Timeless Heroes and Brutal Warlords:
Casting the Film
Our adventure begins with the awakening of the Emperor Mummy that young explorer Alex O’Connell, now 21, is tricked into raising. The fiercest warrior China has ever seen was unable to achieve world domination when cursed by sorceress Zi Yuan thousands of years ago. Newly awakened, he knows there is a world still to conquer. To do so, he must achieve eternal life by locating the fabled Shangri-la. If he can drink from the pool of eternal life there, he will be able to raise an army that’s been buried underneath the ground for millennia. Unless Rick, Evy and Alex O’Connell can stop him first.
Having Brendan Fraser return to the role of dashing adventurer Rick O’Connell was essential to the project, as all who were involved believe he is one of few actors who can blend action and light comedy so well. “We could never imagine a Mummy movie without Rick O’Connell,” states Ducsay. “Brendan is the very embodiment of the character. He looks fantastic; he is in even better physical shape than he was in the first picture, and he does these incredible stunts himself.”
Fraser appreciated that the distance and time he’s had since the last project was mirrored by his on-screen family in the script. He reflects, “It’s allowed the family to develop, and it’s given us an arc to play: reuniting a family that has grown apart. We find a husband and wife bored with having retired, to say the least, and a son who wants to be a chip off the old block. He wants to please his father but is a bit of a mama’s boy, makes a few mistakes and stumbles onto the mother lode of all big baddies: an entombed emperor who was a despot. Through a series of misfortunes, as is the tradition of these movies, ‘Here we go again!’ There’s another mummy unleashed on the world, and it’s up to the O’Connells to stop him.”
Similarly, there wasn’t a question in director Cohen’s mind about who would play the Emperor. “Jet Li was always the one and only choice,” he states. “He was going to play the villain for me in Sinbad, so we already knew each other.”
As the international action star wasn’t available for the entire duration of the lengthy shoot for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Cohen suggested that the script explain that the Emperor had been cursed and turned into a Terracotta Warrior. The director recalls, “We had the idea that a terracotta CG character walk and talk like Jet; then, at a certain point, he comes back as the flesh-and-blood Jet. He loved the idea and so did the studio.”
For his part, Li was impressed with fellow Buddhist Cohen and his deep love and understanding of Chinese culture. He appreciated his take on the project and signed on to portray the Dragon Emperor.Comments the succinct Li, “His shooting style is like a Hong Kong director’s: full of energy and change, and very fast.”
Oscar® winner Rachel Weisz decided not to reprise the role of Evy, the character she had portrayed for the first two films. The film’s long production schedule and overseas locations would be a burden for any actor raising a young family. Therefore, the search began for her replacement.
“After many casting meetings, we did screen tests with five actresses,” recalls Cohen, “and the one that blew us away was Maria Bello. She has such strong chemistry with Brendan that it wasn’t much of a decision. She had the beauty and precision, humor and inner fire that have always propelled her in such films as The Cooler and A History of Violence. Maria had already mastered the English accent and brought freshness to the role, which added to my hopes to reboot the franchise.”
Bello was eager to take on the role of a heroine in whom she found a kindred spirit. “I related to Evy as an adventurous soul,” she tells. “I always considered myself a bit of a gypsy, and I jump off a lot of cliffs. In second grade, I read romance novels; I was addicted to them. They were always about some woman who dressed like a man and snuck onto a ship, and a captain fell in love with her. She was a great swordsman and a greater fighter. I just always wanted to be that heroine.”
“Maria had such fortitude when she came in to read for the role,” Fraser remembers. “She is a great actress who has done a host of diverse roles, but if you ask, she’ll say, ‘All I ever want to do is be in a movie where I crack a whip, fire a gun and chase around on a horse.’ We find Rick and Evy have, respectively, hung up their guns and archeological digging roles and become a bit sedentary, and basically she is bored. She takes to going back into the field with great moxie and enthusiasm.”
