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Casting a Biopic

Nick Cannon is rumored to star in the upcoming Richard Pryor biopicNews broke this week that Nick Cannon was strongly being considered to star in the Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? biopic and many people, including Richard Pryor Jr., were initially unconvinced that he could carry the role. That is until Cannon started working through the mannerisms, body language, hair and habits of the deceased comedian and folks began to go, “Oh wait, I can see this now, how did I miss it before?” Cannon showed up at the BET Awards with an afro and moustache that looked oddly familiar and in a TMZ interview last Wednesday he talked about but didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t confirm that he’d been offered the role after conversations with planned-director Lee Daniels. Soon after, Richard Pryor Jr. was asked about his opinion of Cannon playing his father and said that he’d recently been convinced, and that Cannon was the second-most qualified person (after himself) to play the role. The Pryor biopic project has been around but unable to get off the ground for quite some time. Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company was attached at one point as was Forest Whitaker. Director Lee Daniels has recently been strongly tied to the film but as yet is unconfirmed while actors Eddie Murphy, Marlon Wayans, and Michael B. Jordan have all been rumored for the lead role in the past. Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard’s widow, is producing the film to which Richard, Jr. has repeatedly voiced concerns. But setting aside the production mishaps and low probability that the film still has to yet get made, the idea of Nick Cannon taking on the role of a ground-breaking, idolized comedian, a true American icon is intriguing. “Nick Cannon’s hilarious”   but can he truly encapsulate such a revered figure as Richard Pryor?

Biopics are all the rage over the past couple decades and for good reason: In a time of rehashing, adding sequels and otherwise pilfering stories already told, the biopic presents a not-altogether-different opportunity to do that with the life of a real person, usually an icon of music, sports, entertainment or industry. The genre gives us a chance to take these people whose public personas we already know so much about and explore (with whatever level of truthfulness) their more private sides. The genre has existed since the 1930’s, but some of the earliest classic examples are James Cagney in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy and 1970’s Patton with George C. Scott. The genre got moving in the early 80’s with films like The Buddy Holly Story (Gary Busey), Raging Bull (Robert DeNiro as boxer Jake LaMotta), and Ghandi (Ben Kingsley), and saw itself deepened and expanded in the 90’s with films like Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), The Doors (Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Johnny Depp as writer Hunter S. Thompson). It found a run of Academy Award success in the early 2000’s with Ali (Will Smith), Ray (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles), Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash), and The Aviator (Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes). It’s been underrated with great films like Man on the Moon (Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufman), Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin), and Cadillac Records (Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Beyonce as Etta James, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, and many more). We’ll get to things like story and humanity and vulnerability in just a moment but one of the biggest attention-draws with all the previous examples and with any biopic is the casting choice(s). It’s a fun game to play, envisioning who might play a group of friends, co-workers, or even an as-yet-unwritten story about a celebrity or icon. Personally, I’ve wanted for some time now to write a biopic of The Grateful Dead and the casting choices are great to imagine (Bill Paxton as Bob Weir! Right? How awesome is that?).

Daniel Day Lewis in 'Lincoln' biopicSo what is most important in a biopic casting? What carries the character strongest? Though not quite the deciding factor that one might think, some physical resemblance is necessary, which can then be furthered through makeup and style choices. In one of the greatest films I’ve yet to mention, Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln is stunning. When news first broke of his being cast, it was followed by a few solo images of Lewis in full costume and makeup and the intrigue was palpable. Kevin Spacey bears a passing likeness to singer Bobby Darin and it was really only in the younger years of Beyond the Sea that makeup magic was required. As viewers, though, we are willing to suspend our disbelief to a wide degree and a little resemblance goes a long way, greatly enhanced by the actor’s adoption of mannerisms, body language, figures of speech, etc. of the subject. Johnny Depp bears little resemblance to writer Hunter S. Thompson, but by shaving his head, adopting and internalizing much of the writer’s idiosyncrasies he was able to bring to life a characterization that Thompson himself lauded greatly before his death. Conversely, as we learned from Ashton Kutcher playing the founder of Apple in Jobs, a strong physical resemblance does not guarantee a compelling biography film. So when are Jamie Foxx, Val Kilmer and Jamal Woolard (as Biggie in Notorious) at their most convincing? I contend that it’s in the moments when these actors are bringing to light the real humanity of people we quite often revere. It’s the part that draws us to these movies – these are people we idolize, our heroes, and the biopic gives a look into a part of their lives that we as fans would never get to see. We get occasional glimpses when cameras are rolling for a documentary or behind-the-scenes feature but some of the most exciting parts of a biopic are the things that couldn’t be caught if there was an outside force like a camera present at the time and therefore must be dramatically envisioned and retold.

