In "Stardust," the character Tristan Thorne finds himself in the fantastic realm of Stormhold, where he must protect a star, fallen from the sky in the form of a beautiful young woman, from all manner of dangers and pitfalls, including pirates, witches and ruthless princes.
Tristan is played by Charlie Cox, 24, who found himself plunged into a leading role as a romantic foil opposite Claire Danes and alongside such mega-wattage costars as Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. Yet before he could set off on his magical journey of Hollywood enchantment, Cox faced what turned out to be perhaps the biggest challenge of the role -- simply winning the part.
Director, producer and co-writer Matthew Vaughn first saw Cox on an audition tape the actor had done for another project and didn't think he fit the part of Thorne. Vaughn, already having seen hundreds of actors for Tristan, eventually gave in to the casting director and agreed to meet Cox. As soon as the young actor entered the room Vaughn knew he'd found his Tristan.
As so much of the story revolves around the burgeoning romance between Tristan, a shop boy yearning for a life of adventure, and Yvaine, the fallen star, Vaughn couldn't fully commit to Cox until he found his leading lady as well.
"The whole point was to find the couple," explained Cox. "Matthew's very serious about this. Chemistry on screen, you can't act it, it's got to just be there. So he said, 'I can't just cast one of you.' "
Vaughn knew he was asking a lot of Cox, putting him on the cusp of a big break while also potentially setting him up for a whole lot of nothing.
"I said to poor Charlie, 'You haven't got the part until I find Yvaine,' " recalled Vaughn, "because it's about having the right chemistry. I might find an Yvaine and suddenly you're not right. So I said, 'You're going to have to bear with me for a bit.' And so every time we auditioned the girl, they auditioned with Charlie."
"Stardust," based on the book by Neil Gaiman and co-written by Jane Goldman, has a very specific tone and feel, something like a pop-up storybook come to life. Along their way Tristan and Yvaine must fight off a witch who wants to cut out Yvaine's heart for everlasting life, a set of princes scheming after the jewel around her neck to ascend to the throne of Stormhold, and assorted other extraordinary perils. Grounding this all is the rather sweet, slightly screwball relationship that emerges between Tristan and Yvaine.
As Tristan, Cox somehow manages to walk a tightrope between matinee-idol dashing and puckish whimsy, as the film veers from a childlike innocence to an absurdist, Candide-style picaresque. He largely functions as the audience's emissary to a world of magic and wonder, where anything might and does happen.
As the story progresses, his character evolves from sweet, simple bumbler to swashbuckling adventure hero. The lack of baggage viewers have toward Cox from previous roles is part of what helps to make his transformation convincing.
"That's why I wanted an unknown," said Vaughn. "You genuinely see him grow in front of you without realizing it. If it's Orlando Bloom all geeked up, you know he's going to take off his glasses and get a new haircut -- 'Hey, I'm Orlando, the hero.'
"A lot of people could play the nerd part well, the awkward teen, but couldn't play the hero. And a lot of people could play the hero well but couldn't do the nerdy guy."
A stepped-up challenge
Cox, a London native, dropped out of drama school when he was cast in a small role in "The Merchant of Venice" starring Al Pacino. He would then land a supporting role as the brother of Sienna Miller (a "Stardust" costar) in "Casanova."
None of his experiences quite prepared him for the physical and emotional challenges of playing the lead in a film such as "Stardust," where suddenly he was working nearly every single day for four months and sharing major screen time with major stars.
"It really helped my character," said Cox of his own amazement and bewilderment at finding himself with such a plum role. "In the same way that Tristan is in the story, I'm entering uncharted territory. Every day is something I've not experienced before. When I think back on my experiences on the film, and even to some extent doing this stuff" -- and with this he casts both hands around the plush hotel suite in which he is sitting, acknowledging the catered lunch, the inquiring journalist and the small cabal of handlers in the next room -- "I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, a bit like a rabbit in the headlights and trying to keep myself together."
At the recent Los Angeles premiere of "Stardust," Cox looked dorkily dapper in a three-piece suit and cheerfully posed for photos with all of his costars. He worked his way down to the farthest reaches of the press line, daring to go where bold-faced names rarely do. He needed to be frequently prodded along by a minder, having not yet mastered the tricky maneuver of the polite but definitive disengagement.
As he entered the lobby of the theater he was greeted by a coterie of the well-wishers and glad-handers who attend such events. Soon after, De Niro and Pfeiffer entered through the same doors and Cox was suddenly swept aside by a celebrity undertow, momentarily lost as the crowd rolled toward his costars.
The Hollywood pecking order has a way of constantly reminding who fits where, but for now Cox is more than happy with what "Stardust" has done for him.
"I know people complain about it, 'Oh, this junket's a lot of work,' " he said earlier. "But right now, this is what you work toward. I've done films where I would have loved to have been asked what it was like to do the movie, how I got the role or how I feel about this business, but I've just not been significant enough."