Cast & Characters
The terrifying events that unfold in "Prisoners," beginning with Anna Dover and Joy
Birch's disappearance, cause each character to react in a manner he or she likely never would
have thought possible. Especially Keller Dover. Hugh Jackman states, "People don't behave
politely under these extremes. People don't behave as though they care what anyone else thinks.
Behavior becomes elemental, guttural. Whether they fall down and collapse, or get violent and
angry, or disillusioned...whatever it is, it's honest. It's what they need to do at the time just to
get through it."
Villeneuve concurs. "Each character in the film is, in one way or another, a prisoner -- of
circumstances, of his own neuroses, of fear. Each individual has to struggle with his own
imprisonment, each one will have to fight their way out."
Dover is a blue collar carpenter and self-proclaimed survivalist, with a fully stocked
basement to show for it. The loving husband and father of two is ready for anything. Or so he
thought. "My character has a line which I love, which is 'Pray for the best, prepare for the
worst,'" Jackman says. "He has a contingency plan for everything...but not this. When his six-
year-old daughter is gone, and he loses faith in the police to find her, he figures he is the one who
will save her. He has a primal need to protect his family, and right now that means finding
"Keller has a lot of gear in his basement; in case something goes wrong in the world, he's
ready," Villeneuve adds. "It's another extreme side to his personality that, on an ordinary day, wouldn't signify much, but now we see he doesn't trust society to take care of things, believing
that only he can make sure his family survives. That carries over into his search for the girls."
Jackman did research into survivalist behavior. His character is also a recovering
alcoholic, which comes into play at a critical juncture in the story, so the actor studied that as
well, along with the effects of sleep deprivation over the course of several days. He combined
those findings with what he learned often happens to family dynamics in these situations. He
explains that Dover, in his self-appointed role as detective and with his desperate need to control
the outcome, "absolutely has to know what the police are doing, and that includes their methods,
as well as all the statistics about missing children cases and how those numbers get worse with
each day that passes."
The actor continues, "Keller does not believe himself to be a vigilante. He's not just
being emotional. He feels he has concrete evidence that the police are not listening to, and that
maddens him even more, and also justifies his determination to track down this suspect and
interrogate him himself."
Davis offers, "I think any parent who had a child go missing and didn't feel that the
proper steps were being taken by the police would start to panic. In fact, Keller very quickly
starts to panic, thinking that if the police aren't doing enough, he has to do something. He
believes he has a clue that no one is following up on, and that the authorities think he's just a
hysterical father and don't believe him. Again, from the perspective of a parent, it's late fall, it's
getting colder, and the chances of finding the girls are diminishing with every minute, so Keller
feels he has no choice but to take things into his own hands."
"Hugh brought so much strength and humanity to Keller," Villeneuve says. "He's an
unexpectedly emotional character driven to dark places that we, as human beings, know are
inside of us, but don't want to look at. Keller shows us that dark side, so he had to be played by
an actor who was willing to go there, to give everything of himself, and to explore both his
desperation and vulnerability at the same time. Hugh's generosity to the character and his fellow
actors was boundless."
Dover refuses to feel powerless, but he does feel betrayed by the police, particularly
Detective Loki, lead investigator on the case. He asked just one thing of Loki, to keep their
initial suspect in custody for more than 48 hours, and while it's not Loki's decision to let the man
go, it's Loki who bears the brunt of Dover's anger and frustration.
"Keller immediately distrusts Loki," Kolbrenner observes. "He sees him as young and
inexperienced, and because Loki has no children of his own, Keller doesn't feel Loki can relate
to what the families are going through and therefore isn't zealous enough in his quest to find the
It was while Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal were working on their first film together,
"Enemy," that the script for "Prisoners" came to the director. Villeneuve immediately thought of
Gyllenhaal for the role of Detective Loki.
"Jake is a fantastic actor and a strong artist, and also a friend," Villeneuve says. "I was
so happy that he agreed to play the part and take this journey with me."
Gyllenhaal reveals, "Denis knows my strengths, he knows where he can push me, where I
get frustrated and where I find comfort in my work," Gyllenhaal says. "I've never worked with a
director on two consecutive films before, but we were having such an amazing creative
experience on the first film that I was excited about this one before I even read the script. And,
when I did, I found the character really fascinating."
The director and actor spent time discussing the story and the conflict between Loki and
Dover, evolving the depth and dimension of Gyllenhaal's character even further. They
established Loki's background as an orphan and a juvenile delinquent, shuffled in and out of
foster homes, which may not be openly discussed in the movie, but comes through in the
character we see on screen. "After finding himself in the juvenile detention system, he
eventually found his way into another institution, the police department. I think that's what
makes him unafraid of getting into that world: he's seen it all before; it's familiar territory to
him," Gyllenhaal reasons.