Johnny Deep prepares for his biopic role in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
Hunter Thompson shaving Johnny Depp’s head

The real magic of these films is in the vulnerability, the personal moments like Ray Charles struggling with visions of his mother during his heroin binges, or Jesse Eisenberg as angry and often alone, but supremely confident Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Don Cheadle’s Sammy Davis Jr. in The Rat Pack, another vastly underrated biopic, has many moments where he shows the humanity in the cool, fast, swinging lifestyle of the famous crooners. In one particularly poignant moment, as Martin (Joe Mantegna) and Sinatra (Ray Liotta) go back and forth onstage with Davis being the butt of a number of racist jokes, Sammy turns from the crowd and his magnanimous smile falls from his face, revealing his continuous struggle even within his own group of friends and co-performers. In these large films about big people doing big things, it is often the small, quiet moments that give these portrayals real depth.

Unlike a fictional film where one is bringing a character to life, usually one that doesn’t previously exist, in a biopic one has a certain responsibility to the real person, be they living or dead, to represent them well. After Oliver Stone’s The Doors was released in 1991, the surviving members of the band publicly took issue with Stone’s image of their deceased friend, claiming his alcohol and drug use were over-emphasized and Jim Morrison the poet was lost in the story. Biopics, however, are narrative, fictional films so there is inevitably a certain amount of choosing, editing, and crafting events to fit a story, and one cannot perfectly and completely accurately represent the life of a real person.

There are always stories, many true, about the measures to which some actors will go in achieving the role of a real person. On the set of Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg and others referred to Daniel Day Lewis as “Mr. President” as Lewis himself was said to have remained in character when the cameras were off. Some actors undergo dramatic physical transformations – weight gain for DeNiro in Raging Bull and Will Smith in Ali, drastic weight loss for Christian Bale in The Fighter and hours in makeup chairs (6-7 hours/day for Dicaprio in the underwhelming J. Edgar). With films about musicians there is a desire to hire actors that can do their own singing. In Walk the Line, both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon expertly did their own singing and playing, as did Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story. Val Kilmer was said to be so convincing for the studio scenes in The Doors that other members of the band were unable to tell if it was Kilmer or Morrison singing. Jamie Foxx, a talented singer in his own right, pushed to do the singing for Ray but the film’s producers decided against it in the end.

NWA, real and fictional versions, from the upcoming biopic, 'Straight Outta Compton'
NWA, real and fictional versions

In addition, because these films’ subject are real people, the role of the subject’s family in the casting and general production must inevitably be addressed. Jimi Hendrix’s family has always had a huge role is his estate and for the upcoming biopic All is By My Side starring Andre 3000, they blocked the use of most of his music forcing the film’s producers and writers to wisely adjust the scope of the film to the early part of Hendrix’s career. Biggie and Tupac’s families (moms) are well-known for their roles in their estates/legacies and Will Smith had long talks with Muhammad Ali before accepting the role in that film. For next year’s Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube has stipulated that his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., must play him, Jackson’s first acting role. And as I mentioned earlier, for Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, Pryor’s widow Jennifer has the producer reins, worrying some folks about the film’s accuracy. The question in situations like these is how should the desires of those protecting the life and legacy of the real person weigh against the right to tell the story of an artist or celebrity?

As we look forward to some interesting upcoming biopics – Straight Outta Compton, All is By My Side, John Singleton’s upcoming Tupac film, and obviously the Richard Pryor movie – we can only hope the casting choices strike a chord visually but more importantly that the stories open up our heroes to us in a real and very human way.

He looks the part, but how will Nick Cannon in the Richard Pryor biopic?

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