Taylor Kitsch/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.
Can we now officially call the gangster film the most enduring genre in American film? Screwball comedies, Westerns, and war movies have all faded, musicals stage the occasional comeback but have never reclaimed the share of the Hollywood pie they enjoyed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and horror and sci-fi both go through periods of feast and famine. But from Cagney and Robinson in the ‘30s, to innumerable noir anti-heroes caught in the gears of various “organizations,” to “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” and “American Gangster,” there always seems to be room for another tale of greed and violence on the wrong side of the law. They offer the illicit thrill of hot-shotting one’s way to the American dream of fast wealth, fast cars, and fast women without a care for society’s strictures, while providing a comeuppance for the protagonist that send us back to our cars secure in the knowledge that order has been restored.
Ben Affleck has chosen Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night as the source material for his next directorial effort and it’s got all the makings of another gangster hit. Joe Coughlin is a young stick-up artist who fashions himself an “outlaw” rather than a “gangster” in 1920s Boston. A botched robbery that leaves a cop dead and an ill-advised romance with a young woman put him in the sights of Boston’s biggest gangster, Albert White, and his own father, longtime Boston police officer Thomas Coughlin. He’s sentenced to five years behind the forbidding stone walls of the Charlestown prison. While inside, he saves the life of the terrifying elderly gangster Maso Pescatore and soon finds himself in charge of a host of illegal activities for his new benefactor. Pescatore manages to secure an early release for his young protégé and Joe is soon heading south to become the king of the illegal rum producers on the Florida coast.
Lehane’s novel is fast moving, violent, and full of twists and pungent dialogue. It’s easy to pick out the sequences that could anchor a film and the various reveals that will keep the audience on the edges of their seats. But who should be cast in the key roles? We’ve got a few suggestions.
This is Joe Coughlin’s show – whoever plays him will be in every key scene and be charged with charting a young man’s ten-year journey from a callow youth to a businessman and father burdened by responsibility and regret. One can almost hear the studio heads screaming “Channing Tatum!” out their office doors, but Joe needs to be a little less imposing when we first meet him. A young Ewan McGregor would have worked really well, but we don’t have a DeLorean with a flux capacitor handy. We think this would be a great opportunity for Ben “Comeback” Affleck to extend a hand to another young actor who got lost in Megabudget Land and cast Taylor Kitsch. The story follows Joe from approximately ages twenty to thirty. Kitsch is just north of thirty, but it was only six years ago that he was cast as a high school student. He can project strength without being imposing and vulnerability without being pathetic. Anyone who could bring Tim Riggins to life deserves a second shot at showing multiplex audiences his stuff.
Graciela Corrales is the young Cuban ex-pat who Joe meets and falls for in Florida. She’s a knockout who’s fearless, involved in the business, and determined to make Joe work for her affections. Eva Mendes is an obvious name for this role. But we think the casting director should zig instead of zag and go with Zoe Saldana. One look is enough to tell anyone she’s got the “knockout” part covered, and her work in “Colombiana” shows that she’s more than tough enough to play with the boys when it hits the fan. She also has two franchises in her back pocket between “Star Trek” and “Avatar,” and this project is just the king of prestige/populist film that could give her room to stretch her acting muscles in public.
So who gets to be Joe’s father, Boston PD lifer Thomas Coughlin? Alec Baldwin has already shown that he can nail a Beantown peace officer vibe in “The Departed.” We would assume that Chris Cooper would like to see Charlestown prison from outside the wall after appearing as Affleck’s incarcerated father in “The Town.” But sometimes obvious things are obvious: Witness John Slattery. The “Mad Men” standout is a Boston-born Roman Catholic of Irish descent with more than enough steel in his spine to carry some of the intense moments he’ll share with his on-screen son. He’ll slip into those Boston police blues like they’re his birthday suit.
Finally, what of Big Ben himself? We suggest he take the role of vain Boston gangster and Joe Coughlin nemesis Albert White. Affleck has played the quiet moral center of his last two films. It’s time to grab a tommy gun, cast a smirk at some poor schlub, and have a little fun again.