Asteroid City's starry cast on living the Wes Anderson experience on set

The acclaimed director's latest feature is an ode to 1950s theatre and sci-fi films

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Like a circus troupe, Wes Anderson’s actors will seemingly follow their writer-director-ringmaster to the ends of the Earth. Or at least to Europe, where his latest film, Asteroid City, was made.

When I meet several esteemed members of his cast, it’s at the Cannes Film Festival, where they’ve gathered to support the film as it plays in competition. A homage to 1950s theatre and sci-fi B movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still, it’s another typically charming Anderson confection.

For the cast, it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since shooting in Chinchon, near Madrid, in 2021.

The mood is jovial.

“We’re hanging out together, we’re having meals together,” Stephen Park, who was enchanting as the chef-detective in Anderson’s last film, The French Dispatch, tells The National.

“Yesterday, Wes’s daughter [Freya, 7, his daughter with Lebanese writer-partner Juman Malouf] was reading a story to us. She’s such a cute girl.

“When she was reading, she was sounding out the word. And Wes is like, ‘You know that word …’ And then she would read it and then she’d take a little sip of her lemonade. And then when everybody started coming down for dinner, she was – very much like her dad – [saying] ‘You sit here, you sit here.’”

It’s this sort of camaraderie that typifies the Anderson set. It’s been this way ever since 2007’s India jaunt The Darjeeling Limited, when he decided that he wanted his cast to live and work together as much as possible. It’s why, when asked to describe Anderson’s films in one word, longtime collaborator Jason Schwartzman chooses “familial”.

“I think it’s not only a theme that I feel like runs through the films … love and family love and the search for that,” says the actor, who first worked with Anderson on his 1998 sophomore film Rushmore. “But also just because of the way he’s managed to make the films with members of the same crew if they’re available. He sort of made a little family.”

Certainly, family – surrogate or actual – is a theme Anderson wrestled with in his early years. Think of the dysfunctional clan in his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), the crew of research vessel the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), the boy scouts in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) or the staff in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

In Asteroid City, he zeroes in on the emotional undercurrents that underpin family ties – dealing with loss in a way his films haven’t managed before.

“It’s about the grieving process, how we deal with that,” notes Jake Ryan, the young actor now on his third Anderson adventure after Moonrise Kingdom and the animated Isle of Dogs (2018).

In Asteroid City, Schwartzman and Ryan play father and son, Augie and Woodrow Steenbeck. Along with Woodrow’s three younger siblings, they’ve arrived in a town that straddles the California/Nevada border for a Junior Stargazer convention, run by Tilda Swinton’s white-coated boffin.

Collectively, they’re all still in shock following the death of Augie’s wife, mother to the four kids. On his way to help is Augie’s father-in-law (Tom Hanks), a gun-carrying hard-ass, who doesn’t have the emotional equipment to cope with any of this.

“We’re one of the emotional hearts [of the film], I would say,” says Ryan.

Others surely include Scarlett Johansson’s tender actress Midge Campbell, who has brought her daughter to the convention, and the delightfully named J J Kellogg (Liev Schreiber), who is locked in constant arguments with his brainiac son.

All of these disparate families collide like atoms in the town of Asteroid City, where they’re soon subjected to an alien encounter – meaning they're locked down and under the command of General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright).

The extraterrestrial is sheer Wes whimsy – stop-motion animated by Andy Gent, returning the director to the form he used on both Isle of Dogs and his 2009 Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox.

“The great thing about Wes is he always takes big swings,” says Bryan Cranston, the Breaking Bad star who got his first taste of Anderson voicing one of the canines in Isle of Dogs and here plays the narrator.

“He just doesn’t go easy on himself. He doesn’t do some kind of movie that we’ve seen before. Every time you see a Wes movie you go, ‘This is new! Where’s it going? I don’t know.’ And if you can sit in the theatre and not be able to predict where he’s going with it … that’s a big swing. It really is. It’s fantastical and fantastic and delicious.”

The “big swing” in this case comes in backstage black-and-white segments that fold around the colour scenes set in Asteroid City. It turns out that Asteroid City is a play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), being directed by the Elia Kazan-alike Schubert Green (Adrien Brody).

In these monochrome interludes, as they debate how to bring this work to life, the likes of Schwartzman and Johansson appear, playing actors who are performing in Asteroid City. Or as Jake Ryan puts it, it’s a story about performance, “where you’re almost losing yourself in a character that you created.”

With its three-act structure, proudly trumpeted with on-screen captions, you might say it’s the most Wes Anderson-ish film yet.

“He likes to have set up a proscenium frame. And then everything is happening within that frame,” says Park, who plays Roger, one of the Asteroid City visitors.

Indeed, a love of theatricality runs deep through his movies. If you think of Schwartzman’s budding student playwright Max Fischer from Rushmore, Asteroid City, the play within the film, could easily be something he’d written in his later years.

With this script co-written by Roman Coppola, it must be a joy for the actors to crack open a brand-new Anderson screenplay.

“It’s like when you get a new record from a band,” says Schwartzman. “And you listen to it, and you hear, ‘Oh, wow, now they’re using a harpsichord.’ It’s interesting to see what people are interested in, and how they’re trying to take what they do and apply it in different new ways, but still maintain the thing that’s them.

“That’s the thing that’s interesting about working with him. You read the script – we’re all excited about it and still are surprised by the movie.”

Admittedly, Anderson will always have his detractors. The argument often goes that he keeps his characters at arm’s length when he invites you into his hermetically-sealed, doll’s-house worlds, so perfectly created by production designer Adam Stockhausen and clothed by legendary Italian costumier Milena Canonero, who won the fourth Oscar of her career on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

As The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney wrote in his review, parodying Guns N’ Roses’ classic song Paradise City: “Don’t take me down to the Asteroid City / Where the tropes are tired and the gags ain’t witty / Make it stop (Oh, won’t you please make it stop).”

Yet you won’t find an actor who will (at least publicly) decry the Anderson experience.

This time around, his regular troupe has swelled to include Hanks, Matt Dillon and Steve Carell (as Asteroid City residents) and Margot Robbie (in a role too spoiler-y to reveal).

The “common denominator”, says Cranston, are actors that are attracted to this type of environment.

“And that is, I think, the actors who really love to perform, love to have challenges, and also are socially amenable. Who like the social interaction. Who don’t complain.”

Then again, in this creative hubbub, what is there to complain about?

Asteroid City opens in UAE cinemas on August 24.

Updated: June 30, 2023, 4:26 AM