Babel; Casting Babel

To bring to life the many lost and searching characters of BABEL, Gonzalez Iñárritu recruited a remarkably diverse cast made up of both actors and non-actors, superstars and locals, many of whom did not share a common language let alone a common experience – yet each contributed something unique to the film. For Gonzalez Iñárritu, working with such a wide-ranging cast was an exhilarating challenge. “Directing actors is difficult. Directing actors in a language other than your own is much more difficult. Now, directing non-actors in a language you don’t understand is the greatest challenge a director can have,” says Gonzalez Iñárritu, who did all three in making BABEL.

He began with the American couple who, still reeling from the heartbreaking loss of a child, find themselves struggling to survive while on vacation in the mountains of Morocco, Gonzalez Iñárritu cast two of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors: box-office star Brad Pitt and Academy Award® winner Cate Blanchett.

Pitt takes on the role of Richard Jones, a man already in the throws of guilt and anger over his child’s death when he finds himself caught in a terrifying dilemma far from home. Gonzalez Iñárritu had a vision of “an icon of the All-American male” for the role. He explains: “I felt it was important to see an American — like Brad — faced with trouble in a
Muslim country in the days we are living in now. Despite the fact that Richard’s role did not seem to be obvious for an actor as recognizable as Brad Pitt, that’s what personally excited and challenged me. He is an icon and it always seemed to me that he had a magnetic presence on a level beyond his popularity. He hasn’t done this type of role before and I was
excited — and I think he was too — to transform hims into a middle-aged man in crisis. He did an amazing job and gave me everything he had.”

For Richard’s wife, Susan, Gonzalez Iñárritu likewise knew he would need an actress of consummate skill and depth. When a gunshot comes out of nowhere, shattering a tour bus window and striking Susan in the neck, she enters the catalytic limbo between life and death, where she remains for much of the film. “I felt that only an actress of Cate’s range and
scale could deliver something interesting from what is essentially lying there on the floor,” the director explains. “Even more than that, the audience has to care about Susan, and Cate is someone who creates such empathy, who so clearly reveals her soul and interior life. There is very little physicality to this role, but the performance is all about her eyes and her ability to allow you to feel her suffering. I relied on her to sustain the gravity of the story. As a director, she makes life so easy,” he says. “She proved that small parts don’t exist. She’s a princess on every level,” says the director.

Blanchett says that, upon reading the script, she “fell completely into the rabbit hole of Alejandro’s vision of the film.” Then, she began to consider the inherent difficulties of the character. Blanchett continues: “When Alejandro approached me, my first reaction was ‘this is an incredible story, but what is the challenge for me here?’ Very quickly I realized that to set up the complexities of the deep rifts and the chasm of misunderstanding between Richard and Susan, all with very little dialogue or screen-time, would be a mammoth challenge.”

As her journey began, Blanchett found it was her trust in the director that helped to guide the way. “There is so much of Alejandro in this film,” she observes. “He was unbelievably generous with his experiences and was painstaking in helping Brad and I to construct a back story. Often, Alejandro would talk us through the take almost like directing a silent movie – which I loved because it added a charge to Susan’s inactivity. As Scorsese says, ‘making a film is knowing where to put the camera’ and Alejandro knows this deeply, instinctively and absolutely.”

She also enjoyed her collaboration with Pitt. “Brad was tireless. The poor thing had to lug me full-tilt uphill on a rocky track for hours on end!”

Blanchett, who brought her family with her to Morocco, took further pleasure in getting to know the country. “I really enjoyed the opportunity my children had to engage in the life of the village. Of course there were difficulties. What you see in the film is very much what it was like – a myriad of languages, hot, dusty and remote.”

Equally important to the Moroccan segments of the film is the portrait of two young Moroccan brothers, Yussef and Ahmed, whose boyish attempt to test their rifle’s range has startling results for them and their whole village. With one shot from the .270 caliber Winchester, the boys become fugitives and are caught up in what authorities fear is a terrorist plot.

For these roles, Gonzalez Iñárritu made the decision to utilize non-professional locals. BABEL marks the first time Gonzalez Iñárritu has directed non-actors, a decision he did not make lightly. “Working with non-actors was a great challenge, but it also made everything more real,” he notes. “When we started casting, I realized that professional actors in Morocco could look inauthentic. Their skin was too smooth and their look too well-groomed for the part.”

Seventeen days before starting to shoot in Morocco, I didn’t have an single actor besides Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. In humble villages in the Sahara, casting calls were announced from mosque speakers and hundreds of enthusiastic people lined up to be taped, in what Gonzalez Iñárritu considers one of the best decisions he made. It was during these extensive
casting calls that Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini, chosen because their haunting, expressive faces stood out in the crowd. Also cast at the same time was Mohamed Akhezam, a 27-year-old Ouarzazate computer consultant who portrays Richard and Susan’s increasingly desperate tour guide Anwar.

For the amateur Mohamed Akhezam, getting the chance to star in a major international film was what he calls “magical and incredible.” He credits his famous co-stars for making him feel welcome and relaxed, despite his contrasting background. “When I saw Brad and Cate for the first time, I knew they were big stars with very different lives from mine, but they were also very simple and simpatico,” says Akhezam. “I found them natural. Brad is a good man, who really made me feel empowered, and Cate is very calm, professional. I respected her concentration and focus. The opportunity to work with them was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

For the gripping story of a lost nanny that unfolds against the U.S.-Mexico border, Gonzalez Iñárritu focused first on the search for Amelia, the illegal immigrant who crosses the border for her son’s wedding – only to be abandoned in the scorching Sonoran desert with two American children in her care. Gonzalez Iñárritu auditioned hundreds of bilingual actresses, looking for that elusive combination of determination and vulnerability that Amelia embodies. It was his wife, Maria Eladia, who then suggested Adriana Barraza, the actress who appeared in Amores Perros as Octavio’s mother. “Adriana sent a tape and it was so good that I was almost crying,” recalls the filmmaker.

