At a Q&A following a screening of his latest film, Trumbo, at last month’s Film Independent Forum, director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Game Change) was asked whether he was intimidated bringing such a complex story to the screen. Trumbo tells the tale of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was part of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s for their alleged communist sympathies. It’s simultaneously an industry film, a political drama, a family story and a portrait of a colorful character who stuck to his convictions in the face of tremendous pressure.
But Roach said that thanks to the work of his screenwriter, John McNamara, juggling all of these elements wasn’t a major concern. What did intimidate him was bringing well-known, real-life personalities like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas to the screen.
“I remember going, ‘Oh my God, Maybe we should shut down,’ because I was so scared about portraying all of the real-life people,” said Roach. “How are we going to do John Wayne? How are we going to do Kirk Douglas? How are we going to do Edward G. Robinson? I really didn’t know.”
Roach said even the casting of Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo didn’t occur to him immediately.
“You never want to admit this, but we had thought of a lot of people before we got to Cranston,” said Roach. “It was one of those situations where we thought of all these name people that would get the movie made and then we got to Bryan—who did ultimately convince the financiers that we had enough star power—but once we got to him, it was like ‘Whoa!’”
Roach said, looking back, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. “There is so much overlap of Trumbo and Bryan,” he said. “He himself is that charismatic, he’s that passionate, he’s that much of a humanist. As soon as we met him and started talking about it, I was like, ‘This guy. There’s no one better.’”
And once they had their Trumbo, the rest of the cast fell into place. “Helen [Mirren] (who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) came in after talking to Bryan. And then I had this great talk with her. And then I met with [Michael] Stuhlbarg (who plays actor Edward G. Robinson)… It really was Bryan who was the beacon who said, ‘Come on in, this is going to be good.’”
Sprinkled among the real-life personalities in the film, are a few composite characters who helped make a very complicated story a little less complicated. One of those characters was Arlen Hird, a fictional member of the Hollywood Ten locked in a battle with lung cancer.
Roach said that while he thought of a number of people who could play Hird, he was surprised by who actually said yes. “When Louis C.K. said, ‘I’ll do it,’ I just couldn’t figure out why he’d stop his incredibly lucrative touring and just interrupt his life.”
Before long, Roach was breathing a little easier. “Once I got the guy, this great guy David James Elliott, to play John Wayne, I was like, ‘Now I can relax and just try to tell the story as well as I can.’”
But one key figure took issue with his casting.
When 98-year-old Kirk Douglas—who played a key role in ending the blacklist when he hired Trumbo to write Spartacus—saw the film, he said, according to Roach: “I only have one complaint. I really love what that guy did who played me, but why wouldn’t you have asked me to play it myself?”
The entire cast breathed so much life into their characters—real and fictional—that Roach said he’s nostalgic for the time he spent with them, especially the film’s hero, Dalton Trumbo.
“I haven’t watched the film in a long time and I was just watching it here now, and I thought, ‘I miss this guy. I miss hanging out with him.’”
Trumbo is now playing in select theaters.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger