DEAD MAN DOWN
An International Ensemble
Finding the right actors to play Victor and Beatrice sent the filmmakers on a global casting search that took them to Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Scandinavia, as well as the U.S. "One of the great things about Niels is that when he locks into a specific actor, he doesn't back off," says Shane. "One of his strengths is working with actors. He's resolute in his choices and he knew exactly what he was looking for."
Oplev's first choice for Victor was the Irish actor Colin Farrell. "Neil Moritz and Ori Marmur were doing a film with him and suggested we consider him for the part," says the director. "It sounded like a really cool and interesting idea. I met him in New York, and I immediately recognized his enormous dedication to doing something different with the material. He has an unusual emotional depth, and the kind of odd nuances and sensitivity that I was looking for in this character."
Farrell was working on Total Recall for Original Films when he received the script. "We have a longstanding relationship with Colin," says Marmur. "He's a human chameleon. He bounces from big movies like Total Recall to critically acclaimed independent films like In Bruges to broad, edgy comedies like Horrible Bosses. He's had such an interesting career with films of incredible diversity, yet he doesn't feel overexposed."
Farrell's ability to easily cross genres made him the number-one candidate for the role of Victor, says Ford. "Colin is a rare actor. He is highly respected and popular with sophisticated audiences. At the same time, he has more than proven he's got the chops as an action hero as well."
In his initial discussions with the filmmakers, Farrell impressed them with his sensitive take on tough-guy Victor. "He saw clearly that Victor is a real person, not just an action hero," says the director. "Victor's journey takes him from near total darkness into the light. He has the capacity for tough urban combat. He's driven by revenge to kill. But in this film, killing comes with a price.
"Colin was able to portray Victor as a hard case and yet, at the same time, maintain the emotional depth that was so important for the character," continues Oplev. "We are able to believe the final outcome because we've sensed the turmoil beneath the surface. You could say that, through this ordeal, he becomes human again."
The overall script and the presence of Oplev as director captured Farrell's attention, but the character clinched it for him. An engineer in his native Hungary, Victor uses his keen intellect and talent for detail to devise an ingenious revenge after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered.
"Victor came to the U.S. looking for a better opportunity," the actor says. "Instead, everything that was stable and pure in his life is taken from him. When the film begins, he believes that he will never have any peace again in his life until he gets revenge for what he's lost."
The actor, who has played risk-taking characters on both sides of the law throughout his career, says he is drawn to stories where the stakes are high. "If the law is being broken, it raises the stakes in a way that offers a very potent backdrop," Farrell notes. "Dead Man Down is set in the criminal underworld of New York, a dicey place to be. But the relationship between Victor and Beatrice is the lynchpin that sets this apart from other films. When they become involved in each other's lives, it becomes an unexpected chance for redemption."
The unlikely connection between Victor and Beatrice begins in a uniquely New York manner, 18 floors in the air, in opposing apartment towers. "They live less than 30 yards from each other," says Farrell. "Their balconies face each other, which gives the relationship an air of voyeurism in the beginning. Victor has seen a woman looking at him; she's seen Victor looking at her. They've ventured a neighborly wave toward each other. Eventually they go out for dinner and it's not the most successful first date. Something has taken place in Victor's apartment, something he would like nobody to know about. She tries to blackmail him into performing an act of violence on her behalf."
Beatrice is played by Noomi Rapace, the Swedish-Spanish actress who shot to fame after playing Lisbeth Salander, the memorable title character in Oplev's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. "Noomi is amazing to work with," says Farrell. "She's incredibly bright, insightful and bold. She's got a kind of emotional articulacy that challenges you as an actor in the loveliest way. Her interpretation of Beatrice is so specific and poetic. To stand across from her and do the work was an absolute joy."
The pair rehearsed for just three days in Los Angeles. "It was short, but it seemed like we got a fortnight's worth of material out of it," says Farrell. "Joel Wyman, Niels, Noomi and I went through it page by page. Niels had his opinions, Noomi had hers and I had mine. Joel sat back and listened, because all his opinions were already in the script. I don't know that we made it better, but we gave it a more personal perspective in certain ways."
Working with Oplev was everything the actor had hoped it would be. "Niels and I developed a nice little shorthand," he says. "He's relentless and uncompromising about the work, so I trusted that he'd never move on from a scene unless he was completely happy. Some directors leave actors alone, because they're more concerned with the technical aspects like composition, framing and camera movement. Niels is very concerned with all of the above, but he is equally interested in the interaction between all the characters."
Oplev was primed to work with Rapace again after the success of their first feature and his suggestion to cast her as Beatrice was met with enthusiasm by the film's producers. "Obviously, she already had a great relationship with Niels," says Marmur. "We were thrilled when we sent her the script and she immediately responded to it."
Rapace has been on the fast track to international stardom since her astonishing three-picture arc in the Swedish version of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster trilogy. "We got to know each other extremely well in enormously tough circumstances," says Oplev. "I asked her to meet with Joel in Los Angeles, and, of course, she dazzled him. I knew she could bring the emotion and the depth, but what was really attractive for me was to use her in a role as far away from Lisbeth Salander as I could possibly imagine.
