Mortals and Casters
Strange occurrences have been happening in Gatlin ever since Lena Duchannes came to town. And it's no coincidence that, for a while now, Ethan Wate has been having dreams about a strange girl in a lightning storm seeking his help. Although the ultimate connection is a mystery, one thing is clear: the moment Ethan and Lena meet, their bond is immediate, and so strong it unleashes another kind of storm altogether -- a disturbance between powerful Light and Dark forces that have held a fragile, dormant truce in this Southern town for generations.
Writer/director Richard LaGravenese threw a wide net to search for the right actors to portray the young lovers at the center of the tempest. He auditioned more than a thousand people, and found just what he was looking for in relative unknowns Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert. "There's something very special about Alden and Alice," he says. "Besides being incredibly smart, they're authentic old souls. They're completely uninterested in status or perception. They use their talents to create with great individuality and passion. They made Lena and Ethan honest."
Stoff agrees, "It wasn't our intention to cast unknowns, it just happens that the best actors for the roles are new faces and we're very fortunate to have them."
Alden Ehrenreich plays the central character of Ethan Wate, who, having lost his mother, is saddled with adult responsibilities before his time. He also longs to escape Gatlin's stagnant existence. Ehrenreich relates, "You hope that when you read a script, you feel it and see it, and I really saw it. The clarity of the character's voice hooked me within the first few pages. Almost everybody else is content with the small-town high school social life, but Ethan envisions something more. I really admire that hopeful optimism in spite of all he's been through. I also liked that even though he's been through a lot he still is full of humor and wit."
"Alden is the real thing," LaGravenese states. "His intelligence and talent are at his fingertips and reflected in his choices on screen. He loves to work, he loves what he does. He asks all the right questions -- my favorite quality in an actor, because those questions make the script better. He and Alice were true partners, collaborators. Alden is as skilled as many seasoned actors I've worked with."
Director and star bonded off-screen as well. The two self-proclaimed film geeks competed on set daily in spontaneous film factoids contests.
Ethan isn't the only one carrying a burden beyond his years. So is Lena, who wants to be a normal teen and live a normal life, despite being anything but. At the urging of his casting director, Margery Simkin, LaGravenese flew to London to audition Australian-born Alice Englert, the daughter of Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion, for the role.
"We met, and I was completely intimidated by this 17-year-old girl who was so self-possessed and clear about her own aesthetics and values," LaGravenese says. "She had a quality no one else had. Alice is the embodiment of Lena and brought strength, toughness, dry humor, intelligence and danger to her. She's pure instinct, pure talent. A wonderful spirit."
When the filmmakers put Alice in a room with Alden, everything clicked. Valdes remarks, "Once in a while, you get lightning in a jar, and this was a double bolt."
That chemistry was integral to the story of two young people clinging together in the midst of a supernatural war.
Englert offers, "Casters are raised with this idea that you simply must go with the fate that is chosen for you. But Ethan's humanity stirs Lena's, and the power of that humanity -- and whether choice is possible in the equation of her destiny -- piqued my interest."
Lena's own burgeoning power is something she also cannot deny, or often control. A Caster specifically connected to the elements, a Natural, Lena can command wind, fire, water, and air. That makes life complicated for a hormonal teenager who, instead of slamming doors when she's angry, can whip up rain...or worse.
Lena's willpower is tested by her new classmates, who delight in tormenting the "new girl," whose family reputation precedes her. They may not know her, and although she is a descendent of the Duchannes family and the once grand Greenbriar estate, the fact that she is related to the infamous Ravenwood clan is enough to make her a target of everyone... except Ethan.
Ehrenreich attests, "From the minute they meet there's a spark. Lena's different from anyone Ethan has ever met, which is what everybody else is really adverse to, and exactly what he is attracted to."
While he tries to impress the stranger from out of town, Lena is "aloof and cautious for reasons he doesn't know and, in her mind, could never understand," says Englert. "But Ethan's brash enthusiasm completely disarms her. She wants to let down her guard but she's afraid for him."
"One thing the three of us collaborated on was maturing Lena and Ethan's relationship," LaGravenese relates. "It's not starry-eyed; there's also jealousy, frustration, and anger, because sometimes you have to fight with, and for, the people you love.
