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THE GAMBLER

About The Production
Rupert Wyatt's The Gambler charts the seven-day turning point in the life of nihilistic college professor Jim Bennett. Fearless and unfiltered, Jim turns his back on his wealthy upbringing, ridicules his students and pits his illicit patrons against each other. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who produced the 1974 film on which The Gambler is based, turned to screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) to take on the adaptation after Martin Scorsese gave the writer a ringing endorsement. Winkler recalls his first meeting with Monahan, when they formed the beginnings of Jim Bennett: "We talked about a potential opportunity to show a character in a modern society that's somewhat self-destructive, but incredibly smart and intelligent and poetic."

Monahan notes that exploring Jim's unorthodox journey of self-discovery through the backdrop of a criminal underworld offered unique narrative possibilities. "Gambling in this adaptation is only one manifestation of a more general move toward self-destruction. He's a man who wants to strip himself down and start again." Monahan says of Jim. "Like any complicated person, he can't be easily expressed. If somebody is ever easily defined, they haven't been defined."

Monahan's screenplay found its way to two-time Academy Award-winner Mark Wahlberg, who agreed to produce and star in The Gambler based on the strength of the script alone. "Most actors want to have a director attached. That is a rare show of enthusiasm," producer David Winkler says.

Wahlberg, who received his first Academy Award nomination for The Departed, was eager to re-team with Monahan. "I just fell in love with the idea of playing a part like this. He's extremely unapologetic. He doesn't care whether he lives or not until he meets Amy, who gives him a reason to get out of his situation. It's difficult at that stage of the game because he is in so deep with so many people. He finally finds a purpose in something to motivate him to want to have a fresh start in life."

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) found that the personal, character-driven narrative of The Gambler set it apart from other contemporary crime thrillers. "It's a really rare beast in modern Hollywood," Wyatt says. "It's a freewheeling story about a man searching for his own identity and coming up with a plan to expose who he truly is. He's a true outsider raging against the machine and looking for his individuality."

Wyatt was intrigued by the prospect of directing Mark Wahlberg as Jim. "I could see the strength that Mark Wahlberg as an actor could marry with this material," Wyatt recalls. "He's one of a few actors that has this amazing ability as a comedian, and he's an action star, and he's a dramatic actor. In this movie, there is all of that. Jim has a love of life and also this distain for it. He has the ability to make these sharp, fast, off-the-cuff remarks that many of us would could only dream of saying in the moment, and of course he has the ability to do it."

Irwin Winkler agrees that Wahlberg adds a sympathetic dimension to the role that might have been missing in the hands of a less capable actor. "He has a great, great charm about him," Irwin Winkler says of Wahlberg. "In spite of the character being self-destructive, you're pulling for him all the time. I think that's where Mark's great character comes in."

"I like seeing Mark in anything," Monahan agrees. "I think he can do anything. He's a phenomenally talented man. And he's from Boston, which gives him a good edge in my book."

Jim Bennett spends his days on the campus of a California university, and his nights tucked away in the seedy, less-traveled corners of Los Angeles. Wyatt explains the dangerous duality that defines The Gambler's central character: "It's a Clark Kent story in a way, because by day he's a literature professor working in a California university, and by night he's this nocturnal animal that inhabits and explores these very hidden behind-closed-doors worlds of high society, elitist, exclusive gambling houses up in Hollywood Hills, as well as the criminal enterprises that go on downtown and underground. He manages to find his way into these unlikely places and, by day, he goes back to what some might consider a very normal conventional life."

Jim's nihilism strips him of his fear, leaving the professor an acerbic, cynical perspective that is often unfiltered. "He's someone who has no qualms about saying what he thinks, regardless of the consequences," Wyatt comments. "He's an appealing character in many ways because he gets to do and say the things that I think we all would like to."

Brie Larson, breakout star of 2013's Short Term 12, joined the cast as Amy, Jim's most promising student, after an extensive audition process. Wahlberg appreciated the intelligence Larson brought to her audition. "We got in the room with pretty much with every young actress in town," Wahlberg remembers. "They were all talented, but Brie had a different level of understanding of the material and pushed and challenged me in ways the others hadn't."

