didn’t even worry about Jason Bourne comparisons. This could have easily been a done deal that all parties would have loved, but Damon’s busy gearing up to shoot his directorial debut in February starring John Krasinski – the same month that 'Man From U.N.C.L.E' is planning on shooting, so he’s out. Brad Pitt is another logical choice in the older bracket whose name has been briefly floated, but after the “Moneyball” situation, no, that won’t happen. Another strong contender that both sides like is Jude Law, who just appeared in Soderbergh’s virus thriller.
Bear in mind WB would like a franchise here, so younger actors have been more appealing than Clooney almost from day one. Soderbergh also has a Napoleon Solo in mind in “Haywire” co-star Michael Fassbender. While the quickly-rising star only shot a few days on “Haywire,” both director and actor shared a good experience working together on the set. A Fassbender/Kinnaman duo would play well in the director’s mind, and with Oscar talk brewing for Fassbender’s turn in “Shame,” plus upcoming turns in Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle's films, the actor seems ripe for a proper leading role. But WB is still trying to place their bets on who they believe to be bigger-name horses. While Gosling isn’t a mega star yet (as “Drive” proved this weekend at the box-office), Warner Bros. are convinced he’s the next Steve McQueen (there is a reason the studio has him in “Gangster Squad” and attached with BFF Nicolas Winding Refn for the long developing “Logan’s Run” reboot) and are hoping to find cast him as the Russian Illya Kuryakin (sources tell us while everyone likes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, neither side has brought him up for a role here as he’s been deemed too young). Another possibility is Ewan McGregor, who just worked with Soderbergh on “Haywire” and was originally going to play Basher, the Scottish bomb expert in the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, but then had to drop out of because of the “Star Wars” prequels -- he’s well liked.
While studio and director haven’t hit an no-way-out impasse yet, it’s clear they are of two minds – as studios and filmmakers tend to be. Tony Gilroy’s number one choice for “The Bourne Legacy” was Oscar Issac, but Universal stood their ground of their desired choice of Jeremy Renner and won (Issac subsequently took another role in the film). WB would like to go younger and the filmmaker believes that Napoleon Solo should be played by someone who at least can pass for being in their 40s. The difference between ‘Legacy’ and ‘U.N.C.L.E’ is if Soderbergh isn’t fully satisfied with the way casting goes down, he can easily walk and prep “Liberace” instead, which will shoot sometime in the second half of 2012 with Damon and Michael Douglas.
While Soderergh won’t direct it, another interesting piece of the puzzle is that Soderbergh and Burns have already mapped out an ‘U.N.C.L.E’ sequel plus have a tantalizing idea for a third film that we won’t yet reveal here. As for retirement, well, never say never. While bowing out ahead of the game is still very much the intended desire we’re hearing one possible (stress, possible) reason why “retirement” may have slightly receded into “hiatus” in the director’s interviews of late (other than “retirement” being such a boring, first world problem that he's embarrassed to speak about) is because Soderbergh would still like to make one more film with Clooney. Whether that actually could happen is anyone’s guess, because by the sound of it that collaboration is only the tiniest kernel of a notion as of right now.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks on ‘U.N.C.L.E’ casting as a February 14th start dates looms, and once actors start getting booked for 2012, options will become more and more limited.