Movie Production Notes: The Casting
(Photo: left) Laura Harris, Danny Dyer and Andy Nyman in SEVERANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
“We spent four months finding the perfect people for the parts”, says director Chris Smith about the Severance casting process.
“By that I mean actors who would perfectly embody their characters by bringing many of their own personal qualities to the parts”.
Producer Jason Newmark observes, “We drove our casting director Gail Stevens (The Descent) mad with our fussiness. We could never see enough people, or make enough suggestions from her copious lists. It took us absolutely ages to put our cast together because we needed especially gifted actors who could bring the comedy elements alive while inhabiting the horror space. This genre needs great actors to let go sufficiently to first invite the audience in and then make them scared for their lives. Chris was adamant about pushing every actor to the screaming limit so they would show their range. They had to go there and be convincing or else the film’s integrity would suffer”.
“We both loved Danny Dyer in The Football Factory”, explains Newmark. “He’s totally down to earth and has an infectious and roguish charm that has provided him with a broad fan base. Men respect his cheekiness as much as women respond to his sex symbol status. He showed a great grasp of natural comedy in Human Traffic and clearly could be the life and soul of any party. Here he wraps up all the different bits of what we wanted to come together from his past films for the role of Steve”.
“Horror has never been top of my Want To Do List”, points out The Business star Danny Dyer. “But I read the part of Steve and it blew me away. It felt so real. It was also like reading two movies in one. The horror I grew up with in the 1980s was very run of the mill. The beauty of Severance is the way the characters are built up so audiences can think about the relationships between them before they see them killed in horrific ways. It gives the audience every emotion they could possibly want to go through laughter, tears, horror, shock”.
“I usually swerve parts containing drug abuse”, continues Dyer. “I like that controversial angle here because you go with Steve on his trip. You don’t just watch him fall about stoned and hallucinating, you come right into his head. Then you snap out of it. Being able to go to Level 10 on the twitch scale and be funny with it was a real laugh. Soon after the film opens I’m tripping out of my nut while everyone else is revved up for the weekend. It leaves him open to attack yet it’s Steve who hits on what’s actually going on early doors. I’m warning the group about strangers in the woods but everyone thinks I’m just out of it. It goes completely against the expectation that Steve is way too useless to last”.
Although he spent ten weeks toning up in the gym prior to shooting, Dyer was expressly forbidden by Smith to train in any way for his arduous stunt work. “Chris wanted the fights to look down, dirty and realistic so there was to be no choreography. He wanted me to fight like a hooligan down the pub as if their life depended on it. That meant being scrappy and messy with lots of rolling around the ground, the natural survival instinct thing”.
“I knew I could shine in Severance given the chance”, remarks Dyer. “And I knew I’d nailed the part after a couple of readings. I saw Steve as the techie at Palisade, one with a bit of a roadie mentality and a naughty streak. He’s definitely the odd one out and doesn’t fit in with the rest of his workmates. Chris was clearly happy with my auditions because he bounced all over the room like a lunatic and beamed like a big kid in a sweet shop. It’s an absolute joy to be around Chris. His energy is amazing and he’s gotten the best out of me like no one else before”.
“What I wanted to work on with Danny was his lightness of comic touch”, notes Chris Smith. “Danny is such a warm and friendly guy in real life he naturally brings those dimensions to Steve. It was the same with Toby Stephens who is a well-known Shakespearean actor with a suave screen persona. I’m so proud to have a Royal Shakespeare Company ‘Hamlet’ in my cast I can’t tell you. Toby was perfect for the role of the Cambridge educated Harris who takes Senators out for lunch to talk arms deals. Toby is not like it at all in real life of course but he brings a suaveness that makes him perfect playing the cynical Harris”.
“I’d never done a horror film before and that’s why I wanted to make Severance”, recalls Toby Stephens, star of Die Another Day. “It was a cracking read. It starts off as something funny and then does a hairpin turn into grisly terror. It’s a mould-breaker in that it veers from comedy to horror without it being easily categorised as a comedy or a horror film. I’ve never seen that done quite the way it has been here and it was an intriguing challenge to take stabs at two opposing genres in one exciting picture. My father [acclaimed Shakespearean actor Sir Robert Stephens] made a twisted and strange British horror movie in 1973 titled The Asphyx and I feel this fits that mould too with its endearing penchant for oblique weirdness”.
