If your favorite book was going to be turned into a movie, who would you pick to play the main characters? Emma Stone? Denzel Washington? Reese Witherspoon? Zach Galifianakis?
Readers and authors play the casting game all the time. How can you not? We’re all curious to see flesh-and-blood incarnations of the characters we’ve been following. If the book is well written, many readers will imagine the characters as real people and very often they have the faces of famous actors.
But for writers it works the other way. We sometimes use actors as models for our characters. I almost always base my characters on real people, including people I know, and I’m sure I’m not the only writer who does that. It helps to have a physical image in mind. Most of us keep our inspirations to ourselves, especially if the model is a friend you’d like to keep or a person you know will threaten to sue if he or she ever knew. Those are the secrets I will take to the grave.
I must mention that my dear departed father was absolutely convinced that every character I ever created—including the pets—was based on him. I assured him that wasn’t the case, but I don’t think he ever believed me. So here it is, Dad. I’m going to come clean and reveal who inspired, at least in some way, the creation of my favorite characters.
My “Bad” series (Bad Guys, Bad Blood, Bad Luck, Bad Business, Bad Moon, and Bad Apple) features odd-couple FBI agents “Mike Tozzi” and “Cuthbert Gibbons.” Initially I imagined them as the actors Treat Williams as the renegade “Tozzi,” the younger of the two, and Robert Duvall as the crusty, grumpy, near-retirement “Gibbons.” The first book was published in 1988, and, alas, these fine actors have outlived their appropriateness for these parts. But in 2004 a made-for-TV version of Bad Apple was made for TNT, starring Chris Noth (Sex and the City’s “Mr. Big,” Law & Order, The Good Wife) as “Tozzi” and Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Intermission) as “Gibbons.” Though not exactly the physical manifestations I had in mind, they were great, and I loved the finished product.
Also outstanding in that film were Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, Walk the Line) as the mob villain, “Tony ‘Bells’ Bellavita.” In the book I compare “Bells” to Christopher Walken, and Patrick to a cue from my description and gelled his hair straight up Walken-style. He was absolutely convincing as my Italian-American goombah killing machine.
Actor James Villemaire was a hoot as “Freshy DeFresco,” the putz who causes all the trouble in Bad Apple. I had modeled that character on several ne’er-do-well mob wannabes I’d met or heard about, but I have to admit Villemaire’s performance outdid my creation. I wish I had known him before I’d written “Freshy;” I’m sure the character would have been that much better on the page. Here’s a clip from the film with Villemaire, Noth, and Meaney. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEOpUkqzVq8.
Freshy’s sister “Gina” came to me in a flash when I spotted a young woman in a yellow blouse and black slacks on the Newark, New Jersey, train platform as my train was pulling out. I saw her for all of about 20 seconds, but she was perfect. A young attractive professional woman whose blue-collar roots were evident in her don’t-screw-with-me expression. I’d initially thought of the character as sort of like Annabella Sciorra, but actress Dagmara Dominczyk knocked me for a loop. When I saw a rough cut of the film, I couldn’t believe how close she was to the “Gina” in my head. Catch her in the recently released Higher Ground; she’s excellent.
My other mystery series features plump New Jersey parole officer “Loretta Kovacs” and her loveable Guido partner “Frank Marvelli” (Devil’s Food, Double Espresso, Hot Fudge). Several years ago a Hollywood agent pitched film rights to this series to a famously overweight star who shall remain nameless. I was told that she was highly offended that anyone would consider her right for a “fat girl” role. The series was then offered to Whoopi Goldberg, which baffled me. In the flexible calculus of Hollywood, does kooky black woman equal overweight white woman? I don’t know. Whoopi’s people passed on the project.
The obvious choice today for “Loretta” is Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls). She’s heavy and also very talented, hands down the best reason to see Bridesmaids. My pick for “Marvelli” is a tie between Mark Ruffalo (Shutter Island, The Kids Are All Right) and Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent, Win Win).
One of my non-fiction books, The Iceman, is about to become a feature film. It’s the story of mass murderer and lethal scam artist Richard Kuklinski, and since I actually met the man in person, I didn’t need a model to help me imagine what he was like. Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) is playing Kuklinski. Benicio Del Toro (The Usual Suspects, The Wolfman) co-stars as mobster Roy DeMeo, and James Franco (127 Hours, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) will play “Mr. Softee,” a hit man who drove an ice-cream truck through residential neighborhoods, selling treats to kids, when he wasn’t devising exotic methods of killing. I have no doubt Del Toro will nail the violent, erratic DeMeo, and Franco is the perfect choice for an off-kilter killer. And Shannon is pretty scary in the lead. Check out this test scene. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDPtT1NYWYM.
Bleeders is a cat-and-mouse thriller that pits FBI profiler “Trisha McCleery” against “Gene Lassiter,” the sophisticated serial killer who murdered her mother. My mental image for Trisha has always been Zooey Deschanel (500 Days Of Summer, Our Idiot Brother) in a dramatic turn. When I was writing the book, I thought of man-about-town “Lassiter” as George Clooney or perhaps Hugh Grant. But now I’m thinking Justin Timberlake (The Social Network) or Johnny Depp (Pirates Of The Caribbean, Donnie Brasco) might be good choices to capture the deadly contradictions of this character.
“Frank Grimaldi” is the hero of my Catholic school coming-of-age novel, The Temptations of St. Frank. I drew heavily on my own high school experiences for this one, and whenever the author is the template for the hero, it’s hard for him to envision the character as anyone else. But my daughter came up with a good choice for 17-year-old “Frank,” Emile Hirsch (Milk, Into The Wild). Of course, there are currently no plans to turn this novel into a film, at least not yet, and pretty soon Hirsch might be a bit too old to play a teen convincingly. But there’s always Justin Bieber. Or the guy who played “McLovin.” If any of you know their agents, give them a heads up. 😉