“Every scene hit me in the heart and the gut. She has that quality of unconditional maternal love, who is also tough and endures a lot of pain. She represents those millions of Mexicans living in the United States, as invisible citizens. As the embodiment of these forgotten people, Adriana Barraza gives new meaning for the word incarnation. Every movement of her body, her hands, and her eyes was incarnate with tenderness and complexity of the spirit of a character that could easily have become stereotyped. Her work was sublime.”

Also key to the story that unwinds in Mexico are the children Amelia brings with her over the border: Mike, who is played by newcomer Nathan Gamble, and Debbie, who is portrayed by Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning. It’s through their wide-eyed, unpolished perspective that Gonzalez Iñárritu unveils an unseen side of Mexico. “There can be a prejudice that exists in American society about Mexico, so I wanted to show the country through the eyes of children, where there is an air of innocence and sense of discovery,” reveals the director. “What can be judged as dirty, eccentric and poor, in the eyes of kids can be playful, colorful, different and fun. I was very interested in exploring new territory in an area that is almost always portrayed so negatively on film, and the children allowed me to do that.”

For Fanning, the filmmaking journey was especially eye opening. “Making this film was such a special time for me,” she says. “I learned so much and had a great time. I feel really lucky.”

To play Santiago, Amelia’s brother who drunkenly leads her and the children into their own perilous desert odyssey, Gonzalez Iñárritu turned to Gael Garcia Bernal – the actor whom Iñárritu first discovered when he cast him as Octavio in Amores Perros, and has since become an international star. “Gael had been on my mind since the first time I thought about this story,” he notes. “I couldn’t end this triptych without him.

He’s one of my favorite actors in the world. He portrayed subtlely the complicated nature of Santiago who represents the double nature of a certain type of Mexican man, who can be lovely, friendly and enthusiastic, but when he drinks, can be very irresponsible, angry and resentful. He also represents how some Mexicans who cross the borders every day, feel about American authority. Santiago’s sudden rage is not because of that night or because he is drunk, but because of the sum of years of humiliation and resentment that he has been holding back for a long time.”

Bernal was immediately intrigued by Santiago. “When Alejandro began talking to me about BABEL, I felt I knew who this character was,” says Bernal. “I don’t want to take roles that I cannot relate to and a lot of scripts I read have these kinds of characters — drug dealers and gang members. But after reading about 15 pages of this story, I immediately knew I could relate.”

Perhaps the most intimate story in BABEL is the portion that unfolds amidst the chaos and constant motion of Tokyo, which tells the tale of a lonely teenage rebel and her distant, widowed father – who are mysteriously tied to the fates of others in the story.

For the role of Yasijuro, the frustrated father who cannot reach his daughter in the wake of his wife’s suicide, Gonzalez Iñárritu cast one of Japan’s most esteemed actors, Koji Yashuko, who has starred in nearly 50 films including Memoirs of a Geisha and the original, Shall We Dance? Though the role is small, Gonzalez Iñárritu knew he needed an actor who could leave a powerful and memorable mark in a short span of time. “The father is in just a couple of scenes, but we had to find an actor who has so much presence and gravity that you remember him long after his scenes have passed,” states Gonzalez Iñárritu, adding that he admire Yashuko’s “economy of movement.”

Meanwhile, in 2004, Gonzalez Iñárritu began holding auditions in the quest to find Yasijuro’s daughter, the angry, sexually exploring, deaf-mute Chieko. He knew the precise mix of defiance, desire and grief he was looking for would be tough to match, especially since he was seeking a hearing-impaired actress. When 24-year-old Rinko Kikuchi came in for a reading early on, Gonzalez Iñárritu was “blown away by her talent, but reluctant because she wasn’t deaf,” he recalls. Though he continued to audition hundred of actresses for another 9 months, Gonzalez Iñárritu remained haunted and captivated by Kikuchi, and eventually cast her. “No one came close to the spirit, sadness and isolation she captured,” he explains.

Even before Gonzalez Iñárritu cast her, Kikuchi was so determined to get the part that she began taking lessons in sign language. “It was a very brave and wise decision,” notes Gonzalez Iñárritu. “Sometimes the magic and art of performance is about transformation.”

Throughout BABEL, Gonzalez Iñárritu faced the challenge of directing foreign, non-professional actors. “Directing actors is difficult. Directing actors in another language that you more or less speak is very difficult, as I already knew from 21 Grams, but directing non-actors in a language where you don’t have a clue, that’s the most ridiculous, challenging and satisfying idea that I have ever had,” he says.

Gonzalez Iñárritu had help overcoming the obstacles of communication from three women he calls “more than translators,” who enabled the director to “direct as if language was not an issue.”

“In Morocco, I relied on Hiam Abbass who, more than a language coach or translator, was the person who really helped me to build the emotional link with the Arabic non-actors. Without her, I would never have been able to make it,” he says. “The same is true of Mariko and Rieko in Japan. Mariko, our deaf translator, enabled me to communicate with the deaf cast members and, together, we were able to bridge the gap that could have so easily have been misunderstood and thus collapsed. Rieko, who was my Japanese language translator, allowed my voice to be heard and understood, which given the circumstances, was no easy task.” For the director, this ability to transcend cultural and language barrier were not only a saving grace but went directly to the heart of the film’s themes.