For relative unknowns of ‘Green Mile’ cast, sometimes luck happens

After the success of “The Shawshank Redemption,” an adaptation of the Stephen King story set in a prison that received seven Academy Award nominations in 1994, writer-director Frank Darabont was poised to become the next big thing.

But the vagaries of Hollywood took over and, over the course of five years, he reportedly made uncredited contributions to the “Star Wars” prequels and the Omaha Beach opening sequences of “Saving Private Ryan.”

When he did find that elusive follow-up project, it was yet another King adaptation, ironically also set in a prison. Although the director jokes, “I wasn’t waiting around for five years for the next prison movie I could make — it’s really King‘s work I’d have to focus in on because I find he’s got such a spark of humanity, a humanism in his work, even in the more obviously horror pieces. People don’t really recognize … that there’s a real love of humanity in that man’s work and a spirituality in his work that comes through. That’s what I found most compelling about this story. It was a hell of an emotional journey. So when I read it, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go back to prison!'”

The Green Mile” was King‘s serialized novel centering on the unlikely relationship between guard Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks for the bulk of the film and veteran actor Dabs Greer in the wraparound sequences) and death row inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a giant of a man who harbors paranormal empathetic abilities.

Filled with strong performances from a cast that includes a mix of recognizable performers (James Cromwell, Harry Dean Stanton, David Morse) and relative newcomers (Barry Pepper, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell), the film version of “The Green Mile” generated Oscar buzz even before its theatrical release.

Darabont maintained a rather sanguine attitude, however.

“I don’t really make movies for the review boards or the critics necessarily,” said Darabount. “I find it ironic. This is like an instant replay of “Shawshank” for me because we’re getting some fantastic reviews, and we’re getting some not so fantastic reviews.

“There’s never been a movie made that gets great reviews across the board. But I’ve noticed that some of the critics who are now lauding “Shawshank” as some kind of modern classic are the very same critics who slammed it when it first came out as being too long, too sentimental. I just can’t listen to critics. They’ll just keep you chasing your tail.”

Maintaining his vision took several years, though. Stephen King had been so impressed with “The Shawshank Redemption” that he let Darabont option “The Green Mile” for $1. Tom Hanks joined the project after receiving the script; he, too, had been impressed with the 1994 film and at the luncheon for the Oscar nominees had expressed to Darabont a desire to work together. Once a star of Hanks‘ magnitude was signed, casting the other key roles became paramount.

“I got all my first choices,” said Darabont. “Now some of them, mind you, I didn’t know when we started casting. They had to come into the room and audition as part of that process, but there’s not a single person in this movie who wasn’t my first choice.”

His philosophy for selecting performers is also fairly straightforward.

“I love taking actors of that caliber who haven’t really had a chance to show what they can do, and I love taking them and really giving them roles like that where they just sort of burst onto the scene and [the audience says], ‘My gosh, where’s this guy been?'”

For three of the film’s cast members, that opportunity has already begun to pay off. At 6’5″ and weighing in at over 300 pounds, 36-year-old Michael Clarke Duncan is certainly noticeable. Seven years ago, he was digging ditches in his native Chicago and moonlighting as a bouncer and security guard. Despite his massive size and deep Barry White-like voice, Duncan harbored a secret dream instilled by his mother — to be an actor. “She’s the one who pushed me in that direction.”

Still, the move from real-life tough guy to a reel life one had pitfalls.

“Security was my life at one point,” said Duncan. “That’s all I was doing, and I got with a play called “Beauty Shop, Part 2” and we toured the country for about a year. I wasn’t an actor. I was the owner’s bodyguard. And we shut down in L.A. about six years ago and everything kind of snowballed.

“An agent saw me trying to get some pictures made and said, ‘Hey, maybe I can help you.’ At first I went on at least 50 auditions and nothing came up. I was getting ready to go back home. I called my mother. I’m ready to quit. Hollywood is too tough. I admit it; I’ve been beaten.

“She said, ‘No, you haven’t. You’ve only been beaten if you give up, and I didn’t raise a failure.’ She hung up the phone. She always spoiled me and kind of hugged me, and I thought she’d say, come on, baby. … She hung up. It was the last thing I expected from my mother and kind of toughened it up after that and made it on through.”

