THE BIG WEDDING
Meet Your Hosts: The Griffins
At the head of the Griffin family is Don -- a successful sculptor who might be salty, cheeky and prone to getting into trouble even at his age, but just wants his entire family, past and present, to be happy. Taking the role is Academy Award winner Robert De Niro (Actor in a Leading Role, Raging Bull, 1980), who most recently won accolades as another flawed father in David O. Russell's comedic family drama Silver Linings Playbook.
De Niro was drawn to the project from the get-go. "I liked the character and I liked Justin Zackham and I knew Diane Keaton was going to be in and I thought that would be great," he recalls.
He especially enjoyed Don's bawdier side, which is constantly getting him into predicaments . . . whether with his ex-wife or his girlfriend. "The comedy of this film has a certain flavor to it. It's very dry and tongue-in-cheek in terms of dialogue and there are also some blatantly comic situations that Don finds himself in," De Niro laughs.
Once on the set, he especially enjoyed the mix of the ensemble, and the chance to work with a broad cast of actors -- not only from his generation but also newcomers from the next. "Diane was great, Susan was great, Robin Williams was great and all the young actors were also great," he summarizes. "The whole thing had the kind of feeling of a wedding: people were happy and having a good time."
For Zackham, De Niro embodied the role. "Bob plays Don Griffin as an eccentric curmudgeon and as a guy who just wants to keep the peace," says the screenwriter-director. "If he could, Don would keep everything nice and smooth and easy, with everyone having a good time . . . but of course, it never works out that way for him!"
He continues: "Bob has traditionally played the straight guy in comedies, whether he was playing off of Charles Grodin in Midnight Run or Ben Stiller in the Meet The Parents movies. But this is a different kind of comic character for him, and he really steals the movie with his scenes. He's laugh-out-loud funny and he and Diane have this great chemistry where you completely buy that they're exes in the way that they get in these little, tiny digs at each other all the time. It was just great watching them together."
Keaton plays Ellie as a spiritedly independent divorcee and devoted mother who thinks she's squared with the past . . . until she spends a weekend "pretend married" to Don Griffin and gets caught up in their family hijinks all over again. The role brings the Oscar winner (Actress in a Leading Role, Annie Hall, 1977) and multiple Academy Award nominee (Actress in a Leading Role -- Reds, 1981; Marvin's Room, 1996; Something's Gotta Give, 2003) together on screen with Robert De Niro for the first time since Francis Ford Coppola's classic The Godfather: Part II.
"I've known Bob for many years but this was a whole new experience for both of us," says Keaton. "There's no one else like him, and in this story we had the chance to be very playful around the whole idea of marriage and divorce and the reality that just because your marriage ends doesn't mean you ever completely let go of that affection you had for your ex . . . along with a whole lot of other tricky emotions. In the process of pretending they're back together, Don and Ellie figure out a few things about what they really want."
Keaton was inspired right away by Justin Zackham and his screenplay, which caused her to jump on the project before the rest of the stellar cast. "Justin has a comedian's sense of humor," she says, "but he translates that to a real family in the screenplay for The Big Wedding. Then, even with this big cast of celebrities, he was able to create a terrifically warm and creative atmosphere on the set. "
Certainly Ellie can't take things too seriously in a situation where she is suddenly revisiting her married past, hoping to work things out with her former best friend who is now her ex-husband's lover, and all the while trying to avoid disaster while making sure her son's wedding comes off more for better than for worse. At the same time, Keaton gives Ellie an earthy charm and an openheartedness that makes her dilemmas and snafus very relatable.
While Don Griffin takes a momentary detour back to his married life with Ellie, he is still in love with the long-time girlfriend he has never quite managed to wed: the ebullient Bebe, who, in an awkward twist, was also once Ellie's best friend. Taking the role is Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon (Actress in a Leading Role, Dead Man Walking, 1995), whose recent films include Arbitrage and the action thriller Snitch.
Says Sarandon of her character: "She's a nice counterpoint to Diane's character because Ellie is very tailored and refined and from Greenwich, while Bebe has a bit of a Southern twang and is more over the top. And one of the funniest things about Bebe is that her house is just riddled with portraits of her Pugs!"
When the Griffins decide to turn back the clock and pretend they're married again for the wedding weekend, Bebe is banished from the wedding to keep the scheme going. But she can't resist the temptation to make a surprise appearance that goes outrageously awry.
Sarandon and Keaton found a natural push-pull rapport as friends who have to temporarily share a husband. "I think the real challenge for Bebe is not just with Don but also repairing her friendship with Ellie," Sarandon notes. "I've known Diane for years but this was our first chance to work together."
One of the biggest thrills for Sarandon was the watching the entire ensemble -- newcomers and veterans alike -- of The Big Wedding all mixing it up together. "When you have an ensemble cast like this, the energy really stays up and you always have someone to bounce things off," she says.
With the likes of De Niro, Keaton and Sarandon playing the parental side of the Griffin family, the hunt was on for an equally charming cast to portray the three grown-up Griffin children. Ultimately, the filmmakers cast one of today's most sought-after comic leading ladies, Katherine Heigl, as feisty eldest daughter Lyla; Topher Grace as romantically challenged Jared; and Ben Barnes as Alejandro, whose impending marriage sparks so many unforeseen twists for them all.
