I always have fun with my yearly “Let’s cast my latest book as a movie!” blog post. But with my Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose,” I have a particular dilemma not faced before with any of my other books: there have been a LOT of movies already about the Borgias. Who to cast when so many have been cast already? Here’s my version, a mixture of old faces and new:
IL PAPA BORGIA
His Holiness the Borgia Pope has been played, among others, by John Doman and Jeremy Irons. Jeremy Irons was excellent as always, but a bit too languid and refined for the explosive Rodrigo Borgia (in my opinion). John Doman was better, but that flat L.A. accent . . . I think I’ll go with Sergi Lopez, who not only can play both sensual and scary (“Him and Her,” “Labyrinth of Pan”) but is a Catalan Spaniard just like the Borgia Pope. Rodrigo’s Spanish pride, Spanish temper, and Spanish enjoyment in life’s sensual pleasures were defining traits.
Giulia La Bella was sweet, bubbly, petite, voluptuous, and extravagantly blond, so in the Showtime series she was portrayed as a moody redhead (Lotte Verbeek), and on the European series as a bitchy brunette (Marta Gastini). I’m going with Holliday Grainger, who played Lucrezia in the Showtime series. But doesn’t she look quite a lot more like the alleged Raphael portrait of Giulia Farnese? And after three seasons of watching her on The Borgias, we know she can show both sweetness and steel.
Giulia’s bodyguard is a dwarf, which does limit the question of who can play him. I wouldn’t want to shrink an actor down with CGI; dwarfism poses limits on the body–and on Leonello’s character–which are critical to his particular brand of cynicism, idealism, and courage. Peter Dinklage is the too-obvious choice, but he’s busy playing Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” Let’s find another fabulous actor with dwarfism and give him a great role as my knife-throwing butt-kicking dwarf with the love of books and the biting tongue.
My secondary heroine is a tall skinny Sicilian girl; a professional chef with a knife up her sleeve, a pocket full of secrets, and a biting tongue. How about Coral Amiga, who not only has the perfect sharp-edged face, frizzy curls, and lanky frame, but showed serious chops on “Rome” as Kevin McKidd’s embittered eldest daughter.
There’s nobody to play Cesare Borgia but Francois Arnaud. His sexy, sinister Showtime stint as history’s ultimate bad boy puts all others in the shade.
Lucrezia goes from twelve to seventeen, so we need an actress who can play both innocent child and sophisticated young wife. Kaitlyn Dever fills the bill–on “Justified” she plays a pretty but cynical fourteen-year-old, and nearly steals the show from Timothy Olyphant. Blond her up a bit and she’ll be a great Lucrezia.
David Oakes was Juan Borgia in the Showtime series, and he was fantastic: vicious, handsome, ultimately pathetic. No need to mess with a good thing here.
Jonathan Jackson would work as Giulia’s pretty but weak-willed husband. Orsino Orsini is just the type who would have a soul patch and no spine.
Not only is Eddie Redmayne a true ginger with plenty of freckles, just like Carmelina’s chef protege Bartolomeo, but he can play younger than his years. Good for a teenage apprentice who bides his time on his crush until he’s eighteen, then mounts a campaign to sweep his 7-year-older lady off her feet.
So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie. If you’ve read my Borgia duology and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears!
Thank God the election is over. If one more automated pollster called me during dinner, I was prepared to go live in the wild on raw deer meat like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. I have zero interest in recapping the results, exulting or tooth-gnashing over the results, or talking about the results. But this entire election process has left me with one puzzling question: why do we require our leaders to be likeable?
Over and over again, I heard it from both sides of the party line: “I voted for him because he seems like he’d be such a nice guy to have dinner with.” Or “Candidate _____ will need to present himself as more likeable if he wants people to vote for him.” I just wondered Why? What does being likeable, or being a good dinner companion, have to do with being able to run a nation?
Maybe it’s because I’m a historical novelist, and I’ve researched so many brilliant leaders of history who were also cold SOBs . . . but I don’t care if my president is a nice guy. I don’t care if he loves dogs, kisses babies, cheats on his wife, or spends any time with his kids. None of that is any of my business, and it has nothing to do with the job he is elected to fulfill. I don’t care if he’d be fun to have over for a visit either, because unless I get elected to the cabinet or win the Medal of Honor (both of which are about equally likely), then I will never have the opportunity to sit down and chat with my commander-in-chief. So why should that figure into my vote? I don’t need to like the guy or gal leading this country; I just need them to be a good leader.
