For an up-and-coming actor, the prospect of working with a notoriously meticulous filmmaker like Wes Anderson might seem daunting. To hear Maya Hawke tell it, stepping onto one of the auteur's sets for the first time is even more magical and surreal than you'd expect. "It's like going to Disneyland," she says. "But better."
Hawke stars in Anderson's latest offering, Asteroid City, alongside a bevy of his frequent collaborators. Set circa 1955, the film unfolds as a technicolor dramatization of a sci-fi stage play about parents and children who are quarantined in a one-stop desert town after experiencing an alien encounter. The film also includes segments of a black-and-white television special that reveals the behind-the-scenes workings of the play. Altogether, Asteroid City is a love letter to the widescreen cinemascope films of the 1950s, as well as the acting revolution that took Broadway by storm that same decade.
Hope Davis, a fellow first-timer who plays the martini-swilling mother of a Junior Stargazer, says making the movie felt markedly different from past experiences on set. "In almost every other project I've worked on, you go and you work on your day, and then everybody goes off and nobody really cares about anyone else's work," she tells A.frame. "Wes wants the entire production to be a group experience, so we all live together and eat together and you see one another on your days off."
"He really cares about everyone's experiences across the entire project," Davis says. "The whole experience becomes one complete thing. At the end of it, you feel like you're part of a company."
For Adrien Brody, Asteroid City marks his fifth time working with Anderson. The Oscar-winning actor, who plays rakish theater director Schubert Green, says their collaborations continue to fulfill him in ways that many projects simply don't. "He's a very inspiring person. All of the intricacies and nuances in his films, the specificity is just so artistic and creative," Brody reflects. "He's surrounded himself not only with wonderful actors, but an amazing production designer, costume designer, and director of photography as well. The work environment is really what I yearn for."
In order to immerse viewers in the world of Asteroid City, Anderson and his crew constructed the titular town from scratch in "an arid plateau in the middle of Spain," Jeffrey Wright explains. Rupert Friend, who joined Anderson's troupe alongside Wright in 2021's The French Dispatch, adds, "It wasn't as though just beyond certain mountains you could see high-rises. All you could see was what you see in the film. There were no topographical or man-made structures poking up in the distance that could ruin the illusion."
That sense of immersion carried into the production itself. In the movie, Friend plays Montana, a cowboy drifter who strikes up a sweet romance with Hawke's schoolteacher, June. "When we were on set, Maya was in costume the whole time, so was I, and so was everyone else," he says. "It wasn't difficult to suspend our disbelief. Even Wes wore a beautiful Seersucker suit that could have come from the same period as the film."
A seven-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Anderson has a reputation for being a cinematic perfectionist whose meticulously made films feel planned out with extreme care. Because, well, they are. Stephen Park, who plays another parent of a Junior Stargazer, reveals that the director's work with his actors begins long before anyone arrives on set. "He gives you the animatic of the film, which is breathtakingly specific." Being able to essentially watch the movie before a single frame has been shot helps the cast understand Anderson's vision for the film. "He doesn't really vary much at all in the finished film," Park adds. "What you see in the animatic is what actually shows up on the screen."
Despite how exacting Anderson is in his craft, Asteroid City's ensemble insists that he never lets his own artistic vision get in the way of fostering creativity on set. "He really understands actors and acting. He is very, very much an actor's director," Park says. "He's really easy to work with, and even though he's very exacting, his method of working is very gentle, and playful, and almost childlike. It feels like play. It's really a joy to work with him.”
"I don't know if he's psychic or if he just sees things really well," the actor adds with a chuckle, "but I started to wonder sometimes, 'Does he know what I'm thinking?' He seems to be so hyper-aware of everything that's going on. And not in a scary way, but in a really nurturing way."
"He asks a lot of questions, like all the smartest people I know. He offers the opportunity to try things any way you'd like," Hawke shares. Davis, for her part, says, "He's amazingly not judgmental. If something doesn't work, he just says, 'Let that go.' You feel like it's no big deal. And if he likes an idea of yours, he'll ask you to do it again. You end up feeling like you can say anything."
For many of the actors, Anderson's precision is exactly what makes the experience so rewarding. Friend says that the director's detail-oriented approach to filmmaking imbues his productions with "the energy of an auteur." "That's a very distinct and different thing from someone who has to call a committee board to discuss removing a comma, which I feel is the downfall of film," he expounds. "There's none of that in Wes' films. There's an immediate connection between the guy whose vision is guiding the film and those of us who are helping him enact it."
As Hawke puts it, "A bad experience can be when you're working with a director and you say, 'Hey, can I cut this line? I don't think we need it,' and they just go, 'Yeah, whatever. Do what you want. I don't care.' Wes doesn't play the apathy game. He's usually like, 'No, you cannot cut that line. That line is very important. It's there for a specific reason, and you have to find a reason to say it.'"
For those reasons and more, starring in a Wes Anderson movie is an experience that's hard to beat, says Brody. "To explore something that's beautifully written and intricate with a filmmaker who's incredibly knowledgeable, and artistic, and fun, and present is really special." Which also explains how Anderson has curated such an expansive ensemble of collaborators who happily answer whenever the filmmaker calls. "I love the movies he makes," Brody says, "and his sense of wonder in the world, his uniqueness, the way he frames and expresses things, and his attention to detail. It's all quite brilliant."
"Wes has developed this singular aesthetic," Wright says, "but the worlds that he's exploring are all disparate. In the case of Asteroid City, it's complete artifice" — it is a play within a teleplay within a movie — "[but] that only adds to this guiding idea of Wes' movies, which is his acknowledgment that, 'This is not real. This is a story. We're storytellers telling you a tale.' That's the essence of what we do, you know?"
"I love that he embraces that and that he unapologetically says, 'This is not real, but listen and watch.' He embraces that aspect of storytelling more directly, maybe, than any other filmmaker working now," Wright explains. "He's not interested in making movies that are hyperreal or documentaries." In Asteroid City, the actors are obviously acting, and the sets are clearly sets. It is make-believe; nevertheless, in the fiction, one can find truth. "He wants the audience to know, 'We’re going to tell you a story now,'" the actor concludes. "There's something ancient and wonderful about that."
By Alex Welch