With an accomplished behind-the-scenes production team, the filmmakers looked to find a cast just as amazing. Craymer had always said songs were the stars of the show, but after she looked around the table at the read-through, she admits, “I had to eat my words!”
Cast in the lead role of Donna was the incomparable Academy Award®-winning actress Meryl Streep, known for her dramatic and versatile roles in countless films and considered by many to be one of the greatest living American actors. Mamma Mia! is Streep’s first full-on movie musical, though she has done singing work in Postcards From the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion.
Says Craymer of the production’s choice for Donna: “We had always leant towards Meryl Streep playing the lead character. It was beyond joyful that she said yes to the offer immediately. We knew she had seen the show on Broadway a few years ago, as she’d written a rather wonderful letter to the cast, telling them how much she loved the show and how she’d wanted to get up on stage and feel what it was like to be part of Mamma Mia! Like schoolgirls, we kept this letter.”
“We dreamt of asking Meryl to play Donna,” says director Lloyd. “We knew she sang; we knew she wanted to do a musical. She combines everything that is required. She’s one of those unique actors who can laugh the world’s laughs and cry the world’s tears. That’s what Mamma Mia! needed, and we have it in her.”
Streep had indeed seen the show in New York and recounts, “It was pure joy.” She was drawn to the role for its humanity, its spirit and, of course, the music. “The songs are timeless,” says Streep. “They just enter your body. When I came to learn them, I found I knew every single one. They have amazing hooks and great melodies.”
Streep also responded to the fact that women had created Mamma Mia! and this would be a challenging, physical role that demanded a great deal of stamina. Among other moves, she would have to scale the side of a 40-foot building and sing “Mamma Mia” while balancing precariously on a rooftop. Too, she would perform “Dancing Queen” while performing a series of stunts, which included sliding down banisters to jumping off a jetty and into the sea.
Laughs Streep, “I was told that I was going to climb up the goat house wall while singing ‘Mamma Mia’, I thought, ‘How big could a goat house be?’ The goat house turned out to be this sheer wall. I was basically doing a Spider-Man stunt, and I got in shape really quickly. It was the first week, and I thought, ‘Whew! I better do my exercises every night.’”
Cast to play the (un)welcome dads were Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård. Says Lloyd, “We’ve got three men with incredible warmth and humour, and an intrinsic understanding of what Mamma Mia! is and what it requires. Each of these actors has the skill to take us on this incredible journey from a place in their lives where they’re all a bit stuck, a bit lost, to their liberation and literally letting their hair down on a magical island.”
As excited as Pierce Brosnan was at being offered the role, he admits to being initially terrified at the thought of having to sing and dance. Brosnan says, “I experienced sheer terror at the idea. I don’t think I have ever been so nervous about a job. In the end, I just surrendered to the whole experience, and had a great time doing it. It’s actually quite exhilarating to sing and to express your emotions that way.” He acknowledges that, in the end, the nerves helped: “Fear will drive you to great lengths to try and get something perfect and meaningful. The months of anxiety paid off.”
“Mamma Mia! has this insidious magic,” says the man cast as Harry Bright, Colin Firth. “It does tend to get to everybody.” Recently seen in Then She Found Me, Firth acknowledges there is something about the musical that is “conducive to abandoning yourself, rather like people do at the end of the show.” Firth responded to several elements of the project: “There’s a real tenderness about the notion of these three grizzled, middle-aged men who find out there’s more to their lives than they thought. The greatest pleasure of doing this has been working with this cast. Little bits of extra inspiration come up just because we’re all having fun.”
Of his director, he continues: “Phyllida has an amazing way of informing moments that don’t seem to have been important, with texture, or using an angle that could make the moment more interesting. It’s wonderfully economic and precise filmmaking.”
Completing the trio is Stellan Skarsgård of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, who was intimidated by a different challenge of a musical film: dancing. In spite of being wary of dancing, “something I haven’t done sober in 30 years,” Skarsgård admits, “I enjoyed it enormously and tried to have as much fun as I could. The whole experience has been totally liberating. All you can do is enjoy it and go for it.”
What was most humorous for Skarsgård was the concept of men playing the supporting roles, those conventionally performed by women in male-led films. He laughs, “Nobody is really interested in our psychology. We are the bimbos in the film!”