The actor also believes that the hints of Loki's internal demons and the influences of his
youth that we do see on screen say a lot about what makes him good at his job. "He hides his
history, particularly in the way that he dresses, though you see glimpses of his tattoos. He also
spends a lot of time alone, observing others, keeping to himself rather than conversing with
others apart from work. He's willing to get into the mindset of a suspect, to seek out the darkest
recesses of the criminal psyche. He has focus, reserve, and intensity, but a boiling anger
underneath, all of which make him very persistent, and a real skeptic at times, and very good at
his job. And he knows it."
Loki's preference for working alone lowers his tolerance for Dover's interference in the
search. "From my character's side of things, what a parent goes through in a situation like this is
incomprehensible," Gyllenhaal continues. "But there's a real na├»vete in the way that Keller deals
with it; he has no experience in solving a case or knowing what details to pay attention to. We
have the same goal, which is to find his daughter, but there's something to be said for
"Detective Loki is a dedicated, astute policeman," Johnson allows, "but he's a little
arrogant, and he believes that Keller's intuition, his absolute certainty that a particular suspect is
guilty, is due to his own anxiety. Loki respects the position he's in as a father, but he doesn't
take Keller's accusations that seriously. Keller is too aggressive for him; Loki needs to go about
things meticulously and not cross anybody off the list."
"Loki has solved pretty much every case he's ever been assigned to," Jackman adds, "and
now he finds himself caught in this labyrinth. He thinks it's going one way and then something
takes it in another direction. And the more strange and erratic Keller's behavior becomes, the
more he's on his radar."
"I think that someone who impulsively takes matters into his own hands is frequently
going to really suffer for it," Gyllenhaal says. "Keller is trapped by his animal instincts,
following his gut, and it's leading him down a very bad path. Loki is just watching and waiting
to see where it goes. Especially with regard to Alex Jones."
Alex Jones is a young man that the police initially suspect is behind the sudden
disappearance of the two little girls. He is taken into custody and questioned, but ultimately
released without being charged.
"Loki doesn't necessarily think that Alex Jones is the person who has done this, but
there's something very questionable about him," Gyllenhaal conveys. "There are other things
that allow Loki's focus to go other places, but he never really discounts Jones entirely, either."
On the other hand, Dover is absolutely convinced. The briefest whisper in his ear gives
him all the evidence he needs, and if the police can't get answers out of him then -- for the love
and life of his daughter -- Dover is ready to do anything to get Alex Jones to talk. Of course, the
irony is, the more he pushes Alex, the less Alex tells him.
Paul Dano plays the enigma that is Alex Jones. Drawn to outside-the-box roles, Dano
says, "Alex is a complicated guy. He comes off as both a bad guy and a victim, so he's sort of
mysterious, which, for an actor, provides a lot of options to explore."
Johnson agrees, "Alex is a very difficult role to play because he projects both an element
of danger, which is what Keller sees, and a kind of innocence to him. He's older on the outside,
but inside his maturity and intellect are much younger, so it's hard to know just what he's
"In some ways, Alex simply wants to help, and in a moment of panic, says something to
comfort Keller, something he thinks he wants to hear," Villeneuve shares. "But that just makes
things worse, for Keller and for him. Alex has a disturbing relationship with reality, and that is
part of what makes his journey so horrific."
Villeneuve knew upon reading the script that he would offer the part to Dano. "I said to
myself, 'I need Paul Dano.' Paul is one of my favorite actors, and I needed someone with a very
strong presence, so that the audience would feel that presence even when they weren't seeing
him on screen. Paul brought a beautiful childlike dimension -- like a child that didn't grow up or
is stuck in time -- to the character."
Though their scenes together are among the movie's most harrowing, Dano and Jackman
had a very collaborative relationship on set. "Hugh is a really giving and gracious person," Dano
remarks. "We had some difficult scenes alone together and they were very intense and intimate,
but I think we got where we needed to go."
While Dover's neighbor, Franklin Birch, is equally distressed by his own daughter's
disappearance, he is not comfortable with the lengths to which Keller is willing to go to find the
girls. It's eating at both of them emotionally, but Franklin responds in a more internalized way.
Terrence Howard, who plays Birch, says that when he first read the screenplay, "I felt
very emotional. It took me into the very crevasses of these completely human characters. We've
all watched the news and wondered what we would do if someone hurt our family, hurt our
children, in this way. Do I take the law into my own hands, or do I trust the authorities to work
as hard as I would? Because, at the end of the day, they go home from work while my daughter
is still gone. So, watching the film makes you ask yourself which character you would be?
Whose actions you would mirror? Because they all resonate with the very nature of humanity."
Despite their close friendship, Birch, a music teacher, is a very different sort of man from
Dover. When the girls first go missing, he is of the mind to let the police do their job. Later, he
reluctantly goes along with Keller's harsh methods, but only up to a certain point, and this
creates a wedge between them.