I’m not recommending we return to absolute monarchy or the rule of emperors. (Though if I’d been subjected to one more set of negative campaign ads, I might have changed my tune on that.) The divine right of kings is nothing to call fair or just. But it did allow some remarkable leaders of men to change the world, leaders who would have no chance in today’s system for one simple reason: they could never have survived an open election, because they were all about as warm and cuddly as a piranha. Yet I’d pick any of these guys and gals in a heartbeat, even if I think they’d be the world’s worst drinking companions:
1. Emperor Hadrian. He’s the chief baddie in my last book Empress of the Seven Hills, so you can guess I don’t really like the guy. And I don’t: history records him as a mercurial know-it-all, charming but cold, with a habit of dropping his friends once they no longer proved useful. But there’s no denying Hadrian was a great ruler: he was a smart and sensible workaholic who sponsored huge building programs, stabilized the empire’s crumbling outer regions, set the legions to working instead of fighting or rebelling, and pioneered a sensible peace policy over expensive and bloody expansionism. He’s counted among the Five Good Emperors of Rome’s golden age, and he should be–nice guy or not.
2. King Louis XI of France. Nicknamed “The Universal Spider,” and he deserved it: scheming, paranoid, superstitious, secretive, and vicious. Also a brilliant bureaucrat who pioneered trade fairs and road-building, promoted humbly-born advisers for their ability rather than their birth, and stamped down once and for all on the warring feudal lords who had dragged France through the chaos of the Hundred Years War. He’s credited as the first modern French King, dragging his country out of the Middle Ages kicking and screaming. A better legacy than most nice guys.
3. Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to Louis XIII of France. He’s got a reputation as a villain, largely because of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and all its movie remakes, and certainly the Cardinal was no dewy-eyed lover of the people. He once commented of his French subjects, “They are not constituted for war; at the start they are all ardor and bravery, but they lack the patience and control to await the propitious moment.” Wouldn’t you love to hear a candidate blunt enough to say that during the foreign policy debate? Me too, but it would lose him the election. Cardinal Richelieu could never have won anybody over as a nice guy–and good thing he didn’t have to, or his country would have missed out on a great patron of the arts who also molded France into a strong and centralized nation.
4. Catherine the Great. Of course what people remember of this Russian czarina’s legacy is her list of lovers and some vague rumors about a horse. In fact, this cool-headed lady was an educated workaholic who sponsored the Russian Enlightenment and always put her empire above her love life and family–she had no qualms deciding to set her son aside as heir when she determined he would not make a good ruler. A far cry from today’s political ladies forever posing with their families so they come across as “more accessible.” Catherine had zero interest in appearing either soft or accessible; she once remarked “I shall be an autocrat; that’s my trade. And the good Lord shall forgive me; that’s His.”
5. The Duke of Wellington. Anybody with the nickname the Iron Duke is not warm and cuddly. He was not one of your man-of-the-common-soldier generals, either; the Duke of Wellington was a cold, brilliant, aristocratic fighting machine who demanded the best out of his men as a matter of course, and got it because they’d rather die than fail to live up to his high standards. The Iron Duke trounced Napoleon and then went on to become Prime Minister. An age when being brilliant and cold were not seen as deficits in the polls.
I wouldn’t necessarily have voted for Emperor Hadrian, Louis XI, Cardinal Richelieu, Catherine the Great, or the Duke of Wellington to serve as my President in the modern world–they were products of their eras, not ours. But none of them would have risen to the presidential polls at all, because none of them would have lasted five minutes in a 21st century general election. They all largely had no common touch, they didn’t pander to public opinion, and they would have gazed in utter horror had any campaign manager told them “You gotta be more likeable!” These five leaders all placed a higher value on being effective than being liked; on being smart rather than being your buddy.
Not a bad lesson to take from history. Let’s keep it in mind for 2016.