Cast as the Dynamos are Julie Walters, beloved British star of stage and screen, and Tony Award-winning actress Christine Baranski, one of the musical theatre industry’s most-honoured actresses, who was seen in the filmed production of Chicago. Respectively, they play the pragmatic Rosie and the multi-divorcée Tanya.
Walters accepted the part without hesitation. “I can’t tell you how much I loved the show,” she says. “It has a real irony and wit to it.” Though Walters has experience in singing and was less fazed at the prospect than the actors who played Sophie’s dads, the dancing was another matter. “I beat the floor at home to death practicing the dancing,” she laughs.
Explains Baranski about her interest in making a filmed version of Mamma Mia!: “What holds this together so well is this marvellous story about deep relationships. One of the great challenges and pleasures for me—and Meryl and Julie—was creating this sense of an old and textured friendship. It was easy to connect to Meryl and Julie—they are both awesome women. When they cast this film, they considered actors who would tap into what the filmmakers call ‘the Mamma Mia! spirit,’ which is an openness, a sense of fun and adventure.”
No stranger to singing and dancing on stage and screen, Baranski underscores the daunting task the cast was about to face: “There’s a tendency to think ABBA songs will be easy to sing—because they’re so catchy perhaps—but they are much more complicated than one would think. They demand a certain style. Benny and Björn are superb musicians, and their harmonies and rhythms are complex. They are very exacting about what they want.”
The filmmakers had very specific ideas about the roles of Sophie and Dominic, and in Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, they found the embodiment of their young lovers. Explains Craymer: “Finding Sophie was a huge task. She had to be impish, but innocent at the same time. She had to be fun, and she needed to sing really well, of course. Amanda ticked every box; she is our ideal Sophie.”
Seyfried, known to audiences from her standout roles as “weather girl” Karen in Mean Girls and as Sarah Henrickson, daughter of a polygamist in HBO’s Big Love, had previous singing and dance experience. But she would be up against a veritable who’s who of young Hollywood eager to land the part. Seyfried describes being chosen for the role of Sophie as “every girl’s dream.”
The auditioning process was intense. Up against a number of young women, Seyfried’s astonishing vocals distinguished her. Recalls Lloyd of the audition: “Amanda has that completely winning, radiant warmth and an almost childlike youthfulness. She also has a fabulously natural voice that made Benny and Björn ask her to sing tracks she wasn’t even singing in this film. She walked in and, from the first note she sang, you could feel everybody in the room go, ‘This is it.’”
During her audition process, Seyfried saw the show in Las Vegas and was hooked. “It was fantastic,” she relates. Like others, she acknowledges the timeless quality of ABBA’s songs and relished the opportunity of performing them. Seyfried also admits how excited she was at the prospect of following in the footsteps of the select actresses who had played opposite Streep: “She’s incredible. She’s so aware of how people might react to her presence and did her best to make me feel comfortable. I feel I have learned so much from the opportunity of working opposite her.”
Playing opposite Seyfried is young British actor Dominic Cooper of The History Boys and Starter for 10. The chemistry between his Mamma Mia! fiancée and Cooper was palpable in the screen tests. Says Craymer: “Dominic has a charming yet playful factor. He can sing, and the girls love him. He is perfect in the role of Sky.”
“It’s an incredible cast, and it’s a very exciting project to be a part of,” remarks Cooper. “The fun started during the audition process,” says Cooper, “and has continued ever since. It’s such an exposing thing, to sing. I really admire singers because you can’t hide behind all of your little sneaky acting tricks or speaking, and it’s very revealing.”
About his director, Cooper says: “She’s incredible with actors. Most of us really need to be guided through this; it’s new territory, and you couldn’t ask for a director who knows her stuff more than she does.”
The positive feelings expressed by the cast were characteristic of the Mamma Mia! experience felt by the stage productions globally. Concludes Craymer: “It has always been very important to me, as a producer, that everyone who’s part of the team has a great time. I believe that vibrancy, that good feeling, also has to come from the screen for the audience to enjoy it.”
The principal cast is supported by actors including Philip Michael and Chris Jarvis as Sky’s best mates, Pepper and Eddie; Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley as Sophie’s school friends (now bridesmaids), Lisa and Ali; the inevitable Greek Chorus; and some 20 stags (men) and 20 hens (women).
Cast set and crew hired. It was time to begin principal photography at a refurbished studio and to escape to an exotic, lush Greek isle where anything could happen.