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BRAD'S STATUS

Two for the Road
White's shrewd instinct for casting familiar actors in unexpected roles gives the film's accomplished cast the opportunity to confound audience expectations. "Casting for this movie was a delicate process," he says. "It's a thoughtful, deliberative movie with comedic moments. We wanted to find actors who have a sense of humor, but weren't the obvious choices. We felt that if we orientated it too much toward comedy by casting people who brought certain kinds of expectations to it, we wouldn't be able to make the movie we envisioned."

Ben Stiller and White have known each other for many years. In fact, Stiller appeared in a cameo role in the 2002 comedy Orange County, which White wrote and produced. "I've always been a fan of Ben's," says the filmmaker. "I've really wanted to work with him for a long time, but it never worked out until now. Ben is a kind of comedic Everyman. He's a strong, precise comedic actor who personifies a kind of urban ambition that I felt like we could tap into with Brad."

At first glance, Brad's neurotic doggedness may feel like a familiar tool from Stiller's repertoire, but any assumptions are shattered as the story unfolds. "The movie quickly launches in an odd and unexpected direction," says White. "The audience's expectations will be that it's a certain kind of movie, but then it pivots in a way that I think will be fun and subversive."

Stiller connected with the idea of a man just trying to live his life as best he can in a world where good is never good enough. "The tone of the movie is genuine and funny and smart," says the star. "It's also emotional without trying too hard to be emotional. We live in a world where we are all very aware of what everyone else has and does. We just want to figure out how to be happy, but we're inundated with ideas of what happiness and success are. On the internet, on television, in advertising and throughout the general culture, we're constantly bombarded with other people's idealized lives and comparing ourselves. You may be doing ok but, wow, look at that guy over there!"

The actor's reaction was exactly what White was hoping for. "I so got excited when he was into it. Ben brought the character to a deeper level than another actor might have. He never went right to the obvious comedy on the page. He didn't lean on familiar things and it was exciting to watch how intense he was about making sure he wasn't doing something that felt familiar."

Stiller, who has a 12-year-old son himself, was moved by the film's honest portrayal of a father-son relationship. It is an intimate slice of their life during a period when they are getting to know one another in a new light. "It's not a road trip and no hijinks ensue," says the actor. "It's a journey that a father and son take together. We get a window into Brad's connection with his son and his own insecurities. I think we've seen moments like this from the son's perspective in other films, but this is the reverse. Troy is the one with a clear sense of self. He has not been affected by the world yet. Brad has dealt with failure, success, rejection. Those things are all ahead of Troy. Brad is not an archetypal father. Mike takes that on and looks at it in a sensitive way without judging."

Despite their long friendship, working with White was a revelation, says Stiller. He created an on-set atmosphere of collaboration and urgency the actor had not anticipated. "You can't know what someone is like to work with until you're in the trenches with them. I was already really excited because he wanted to direct this. It meant this was personal and that he had something special to say. He spends a lot of time on the script and has a meticulous sense of what it should sound like, feel like and look like. On the set, he exudes this relaxed intensity. He trusts that actors come with a point of view. He gets what he needs without being obsessive or painful. And he has a funny, dark and cynical sense of humor."

As Brad's son, Troy, Austin Adams provides the perfect foil for Stiller's amped up angst, as a boy who stays deliberately cool when his dad is running red hot. Abrams, who turns 21 in September, has been acting professionally for just five years and has already racked up an impressive resume that includes a pivotal role on "The Walking Dead" and the lead in the feature Paper Towns.

"We brought lots of people in for that role," says Bernad. "The final step was a chemistry read with Ben. The minute Austin walked in, we could tell it was a perfect pairing. He doesn't feel like a Disney star. He feels very real, which was important to Mike."

Abrams' naturalistic, instinctive approach to the part was key to White's decision to cast him. "He instinctively got the idea that, at that age, everything your parents do is like nails on a chalkboard. You just kind of shut down and try not to exacerbate any issues. He did that so well."

For any young actor, the opportunity to work so closely with White and Stiller would be a career-changing experience. Abrams says he felt doubly lucky because the part and the story were so rich. "I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read," he says. "I kept reading it over and over again and I never got tired of it. There were new things to discover on every page. The maturity that Troy has seemed very fresh and that was really interesting for me.

"Mike and Ben were great to work with," he adds. "Mike is so confident in what he wants. Because he wrote it, I could ask him very specific questions and get the answers I was looking for. He's a very generous and empathetic director. And Ben works as hard as anyone I've ever seen, but he's still able to be really nice to everybody he meets. Being famous doesn't give anyone the right to be unkind or arrogant, but he goes out of his way to be kind to people."

Stiller was impressed by the professionalism Abrams displayed at such a young age, going so far as to compare his lack of artifice and ability to create an inner life for his character to that of James Dean.

The pair prepared for their father-and-son scenes with a road trip from Montreal to New York, even working in a stopover at historic Fort Ticonderoga to set the familial mood. "Being in a car with someone for hours is a great way to get to know them," says Stiller. "You learn what kind of music they like. You share your relationship histories. It was helpful because it gave us a little background to draw on."

In keeping with White's concept, the film's supporting cast is packed with well-known players who can handle drama and comedy equally well, including Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson and Jenna Fischer.

Wilson, who plays Brad's college buddy Jason, now a wildly successful financier, worked with White previously on the HBO series "Enlightened." The actor says he has followed White's work since breakthrough directorial debut, and has been impressed by his seemingly endless range as a filmmaker. "I'd never seen a movie like Chuck & Buck before," Wilson remembers. "It was uncomfortably real. Then I saw School of Rock and I thought, my gosh, that's the same guy? They were such different projects. There's nobody like him. The through line in all his work is about people just wanting to belong somehow, which everybody can identify with. I have followed his work for years and was lucky enough to finally get to work with him on the series.