Chris Hemsworth turned 29 not long ago, and I’d like to offer him a belated birthday present: the starring role of the upcoming movie of my latest book, “Empress of the Seven Hills!”
Sigh – if only. The fact is, I doubt HBO will be burning up my phone line anytime soon with offers to turn Empress of the Seven Hills into a star-studded 7-season miniseries a la “Game of Thrones.” Historical movies are hideously expensive to make, what with all those costumed extras and elaborate battle scenes and CGI Colosseum fights, and even if I did get a movie offer, writers never get casting approval. “Empress of the Seven Hills” could get turned into a C-grade borderline porno with Fabio in nipple rings as Vix, and I’d have no power to stop it.
But it’s always fun to dream – so here is my ideal cast for “Empress of the Seven Hills!” (Blog reprint from My Book, The Movie, by kind permission of blogger extraordinaire Marshal who has also hosted me on Writers Read and Coffee With A Canine.)
Vix: My brash and abrasive soldier hero is the hardest to cast. For one thing, he starts the book out as a swaggering boy of nineteen, and ends as a capable war hero of thirty-three. But I’ll go with Chris Hemsworth–in “The Avengers” he showed humor, charisma, and swagger just like Vix, and in “Snow White and the Huntsman” he proved he could swing a blade with serious heft.
Sabina: Emma Watson would be perfect for my intelligent, reticent, and just-a-bit-mysterious heroine. Playing a senator’s daughter with a yen for adventure, Ms. Watson would get to dress up and dine with emperors, or go grunge to hunker down with legionaries, all with equal aplomb. Plus rock a pixie cut.
Hadrian: for Sabina’s husband and the book’s villain, I’ll pick Wentworth Miller. His stint in “Prison Break” showed him as charming and intelligent, his good looks hiding a serpentine mind and a cool, detached ruthlessness–perfect for Hadrian.
Titus: Vix’s unlikely best friend is a shy over-educated patrician boy who grows into confident man-to-be-reckoned-with, and I can think of no one better than Zach Gilford. As the teenage quarterback in “Friday Night Lights” he showed both sweetness and steel beneath a gawky inarticulate surface.
Emperor Trajan: the confident, charismatic man’s-man emperor of Rome, beloved by all and especially by Vix who is his protege. Put Harrison Ford in a breastplate, and we’re done.
Empress Plotina: with a name like that, you know Trajan’s wife will be a scheming villainness. Michelle Forbes would be perfect; handsome but cold.
Mirah: Vix’s fiery Jewish wife with the red hair? Emma Stone.
Senator Marcus Norbanus: Gabriel Byrne would be perfect for Sabina’s intellectual senator father
Faustina: Sabina’s little sister, who grows up into a beauty and sets her sights on the shy Titus for a future husband. Jessica Brown Findlay plays an identical type in “Downton Abbey” as an earl’s spirited rebel daughter who uses beauty, charm, wit, and everything else in her arsenal to make sure she gets her own way. Just like Faustina.
Now for funding. HBO, are you listening?
Here’s a question I get quite a lot from readers: will your books ever be made into movies?
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is no. So far, at least, and probably for the forseeable future. Historical movies or TV shows cost an arm and a leg to make: the costumes, the sets, the CGI, the on-site locations. My latest book Daughters of Rome has several chariot racing scenes a la Ben Hur; I shudder to think what the bill would be for all those chariots, horses, and thousands of screaming costumed extras. Unless I turn into George R.R. Martin, I don’t imagine HBO will be burning up my phone line anytime soon with offers to turn Daughters of Rome into a multi-season star-studded no-expenses-spared miniseries.
But a girl can dream. I had a lot of fun last year casting Mistress of Rome as an imaginary movie with the cast of actors I’d have picked if I’d had unlimited control and budget (which no author ever gets). Now that I’m between deadlines, I think I’ll indulge myself and do the same for my second book. Coming soon to a theatre near you: Daughters of Rome, the Oscar-winning blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott!
Marcella: The trickiest part to cast, and also the meatiest. My heroine is a voluptuous frustrated schemer who writes histories, and eventually discovers that making history is even more fun than writing about it. For an actress who can play both charming and amoral, I’ll go with Hayley Atwell. She did a lovely job in “Pillars of the Earth,” a pretty brunette with an unexpectedly flinty side.