Fans of the series will be happy to know that John Hannah returns to the role of Evy’s brother, the bumbling Jonathan, who is as much hindrance as he is help to the O’Connell family’s missions. Says producer Ducsay: “I remember when we approached John about his role in the first picture, he couldn’t figure out why we would want to cast him in a comic role. He just doesn’t see himself as funny, but of course he is, and I think that’s been borne out in the series.”
Offering much of the comic relief in the film, Jonathan reminds audiences what we would likely do when being chased by the cursed undead: run like mad. Laughs Hannah, “Jonathan’s always looking for a way out first. That’s always been the kind of everyman approach if some immortal, 2,000-year-old guy is coming at you to slap your head off. My first instinct would be to get out, not to stand and have a fight with him.”
Casting the role of Rick and Evy’s son, Alex, was a challenge. The character had to be young and exciting, physically credible, and, at the same time, present a feeling of vulnerability to the events that were about to transpire (which he helped to bring about). Alex needed to show the strength, brawn and heroism of his father, combined with the brains and curiosity of his mother. After an exhaustive search, the filmmakers met with charismatic Australian actor Luke Ford, a performer who suggests a rare blend of innocence and power. He offered the perfect match for Cohen’s series of “old bull/young bull” confrontations scripted for Alex and Rick.
Cohen recalls his first meeting with Ford: “I was screen-testing several young actors; some of them were famous in the United States. When I looked up, they were all standing around looking at Luke and talking to him, but he was clearly the dominant one. For young males to like another young male, he has to be cool, not threatening and not full of ego—because young men know how to push back against an actor who thinks he’s too cool. I remember thinking, ‘Here are these stars standing around; they’re talking to this kid, and he’s very natural with him and accessible.’ Plus, he was the best actor.”
For his breakthrough role, Ford found a young man making many of the mistakes his father had. Too, his father was reluctant to lay down his guns and pass the mantle along to his son. “Alex has always been in the shadow of his father,” Ford states. “Rick made such an impact in the world of archaeology, and Alex wants to do the same. By discovering the Emperor, he is trying to make his mark. There is some conflict between Alex and his parents, because they still think of him as an eight-year-old boy. It’s very frustrating to him because he wants to be treated as part of a team fighting adventures together and not be overprotected.”
Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh was asked to play ageless sorceress Zi Yuan, the woman responsible for transforming the Emperor into a terracotta prisoner after he destroys her happiness. Yeoh’s grace and beauty entranced both cast and crew. Fraser sums the admiration for her: “There is a regal quality she brings to Zi Yuan—the wizardlike ephemeral keeper of the fountain of youth. Michelle has such dignity that you really believe she is a serene beauty who has been waiting thousands of years to pick a moment and seek her revenge.”
The role of Zi Yuan was one that instantly attracted the international star, lauded in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha. “I was very excited about the character because she is magical,” Yeoh explains. “In the story she meets the love of her life, but she is thwarted by the Emperor, who wants her for himself and asks her to bestow on him the secret of eternal life. She refuses to and uses her powers to curse him. It’s a wonderful role.”
To play Zi Yuan’s daughter (and Alex’s love interest), Shihuang’s immortal tomb guardian Lin, Cohen found young Chinese actor Isabella Leong, while casting in China. The actor was eager to break into English-language films and would not only be challenged by the dialogue, but also by the martial arts movements required to play an assassin who is sworn to keep the Emperor Mummy forever locked away.
The production chose Hong Kong actor CHAU SANG ANTHONY WONG—known for breakout roles in The Painted Veil and Infernal Affairs—to play the character of General Yang. The actor, who had previously worked with Michelle Yeoh on two films, was cast as the merciless second hand of the Dragon Emperor, the man who believes mankind must be ruled by force.
Finally, Irishman Liam Cunningham was cast as Rick’s old partner-in-crime and flying buddy Desi “Mad Dog” Maguire; British actor DAVID CALDER was selected to portray fellow explorer Wilson; and American performer Russell Wong was chosen to play Ming Guo, the Emperor’s loyal servant and love of Zi Yuan’s life.
Cast locked, it was time for the production to begin traveling across two continents to shoot the exotic world of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.