Spitfires and Knuckleheads: Casting the Film
Choosing the comedy's principals fell into place fairly quickly. Renée Zellweger, who plays sportswriter Lexie Littleton, caught in a love triangle between Carter Rutherford and Dodge Connolly, was one of the first actors to come onto Leatherheads. "George already had Renée in mind-her name was at the very top of the list," says Casey Silver. "It was easy to get excited about her, obviously, because she is so perfect at romantic comedy."
Grant Heslov adds, "She handles this rapid-fire dialogue brilliantly, and we knew she could play this feisty, smart character with savvy, sexiness and sophistication. What's so great about Renée is that she also captures Lexie's vulnerability, which comes into play when she has doubts about what she's doing...and when she starts to fall for Dodge."
Zellweger was attracted to the part because she found Leatherheads to be "the kind of movie you keep your fingers crossed for." She responded to the fact that "it's a throwback to those great old romantic comedies where the dialogue is sharp and witty, the story is compelling and interesting and the characters are full of color."
The actor adds that what appealed to her about Lexie was the fact "she's witty and smart, clearly a sharp girl who thinks on her feet. Lexie's a bit of a spitfire, ahead of her time-but I also appreciated that she was very likable and, at the end of the day, has real integrity."
Zellweger quickly discovered that, for much of the screwball comedy, the loquacious sports reporter utters mouthfuls of dialogue; the banter practically gallops among Lexie and Dodge and Carter. She liked that Clooney's accommodating directing style made the rapid-fire lines much easier to manage. During rehearsals, they agreed that they wanted to catch each other off guard, and not become stuck in particular rhythms.
Zellweger offers, "We discussed the dialogue, the scenes, what the subtext was and how it worked in the story. But we didn't over-rehearse; we never blocked out the scene to a great extent or ran lines too much. With these lines, that was easy to do, as there were pages and pages of dialogue. There was homework and memorization every night. But it was addictively fun, because the lines were so rich and we could take them in so many directions."
Clooney expands upon his leading lady's assessment of the script: "It's like riding a roller coaster; it can't all be brrrapppp, really fast. Going down is rapid-fire, and then you stop. You have to find those moments, and you find it through running the scene a couple of times and getting a rhythm for it. But Renée is the perfect actress for this; I can't think of another that could've done it."
John Krasinski came next, cast as football star Carter Rutherford. Producer Heslov felt that Krasinski understood Carter's conflict as a war hero who might not be as valiant as first reported. The screenwriters had created a decent fellow not merely caught up in the hoopla of celebrity but, in fact, trapped by it. Heslov states, "We always saw Carter as basically a good guy-an innocent, smart man who got in over his head. John really got that and played it beautifully."
Although Krasinski, best known for his work on the hit television series The Office, had been in a few feature films, he was impressed by the Leatherheads read. He says, "I read the script eight months before shooting, and I just loved it. I said to my agents, 'This is the best script I've read in a long time. Let me know who gets it.' But I met with George in his office, and we just talked; I didn't audition, so that was amazing. About a month later, I went on tape. Two days later, they called; it was surreal."
Krasinski had an affinity for the character caught between the worlds of war hero and football player, and agreed with the filmmakers' take that Rutherford's instant fame would make anyone more complicated. "We thought the key to him was that he had to be a really good guy who had a bad hand dealt. It's not like he's an evil person who's been manipulating the situation and using his fame. He's just a guy who got stuck with this. I focused on his innocence when I read the script, and it seemed like that's what George honed in on too."
When Krasinski was able to join the production, however, the company had already been filming in the Carolinas for about a month. Initially, he worked on the weekends; on the weekdays, he flew to Los Angeles to complete that season's The Office. It was about a month and a half before he could join Leatherheads full time.
Award-winning Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast to play Carter's manager, the suave and cunning CC Frazier, a man with an equal eye for the ladies and the almighty dollar-initially somewhat of a mentor for the impressionable college player. Clooney and the producers wanted a Svengali who was smooth and sophisticated, a slick operator, but still not too oily. They felt the actor really knew how to walk that line.
On Clooney: "Jonathan makes it easy, because we know exactly who this guy is the minute he walks in the room. CC is slicker and smarter than we are, which Jonathan is; he's smarter than anybody else in the room and has interesting instincts. And he's also a professional who knows exactly what's needed in the scene. When actors understand that, it makes it really easy to direct." He laughs, "It's embarrassing to act in scenes with him, but it makes him easy to direct."
Pryce describes CC as "a guy who sees what he wants, goes in and gets it. He also thinks he has a chance with Lexie...with any woman. It doesn't matter who it is!"
The performer found inspiration for CC in agents who had previously represented him; he relished the opportunity to channel them. "I've had agents in America who were CC figures, who had the eye on their main chance and couldn't understand why I would want to play Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company when I could do a movie- however crap the movie was," Pryce states. "It was more important to make some money. Mercifully, those agents are in the past, but it was a lot of fun to play CC, where I could draw on their ruthlessness."
As the movie is tethered to football, it was critical to cast just the right actors as the Duluth Bulldogs and their opponents, as well as an assorted rogues' gallery of coaches, officials and reporters. As was the custom back in the day, the WWI vets, farmers and coal miners who comprised the Bulldogs all went by colorful monikers, such as Hardleg and Zoom. Key Bulldogs on Dodge and Carter's team included Keith Loneker as running back Big Gus; Malcolm Goodwin as wide receiver Bakes; Tommy Hinkley as lineman Hardleg; Matt Bushell as Curly; Tim Griffin as lineman Ralph; Nick Paonessa as Zoom; Robert Baker as lineman Stump; Nick Bourdages as the waterboy with the foul mouth, Bug; and Rocky the English bulldog (a favorite of the director's) as the laziest possible mascot.
Rounding out the core cast were seasoned character actors Jack Thompson as Lexie's hard-boiled editor at the Chicago Tribune, Harvey, and Peter Gerety as Chicago Football Commissioner Harkin. Two O Brother, Where Art Thou? alums- Wayne Duvall as Bulldogs' Coach Ferguson and Stephen Root as the team's aptly named liquor-soaked sportswriter, Suds-also joined the production.
Suds spends most of the film inebriated or asleep, and Dodge ghostwrites the majority of his pieces about the Bulldogs. Laughs Root, "Suds is pretty much his namesake; he likes a couple. He's good friends with his pal Dodge, the man who writes most of his stuff. He's Dodge's puppy dog-follows him around, does what he wants; they seem to be inseparable." Of course, when Lexie Littleton appears, ostensibly to cover Carter Rutherford, Suds suddenly has some serious, charming competition-which he welcomes wholeheartedly.
In advance of principal photography, Clooney and the producers held casting calls for the football players and fans needed to populate the stands for games shot in Leatherheads. Hundreds of eager extras showed up, many more than the production required. The selected had to agree to have their hair cut in 1920s styles and, many times, were required on set before sunrise in order to be properly costumed and made up. Throughout production, they never lost good cheer, even when the mercurial weather patterns included wind, rain, freezing cold, glaring sun and blistering heat-sometimes all in the same day.
Many of the extras were high school football stars who had come to the casting call. Though Clooney, Krasinski and the boys knew they were matched with players who could easily best them, they were pleased to know that the screenplay dictated otherwise.
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