Cornelia: Marcella’s gentle older sister who goes from ambitious snob to grieving widow to passionate woman. There’s no shortage of actresses who could play her. Natalie Portman? Rose Byrne? Shannyn Sossamon? I settled on Sophia Myles, a gentler sort of beauty with an unexpected quirk of humor.
Lollia: Cousin Lollia is the richest heiress in Rome, a red-haired party girl with a penchant for good gossip and good sex. After seeing “Easy A,” Emma Stone was a no-brainer. She has Lollia’s husky voice and adorable giggle, and an underlying sweetness to give Lollia dignity as she matures into something more than just a party girl.
Diana: strangely, the only actress I can think of to play a seventeen-year-old blond beauty mad for horses and chariot racing is Summer Glau. The former Terminator from “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is definitely neither seventeen or blond, but she has the beauty, and even more important, she has the quirky absent-minded charm necessary to make Diana’s one-track obsessiveness and utter lack of tact charming instead of irritating.
Piso: Cornelia’s husband is Imperial heir for just five days before a mob hacks him to pieces. Sean Maher would make the most out of this brief part; as Simon in “Firefly” he had the same straitlaced-but-sweet charm.
Drusus: the stalwart bodyguard who saves Cornelia’s life was cast the moment I saw Rome Season 2, and laid eyes on Allen Leech. His Agrippa could be a clone of Drusus–stocky, brave, loyal, and passionate.
Domitian: Marcella’s nineteen-year-old suitor gets another actor from HBO’s “Rome”–Max Pirkis, whose hair-raising depiction of the young Augustus makes him a natural choice for the eerie intelligence and nascent creepiness of this young emperor-to-be.
Thrax: the handsome golden body slave who consoles Lollia between bad marriages. We need at least one tribute to “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” so let’s go with handsome golden gladiator Jai Courtney.
Llyn: the attractive and taciturn ex-rebel from Britain who scorns Romans and teaches Diana how to drive a chariot. This one was a no-brainer: David Wenham with the same haircut he had in “Lord of the Rings.”
Galba: in a book about the Year of Four Emperors, you can bet Emperor #1 won’t last too long. Michael Hogan will chew the scenery for his fifteen minutes of screen time before the mob gets him, playing grumpy old cheapskate Emperor Galba.
Otho: Galba’s successor couldn’t have been more different; a metrosexual playboy with a witty tongue. Who better than Rupert Everett, the guy who stars in pretty much every Oscar Wilde movie ever made?
Vitellius: Another polar opposite for Emperor #3–a fat sports fan who lived for chariot racing and obscenely huge banquets. Brad Leland played a loudmouth football fanatic in “Friday Night Lights,” and could do it perfectly here. And he’s got the chops to bring out Vitellius’s pathos and dignity as well as the bombast.
No need to cast the fourth emperor in the series, since he doesn’t make a cameo in the book. But previous ruler Nero does in a creepy flashback, and in my mind he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’ll nail Nero’s fussy artistic pretensions and innate craziness in just five minutes of screentime.
Irritating Jessalyn Gilsig from “Glee” for the irritating sister-in-law who gets on everybody’s nerves . . . wrinkled John Noble to play one of Lollia’s more crochety and elderly husbands . . . and one final cameo, the star charioteer who drives for Diana’s arch-rival racing team. Since I’m a Yankee-hating Red Sox fan, and Diana adores the Reds team and hates the Blues team, let’s have the obnoxious-but-talented Blues charioteer be played by the obnoxious-but-talented Derek Jeter.
So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie of Daughters of Rome. Of course, even if it did end up being made into a movie, I would not have any say in the casting or even the script. J.K. Rowling was able to put her foot down when some producer wanted to re-set Harry Potter in the United States, and George R.R. Martin was invited to help write the screenplay for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”–but most of us writers have no power over what happens to our novels once they’re sold for film. So if Daughters of Rome gets made into a soft-core porn direct-to-video flick about four sisters in nipple caps who practice incest, bondage, and threesomes, don’t blame me.
In the meantime, if you’ve read Daughters of Rome and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears.
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.