Several readers have written to ask me the following question: Will my historical novel Mistress of Rome ever be made into a movie?
I have to say, probably not. Historical movies are invariably big budget: it costs a lot of money to fund the necessary CGI, the on-location shooting, the sumptuous palaces. I shudder to think what the bill would be for all my Colosseum scenes–lions and tigers and costumed extras, oh my. HBO’s superb TV show “Rome” was canceled despite rave reviews and a big following, simply because it cost too much. And it doesn’t help that Rome is one of the most expensive places on earth to shoot film in. So I don’t imagine my little historical fiction novel will make it to the big screen, not unless I somehow turn into the next J.K. Rowling or unless Ridley Scott becomes my number 1 fan. Neither of which is too bloody likely.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t fantasize, of course. I always mentally cast my books as movies–it’s a useful exercise, trying to envision your characters in terms of real people. And useful exercises aside, I can always fantasize about getting to meet Clive Owen when he plays a hero from my book. So without further ado, here’s how I would cast Mistress of Rome–given, of course, unlimited control and budget.
ARIUS: Sean Bean, now in his fifties, is really too old to play my taciturn gladiator hero, which is a pity. He has exactly the right combination of bitterness and savagery, and as we’ve learned from his stint in “Lord of the Rings,” the man knows how to swing a sword. Dominic Purcell might be another good choice; as the convicted murderer of “Prison Break,” he keeps a nice balance of passive misery that can boil over into sudden rage. Plus–very important for Arius–Dominic Purcell is a hunk. Other suggestions from readers: Ray Stevenson (a close second! I loved him in “Rome”), Aaron Eckhart, Kevin Durant.
DOMITIAN: Russell Crowe would be excellent as the charming, enigmatic, semi-psychotic Emperor of Rome. I’d love to see him play a villain, wouldn’t you? But in case Russell’s tired of the sword-and-sandal genre, I’ll happily take Kenneth Branagh. Put a few pounds on him and he’s a great Domitian: anyone who’s seen him as Iago in “Othello” already knows Kenneth Branagh can be a terrifying villain. No one’s better at projecting both charm and menace. Other suggestions: Leiv Schreiber, Billy Crudup, Michael C. Hall.
MARCUS: Really we need Derek Jacoby for my intellectual Senator, since naturally, I based Marcus on his performance in BBC’s “I, Claudius.” But for someone else suitably graying and distinguished, I’ll take Gabriel Byrne. Other suggestions: Hugh Laurie, Rufus Sewell.
PAULINUS: Scott Porter has the charm and quiet leadership necessary to play Marcus’s idealistic soldier son. He stole the show in “Friday Night Lights” as the paralyzed quarterback, by turns bitter, disillusioned, and charismatic. Other suggestions: Ben McKenzie, Josh Hartnett, Rupert Friend.
THEA: Oddly enough, the casting of my quiet slave girl heroine gives me the most trouble. Scarlett Johansson has Thea’s smoky voice but is otherwise a bit too much of a sexpot. Anna Paquin looks right, but is too sunny. I’ll go with Amy Acker for the time being–a quieter sort of beauty, and anyone who saw her in “Angel” or “Dollhouse” knows she can play desperate, funny, smart, passionate, and everything in between. Other suggestions: Emma Watson, Camilla Belle, Gemma Arterton.
LEPIDA: For my bitchy and beautiful villainess, look no farther than Leighton Meester. Her turn as the ruthless teen queen on “Gossip Girl” is only a hair removed; Lepida with an occasional twinge of conscience. Take that away and she has Lepida to a T: the doe-eyed beauty, the raptor-like cock of the head as an enemy’s weak spot is identified, the sweet smile as the dagger sinks into an unprotected back. Other suggestions: Natalie Dormer, Megan Fox, Emily Blunt.
JULIA: Samantha Morton is a bit old for my fey and fragile Vestal Virgin, which is too bad because she’s my first choice after I saw her as the shaven-headed psychic in “Minority Report.” But I’ll go with Kerry Condon, who was by turns frail, uncertain, and serene as Octavia in HBO’s “Rome.” Other choices: Emilie de Ravin, Sophia Myles.
THE EMPRESS: Connie Nielson, if just for a “Gladiator” tribute.
GALLUS: Ian McNeice was oily and amusing as the Newsreader in HBO’s “Rome.” He’d be just as good as Arius’s oily and amusing owner/manager.
VIX: It’s hard to cast kids, even in imaginary movies. By the time they film anything, the kids are too old. But it’s my fantasy, so I’ll pick River Phoenix circa “Stand By Me”–tough, muscled, and formidable even at twelve. Perfect to play Thea’s troublemaking child-gladiator son.
SABINA: Marcus and Lepida’s introspective daughter would have to be played by several actresses at different ages. But as the twelve-year-old who plays a critical part in the final crisis, I’ll take Dakota Fanning. True, Dakota Fanning is sixteen. But if I can cast River Phoenix when he’s dead, I can cast Dakota Fanning at twelve.
So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie of Mistress of Rome. Of course, even if it did end up being made into a movie, I would likely have no say in the casting or even the script. Stephenie Meyer was able to stipulate in her movie contract that none of the vampires have exaggerated fangs, and J.K. Rowling was able to put her foot down when some producer wanted to re-set Harry Potter in the United States–but most of us writers have no power over what happens to our novels when they get turned into celluloid. So if Mistress of Rome gets made into a terrible direct-to-video flick starring Fabio in nipple rings, don’t blame me.
In the meantime, if you’ve read my book and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears.