Rian Johnson’s crash course in catching lightning in a bottle twice
The classic murder mystery requires a clever script, a brilliant sleuth and a sparkling ensemble of potential killers. With “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” writer-director Rian Johnson had two out of three elements in place by early 2021. He’d spent nearly a year crafting his wickedly funny whodunit screenplay and knew that Daniel Craig would be returning as detective Benoit Blanc, the magnetic north pole of their 2019 hit “Knives Out.” As for the ensemble? That needed to be assembled from scratch.
“I try to approach casting a bit like writing up an invitation list for a dinner party where you’re paying attention to, you know, who seems like they’d be cool to have around,” Johnson notes. “You’re hoping that if each actor you cast is someone you’d like to hang out with, then everyone else will feel that way too and the whole group will come together.”
Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista, along with Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline portraying personal assistants, passed their coolness auditions with flying colors. None had worked with Johnson before but when everybody met in person for the first time on a Greek island, where the story takes place, Johnson felt reassured.
“It was a bit like the first day of school,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles writing office. “You’re a little nervous but it’s also such a joyful part of the process. In that scene on the dock, all the characters are showing up to get on the boat and we slowly build up to the full ensemble. There were moments when I saw everyone playing off of each other and that’s when you go: ‘Oh yeah. I think this is going to work.’”
Still, Johnson says, most of the credit goes to the appealingly cohesive cast.
“The reason it feels like everyone meshes together so well on screen is not because I’m some Svengali pulling the strings behind the scenes to get everyone on the same page,” he says. “It’s because these are world-class actors who are listening to each other and adjusting to each other’s performances. They’re genuinely engaged with the assignment of working together as an ensemble.”
Fresh from the world premiere of his “Knives Out” sequel, Johnson explains the origins of Benoit Blanc and why he wants his Netflix film in theaters.
Here, Johnson, Monae, Hudson and casting director Mary Vernieu, who worked with Bret Howe, pull apart the “Glass Onion” ensemble experience for The Envelope.
(devious tech mogul Miles Bron)
“He’s maybe known for more intense parts, but Edward Norton’s actually a very playful person,” Johnson says. “I’m a big ‘Death to Smoochy’ fan and I also think he’s hilarious in ‘Fight Club.’” For “Glass Onion,” Johnson says, “He was endlessly inventive, coming up with ideas but always in a respectful way. It felt like we were playing together in the sandbox trying to make ourselves laugh.”
(Miles’ embittered ex-partner Andi Brand)
“I had never worked with Janelle before but I’m a huge fan of her music,” Johnson says. “I could tell she’s got a storyteller’s heart, which serves this part well because I needed a collaborator who’s very tuned in to the full arc of the story. ‘Glass Onion’ can get big and outlandish but [Monae’s performance] is like the string on a balloon that keeps it grounded. The role asks everything you can ask of an actor. It’s got comedy, physical comedy, wordplay, action stuff, scenes where she really has to sell some emotions. Janelle stepped up and dug in.”
Monae was thrilled to be approached about “Glass Onion” because of its director, she says by email. “I’ve been wanting to work with Rian Johnson ever since watching his incredible film ‘Looper.’ I thought, ‘Who is this person who loves time travel as much as me?’ Once I read the script, I was blown away. I did not see the twist coming. Once I understood my role in the film, I was eager to sink my teeth into such a delicious bite. And then getting to work with this incredible cast, it felt like [being in] a summer theater troupe. It was the kind of experience you wanted to keep going forever.”
(YouTube influencer Duke Cody)
Johnson says “When I was writing Duke, I imagined a skinny dude punching above his weight class. Then Mary and Bret brought up Dave Bautista and I immediately thought it was a brilliant idea.” Vernieu championed Bautista for the role having seen him in the 2019 comedy “Stuber.” “I was very impressed with Dave as an actor who could be comedic. Once we started talking about him, we didn’t really talk about anybody else.”
(celebrity fashion entrepreneur Birdie Jay)
“For a great drunk performance, you’ve got to play it sober and in the same way, it takes a very smart actor like Kate to get the humor out of a very broad part like this,” says Johnson, who notes that Hudson’s shrieking delivery of a Birdie outburst “What is reality?!” galvanized her castmates. “Everybody was looking forward to the day Kate delivered that line, to the point where she had to do a few ridiculous ones just to get it out of her system.”
For Hudson, Birdie’s larger-than-life persona proved irresistible. “When there’s a character description that reads, ‘She makes an entrance with an incredibly large hat’ — that, to me, is a bucket-list character! The tricky thing for me was finding the underbelly of Birdie beneath her flamboyant personality,” Hudson says via email. The other tricky thing, for the entire cast: filming during the pandemic. “We were living in a little COVID bubble in real life while doing the same in the movie. Instead of going out on our own on the weekends, we ended up spending time together and very quickly became a little family.” Peak moment off-camera? “Reading Kathyrn Hahn’s tarot cards under a full moon on her birthday was right up there,” Hudson says.
(Massachusetts governor Claire Debella)
“Claire Debella’s a politician so it could have been a little dry or on the nose,” Johnson says. “I wanted someone with a chaotic energy to come in and make the character feel slightly dangerous. Kathryn’s similar to Kate in that she has incredible comedic chops but she’s also a hell of an actor.”
Leslie Odom Jr.
(scientist Lionel Toussaint)
“For the first [‘Knives Out’] movie, we were locked into ‘It’s a white family in New England’ — that was kind of the whole point,” Johnson says. “With this one, we wanted to build a diverse cast so we looked at a wide variety of actors. I always knew Andi would be Black, but Lionel, not at all. He’s sort of the grown-up of the group and had to have playfulness, intelligence and a charisma that comes from left field a little bit.” Johnson and Vernieu vividly remember seeing Odom on Broadway when he starred in “Hamilton.” Vernieu says, “I was also a big fan of Leslie from seeing him in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ He ended up being the guy who would do all the things Rian needed.”
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(detective Benoit Blanc)
“One of the big reasons we’re still making these movies is that Daniel and I get along great,” Johnson says. “That creates a certain vibe on set, where people are looking to No. 1 on the call sheet to see how to behave. Daniel sets a very cool tone that makes it easy for everybody to gel together.” In Greece, Craig hosted a party where newly arrived cast members had a chance to chill out before cameras started rolling. Johnson recalls, “We all went over to his place and instantly, I could see people connecting with each other. As much as anything, that made me think, ‘I think we’ve caught lightning in a bottle again.’”
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