Heigl, whose leading comic roles include Knocked Up, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, was instantly drawn to Lyla, who in many ways is a chip off her sculptor father's block but, having never forgiven him for his infidelity, has kept up an irreverent relationship with him. A high-powered lawyer who has been trying for years to get pregnant, she's now in a tailspin with her own husband.
"Lyla is one of the most interesting people I've played," says Heigl. "She's got a bit of a temper and she throws out some zingers. If she feels like she is about to be criticized, she will beat you to the punch! But I think her philosophy comes out of her disappointment with her father and in order to circumvent more disappointment, she tries to stay very removed. But that doesn't really work."
Heigl also couldn't resist the rare chance to play the offspring of De Niro and Keaton. "That made this so appealing and exciting," she says. "On the set, we all became very close very quickly, so in the family scenes you see a lot of real laughter."
The comic antics were punctuated by some poignant father-daughter moments for Heigl and De Niro. "In one really touching, beautiful scene you get to see Don reaching out to his daughter the best that he can and Lyla even lets her guard down for a moment," Heigl observes. "You see how in many ways they are similar. They just have different ways of showing their love."
For Zackham, that moment between Heigl and De Niro became a favorite scene. "When Don and Lyla go toe-to-toe with each other, there wasn't a dry eye on the set," he recalls. "Katherine absolutely gave as good as she was getting from Bob and it's not every day that you see something like that."
Heigl also enjoyed the teasing rapport Lyla has with her brother Jared due to their very different takes on romance -- with Lyla opting for cynicism in contrast to Jared's idealism. Adding to the fun, Jared turned out to be played by Heigl's childhood friend from Darien, Connecticut, Topher Grace. "Topher and I have had a fun relationship for years so I just knew we'd be able to do the snarky, witty banter these siblings have," she says.
Grace, who came to the fore in "That '70s Show" and was recently seen with Richard Gere in The Double, was also intrigued by having Heigl as a sister. "Katherine is one of the coolest people ever so if you had to choose someone to be your sister, she would be it," he says.
In fact, Grace was in awe of his entire on-screen family in The Big Wedding. "I was sitting at a table one day, and realized everyone around me had an Academy Award but me!" he laughs. "I felt so lucky. To be able to do a comedy scene with Robin Williams or do a heartfelt emotional scene with Robert De Niro or Diane Keaton, or work with Susan Sarandon, whose work I've loved forever -- it doesn't get any better than this."
Jared faces has his own pesky dilemma as his brother's wedding day approaches -- his attraction to a woman with a rather complicated connection to him: his adopted brother's birth mother's daughter . . . who keeps him plenty confused.
Rounding out the main Griffin clan is the baby of the family, Alejandro, who the Griffins adopted as a boy from Colombia and now is all grown up and about to be married -- if he can survive the tangled web of his wedding. As played by Ben Barnes, known for playing 'Caspian' in the Chronicles of Narnia series of films, Alejandro is caught in the tangle of several different families -- trying to keep his adoptive parents, his father's girlfriend, his Country Club in-laws and his ultra-conservative Colombian birth mother all happy, if such a thing is humanly possible.
It all comes to a head when Alejandro and Missy are meeting with their local priest -- and that's when Alejandro realizes his birth mother is on her way and he never told her that the Griffins were long ago divorced. Explains Barnes: "He never chose to mention it because his birth mother is a stalwart Catholic. She gave up her only son so he could have a better life in the United States and he doesn't want her to think she gave him to a family that would commit the treacherous sin of divorce. He decides not to tell her because he thinks there's no way she'll ever come to visit. And then of course she decides she to come to the wedding . . . and the situation just escalates from there."
Alejandro does the unthinkable -- asking his parents to pretend to be married just for the weekend for the sake of his birth mother's feelings -- which put Barnes in an exciting position among the all-star cast. "Alejandro is really the straight man surround by all these quirky, ridiculous, dysfunctional people," he notes. "All of the families he's part of are a bit bonkers in their own way. But I think underneath they all adore their children."
The first key to creating that family feeling for Barnes was getting over his awe. "I remember walking onto the set and there's Robert De Niro of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and there's Diane Keaton from The Godfather and Annie Hall and there's Susan Sarandon from Thelma and Louise and a million other movies and . . . I thought just how did I end up here? But they were all so warm and embracing that it becomes very familial."
There is no doubt at all among any of the Griffins that Alejandro is madly, deeply in love with his fiancee, Missy. They're a perfect match for one another . . . except for the small fact that their families are at odds. Taking the role of Missy is rapidly rising star Amanda Seyfried, most recently seen as the 19th Century waif 'Cosette' in the acclaimed screen adaptation of Les Miserables. Missy, on the other hand, is a very modern young woman, Seyfried notes.
"Missy is really one of most balanced characters in The Big Wedding," Seyfried says. "She's smart, she's solid, she loves Alejandro and she's super happy to be getting married -- but then she gets drawn into this whole ridiculous situation and she is the last to find out!"
Like her cast-mates, Seyfried found the tone of the ensemble irresistible. "You've got all these very serious actors here -- Academy Award winners and respected stars of all kinds -- and yet there was nothing daunting about it. Everyone was very loose. It makes the comedy way funnier when everyone is so natural. I think it's going to surprise everyone to see a cast this talented just having fun."
That was the bottom line for Zackham, that the Griffins and all their extended parts feel as real as they are funny together. "As an ensemble, this whole group worked so beautifully together," Zackham says. "It really got to the point where it didn't feel like Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl and all these other funny, talented people -- it felt like a family."
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