“Harris is the best weapons salesman Palisade has got”, reports Stephens about his character. “He’s arrogant, brash and knows he’s invaluable to the company, which puts him in direct confrontation with his boss Richard. They are constantly at loggerheads because Harris knows he’s better equipped for Richard’s job. That’s what is so good about the Severance set-up. You immediately see the internecine battles and political power struggles within the European office division. None of them really like each other and that’s what makes the story so unsettling from the beginning. They are clearly going to get into trouble, and when they do, what’s going to happen, who can they rely on when each one is a vicious backstabber?”
“Most of my work comes in the early, lighter section”, admits Stephens. “I loved playing Harris as this condescending big-head that towards the end of his story becomes a more interesting, subtle and human person as a possible romance between him and Jill gets hinted at. That’s all down to Chris shifting the ground so expertly. He sets each of our characters up as ciphers, then makes them a little more rich and endearing - and that’s when he lets them have it!’
Stephens watched Creep before committing to Severance. “I wanted to know where Chris was coming from. Creep is entirely different in feel and tone to Severance and I respected the fact Chris wasn’t just capitalising on former success, that he wanted a new challenge. What I love most is his energy and commitment. It was clear from the audition process he knew exactly what he wanted and his enthusiasm is infectious. He wants to get out of you the performance he sees in his head. I like that. He’s adept at issuing blunt notes and directions. I like that too. I hate people pussyfooting around. I want someone to tell me what they want so I can give it to them”.
“Toby is perfect casting as Harris”, states Jason Newmark. “His stiff upper lip stoicism and public school education meant the personality lines deliciously blurred for absolute reality. Toby’s master stoke has been in bringing a sensitivity to the character thus softening his terseness. Toby literally exudes confidence and gives remarkable shading to the moment he drops his guard with Jill so she finally sees how his bluffness is easily misinterpreted”.
For the role of Jill, Newmark looked no further than an actress he had worked with before on a prior production, The Cat’s Meow. “Claudie Blakley has since appeared in Gosford Park and Pride and Prejudice but I’ve always thought of her as an outstanding actress I felt her qualities would work well for the flawed revolutionary Jill. The justification for her employment at Palisade is her mistakenly right-on belief she’s an armchair lefty who can make changes from within”
“If this was Scooby-Doo. Jill would be Velma”, laughs Claudie Blakley. “She’s the most straight-laced of the group, the sad humanitarian who thinks she’s insidiously fighting a cause. She’s not a social person, she’s happier with her nose in a book, and doesn’t mix well. There are two sides to Jill - one is contained, together, practical and keeps her head down; the other is a frightened nervous wreck who needs looking after. She hates Harris because she despises everything he stands for, yet she’s attracted to him because he is the outspoken loner she truly wants to be”.
“Horror movies terrify me but I was gripped by the script”, she says. “The twists were so fabulous I read it twice, got even more scared, then got very excited about doing it because two of my friends, Andy Nyman and Tim McInnerny, had already been cast. I auditioned very late in the process. I screamed for thirty minutes, had a really good time and it ended up being the best audition I’ve ever given”. She adds, “And Jill plays a more important role than is at first apparent. While everyone has their own individual stories about what the lodge was in the past, it’s Jill’s story that comes closest to the truth”.
“Richard was one of the toughest parts to cast properly”, comments Jason Newmark. “But when Tim McInnerny read for the role we instantly knew we had our man. Richard is the hardest character to portray from the script because there is a lot of inherent silliness to him that could have bordered on farce. What Tim brought to the character was humanity. He nailed Richard so you could see why he was so pathetic and trite, turning him into a character you ended up loving for all his flaws”
“I see it as my prime duty to defend Richard”, jokes Tim McInnerny, star of the much-loved Blackadder comedy series. “I suspect he’s rather good at his job but he’s just not a people person. He attempts to over compensate by being a bully, but he’s not very good at being that either. Everything he does is for the right reasons but he can’t help always looking like a total prat. I loved the challenge of playing someone who’s not on top of things but thinks they should be. He behaves badly out of fear and ignorance and then redeems himself rather spectacularly and I think very movingly”.
“I do like to play the most human parts and often that involves humour”, he continues. “Tears and laughter in the same role, you can’t beat that combination. I’m not interested in doing something unless it’s difficult. What’s the point? I was excited by the conclusion of Richard’s story - the fact he ends up standing on a landmine. Knowing your death is inevitable but still not being able to take your foot off…it’s a philosophical problem almost. Do I even exist and will something change to make it all right? How do you behave to show that type of monumental gear change in his head? He knows he should die to save others but he just can’t do it. Terrifically rich and detailed writing for a horror film, the reason I wanted to play Richard”.
