Look near the top of Wes Anderson’s latest rolling cast and you’ll find Rupert Friend, who made a brief appearance in The French Dispatch, and a rare Wes first-timer, Maya Hawke. In Anderson’s characteristically decorative 1950s-set film, Hawke and Friend share a budding romance as, respectively, an elementary school teacher and a singing cowboy. After one conceit is revealed (it happens at the start, though it’s yet to be revealed in any trailers), they also appear as actors in a troupe reminiscent of The Group Theatre. They share the screen with everyone from Tom Hanks and Willem Defoe to Adrien Brody and Scarlett Johansson. Stars in a Wes Anderson these days are like dots to a Lichtenstein; but in Asteroid City, Hawke and Friend still manage to shine.
In Cannes for the film’s premiere, Hawke and Friend sat down with us in a hotel suite in the JW Marriot––Hawke bubbly and relaxed; Friend looking every inch a man who once turned down James Bond––to talk about jamming with Jarvis Cocker, their relationships with theatre, and what it’s like to be the newbie amongst Anderson’s regular stars.
The Film Stage: Congratulations on Asteroid City. It’s your first time with a film here, Rupert. How have you been finding Cannes?
Rupert Friend: Yeah, we’re all in the same hotel so it’s kind of like a reunion, you know? One big long table, taking turns babysitting the young people, that kind of stuff. It feels like this is a real South of France place. Like everyone’s wearing creamy, flowy trousers and there’s a person wandering around with glasses of rosé. It feels pretty accurate.
You’re both playing these kind of iconic 1950s roles. I was curious about the sort of research you were doing. Were you watching any old movies from that time or was it all just there in the script?
Maya Hawke: Well, when I found out I got this part I was on a plane to Spain within 24 hours, so I didn’t do a tremendous amount of prep. But I feel like my life has been a little bit of prep for it. My father is fascinated by American culture. He likes to delve very deep into it. He’s made documentaries about it. All my life I’ve gone to see classic movies at the Film Forum, so I’ve had a very fortunate upbringing in terms of that particular subject matter. There are a lot of things that I need to learn a lot about, but that one I’m pretty doused in.
And Rupert, how about yourself?
RF: I mean, I was mostly just stressed-out about the fact that Wes wanted us to play a song live, and everyone else in my character’s band is actually a musician and I’m just an amateur one. So, you know, Wes was sort of like, “Can you learn the lap steel and play it live?“ So that was just sort of my focus with it for a long time. But it was amazing. When you step into the double denim and the boots and the hat. I did a lot of work with a lasso, or as you would say, lasso.
MH: I would say lasso. I know what you’re talking about.
RF: No, you say lasso in America. In England, and probably Ireland, we say lassoo.
Yes, I say lassoo.
RF: Yeah, they must put another o on it. So I went and worked with a guy to learn how to do that. And then I love horses. I spend a lot of time with them––not that there’s a horse in the film––but I basically spend a lot of time spinning ropes and riding horses and standing around in the dust feeling cowboyish.
I was interested in that. Because you’re both musicians, right?
RF: She’s the real musician.
MH: No, I was gonna say the same thing about you! He’s the real musician.
Did you get to have any input with the song?
RF: Yeah, well the band went away and kind of made a song. And then, what would typically happen is we’d all have dinner, the whole crew and cast, and then there’d be some kind of musical thing going on because we had Maya, we had Seu Jorge, we had Jarvis Cocker, Rita Wilson. Lots of people who can sing and play really well.
So we‘d have these jams. And then one night Wes said: will you play me the song that you have? And so we did that and he was like, “I think we’ll just do it completely differently.” And so on the hoof, right there, he kind of cut bits out and sped it up––he doesn’t play, but he sort of spoke and we did. And it was completely changed from soup to nuts that night. So I guess it was sort of collaborative.
MH: What was the difference? How was it before?
RF: From before? It was about ten times slower. Well, you know Wes likes the pace on things…
MH: You silly gooses! Why would you make it slow?
RF: I know, but we were sort of wallowing in the words a bit too much and so it just suddenly became fast. And then, of course, we had to dance to that, like quite fast. And then the little boy, he did such a great job, but he had to go into the studio and sing it. I mean, I hope he’s enjoyed it because it must have been a hell of a memory for him.
And for the theatre parts: I mean, I loved this kind of zoom out to another film within the film. Is that a world you’re also well versed in, like Strasberg and The Group and so on?
MH: I mean, sort of. Like Kazan and that whole environment––it’s so romanticized by actors. We don’t really have any more famous teachers and it’s a really devastating thing about our culture today. There used to be this culture with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, these cultural figures who were just teachers. They weren’t there to be a movie star; they were there to teach you the craft.
