The filmmakers behind the re-started Star Wars saga cast a very, very wide net in their search for faces to populate the continuing story of the galaxy far, far away. But it turns out that for at least a few of the actors, they probably didn’t need to look at audition videos or hold enormous casting sessions. All the filmmakers had to do was watch the last two Coen brothers movies.
Alden Ehrenreich’s casting as Han Solo capped off a serendipitous trend for the new Star Wars universe. After Oscar Isaac was cast to play the dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver was tapped to don the mask of Kylo Ren, the newest most evil dude in the galaxy (with a lot more daddy issues) in The Force Awakens, Ehrenreich’s inclusion in the saga linked them in a fortuitous trifecta of actors who went from the arthouse of the Coens to the big leagues of multi-billion-dollar blockbusters. We have Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar! to thank for that.
It’s a big leap, but it assuredly isn’t a dig against the small-scale directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, perhaps two of the best working American filmmakers today. They’re the type of guys who would laugh in the face of Disney’s CEO if they were floated the idea of helming a big blockbuster, though we’d gladly pay money to see what that film would look like. No, the road from the Coens to Star Wars should be taken as serious praise.
In a way, the Coens’ own brand of darkly comedic but astute filmmaking prepared the actors for, and informed the way each could transition into, that next level. This is primarily because the approach to the new Star Wars movies has been (thankfully) to stress the same kind of character-based performances found in arthouse fare. Then the filmmakers surround their actors with the explosions and special effects tropes that make a blockbuster a blockbuster. The little interactions between Poe and Finn on the star destroyer early on in The Force Awakens, and Driver’s nearly wordless Force-powered scene with Daisy Ridley can attest to that focus on simplicity. When have you seen that level of subtlety in a movie that cost more than $100 million to make?
But Ehrenreich, Isaac, and Driver weren’t simply poached by Disney; they were more so coached by the best for the roles that would inevitably change their lives. So what can we glean from their Coen brothers experience, now that they’ve moved on to bigger things?
Isaac’s turn as the sad sack title character, and Driver’s lowly and un-ironic faux-cowboy folk singer trying to make his way through the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s from Inside Llewyn Davis, have nothing outwardly to do with Poe Dameron or Kylo Ren — save for the way the pair plays all four parts.
The actors play each character as yearning to live up to an ideal. Llewyn Davis wants a Dylan-esque authenticity that he can never have, while Dameron wants a kind of peace through the Resistance that he could only hope to achieve. Driver’s city slicker shitkicker Al Cody character (real name: Arthur Milgrum) is all a ruse meant to portray something he’s not. Similarly, Kylo Ren wants to be as powerful as his grandfather Darth Vader, and even goes so far as to dress up in a scary mask like him, even though he’s more unwieldy than strong.
Ehrenreich is the toughest to put into context because we obviously haven’t had the experience of seeing him in action in the Star Wars saga quite yet. But it says something that the overwhelming response to the casting news so far has been positive, which is tough considering the character’s legendary pedigree and that the kneejerk age of the internet where everything supposedly sucks has embraced him that quickly. It also says something that before he’ll ever shoot a blaster or pilot the Millennium Falcon he’s already worked with auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, and Woody Allen.
His performance as Hobie Doyle, a bumbling but charming movie star cowboy gunslinger helplessly compelled to play a more formal and sophisticated character in Hail, Caesar! is superficially the furthest thing from Han Solo one could think of. But Solo’s original trilogy exploits show he’s also a bumbling but charming cowboy thrust into a situation where he’s supposed to be more composed. Get rid of Doyle’s exaggerated Southern accent, the Hollywood golden age setting, and the faux-gaucho costume and you can whittle the same kind kind of personality down to the two characters. Here’s hoping he can turn up the egocentric swagger when hes onscreen as Han Solo in 2018, or earlier.