Howard says that Villeneuve created a safe, trusting environment that allowed for the cast
to safely ride the difficult emotional rollercoaster they were on. "Even though the subject matter
is so heavily laden, it was probably the most stress-free set I've ever been on. Knowing we had
to convey some of the worst things a person could go through, we were free of insecurities
thanks to Denis. We could all dive as deeply as we wanted to into our characters, knowing he
was there to catch us."
"Franklin has a terrible moral struggle with Keller's actions regarding Alex Jones.
Keller's detention of Alex, and Franklin's part in it, creates a war inside of him," Villeneuve
says. "In some ways, I think Franklin is the character that represents the audience's point of
view, and Terrence did a terrific job conveying that."
Franklin's wife, Nancy Birch, is played by Viola Davis, who says that she and Howard
enjoyed an easy partnership on set. "I love Terrence," she says. "He's the sweetest, kindest,
most sensitive man. He has a wealth of emotions, which is very helpful with a story like this,
and he's a great partner."
In turn, director Villeneuve has nothing but praise for Davis herself. "Viola was just
wonderful. She was able to show her character's strength as a weakness, allowing Nancy to
retreat from her own compassion, to look the other way. Not everyone could manage that with
such great subtlety."
Putting herself in the viewer's place, Davis offers, "All of our characters go down this
road together but separately. There are times when the audience is going to want to shout at the
screen, 'Why don't you just sit and talk, share and bond and just release these feelings together
instead of veering off and folding under the weight of all the grief?' But they just can't do it.
It's just too much."
While Nancy's reaction is to hold vigil in her home, a quiet pillar of strength willing
herself not to crumble, Grace Dover's is to withdraw completely, crawling into bed and
anesthetizing herself to keep the pain of her loss at bay.
"Grace completely falls apart," says Maria Bello, who plays the wife and mother who
becomes a mere shell of her former self. "She takes medication to calm herself, because
otherwise she'd be hysterical. And her husband is out dealing with things in his own way, so
he's not home to comfort her."
Though she is aware Keller is out looking for Anna and Joy, Grace nonetheless can't help
but blame him a little, too. Bello emphasizes, "He's prepared for the end of the world, so why
can't he save our daughter? She begins to unravel, and so does their relationship to a certain
extent. She's so angry with him and with the entire situation, that she just has to check out, or
"Grace's reaction to the pain is to fade away, to disappear," Villeneuve affirms. "We
needed an actress who, at the beginning of the film, could display a lot of life and happiness, and
then slowly shut it down and become almost like a ghost. For a woman of her innate beauty,
Maria allowed the character's anguish to come through -- no makeup, just looking tired, more
and more like a shadow -- so you completely feel the pain Grace is trying so hard to escape
Adding his own praise, Jackman says of his on-screen wife, "Maria, who is an incredibly
strong, courageous woman herself, managed to flood her character with vulnerability, and to
show that people under this kind of pressure can actually break."
Another woman who has gone through a similar tragedy -- losing both her child and
husband, and now possibly her nephew -- is Holly Jones, Alex Jones's aunt. Holly's husband
deserted her some years back without any warning, leaving her alone to raise Alex, now a
suspect in the disappearance of Anna and Joy. And when, after he is released from custody, he
also disappears, Holly suspects he, too, is the victim of foul play.
Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable in the role of Holly. "She's a very lonely woman,
living with just her dog and her nephew, having lost her family, an irreparable ache in anyone's
life," Leo attests. "She doesn't want to engage with the world, or want the world to engage with
her. I think she relied greatly on her husband, who's been gone for more than five years, she
doesn't even know where. Now she's left with Alex, a fragile young man to begin with, but he's
all she's got and she wants to protect him."
Dano adds, "I think Alex and Holly have an interesting relationship. He's been with her
for a long time, so he definitely is dependent on her as more of a mother than an aunt, really. But
at the same time, he keeps to himself a lot, so he's not exactly good company for her."
Vital to the story of "Prisoners" is an examination of the crisis from different points of
view, how it affects the fathers, mothers and siblings of the missing girls, as well as those
involved in the investigation and, to some degree, the community at large. That is why, as
Villeneuve puts it, "All of the characters have important moments, and the performances had to
be completely authentic in order to achieve the level of realism we were looking for. We needed
great actors for every part, and we found them."
Rounding out the cast are Dylan Minnette as Keller and Grace's teenaged son, Ralph, and
Zoe Soul as Franklin and Nancy's teen daughter, Eliza; Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla-Drew
Simmons as the missing girls, Anna Dover and Joy Birch; Wayne Duvall as Loki's boss, Captain
Richard O'Malley; David Dastmalchian as Bob Taylor, an alternate suspect that Loki takes an
interest in; and veteran actor Len Cariou as a local priest, Father Patrick Dunn.
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