"Beatrice is a feminine French-American girl," Oplev continues, "always manicured and in high heels, with beautiful hair. She is petite and fragile, but at the same time, she has this enormous anger and dark heart that allows her to do unimaginable things. She's not afraid of dying, which gives her a lot of power."
According to Ford, Rapace possesses just the right mixture of fragility and strength to make Beatrice a formidable adversary. "She exudes a kind of bravery and pride, as well as beauty and sex appeal," he says. "That's what attracts Colin's character to her."
"This script hit me straight in the heart," says Rapace. "I grew up loving movies like True Romance and Natural Born Killers about twisted, deeply connected relationships between people on the edge. For me, this is a similar story, brutal and violent, but with a light inside. It's been many, many years since I have seen anything like it. We've got tough guys with lots of tattoos and guns and explosions and all that gritty, sexy roughness. But the heart of this movie is the emotion. The interaction between those two worlds is electric."
A car accident caused by a drunk driver has damaged Beatrice's once beautiful face beyond repair, but the psychological damage is even worse. She's become a figure of ridicule, mocked by the neighborhood children as "the monster." "Her life stopped that day," says Rapace. "She was used to getting everything she wanted by being the attractive girl in the room. In a heartbeat, everything was taken away. And now she doesn't know how to live. She doesn't know who she is.
"She's trying to find a way back, but her loneliness grows every day," the actress continues. "Victor becomes the ticket out of her darkness. She has this whole plan. The first step is to charm him, then to get him to work with her on her road to revenge."
Beatrice and her mother live in a tiny French-accented bubble in their New York apartment, behaving as if time stopped before the accident. Until Victor enters their world, they are very much on their own.
"Beatrice and Victor are living parallel lives," says Rapace. "When she sees him in his apartment, she feels a connection with him because she can clearly see that he's also lonely. He becomes an obsession for her. When she sees him do something extraordinary in his apartment, it should freak her out, but instead she becomes more fascinated. She convinces herself that he will stop her pain."
Rapace says that, like their characters, she and Farrell connected immediately. "I think our energies are quite similar in the sense that we never stop. We were immersed in Victor and Beatrice's world, living, breathing and thinking it. He's so sensitive and focused and committed, but wide open, without protection. That's the most beautiful thing you can experience as an actor."
Knowing Oplev would be at the helm of the film allowed Rapace to explore and experiment with confidence. "When I heard that Niels was attached to this movie, it seemed too good to be true," she says. "We have an interesting chemistry. He knows I try to go as far as I can into it. He also knows that I'm quite stubborn in my opinions about my characters. He's like a hand grenade -- very passionate and with a strong temper. His commitment is 150 percent and he can't compromise. It's not a choice; he doesn't have that filter."
Cast against type as Alphonse, the sinister, ruthless crime boss and Victor's unknowing nemesis, is Terrence Howard. "Terrence almost never plays bad guys," says Marmur. "He's always very sympathetic, or he's a seemingly bad guy who turns out to be a good guy. But in Dead Man Down, Terrence is a really bad guy! He's very menacing and scary. Terrence is a terrific actor and we really responded to his desire to shake things up and play a different kind of role.
"To his credit, he doesn't play Alphonse in that over-the-top, traditional, underworld mob boss kind of way," continues Marmur. "With Terrence in the role, Alphonse is a very slick, very smooth criminal. He's extremely calculating and you can almost feel the rage bubbling out from under his skin."
Howard relished the opportunity to explore his dark side. "I've been playing good guys for so long," he says. "Sometimes it's necessary to see who you can be under uglier circumstances. Alphonse reminds me of a character in a Khalil Gibran story who has tried to do everything the right way, but doors keep slamming in his face. In the end, he decides that if he can't accomplish his goals by being a good man, he will become the worst criminal of all time."
He sees Alphonse's choices as a sad commentary on humanity's lack of kindness and openness. "Alphonse didn't start life saying, I want to kill. He was forced to fend for himself and began to work as a selfish entity. Tragically, he doesn't realize until almost the very end of the film that he has already lost all of his dreams. I believe that every character an actor plays is some unfinished version of himself. So as much as I enjoyed playing Alphonse, it was frightening to go to that place."
There were several other motivators for Howard to tackle the role. "Niels Arden has an eye for the imaginative, creative spirit," he adds. "He tells such a simple truth in such a complex way. And I loved working with Colin Farrell on Hart's War and wanted to work with him again. His development of his characters and ability to uncover their subterranean layers is inspiring. He has so many wonderful ideas about the full arc of the characters together, not just his own. He looks at the whole film like a symphony, so to speak, and instead of just playing his violin, he has the entire orchestra in mind. There's a magic in him that I find invigorating."
Farrell returns the compliments. "Terrence always comes to work," says Farrell. "His interpretation of Alphonse was not what I imagined. There's a level of fear and paranoia to the character that I find really interesting. Terrence was very brave in investigating that.