"Lena refuses to defer to the Southern niceties," the director continues. "She challenges Ethan. She's not a girl that needs to be saved. She's a girl who has an increasingly strong amount of power, so she is the one who has to do the saving."
She will definitely have to save Ethan from her family. And what a family it is.
Lena may be new in Gatlin, but the town was founded by the Ravenwoods, and her Uncle Macon still owns much of the land on which it's built. However, over the years, Macon's reclusive existence has inspired frightening stories and theories amongst the townspeople.
Jeremy Irons, who stars as Macon, describes his character as "an enigma. He has a style, a wit and a bit of mystery. I found all of those things very interesting to play. Talking to Richard, I thought it would be fun to come to New Orleans and tell this story."
Interestingly, the authors had visualized Irons as Macon and even had a photo of him taped to their computers during the course of writing the book.
LaGravenese states, "Jeremy brings to Macon something that I hadn't even thought of -- his Macon is more human. There's a frustration and vulnerability there. In the book, he's a Noel Coward kind of sophisticate, but there is much more to him than that, and Jeremy mined all of those fields. We both had a great time exploring his powers."
Though Macon had been Claimed by the Dark in his youth, he has been trying to suppress his true nature for the sake of Lena. And he will draw on whatever powers, Light or Dark, to protect her. Irons observes, "As Lena's 16th birthday approaches, Macon is trying to keep any influence away from her that could possibly allow her to be Claimed by the Dark. And one of those influences, he has reason to believe, is love for a Mortal."
One of the few people that understands Macon's reservations about Ethan and Lena is Amma, played by Viola Davis. Amma had been Ethan's mother's best friend and had promised to watch out for Ethan when his mother passed away. While not a Caster, Amma is a Seer and has her own fears about a union between these two young people.
LaGravenese had just one person in mind for the screen role of Amma, the town librarian who has her own mysterious connection to the spirit world, and Davis was the first person he cast for the film. He confirms, "In the book, Amma and the librarian are two different characters. I combined them because I wanted to make one faceted and interesting role for a great actress like Viola Davis, who was my first and only choice. I saw her on stage in FENCES with Denzel Washington a few years ago, and, of course, DOUBT and THE HELP. She knocks me out. Since then, I'd always wanted to work with her. She's an extraordinary actress with incredible power, fierceness and compassion."
"Amma is the matriarch of the series, and has such a great back story that unfolds in the film. We felt lucky to have Viola in this role," Mickler Smith adds.
For her role, Davis researched the history of African Americans during the Civil War era, and farther back, to Nigeria. The entire cast also worked with dialect coach Rick Lipton to navigate the Southern dialect.
Davis offers, "The intriguing thing about Amma is she's not what she appears to be. As Ethan begins to fall in love with Lena, and Amma comes to understand that anyone who comes in Lena's path could possibly be destroyed, her role as protector intensifies. Her layers start to peel away and the reason she is the keeper of the secrets, and her relationship to the past, comes out."
The Duchannes' past involves a curse surrounding the Claiming and it turns out Amma and Macon know more about how the curse came to be than they are divulging. However, that history refuses to remain buried, surfacing when Ethan finds a Civil War-era locket unearthed near the remains of Greenbriar, the Duchannes plantation, which burned in what the locals call "the War of Northern Aggression." Once he and Lena touch it, the past -- and long-held family secrets -- are revealed.
LaGravenese explains, "The locket opens the door to the past and to the origin of the curse on Lena's family."
"It brings Lena and Ethan's relationship into the context of the past and what that could potentially mean for the future," adds Englert. That past comes to ghostly life whenever Lena and Ethan touch the locket simultaneously, revealing in bits and pieces what really happened at The Battle of Honey Hill and the Greenbriar ruins in the 1800s.
Ehrenreich elaborates, "The visions are disturbing and violent but they are clues to what Lena is up against falling in love with a Mortal, and the risks for Ethan to be with a Caster."