At first, Duncan was typecast in films and TV sitcoms as a bouncer or security guard or “big guy at the door.” His breakthrough came with “Armageddon,” a role he landed in part by taking a risk at his audition. In front of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, Duncan poured a bottle of water over his head before his reading, figuring it was something that would make him memorable. The strategy paid off as he landed the role which in a roundabout manner led to his casting as John Coffey in “The Green Mile.”

As Duncan explained, “People told me that Bruce [Willis] was this person you do not want to get to know, to stay away from him, to not talk to him while he’s in character. So when we passed [on the set], I’d put my head down or I’d avoid him totally.

And one day, I’m coming out and he’s standing there, and I tried to ease away and he said, “Hold up. Your name is Michael, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You never speak to me.” I said, “I’m not trying to be funny or anything, but I heard that you can be hell on wheels.” He said, “Do I treat you like that?” I said, “I’ve never given you the opportunity to treat me like that.” He said, “Why don’t we start over?”

They shook hands and struck a friendship. It was Willis, a Stephen King fan, who told Duncan to go out and read the book, and it was Willis who called Darabont and told him, “I’ve found your John Coffey” (Willis and Duncan later co-starred in “The Whole Nine Yards” set for a March 2000 release).

Down-to-earth and possessing a terrific sense of humor, Duncan clearly realized the heady company he was in during the filming.

“You don’t know how much joy that really gave me to come on a set and see Tom Hanks,” said Duncan. “It was like playing with Michael Jordan. It’s like playing with a legend.”

He also realized the potential pitfalls.

“We’re actors, and we get paid by what we do. And I don’t go into a role and say, I don’t want to offend you, I don’t want to offend you … because as an actor, you’re going to offend somebody at some point in time. But you want to get out there and do the best job that you can and if I’ve offended anybody, I’m sorry but the bill collectors don’t stop calling because you’re trying not to offend the world. So you have to go out there and you have to try to do a really good job.”

While crediting his mother for instilling certain values, Duncan also acknowledges “a higher being.”

“I do believe that miracles happen. It’s a miracle that six years, almost seven years ago, I was digging ditches in Chicago and now I’m working with a two-time Academy Award winner and everyone is talking about the movie that we did together. So you have to believe. I told some kids at my high school that, if you have a dream, you and going back to Chicago and that would have meant on a d fferent plane somebody else would be sitting here and you’d be talking to them. And I’d be in Chicago and you never would know me. But you have to believe in things like that. I think it’s imperative that you do.”

Co-star Doug Hutchison (who plays the prissy, mean-spirited guard Percy Wetmore) echoes a similar sentiment.

“We grow up, and we’re so impatient through our 20s and we’re like, what are we going to do with our lives. And I want this and I want that and then suddenly there comes a time, I think it happens at different points for different people, in our lives where you kind of just become who you are,” Hutchison said. “And it settles and sifts in and suddenly you’re walking down the street and you’re feeling centered or something.

“And then the doors start opening. I kind of feel that in my life right now. I’ve dreamed this and now it’s manifesting and it’s happening exactly at the time it’s supposed to and I’m ready. I’m thrilled. I feel blessed.”

The Delaware-born, Michigan-raised Hutchison, who declines to reveal his age, has spent the past decade or so on the fringes. After five years of stage work in regional and New York theater, he became something of a cult figure with roles on “The X-Files” (as killer Eugene Tooms), “Space: Above and Beyond” (as the villainous alien Elroy-El) and “Millennium” (as the equally reprehensible “Polaroid Man”). The compact, good-looking actor who speaks in a quiet, modulated voice hardly appears to be able to muster these evil characters. Add to his rogue’s gallery one of the redneck rapists responsible for an attack on a child in “A Time to Kill“, though, and he becomes an obvious choice for the role of Percy. Yet, it was a long road to landing this breakout role.

“My manager called and he said there’s a script called “The Green Mile” that you should read. And I read it and wept like a baby and I called him up and said, ‘Sam, I will play a spear carrier in this movie. I will be a glorified extra. I just want to lend myself to this.’ It was just one of the most beautiful, moving scripts I’d ever read in the entirety of my career to date. And he said, ‘Well, they’re interested in you for the part of Percy.'”