"In one extremely tense moment, his voice is borderline cracking like he's fighting holding back his emotions," he continues. "And yet he's deadly dangerous at that point. He's very measured and at the same time he hasn't relinquished the kind of rawness that audiences saw in him in Hustle & Flow."
The filmmakers also cast British actor Dominic Cooper against type when they tapped him for the role of Darcy, Victor's closest friend and an ambitious member of the gang. "Dominic's character is unique for him," says Marmur. "He was in the middle of shooting Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter when we approached him and, like other actors, he really responded to the material and gave us an immediate 'yes.' It's really a challenging role for him and he brought fresh and original ideas to his interpretation."
"Dominic's a lovely actor," agrees Farrell. "I've seen him in so many things from An Education to Devil's Double, and his work is always spectacular. He's always interesting to watch and I was delighted to work with him."
Darcy is determined to find out who is threatening Alphonse in order to cement his place in the gang hierarchy, but he's unaware that the answer lies so close to him. "People often talk about knowing that they want to take on a project after reading the first few pages of a script," says Cooper. "That had never happened to me before this. But this was exactly what I had been looking for. It was wonderful to see a well-formed character with an unusual arc. He finishes in a very different place from where he began."
Darcy is not a typical gangster, according to Stuart Ford. "He wants to provide for his family, so he's trying to move up in the world. He turns out to be the cleverest of the bunch, because he's the only one who manages to piece together the puzzle. Dominic is extremely refreshing in the role. He's gangster-as-Lower-East-Side-hipster, wearing suspenders with his pants hanging low. There's a boyish likability to him, as well as the feeling that he is truly dangerous because he's a guy with a gun on a mission."
Darcy opens the film with a touching and raw plea to his friend Victor about his trying personal situation, all while cradling his newborn baby. "The juxtaposition of what he's saying and who he is doesn't seem to add up," says Cooper. "I love that about the opening sequence. It sets him up as complicated from the beginning. He's capable of violence, but his need and desperation give you sympathy for him. He really wants to climb the ladder within this gang, without understanding how dangerous it, and that he's not really built for it. It all blows up in his face with an incredible twist in the plot, which I also love."
Cooper's admiration for his director is obvious. "Niels was so specific about the story being told," he says. "Even with all the complicated action he had to get on film, he never for a moment let the acting go unchecked. Amidst the chaos unfolding on a set, it's often the last thing that gets considered. It was a very safe feeling to know how particular he was. There were sometimes heated discussions on set, but he always listened and took the time to consider."
The filmmakers scored a real casting coup for the role of Valentine, Beatrice's French mother. Through a combination of inspiration, tenacity and luck, they were able to snag legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert for a rare appearance in an American film.
"Isabelle was truly a great get," says Marmur. "She's French acting royalty. Niels targeted her immediately. She was interested, but she has a very tricky schedule because she's in such great demand. She had to work us in between two different productions in France. It was a big deal -- but well worth it. She elevates the role."
"Isabelle Huppert is absolutely magnificent in the film," says Oplev. "She plays Valentine with such strange sweetness. Isabelle gives her a mysterious, dangerous undertone and a really loving heart. Valentine and Beatrice draw Victor under their spell and he becomes a little helpless when he's with them."
"A little bit of everything attracted me to this project -- the script, the cast, the director," says Huppert. "Valentine represents an island of joy and comfort in Beatrice's life. The two of them live in a bubble, very protected after what happened to Beatrice.
"On the surface, she's light and cheerful, but underneath she's sad about her daughter's life," Huppert continues. "She wants her daughter to recover and have a normal life. Beatrice wants to protect her mother, too. It's quite moving in a sense, this relationship. They are waiting for something to happen, but they don't know what exactly. When Valentine sees Victor through the window, she knows by intuition that something could come from him."
Working with director Niels Arden Oplev was a pleasure for Huppert. "Niels is very delicate, very precise and he's very open to any proposal," she says. "He's ready to dig as far as possible into a scene. He has demonstrated a unique talent for mixing violence and introspection. There's action, but he lets the feelings and emotions of the characters come through. What I want to express on screen is life and working with a director like Niels and actors like Noomi and Colin makes that possible."
In the scene when Victor comes to the women's apartment for the first time, Huppert found echoes of the beloved Tennessee Williams play, "The Glass Menagerie." "Actually, Renee Kalfus, the costume designer, called it to my attention," says the actress. There is this fragility and strangeness to the characters and the life they have constructed. Maybe I was in the middle of a Tennessee Williams moment, because I was playing Blanche Dubois in 'Streetcar' at the time, but I thought it was a really good comparison. Each character is a bit broken. They're trying to recover, through a really dramatic situation."
Marmur still marvels at the luck the filmmakers had getting all their first choices for the movie's major roles. "Between Colin, Noomi, Terrence, Dominic, and of course, Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down has a truly world-class cast," he says. "I really can't say enough about them. They're all lovely people off the screen and they all put 100 percent of their ability on the screen."
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