"Watching him interact with people as a director is inspiring," the actor continues. "He's in charge, but it is always a team effort. The most talented people in our business seem to be the most collaborative."

Wilson says he read the script in one sitting and found it to be different from anything he had ever read before. "It's extremely unsettling, because anyone can identify with being envious of someone else's life. It doesn't make me proud to admit that. I'd like to think I don't have that kind of envy, but we all do."

His character is a hedge-fund manager described by one of the other characters as "a pillar of the community and a crook." With his patrician wife and four towheaded children at his side, Jason zooms from coast to coast in a private jet. But all that privilege, Brad learns, is not enough to protect him from tragedy. "When I meet those guys, I definitely think they have it made," admits Wilson. "But you never know what people are going through. Brad imagines that Jason has a perfect life, but it turns out that he is dealing with the same kind of heartbreak we all go through. In the end, Brad has to have empathy for him. Like all the characters, Jason inches Brad toward the realization that the people he envies have problems of their own and that he has a great life."

Wilson's professional relationship with Stiller dates back to when they were both unknowns trying to make it in Los Angeles. "Ben and Mike are a good fit creatively," the actor says. "They are both writer-director-actors and very driven in their own ways. It's a good match and an incredibly good movie. I'm just lucky to be in it."

White originally had Wilson in mind for play the role of Billy, a part that eventually went to Jemaine Clement, the bespectacled half of the fictional band, The Flight of the Conchords. A tech wunderkind who sold his business and retired to a Hawaiian beach at 40, Billy is a party animal who has committed himself wholeheartedly to a sybaritic lifestyle that has Brad's imagination working overtime.

"We wanted each of the friends to have different looks and personalities," says Bernad. "Billy is hedonistic, fun-loving and lighter than the others, and Jemaine is so funny and so great. We were super excited he agreed to do it."

The actor has little in common with his hard-partying alter ego, according to White. "He's actually the opposite of a party animal. Jemaine doesn't even drink. I thought it would be funny to have such an unexpected choice play a guy who is living it up in Hawaii."

While in Boston, Brad reconnects with former classmate and current political pundit Craig Fisher, played by Michael Sheen. On a dinner date, Craig's made-for-television sincerity and empty charm evaporates, exposing a sadistic arrogance and a finely honed talent for ruthless gossip. "Craig is capable of delivering his self-satisfaction in a cheery, pleased-with-himself way, but he's crushing Brad with every comment he makes," says White. "I knew that Michael would be able to get that quality."

The script won Sheen over with its deceptively simple portrayal of Brad's very complicated journey, he says. "It resonated with me. I like a story that is engaging and accessible, but has a lot going on beneath the surface. This film uses its entertainment value to cleverly cover up how rich and challenging it really is."

Sheen and Stiller have one lengthy and complicated scene together that reveals Craig's true colors. "The rest of what we see of Craig is just glimpses of him in Brad's imagination, but that one scene made the film worth doing. It's quite long and quite surprising. Mike had us play it lots of different ways. He has a fine instinct for comedy, as well as for what is real and surprising."

The private side of a public figure is not always pretty, says Sheen, who has previously played television journalist David Frost and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (twice) on film. "On the whole, what you see of Craig is not the real Craig," he notes. "You've heard about him for a while and know what he means to Brad. But when you meet him that all changes. I like that it pulls the carpet out from under us. It was a funny moment, as well as real and truthful."

For Melanie, Brad's long-suffering wife, the filmmakers wanted an actress who exuded warmth. Enter Jenna Fischer, a longtime friend of White's best known as Pam, the receptionist on the long-running television series "The Office."

"I've known Jenna personally for a while," says White. "She's such a talented comedian who brings something very authentic to the screen. She feels very mother-next-door in this. Melanie is only sprinkled through the movie, but Jenna's natural likability, humor and intelligence make such an impression. You can totally see why they would be together. I also like that their relationship isn't too sentimentalized. It's a longstanding marriage with a companionship that's deep, but some of the romance has faded."

Their long friendship notwithstanding, Fischer says she found acting in a film directed by White intimidating. "He's one of my creative heroes," she says. "When I'm at dinner with him, I can suppress my nerves and admiration and gushing, but working with him is different. It's not because he's personally intimidating, but because I'm watching the magic happen up close. I've been an admirer for so long that I had to keep pinching myself to believe I was working with him."

Fischer felt similarly about co-starring with Stiller, whom she had previously worked with on the ice-skating comedy, Blades of Glory. "It was kind of the same experience working with him," she confesses. "I remember one day, we were in a conversation and then I started thinking, he's the man who made Reality Bites, which is the quintessential movie about Generation X. That I was working with a man whose body of work I so admire was astonishing and exciting."

The most difficult part of the casting process, White and Bernad agree, was finding an actress to play Ananya, a former classmate of Troy's now attending his first-choice college, Harvard. The filmmakers had a list of requirements that weren't easy to fulfill.

"She had to be Indian-American, beautiful, a gifted actress - and she had to be able play the flute," says White. "Unbelievably, we found all that and more in Shazi Raja. She completely got the character and checked off all the boxes, so we were really lucky the day she walked through the door."

White makes a brief appearance in the film as the fourth of Brad's classmates, a Hollywood honcho with a luxurious Malibu pad that sends Brad into paroxysms of envy when he sees it featured in Architectural Digest. White confesses that it was a purely practical decision for him to take on the role. "The actor needed to work in Montreal and Hawaii and didn't have any lines, so I was it," he says. "In fact, the cinematographer, Xavier Grobet, plays my husband and Jason's wife is played by our costume designer, Alex Bovaird. We basically needed people who were going to be in both locations anyway, so we didn't have to add more travel expenses."

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