Victor Rusak/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Welcome to Word & Fim’s Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books – either fiction or nonfiction – and make the case for how we’d cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Word & Film, we’re not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in how a film will be cast; we’re simply ardent fans of books and movies who can’t help ourselves from such musings.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao defiantly resists being pinned down to a single definition or description. Open Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel and you’ll find characters juggling disparate cultural identities as they straddle geography and weave in and out of a polymorphic narrative unbounded by genre or point-of-view. But despite its schizoid tendencies, there is nothing nebulous about Oscar Wao. Diaz has created a world so captivatingly original and real; if you’re not careful, it’s the kind of novel the brain tends to file in memory under "lived experience."
Oscar Wao’s most vividly post-modern character is its portly protagonist, Oscar de Leon, a Dominican-American sci-fi geek and delusional romantic whose misfortune in love extends beyond the typical sexual frustration and social awkwardness known to afflict his mouth-breathing kind. You see, Oscar’s woman problem has less to do with his oversized sneakers and eye contact avoidance than it does with a family curse that’s been passed down to him through a long line of feisty Dominican women in his family.
Undeterred, Oscar’s quest for true love takes him from his turbulent upbringing in Patterson, New Jersey, with a tyrannically controlling single mother and petulant punk rock sister, to his grandmother’s house in the Dominican Republic, where he falls for the hooker next door. Hint: Things don’t end well. As we follow Oscar in his pure-hearted search for any kind of love that will have him, something unexpected happens en route to his inevitable tragic demise: He becomes an epic hero and we, as readers, can't help but feel for him … and maybe even fall for him.
Oscar De Leon’s wondrous complexity may have something to do with why there’s been little mention of any progress toward a big-screen adaptation ever since producer Scott Rudin optioned the book shortly after it was published. Beyond the obvious dangers involved in confining Diaz’s wild, free-ranging narrative into a screenplay’s three-act structure, the real peril of this undertaking lies in finding an actor capable of pulling off Oscar’s feats of compulsive degradation with his dignity intact. This is a role that requires a rare breed of performer – one with access to an internal dimmer switch that enables him to turn up the brightness on his inner beauty as the story progresses. It’s not as impossible as it sounds: John Hurt did it in “The Elephant Man,” as did Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy,” Lili Taylor in “Dogfight,” and Hugh Dancy in “Adam.”
But before talent comes into play, there are cultural factors to consider. Whenever a character’s ethnicity is concerned, it’s always a good idea to cast an actor of similar background. Director M. Night Shyamalan found this out the hard way when he cast Caucasian actors to play Asian characters in “The Last Airbender.” Shyamalan’s controversial casting decisions resulted in vocal outcry online and throughout the film’s theatrical run.
It’s going to be tough for any filmmaker to find an actor of Dominican descent who also happens to fit Oscar’s body type and age range. But it’s not impossible. There is a grand total of two working actors in Hollywood who fit this description: Rayniel Rufino, the actor-musician who played a supporting role in “Sugar,” Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s inspirational heart-warmer about a Dominican baseball player recruited to play in the minor-leagues. At twenty-six, Rufino could still pull off Oscar’s awkward teenage phase while evolving into the lovelorn twentysomething he becomes. His fireplug physique also works in his favor. However, it’s next to impossible to imagine him convincing audiences he’s the kind of world-class fantasy geek capable of committing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to memory. Insufficient nerd potential, unfortunately, knocks Rufino out of the running for the role.
Fortunately, there’s an even more promising candidate of Dominican descent waiting in the wings. His name is Victor Rasuk and he’s best known for his nuanced performance as a teen besieged by crazy relatives in “Raising Victor Vargas.” Though he’s tall, handsome and twenty-eight years old, his convincing performances in "Victor Vargas" and HBO’s “How to Make it in America” have earned him a slew of awards nominations and critical raves. With an assist from a few skilled special effects magicians, Rasuk has all the necessary ingredients to convincingly bring Oscar to life on the big screen. And though there’s nothing about him that screams dateless dork, it’s nothing a few research expeditions to Comic-Con couldn’t fix.
Speaking of that ultimate movie geek gathering, when we imagine the Platonic Form of Oscar, the image that leaps to mind is that of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro. The celebrated director (and perpetual Comic-Con presence) is way too old for the role and has shown no aptitude for acting. Still, in physicality and spirit, Del Toro represents the Oscar of our dreams. In terms of viable options, however, we remain confident Rasuk also possesses enough of a Wao factor to make this adaptation sing. We’d only like to suggest that he keeps a picture of Del Toro as his template and perhaps even his talisman to fend off any unwanted curses.