Larson notes that Wahlberg's immersive performance brought out the best in her, too: "Every single take was unique and different. Mark really listens. You can tell when someone's listening because of their micro-expressions, like a pupil that dilates because it registers something that has been said. When you're working so close with someone it's incredibly important that you feel like they're there in that moment, and I felt that all the way through."

Wyatt found that Larson has an ability to live in the moment of each scene, and to adapt and experiment. "I think she's an incredibly natural actress," Wyatt says of Larson. "She has an amazing ability with timing. She's also very intelligent, so she has that ability to understand how to react in a moment. If there is a gear shift in the other performer's emotions, she can really run with it."

Amy's relationship with Jim intensifies after a chance encounter in an underground casino leads to a standoff in a college lecture hall. "They have this interaction at the college on 'day one' where he's incredibly exposing of her," Wyatt explains. "He really pulls all of her own insecurities out of her right in front of the class, and it both shocks her and brings her closer to him. She starts to ask questions of him and finds out more about him and then, when invited, she gets sucked into his world and goes along for the ride. They're both outsiders, and they're both individuals operating in a very conformist, rigid society."

Wyatt agrees that Amy can see Jim's long-forgotten potential. The student becomes a lifeline at the moment when circumstances might bring about Jim's demise. "She's the only character in the movie that actually manages to remove this mask. He's a guy who always hides behind his ability with language, and his look, and his sunglasses, and all of these different props. She's the one character in the film that actually pulls the curtain aside and shows him for who he truly is," Wyatt says.

Amy is sensitive to Jim's outlook and his distaste for the hypocrisy of the people who surround him. Says Larson, "What's amazing about the film is his point of view. There isn't really anybody other than Amy's character that really understands or sees where he's coming from. Everyone else -- especially in the casino environment and his mother -- they're all wrapped up in money. He's struggling to deal with that, and to find his place in the world. I think a lot of people can relate to feeling like you're living in a world that you don't relate to."

Jim's precarious economic situation ultimately forces him to manipulate the worlds of three criminals: Frank (John Goodman), Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Mister Lee (Alvin Ing). "There are three stakers, as we call them in the gambling world, in this film," Williams explains. "We are all, in a way, intrigued by Jim. We are the planets that are revolving around him trying to engage with this planet in the middle of us that is spinning out of control."

When Jim exhausts his borrowing options, he turns to Frank, a loan shark intent on making an impact on Jim's future. Unlike Neville and Mister Lee, Frank wants to see Jim end his self-destructive pattern. "He's trying to carve his own way in the world but I don't know if he's doing it the right way," Goodman says of Jim's predicament.

"Frank seems to me like a pretty smart guy, probably self-educated. Very controlling, low key, and he likes to make money. He's, he's a smart guy, but he has an edge to him," Goodman says.

For Goodman, working with Wahlberg was the major impetus for joining The Gambler. "I've always liked Mark Wahlberg. He's really interesting to watch, and I really liked the dialogue in the script. I thought it was it was great and it's an interesting compelling story about compulsion," Goodman says.

Goodman and Wahlberg enjoyed performing Monahan's original, surprising interpretation of the relationship between a loan shark and his client. For Goodman, Monahan's dialogue came easily: "Really good dialogue is easier to memorize. It wasn't a chore: it was a labor of love. They were easy words to say and there was a lot behind them."

Goodman also sacrificed his hair specifically for this role: "It's still a shock. Every time I look in a mirror I see Elmer Fudd with a beard," Goodman jokes.

Michael Kenneth Williams is familiar to audiences for his memorable work on HBO's "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire," which is executive produced by Wahlberg. Unlike Frank, Neville looks at Jim as a curiosity who has squandered a life rich with opportunity. "In a lot of ways Neville likes Jim, but also despises him because of his easy upbringing. They share this chess game between each other. Neville enjoys watching the show that is Jim," Williams says.