Macon and Amma are not the only two who have secrets or want to keep Lena and Ethan apart. Mrs. Lincoln, who spreads many of the ominous stories about Macon, wants Lena out of school -- and out of town. Emma Thompson plays the conservative town crier who is also the mother of Ethan's best friend, Link. At the other end of the spectrum, Thompson, performing double duty, plays the role of Sarafine, a Dark Caster who is trying her best to stir up the nefarious forces in Gatlin.
LaGravenese reveals, "I've been in love with Emma Thompson for years. She's extraordinary. I would have done anything to work with her."
Thompson remarks, "It's great to be given even one role where you could really turn around and destroy the Earth. So, having two rather heightened characters to play in tandem made me say, 'yes, please, how delicious.'"
To say that Mrs. Lincoln is a Bible thumper would be an understatement. She has already driven her husband to drink himself into the grave and she's well on her way to doing the same to her son. By contrast, the dangerous, destructive Sarafine follows no rules. Comparing the contradictory roles, Thompson relates, "Sarafine thinks Mortals are inferior and have messed everything up. She is both humorous and evil. Ironically, she's the fun one you'd want to hang around with, while Mrs. Lincoln is so full of rage at everything outside her comfort zone, her body, even her accent, is tense. She uses perkiness to cover up that she's dying inside."
LaGravenese recalls, "It was amazing to watch Emma create two completely polar characters, sometimes in the same scene, just by virtue of shifting her body and tone. How she can modulate her voice between humor and a sinister quality is amazing. She's brilliant and so funny."
The event that will help Sarafine stir things up the most is Lena's upcoming birthday. This significant event marks when Lena will be Claimed by either Light or Dark forces, as all Casters before her have been. Sarafine is betting on the Dark, because of the curse that has plagued the women of the family for generations.
Crashing the party is the Dark Caster Ridley, a Siren who can get others to do her bidding. LaGravenese cast Emmy Rossum in the role. "Emmy is a thoroughbred. She's just a fearless, multi-talented actress. The nature of Ridley's character -- embodying different stylized looks and intention often without dialogue -- could easily be daunting. But Emmy can go from fierce to warm to humorous to scary to vulnerable," he says.
Ever since Ridley was Claimed for the Dark when she was 16, she has been travelling the world and up to no good. "She's so bad even the Casters have cast her out," Rossum laughs. "She thinks Mortals are terribly boring and enjoys being deliciously evil. She revels in manipulating people to get what she wants, so it was great fun to explore the undercurrents: Is she all evil? Does she have goodness inside? When is she being real and when is she playing people?"
Like Sarafine, Ridley wants to stir up trouble. And she starts with Ethan's best friend, Link, who would also like nothing more than to escape Gatlin...until Ridley crooks her finger at him.
LaGravenese cast Thomas Mann in the role, noting, "He has this innate sense of humor and is a fantastic improviser. He just becomes what he's doing and it flows out naturally. You can't ask for better. He's a very talented young man."
Although Ethan is on the Varsity team and one of the popular kids, and Link is more of an outcast, they share the bond of having lost a parent. Link is Ethan's wingman on the journey with this remarkable girl. Mann says, "They've been best friends since they were little kids and have gone through a lot, they share the same mentality. It was such a fun character to play because he's great comic relief from some of the darker elements of the story. And I play Emma Thompson's character's son, which is pretty cool, right off."
Kosove remarks, "We were incredibly blessed with our cast. To have Jeremy, Viola and Emma is pinch-me time. I think that's a credit to the material, and to Richard. And our younger troupe is exciting."
The younger cast also includes Zoey Deutch in the role of Emily Asher, Ethan's former girlfriend and head of the popular clique at school, and Tiffany Boone as Savannah Snow, who helps Emily make Lena's life difficult.
Rounding out the ensemble of Casters are Eileen Atkins as Lena's Gramma; Margo Martindale in the role of Aunt Del; and Kyle Gallner as Lena's cousin Larkin.
Pruitt Taylor Vince plays high school teacher Mr. Lee, who lives for the annual reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Honey Hill, but is unprepared when the reenactment becomes all too real, pitting the past against the present. Rachel Brosnahan and Sam Gilroy appear as Civil War-era lovers whose fates are tied to that of Lena and Ethan.
Time and place will also prove to play a major role in the impending battle between Mortals and Casters.
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