Those people still exist but they’re not celebrated in the same way. And it’s a sort of sad thing in my opinion, with what’s going on. But of course everything is always replaced by something else and you go look somewhere else for something wonderful and it’s good, and I’ve had wonderful teachers, but I’ve always been sort of obsessed with that time period and those rooms and what went on in them and the Actors Studio.
I actually just sort of found myself begging to be a part of it. I was meant never be featured in that section, but if you watch the movie closely you’ll see my face in a few scenes. I love those scenes and love that aspect of the movie, the story inside a story inside a story.
RF: I went to acting school and did only theater for two years. You know, Edinburgh Festival and West End and stuff like that. It gave me complete heart palpitations because being on stage is the most nerve-wracking thing I can think of, whether it’s public speaking or plays. So even when I was sitting there while it was, you know, Edward and Willem and all those, I was just thinking like, “Don’t pick me,” even though it’s scripted.
But there is something about that black box, you know. My school didn’t really have a facility. So those black boxes above pubs and behind churches and in basements was where I learned to do what we do. So there was a nostalgic thing about that, too.
So Maya, you said you were on the flight within 24 hours after the call. This is obviously your first Wes Anderson film. What’s it like to be that kind of new person when you have all these guys who’ve been there four or five times before?
RF: She had to do an initiation. [Laughs] We all hazed her.
You had to sit at a different lunch table?
Yeah, I was dragged out into the pool and dunked upside-down ten times. No, it’s nerve-wracking like any new social experience. Like any situation where you’re the new kid at school, but it’s much better because grown-ups have much, much better manners than kids, you know, and they’re so welcoming. I think the environment that Wes creates is so positive. It’s not clique-y, and around lunchtime everyone’s sitting at different tables, sort of selecting their own adventure. It really does feel like you can walk up and talk to anyone.
It took me a couple of days to realize this, but you can walk up to any table and sit down and ask someone a question. And, you know, no one gives you the stink eye, even if it’s Francis Ford Coppola visiting that day. And if you’re on your own someone will walk up and sit next to you. I mean, I wish school was like that. So very quickly my nerves were dispelled and replaced by just gratitude.
Coppola visited the set?
MH: You know, with Roman, because he wrote it.
RF: He has to give Roman his lunch.
Just talking about Wes Anderson films in general. Do you remember your first experience of his work? Do you have a particular favorite?
MH: We are so similar, right? Both our favorite is Fantastic Mr. Fox and we both first saw Royal Tenenbaums.
In the theater?
RF: Yeah, The Royal Tenenbaums probably was. I just remember thinking he was a singular visionary and that he wasn’t making anyone’s film but his own. And in the best way, because that idea has been diluted now with, you know, studio involvement and directing-by-committee and then multiple editors and all that. With Wes, the idea really does start and end in the mind of one person––and 70 collaborators, obviously.
But that’s an extraordinary thing. I sometimes liken it to a ship or a kitchen where you have to have a chef or a captain. Obviously there’s a huge team, but without that leadership the food’s burnt and the ship‘s lost. So you need that one person.
Was it a very different experience this time than working on The French Dispatch?
RF: Yeah. I mean, with The French Dispatch I was in it so fleetingly. My scene was very standalone and I gave the whole thing out-front, so I never really got to do anything with anyone. And this time was almost entirely the two of us together or me and my band. And then we had this wonderful cast. So this felt much more like an ensemble. The other one felt like I was, you know, basically a cameo appearance. This one really felt like I was part of a company.
How about you, Maya: was it a totally different experience for you from, say, working with Tarantino?
MH: Well, it was different but also similar in some ways. Tarantino was a very intense week of my life. I guess the similarity between the two of them is that I’m in that movie for a second and I worked for a week. So the level of time spent cultivating each moment and getting each shot and making it perfect, both of them have this meticulous quality.
What was it like seeing that set for the first time? Was it all the one thing, like this train station and the diner and so on?
MH: Basically, it’s just the way that you imagine it would be like to walk around it. Yeah, it’s basically built real––like Epcot or something––and if you walk into any room it’s full. I mean, we didn’t have trailers or green rooms or anything like that, but sometimes on a really hot day, instead of just sitting outside, you could go into the little hotel rooms or eat lunch in the garage, just on a tire or something. And the drawers were full of things and the rooms were made up, even the ones that never got filmed. It was beautiful and overwhelming. The first time I saw it wasn’t a work day; I just biked there and walked around it by myself and it was like living in a dream.
Was there a particular detail that stuck out?
MH: There was a road that goes up into nowhere. I looked at it for a long time. There was something about it, that in this beautiful world there was this road that went to nowhere. I don’t know––it moved me like that.
Asteroid City premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and opens on June 16.