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THE LAST DAYS ON MARS

Casting the Film
It was always a key part of the development process that the crew of the mission in The Last Days on Mars be drawn as wholly rounded individuals. A tremendous amount of work went into the development of the characters, so that when disaster strikes their individual methods for coping with the situation come across.

"There was a strong sense from the script that it was a chamber piece and that the characters all had their individual arcs," says Garai. "The time and trouble had been taken to realize all of those individual stories."

This meant, too, that a good deal of focus was placed on the casting process, in order to ensure an eclectic ensemble. There are actors from multiple nationalities. Geographically, the cast list is made up of performers with American, Canadian, Yugoslavian, Irish, British and Somali backgrounds, and each had different paths and levels of experience as actors.

"They're all performers not necessarily associated with sci-fi work," notes Cornwell of their one commonality. "They bring a different kind of energy to the film and they're all naturalistic performers. When they're scared, they've got good reasons for it."

"We joked at the start that we couldn't imagine any other project we'd work on together," laughs Garai. "It was really exciting to get to work with actors who I love and respect on a project which, for me, was very much outside the norm of my experience as an actor."

For Robinson, the challenge was in bringing them all together. "You have to keep check of not just where they are in the scene but where they are in the movie," he explains. "Doing that right takes time, but this cast knows what it's doing anyway. Half the time, for me, it's about getting out of the way and letting them doing what they're good at."

Leading the film is Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber), who Robinson describes as the star quarterback. "He had a bit of a breakdown and since then he's not been able to trust his own instincts. He's been afraid of messing up and losing control. The stresses of the mission are mounting, but everyone on the mission is trying to pretend that it's normal. When shit hits the fan he isn't sure he can deal with it, but he has to step up and take charge."

Schreiber says the idea of a claustrophobic astronaut is inherently a contradiction, something he reveled in. "In reality, I guess, they'd test them for that, and wouldn't let him go on the mission. But it's a wonderful device for understanding the environment."

The notion, he says, is that Vincent is one of the most experienced members of the crew, but that his experience hasn't involved the kind of long-term mission they're on this time. He misses home. "Once he got past that three-month marker, something snapped, and that anxiety has developed over the course of this mission."

Schreiber has been the ultimate collaborator for Robinson, who says the actor "gets it, first time, almost every time". He adds: "Liev put the work into the character and invested so much in it. He ran -- physically -- until he collapsed."

Schreiber's attraction to the material was instant. Sci-fi horror is a tricky genre to get right, he says. "I'd also heard good things about Ruairi and I went online and looked at his shorts. I was really impressed by him, and when the script arrived I was equally impressed by that."

Robinson describes Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai) as the most empathetic of all the characters. "She works pretty hard to make everyone around her happy, to the detriment of herself," he says. "She's kind of in a relationship with Vincent, but there's something unresolved between them. The whole movie follows their struggle to connect when they should and the tragedy of it being too late for them. When everything falls apart she's the only one that holds things together. Until things start happening to her directly, and then you see the cracks develop."

Continues Garai: "She's the most emotionally intuitive people on the team. She's good with observing other people's foibles and knitting people together in times of distress. Any frustration she feels, she's much better at hiding than Vincent or Brunel."

Robinson had seen Garai in Atonement and Inside I'm Dancing and thought of her for Lane immediately. "There's one moment in Atonement where she kind of broke my heart, and it was the best moment in the movie for me. She knocked it out of the park as Lane. She's really natural and she's an acting machine -- I feel lucky to have people as talented to learn from."

Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) is the captain of the mission and, says Robinson, "he's the nicest guy not on Earth." He adds: "Over time he has allowed himself to be taken advantage of by people. Because everyone is exhausted and stressed, he has relaxed his command a bit. He's become people's friend more than their boss, and so people don't respect him in the way they used to. The struggle for him is to deal with the consequences of that. He's trying to build himself back up to be able to lead and help his friends."

Casting Koteas in the role was special for Robinson, who says Koteas's performance The Thin Red Line is one of his favourites. "And for someone so good, he's so modest. He put everyone at ease right away and was lovely to work with."

One of the geologists, Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams), is the most driven of the crew. "As everyone else has become tired and exhausted, she has become more and more frustrated because she's the only one with the eye completely on the prize," says Robinson. "Everyone else finds her a bit of a nag. They're sick of her complaining and being rude to everyone. They think of her a bit as a dictator. Nobody trusts her judgment and nobody trusts that she's able to deal with it even though she's more focused than anyone."

