Tom Shadyac has directed numerous blockbuster comedies starring some of the funniest actors of all time from Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty) to Eddie Murphy (The Nutty Professor) to the late Robin Williams (Patch Adams) among others. But his current film, “Brian Banks,” is perhaps more important and relevant than any of his gag-filled comedies as it confronts the difficult issues of sexual assault allegations and their aftermath.
Based on a real-life story, “Brian Banks” follows the eponymous character, a promising football star with a USC scholarship, who is wrongfully convicted of raping a female student. After serving jail time, Brian is forced to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle monitoring bracelet, which impedes his ability to get work and return to his football dreams. He finally decides to fight to regain his life, thus beginning a challenging journey to freedom with the help of attorney Justin Brooks, founder of the pro bono legal service The California Innocence Project
Shadyac spoke to Casting Networks about how he cast a film whose characters are real people, some of them public figures and others continuing to struggle to this day.
In its review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter calls Aldis Hodge’s performance “a career-defining portrayal.” How do you cast someone to play such a formidable character to anchor your film?
That was a big question for us. We would not have proceeded had we not found Aldis. First of all, 90 percent of the actor pool is eliminated just because of physicality. Brian is 6 feet 5 inches and has the body of an NFL linebacker. He’s super athletic, super strong, so we had to find someone who could at least fit in the ballpark of that kind of physically imposing stature. Luckily, we got graced in to Aldis Hodge. He walked in to the casting office. We already knew his work. We already knew how talented he was, but he blew us away during the audition.
Was his physicality and his audition enough to get the role?
The other important thing for me was that the actor have some experience in his life that could be used to draw on to bring out the depth of Brian’s darkness. I didn’t want someone to come in and just
“act” that. I wanted someone who had been gutted in some form by life. Aldis has a story of incredible challenges and difficulties that, just like Brian, he chose to push through with positivity. We saw the pain, the struggle and the perseverance in Aldis’ performance, and when he left the casting office, I called my producer and said, “We found him.”
The real Justin Brooks started a legal service to free the innocent, and he has never taken a dime for this work. How do you find an actor to fill the shoes of a man who is world-weary but still maintains a sense of idealism?
Justin Brooks is his own kind of imposing character. He’s so intelligent, so passionate, so good. He’s got a sense of humor. I heard that Greg Kinnear read the script. Greg was on a very short list of people we were interested in. We met and had one of those half-hour meetings that turned in to a four-hour meeting. Greg had a passion for the part. He also had a lot of Justin’s qualities. Greg is affable and intelligent about material. He has a sense of justice rooted deeply in him, and he’s funny. We needed somebody to be light because the film could be heavy at times, and the real Justin Brooks walks through that heaviness with a lightness. After that four-hour meeting, I knew Greg was our guy.
You cast sitcom actress and TV host Sheri Shepherd as Brian’s mom. There seems to be no trace of her comedic past on screen as we only see a mother’s love for her son and her pain at the injustice that happened. Why her for the role?
There are a lot of actors in this movie whose foundations lie in comedy. I’m a comedy director. Sheri is from comedy. Aldis had done standup. Greg, of course, comes from comedy. I know that comedians are much more than the jokes they tell. They come from a place of pain, they come from a place of longing, and I’ve seen over and over again—from Robin Williams to Jim Carey to Eddie Murphy. These guys churn out incredible, dramatic performances. Sheri had confidence. She sent us an audition tape, and the bottom line is I couldn’t deny how brilliant her audition tape was. She even looks like the mother, Leomia. Coupled that with the fact that she is also a mother of a special-needs child. Sheri knows what it’s like to fight for your child, to long for your child to have access and opportunities.
Morgan Freeman played God in your film Bruce Almighty. Was it a no-brainer to ask him to play Jerome Johnson, Brian’s juvenile hall teacher who appears in the film as an almost otherworldly character?
It was a necessary phone call. When we crafted the character, of course I wanted Morgan. But it was also a low-budget movie so I didn’t think we could get Morgan, schedule-wise or budget-wise. We actually cast someone else, and he was a great actor. But that actor became ill the week we needed him on set. He was unable to travel, and it was serious enough that we couldn’t just put the shoot off a week. That’s when the call to Morgan became necessary. I asked him to read the script. He was gracious and read it right away. As fate would have it, we were shooting in Memphis, and Morgan lived only an hour and a half from us. He drove in to the set and gave us under a week’s worth of his time out of his grace. I’m so grateful. The character of Jerome needed to have some gravitas because he is in Brian’s life every day, every moment. But he’s not in the movie that much, so we needed a powerful presence when he appears on screen, and of course, that’s Morgan.
The character of Kennisha, Brian’s accuser, does exist, but you changed her name to protect the real-life woman from any vitriol that could have come her way. How do you show that character, warts and all, without vilifying her or degrading her?
We wanted to tell that story in as accurate a way as we could. We had tapes of her demeanor and her mannerisms, etc., because those exist. You can see there has been some damage, some challenge, some unpredictability to the way she walks in the world. It was really hard to get that character done right. In every movie, the dramatic rule is that your antagonist has to be as strong or stronger than your protagonist because that’s what he has to come up against. Kennisha’s levels, her layers, her unpredictability, her volatility—the audiences must realize that Brian is up against something that is uncontrollable. I think Xosha Roquemore (“The Mindy Project”) gave an incredibly nuanced performance in that role.
How did you know Xosha could play all those nuances? If she couldn’t, the audience simply wouldn’t buy her and then that would invalidate Brian’s entire fight.
Did we know Xosha was going to be that good? We sure hoped so. There’s never any way of knowing until you turn on the camera on that day. Xosha gave a great audition. She understood the character. Again, this is a woman who comes out of comedy. But she was able to tap in to a reality, the nuances levels and layers of this character, and give it a reality base and all the complexities it demanded. She blew us all away. It’s up there with one of the strongest performances in the movie.