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As Matt King, the protagonist of Oscar-winner ‘The Descendants’, tries to find his footing as a father to Alexandra and Scottie, he is surrounded by friends, foes and relations who keep throwing him off course. The cast of characters that complete the ensemble that the three Kings run into on their journey towards reconciliation are an accomplished ensemble of actors hand-picked by director Alexander Payne.
Note: There following may contain spoilers.
“The casting in this film provided a new and interesting challenge for John Jackson and me — to piece together not just a believable nuclear family but also an extended family and a community of friends as well — all of whom inhabit a fairly narrow enclave of class and race,” says Payne.
For the catalytic role of Brian Speer, the mysterious real estate agent Matt King is chasing throughout much of the film, Payne cast Matthew Lillard, the tall, versatile actor best known for his comic performances and as Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movies. When Lillard read for the role, he was convinced it was the longest of long shots.
“I walked in, and there were like five great looking guys waiting to read, all of them with that California movie star thing, strong chins and pecs and biceps,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s just no way.‘ I already know that the chances of me playing George Clooney’s wife’s lover are pretty slim.”
Lillard gave it his all and was satisfied just to have elicited praise from Payne. But four months later he was stunned when he received a call from Payne saying “I‘d love to have you be a part of this movie.” Payne recalls that Lillard‘s speedy approach clinched it. “I like it when actors act fast. Later I told him that he should do more of his audition with his kids in the car,” remarks the director.
For Lillard, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Your whole life as an actor you look for the chance to be part of an experience that is this special,” he says. “I don‘t think I would ever have been the standard casting choice. I think I‘m outside the box, but that‘s what makes Alexander such a great director. He has the ability to make choices that set his body of work apart.”
As for Brian, who unwittingly becomes Matt King‘s greatest nemesis but also perhaps his liberator, Lillard says, “He‘s a real go-getter. He‘s a family man who truly loves his wife and kids as well, but he has a fatal flaw. He saw a financial opportunity with Matt‘s wife, only he got himself in too deep, too fast and suddenly, he‘s in the middle of an incredible situation.
What‘s fun about it is that George Clooney goes on this whole transformative journey of hunting my character. But then, Brian becomes a kind of oracle who sends him back to his family to find a way through.”
Another actress known primarily for her comedic abilities, Judy Greer, recently seen in the TV series ‘Mad Love’, was cast as Brian Speer‘s wronged wife, the seemingly soft-spoken Julie, who first runs into Matt King on a blissful Kauai beach. Greer was taken by the way her character defies expectations and is much more than comic fodder.
“She‘s a very modern mother figure,” Greer observes. “She‘s earthy and sensitive and committed to keeping her family together no matter what. I like that Alexander put a very calm and grounded human being into this situation.”
When the situation nevertheless explodes into chaos, it is Julie, not Brian, who finds herself at the center of a turbulent scene showing up at the hospital to make amends with Matt‘s comatose wife, only to find herself going off on a bedside rant. Greer could empathize with Julie‘s reasoning even if her behavior turns shocking. “I think Julie goes to see Elizabeth because she is confused and concerned,” says Greer. “Maybe she just wants to see the other woman.
When you find out your husband‘s been cheating, you‘re taken over by feelings of jealousy and inadequacy and anger and sadness and maybe she just wants to get a look at the woman who ruined everything she thought she had. She also has an incredible amount of compassion for Matt‘s situation. The beauty of the scene and the way that it is written is that it is all of these things at once. She becomes taken over by what she‘s really feeling.”