Louis C.K./Photo © PhotoWorks/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.
Magic is in the air, with the release of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey as dueling Las Vegas performers, and the return of “Arrested Development” featuring Will Arnett as sometime illusionist Gob Bluth. Both productions play it for laughs, ramping up the cheese factor often associated with stage magic these days. (Think Siegfried and Roy or David Blaine.) But in an era of simpler entertainments, audiences regarded magicians with awed thrills, rather than skeptical giggles. While a few recent films have tried to recapture that era (“The Prestige,” “The Illusionist,” and “L’Illusionniste”), we hope to see another one on the big screen in the near future.
Inspired by the life of American illusionist Charles Carter, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil was a critical and commercial hit on publication in 2001. Set primarily in 1920s San Francisco, the novel’s what-if plot takes as its starting point the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding, suggesting it may have been triggered by an illusion he performed with Carter at a stage show. Out of this mystery, Gold spins a page-turning story that’s not just an imagined biography of Carter, but also a transfixing history of magic and of American culture.
Paramount immediately snapped up the movie rights and, after a failed early effort to develop it for Tom Cruise, the property languished until Warner Brothers picked it up in 2010. Last year, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the co-directors of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street,” became attached to the project. Whether they’ll pull this rabbit out of the hat is unknown, but we’ll give them a couple of suggestions, based on Gold’s exacting and detailed descriptions, to get started.
Though the novel heavily fictionalizes his life, Charles Carter was an actual stage magician known as Carter the Great. Gold describes him as “thirty-five years old, black hair, blue eyes, Roman nose, pale, almost delicate skin, and a slender build.” A magnetic performer, Carter almost disappears quietly in civilian life — even when walking a pet lion around town. Hollywood would want a big name to carry the production and, indeed, Johnny Depp has been linked to it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could bring the right showmanship, but he looks a little young, despite being, to our surprise, almost the right age. So we’d like to cast Lee Pace, who’s had smaller parts in big productions (“Breaking Dawn,” “Lincoln,” “The Hobbit”) but is best known as Ned the piemaker in the short-lived television show “Pushing Daisies.” While he can give performances that play to the back of the theater, Pace’s strength is in his gravity and self-effacing ordinariness, qualities necessary to anchor the drama of this story.
Hot on Carter’s trail is Secret Service agent Jack Griffin, a depressed yet dogged middle-aged misfit among his young colleagues. Described as stocky with “reddish-gray hair grown long and combed over his bald spot, [an] underfed mustache … awkward posture,” he is both punch line and sympathetic figure. Hollywood would probably call up Philip Seymour Hoffman — a great pick — but we love the idea of casting comedian Louis C.K., whose perpetually world-weary persona provides much of the subject matter for his acclaimed television show “Louie.”
The novel’s other redhead is Carter’s feisty first love Annabelle Bernhardt, a fellow performer. Famous for her feats of strength in stage fights, she’s equally known for demonstrating them on any unworthy suitors who come her way. We’re in a good moment for showbiz redheads — Amy Adams, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, to name a few — but we’ll pick Christina Hendricks, as we’d like to see her cut loose from her “Mad Men” character with a more lighthearted, tomboyish period role.
Initially, Annabelle performs with Mysterioso, a stage magician who becomes Carter’s dangerous rival. Dark in both looks and personality, he makes the perfect mustache-twirling villain: unscrupulous, rude, snobbish, abusive to animals. Although he appeared an earlier film about magicians (2006’s “The Illusionist”), Edward Norton would add depth to a broadly drawn character, while getting the chance to do some scenery chewing in a rare bad-guy role.
And, finally, there’s the matter of Phoebe Kyle, Carter’s slight, dark-haired love interest. A blind woman with a mysterious past, she brings spirit and optimism to Carter’s world, even as he battles the Secret Service and Mysterioso as well as concerns over his latest — and most unique — stage show. Though a slightly more conventional role than Annabelle, Phoebe alternates wise cracks with tenderness. Period film veteran Emily Blunt would be our pick for her ability to juggle comic and dramatic elements — as well as for her good American accent.
Now that we’ve conjured a cast out of thin air, let us know what you think in the comments.