“Finding the office geek Gordon was a major headache too”, recollects Jason Newmark. “We were desperate because the character loses his foot in a bear trap and we had to have an actor in place so all the pre-production technical stuff, the plaster casts and prosthetic work, could forge ahead. It was two weeks before shooting was about to start that Chris and I looked at yet more videotaped auditions I remember us being so exhausted and stressed out by the search we promised each other not to look at the new batch of tapes until the next morning. It turned out neither of us could wait until then, and we literally both rang each other up the moment we saw Andy’s audition. He was the perfect, bumbling, annoying pencil sharpener we had envisioned Gordon to be”.
“The tragic thing is I’m quite like Gordon in real life”, laughs Andy Nyman, star of Dead Babies and writer/director for psychological illusionist Derren Brown. “I do carry aspirin in my pocket in case I get a headache! And I have a Swiss Army knife. Gordon needs to be in charge, always has the answer and fancies himself as a Mr. Fix-it. He’s a mum basically. I’ve just put into Gordon what I am myself, a big kid”.
“I’m an enormous horror fan”, enthuses Nyman. “I’ve watched them all so I know the difficult job Chris has undertaken. The first half of Severance is funny without it being arch so you get to like the characters. The second half is where the pain kicks in and it gets darker and much more sombre. There were some gags left in the dark half but slowly and surely they were erased to keep it totally grim and real. Such a fine tonal balance all depends on the casting. If they’d just wanted a group of expendable attractive people although with me in with a chance that was clearly not going to be the case it would have been too cutesy and formulaic. Chris realised the special nuances would only work with experienced actors attuned to bring out the multi-levels”.
“I don’t want anyone calling Laura Harris the token American”, jokes Chris Smith. “She’s the token Canadian. David Gilliam, who plays George, is the token American. I saw Laura in The Faculty, 24 and Dead Like Me and thought she exuded a unique survival quality. She’s someone you just know is going to try and make it somehow. Laura as Maggie is my ironical Sigourney Weaver/Alien type who will do her best to defeat the odds whatever it takes”.
“Maggie is from mid-America, Michael Moore’s USA”, says Laura Harris describing her no-nonsense character. “She wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, and what she knows about the most is guns, the reason she joins Palisade. Maggie comes into her own during the final stages because girls from her area know how to shoot a gun. Just go to any range in, say, Michigan and the American right to bear arms will be on full display”.
The linked message in Severance is one of liability according to Harris. “Who is ultimately responsible for the chain of events and what personal responsibility does anyone have over them? What is the accountability of Palisade and why are the corporation’s employees working there? I loved getting to grips with all that meaty sub-text. Maggie’s job is to sell weapons. She’s convinced it’s for a good reason. But to see the situation they find themselves in gone horribly wrong…and not knowing why... must force deep self-criticism. Maggie heroically stands up to that inner battle by facing those consequences”.
Screen newcomer Babou Ceesay rounds out the seven-strong Palisade team. “When our casting director Gail Stevens brought actors in to read for the part of Billy, we auditioned them as usual,” says Smith, “It was only once we watched back the tapes of the auditions that we realised what an extraordinary actor Babou was and how much we needed him in our ensemble. He combined naïve awkwardness with biting logic in the role of Billy”.
Named as ‘one to watch’’ after appearing in the Out of Joint Theatre Company’s highly acclaimed stage version of ‘Macbeth’, the Gambian born actor plays Billy in Severance. “He’s one of the more level-headed characters in the team”, notes Ceesay. “He can’t push himself forward and is always reticent about giving his true opinion. I keep my distance and that is echoed in my death where I just seem to fade away. I’ve been on bonding trips in my former working life as an accountant and it’s a very strange ritual. No matter how informal the situation, there are still some things you’d never say to your boss. That’s just how it is and that’s the feeling I used in Billy’s relationship with Richard”.
“I never lost sight of the ensemble aspect of Severance”, remarks Chris Smith. “I knew the entire film would stand or fall on the casting and that the actors would have to quickly gel as a cohesive group who had a believable history of working together. But the moment we put our seven cast together in the same room, I knew we’d cracked it. Two days into the shooting and it was like they were the oldest friends in the world”.
Andy Nyman concurs, “At the initial read through when the cast got together for the first time, I knew the film was going to work in the way Chris wanted. The balance of egos was perfect, our personalities dovetailed in an effortless way and the chemistry was exactly right. Everybody felt the same and you could hear the collective huge sigh of relief when everyone realised everyone else was up for making Chris’ unique vision a reality”.
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