Williams describes her as "a bit of a Hermione Granger character in a way", referring to the bookish character of the Harry Potter series. "From the first day of the mission she's the one saying, 'I want to find life on Mars and if any of you get in my way, I'm going to mow you down.' At school, she'd have been the first to put her hand up to answer a question, and the first in the lunch queue."

Robinson had been a fan of Williams's work since he'd seen Rushmore. "She'd never played an action part and so she was very keen on doing something more physical," Robinson relates. "She's incredibly focused, professional and exacting. She's in amazing control of her voice and can make tiny adjustments to make a moment stronger or more emotional. It's impressive."

Williams reveled in the action challenges and says playing a baddie was fun. But, she adds, "Nobody thinks they're a bad person. Even Iago, in Othello, doesn't think he's bad: he just has bad forces driving him. If you see these things as forces that drive you, it's about the battle inside you to suppress those unattractive instincts. Everyone's going through that all the time, but some people are better at fighting the battle."

Robert Irwin (Johnny Harris) is primarily the psychological welfare officer on the mission, "Though everyone has multiple roles," explains Robinson. "He's like an AA guy -- always nice to everyone all the time and always trying to dig and solve their problems whether they want him to or not. But he's frustrated under the surface. The situation brings those things to the surface. He starts crumbling and trying to avoid blame."

"It's boys and toys," explains Harris of his attraction to the role. "You put a spacesuit on and you're a ten-year-old again. It takes a bit to mature up and go, 'OK, we're scientists, we've got to be responsible.' There was something about this character that appealed to me. There were shifts within the script with him that were quite a stretch, and that intrigued me. I wanted to have a go at working that out."

Harris's casting was especially exciting to Robinson as indicative of this film's eclectic ensemble. "I've never seen Johnny Harris in a movie like this," he explains. "It's unusual to take this kind of urban guy and put him into the sci-fi context, but it's cool to watch. It's an interesting mix of different chemicals, this cast, to see all these different nationalities and accents mixed together, and explore all the different frustrations that ensue."

Kim's main rival in the group is Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic), who Robinson says is an arrogant guy who's brilliant at his job. "His arrogance ends up being his downfall. He's learnt to manipulate everyone around him to get what he wants and he's the first to break protocol. That little white lie he tells ripples through the film and threatens to destroy the whole mission."

Robinson saw Kostic in the lead role of In The Land of Blood and Honey, which was directed by Angelina Jolie. "He was great in that, and it was great to add that sort of Eastern Bloc accent," he explains. "He adds a bit of a Solaris feel to the movie, and he's got a Tarkovskiy-looking haircut and sound to him."

For Kostic, delving into a science-fiction film was a dream come true. "I've never done sci-fi before. It's my first time in space, but I love the genre, and so to be offered such a thing in the first place was great. And then you look at the cast and crew and I really wanted it."

The youngest crewmember, Richard Harrington (Tom Cullen), is the most homesick. "He hasn't found his place in the group," describes Robinson. "He's sick of being taken for granted and people talk to him like he's a kid. He's trying to prove himself, but he's stuck in this situation and cannot quite be taken seriously."

He's racked with guilt when the first incident occurs and he thinks Marko has been killed. "And then he finds out he's alive, but changed," teases Cullen. "On a real human level, if you were to see your friend in that condition, how would you react? That was the great challenge of the job, which I loved."

Cullen was asked to come in and read for the part, and he impressed Robinson. "I realized immediately that I had nothing to worry about with him: his test was just amazing. He's going to be a big actor in not too many years, and he's really lovely; one of the best-natured guys I know.

Cullen reveled in the opportunity to explore the character in great depth. "We've been given the freedom to really pull them apart as much as we can and fill them with all those contradictions we have as human beings. And I've been able to learn from some of the best actors in the business. What a gift."

Rounding out the crew is Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama), who is "devoid of confidence", explains Robinson. "At home she'd probably have been a happy sort of person, but over time she has been worn down and she's lost confidence in herself. She's developed a crush on the guy in the group that has no respect for her, and has got into something of an abusive relationship with him. But she's a caring person and that becomes her downfall."

Warsama's audition intrigued Robinson. "I'd never seen anyone move like that before," he remembers. "She has a lovely voice and she's going places as well. She's enthusiastic and incredibly awesome. She might have been a little worried coming into a cast like this, but she absolutely nailed her scenes and I was chuffed for her."

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