“At that time, Frank was only seeing a select group of people and, I wasn’t part of that select selection. But Mali Finn was the casting director, and she had cast me in “A Time to Kill” and [I had] played a small role in “Batman & Robin”. She’s been in my court for a while. She had me come in and put me on videotape and then she showed the videotape to Frank. And as the story goes, I was chomping on gum in part of my audition, and I spit it out about halfway through. Well, as soon as I came up on the screen, Frank said to Mali, ‘Fast forward, I don’t need to see anymore. I hate it when actors chew gum.'”

“It was actually Mali who saved the day and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, Frank; just give it some time. Watch the audition and see what you think afterwards.’

“Well, despite the gum chewing, I think Frank was inclined to bring me in, which he did. I went in shaking in my boots, because it was FrankThe Shawshank RedemptionDarabont. And I auditioned and over the course of the next six and a half weeks, it was this grueling process of elimination. Every week, it was a different story. ‘It’s between you and 24 other guys. It’s between you and 16 other guys, yada, yada, yada.’ By the last weekend it got down to, ‘It’s between you and 2 other guys. Frank‘s going to make his decision on Monday.’

“So, needless to say, I spent the most sleepless weekend of my life. Monday afternoon rolls around, and there’s my manager Sam standing on the threshold. And he’d never been to my apartment before, ever. I said, ‘Sam, what the hell are you doing here? Did somebody die? What?’

“And he said, ‘No. I just wanted to be here to tell you in the flesh that you’re going to be walking “The Green Mile.”

“And I literally broke down and wept in his arms.”

The only real preparation Hutchison did was to study with a vocal coach to pin down the specific Louisiana dialect, which he maintained on and off screen throughout the duration of the shoot. Otherwise, “I think when you’re working on a role, I think, inevitably, the character kind of slowly seeps in, in aspects and so it’s always swimming around down there in your guts. But obviously I had to leave Percy on the set. It just wasn’t feasible to embody Percy and walk around Los Angeles.”

He does allow, however, that “emotionally and personably, I imagine if you talk to my girlfriend, she would tell you that it was a test of patience and courage to be living with aspects of Percy for three months.”

While Hutchison may not have done much research to find his character, Sam Rockwell, who was cast as the heinous killer William ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton, a.k.a. ‘Billy the Kid’, immersed himself in his acting techniques to create “particularizations.” The 31-year-old actor, whose resume includes indie films such as “In the Soup” and “Lawn Dogs” as well as more mainstream fare such as “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” often creates montages of videotapes which help him discover his characters. For “The Green Mile“, in addition to relying on the book for ad libbing, he interviewed “people who’d been in jail … talked to some correctional officers, read interviews [with prisoners] on death row” and watched documentaries such as “Scared Straight,” “Harlan County USA” (for the Kentucky accent) and “Fast Food Women.”

In creating the persona of this character, whom Rockwell calls “pretty clear cut,” “I knew he was Huckleberry Finn and the devil mixed together. … He’s a real white trash nightmare.” The actor turned to two unlikely influences: Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice” and a young Muhammed Ali.

“One thing I was really nervous about,” Rockwell said, “was the confidence this character has, because I’m more of a sort of a self-deprecating person. I’m not really a braggart and a show-off and that was what watching Muhammed Ali was really good for. Because he was a boaster, and he had that bravado. That was helpful. And watching Michael Keaton was helpful for the movements and a lot of the comedy. … [Playing Wild Bill is] not unlike stand-up comedy. … It felt like he was doing a stand-up routine.”

Another concern for the actor, despite his credits, was being typecast. “That makes me a little nervous. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to look different in the movie. Have false teeth and stuff like that. I think people are going to remember this character, and I want to play different characters.

“I don’t think mainstream America has no idea of who I am, this’ll be their first glimpse. I’ve got some things coming up (like playing Drew Barrymore‘s boyfriend in the upcoming “Charlie’s Angels“) where I’ll be normal looking.”

Having started his career on stage with his mother, Penny, now an artist, Rockwell hopes to emulate the actors he admires such as co-star Hanks to John Malkovich, John Turturro, Sean Penn, Ed Norton, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges and Jon Voight. “Those are the actors you aspire to be,” said Rockwell. “Robert Duvall, somebody with that kind of versatility and longevity.”

And while he hopes to “continue to do theater, it’s hard because you kind of have to stay in the pipeline with film.” Still, he, like Michael Clarke Duncan and Doug Hutchison, makes the same simple statement: “I’ve been very lucky.”