David Winkler believes that Williams imbued a distinct charm in Neville. Says David Winkler, "He has a great combination of being so intimidating, but then he smiles, and he's the most charming, warm, funny guy you'll ever meet. That combination keeps you on your toes. You don't know whether he is going to kill you or put his arm around you."

When Jim rejects the loan terms initially established by Frank, he turns to his mother, played by two-time Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange, for support. Irwin Winkler, who produced Music Box with Lange and directed the actress in Night and the City, saw Lange as the only choice for the role of Roberta. "She's somebody I'm obviously very, very fond of. When we started thinking about casting, we thought about one actress, and that was Jessica," Irwin Winkler muses.

As with Goodman, the prospect of collaborating with Mark Wahlberg was a draw for Lange, as was the intriguing disconnect between Jim and Roberta's perspectives on wealth and responsibility. "There is a reticence and a sullenness in his attitude toward his mother. It's a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game between the two of them," Lange says of Jim's relationship with Roberta.

Lange notes that Roberta is introduced at the end of a challenging relationship with her son. "I think her feelings about it are very layered. There's the maternal thing of seeing your child in that kind of situation, there's the sorrow of it, the grieving, but there's also the rage and the anger. She's run the gamut of whatever emotions she can muster and she's finished," Lange explains.

Adds Wyatt, "While she lives this very wealthy life, she's lost all of the relationships in her life, including with her own son. They have a dysfunctional relationship, and she can't understand why Jim would possibly want to get out of his life of privilege where everything's offered on a plate, but he sees it as this gilded cage. That's where, where their dysfunction comes from."

"She can't understand why he doesn't embrace this privileged life the way that she does," Wahlberg says. "Jim wants nothing to do with it, and she doesn't even realize the reason he's doing all these things because of that and he wants to strip himself of all those things."

Academy Award-winner George Kennedy appears briefly in The Gambler as Jim's ailing grandfather, Ed. Wahlberg, a longtime fan of Kennedy, was grateful to have the legendary actor join the production. "My dad wasn't around to see me working with George Kennedy," Wahlberg says. "He would have really got a kick out of that, having shown me Cool Hand Luke and many of his other movies, starting at a very young age of seven or eight years old."

Kennedy was also happy to take the role, all too aware that there aren't often parts written for senior citizens. Says Kennedy: "The most honest reason really is that, after a certain age, the work isn't there. When you get older, and I'm over ninety, you do not expect doors to be knocked down and people saying, 'Hey, we can't shoot this without you.' The physical George Kennedy, who rode all the horses and had all the fistfights does not exist anymore. He might exist in my mind, but he does not exist."

David Winkler, for one, disagrees with Kennedy, noting that the actor remains a formidable presence. "When we did the table reading, and he read it, it's like he's a force. Bent over, he's still six-foot-three," David Winkler jokes.

Wahlberg greatly impressed Kennedy: "His timing for a young man - wow. Wonderful," Kennedy says.

As Jim creates a plan to absolve himself of his debt, he reaches out to two of his star athlete students: Lamar (Anthony Kelley), a basketball player with an uncertain future, and Dexter (Emory Cohen), a top-ranked tennis player who also instructs Roberta. Kelley, who makes his feature debut in The Gambler, was a star high school basketball player himself. As with Amy, Lamar finds a way to see beyond Jim's apathy. "Lamar actually opens up to his professor, and just lets the floodgates just pour about everything that is going on in his life. He ended up telling him everything."

By all accounts, Rupert Wyatt brought a collaborative spirit to the set of The Gambler. Says Larson, "Rupert respects everybody that he works with. Nobody's voice is too small. He created a team of people that are all very thoughtful."

"Rupert and I were such a great match for each other," Wahlberg agrees. "We saw the piece in the same way. It has to have a lot of color, it has to have a lot of energy. I found a lot of humor in those moments."

"I've never been challenged in this sort of way, and that's what I love. I love dismantling and then putting it all back together again, and I want to be questioned about every decision," Larson says. "It's been me and, and Mark and Rupert in a room questioning it and talking about it. Having that freedom has brought a lot I think to the film because it's not just accepting what's on the page, we make sure that it's the right decision.

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