Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Aaron Eckhart, Robert Redford/Photos © 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.
On announcing his official retirement from writing, Philip Roth may have been saying good-bye to frustration, but we, his loyal readers who have watched him go from the absurd Kafkaesque landscape of The Breast to the raw emotion of Patrimony, are saying good-bye to one of our greatest -- and most prolific -- writers. But Roth fans can take some solace in the upcoming screen adaptation of one of the novelist’s best works, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. Paramount sat on the 1997 novel’s film rights until 2003, when Tom Rosenberg’s Lakeshore Entertainment snapped them up. And now, after a previously aborted attempt, Lakeshore, which also brought Roth’s The Human Stain and The Dying Animal (as "Elegy") to the screen, is moving forward with American Pastoral.
The novel, narrated by Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is expansive, spanning some fifty years and examining America’s spiral from post-World War II optimism to the uncertainty and tumult of the Vietnam era and beyond. But this story really belongs to its central character, Seymour “the Swede” Levov, Zuckerman’s boyhood idol, who begins the novel as the goyishely good-looking, athletic, impossibly blond teenaged hero of 1940s Jewish Newark, and who goes on to become a handsome, successful, still impossibly blond husband and father, living the American Dream in bucolic New Jersey.
The Swede is lucky in life -- he’s married to a former Miss New Jersey; he ably runs his father’s flourishing glove factory; he’s raising an adorable doting daughter, Merry; he even has a pasture full of prize-winning livestock -- and yet he carries himself with graceful humility. But as Zuckerman learns from Seymour’s brother Jerry (un-Swede-like in his sarcasm and churlishness) at their forty-fifth high school reunion, the Swede’s good fortune took a dramatic turn in 1968 when his beloved daughter Merry (SPOILER ALERT) perpetrated a violent act of political terrorism. From there, the story leaps back and forth in time, as Zuckerman attempts to piece together the collapse of the Swede’s American pastoral -- examining what precipitated the fall and how the once idolized idealist can function in this new perverted reality.
In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called American Pastoral “one of Roth’s most powerful novels, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design.” The book has a near epic quality and yet the Swede is drawn with intimate interiority -- making for a challenging leap to the screen. To really nail it, producer Rosenberg and his director Fisher Stevens (Academy Award winner for "The Cove") have to find just the right Swede. And if bringing the book to film is tough, embodying its fair-haired, fair-hearted protagonist will be even trickier. The actor will have to be athletic (the former high school star continues pick-up games of touch football into middle age). He’ll have to be “terrifically handsome” with enough charisma that when Zuckerman first encounters the adult version of his boyhood hero, our narrator still beams with giddy awe. The Swede must be resolute (he determinedly waits out the Newark riots in his vulnerable glove factory and defies his father’s wishes that he marry a Jew) and dependable (his mother calls him “the only one I can turn to"). And yet despite his strength and masculine appeal, the actor playing the Swede must achieve a gentle, optimistic earnestness, as well as a fear of, as his brother Jerry calls it, “creating a bad scene.” Oh, and the actor needs to have the range to play from the age of his mid-twenties to late sixties.
Though Lakeshore has begun an initial round of filming in Pittsburgh, the producers are being tantalizingly tight-lipped about casting. The film’s IMDB page only lists one actor -- Mandy Patinkin -- and doesn’t indicate what part he’ll be taking on. (We’re guessing the Swede’s ill-tempered but brilliant brother Jerry or Nathan Zuckerman himself.) And so, for now, the role of the Swede is still fair game for our casting call imaginations.
Twenty-years ago Robert Redford would have nailed the part. In another twenty, Ryan Gosling would have our vote. If Jon Hamm were up for highlights, he’d be a contender. Golden boy Brad Pitt could deliver the charm and disarming good looks of the Swede, but there’s just too much of a looking-for-trouble twinkle in his eye to capture the earnest peacekeeping nature of the character. And so our vote goes to Aaron Eckhart, who, blond, tall, and boasting a masculine handsomeness, has the Swede’s physical attributes, and who across his career has demonstrated the versatility necessary. In "Thank You For Smoking" and "In the Company of Men," he was dangerously charming; in the former, genuinely likable despite playing a smug, smarmy lobbyist. In "Erin Brockovich" he nailed the bighearted optimism essential for the Swede -- in his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman said that despite playing “a bit of an ideal -- a rebel/hunk/househusband,” Eckhart’s biker with a heart of gold made goodness “palpable.”
And in 2010’s "Rabbit Hole" opposite Nicole Kidman, Eckhart showed incredible range as a man who is “just trying to make things nice” again in the wake of his young son’s death. With what the New York Daily News called “big-grinned buoyancy,” Eckhart nailed the tension between a desire to move on and the blistering guilt that comes with letting go, giving us high hopes that he could deliver a similar multifaceted performance as the Swede, an equally conflicted father grappling with his own brand of the loss of a child.
And our choice for the younger version of the Swede? The star high school athlete who sends cheerleaders whooping with chants of “Swede Levov, it rhymes with the love!” May we suggest Hollywood’s real life Jewish boy idol -- Zac Efron.