Glass Castle: Casting the Walls Family

Casting the Walls Family

To bring the Walls family to life in all their quirks and contradictions, the filmmakers recruited an award-winning cast led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, two-time Oscar® nominee Woody Harrelson (Best Supporting Actor, The Messenger , 2009) and Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts (Best Actress, The Impossible , 2012).

For Walls, it was a thrill to watch this ensemble re-animate her most formative memories. “Each actor was so dedicated to getting his or her character right,” Walls says. “The questions they asked during their research went right to the heart of things and took my breath away. Even when the actors went off the script, it would genuinely sound like something Rex or Rose Mary would say. I was blown away by the insight, psychological understanding and the way that these actors came to love and inhabit my family, loving them even for all their flaws.”


To play Jeanette across her life required three different actors, starting with the adult Jeanette, who is living out her dreams in New York and engaged to be married, only to be drawn back into her family’s powerfully strange orbit. Taking the role is Brie Larson, who recently riveted audiences as a mother and kidnapping victim trying to raise her son while imprisoned in a tin shed in Room , for which she won Academy Award® for Best Actress. Larson previously worked with Cretton playing the supervisor of a group of at-risk teens in his acclaimed Short Term 12 , for which she earned an Independent Spirit Award Best Actress nomination. “She has always been an electrifying actress,” Cretton says of Larson. “In this film, she conjured up so much depth that it took my breath away at times. It was like watching a magician. It’s impossible to describe how she does it because this thing just erupts from her that is not something that you can cognitively figure out beforehand.” The way in for Larson was directly through her encounters with Walls herself. While Larson typically does a lot of research for roles, in this case the research was a living, breathing woman from whom she could divine the full breadth of Jeannette’s psychology and persona. “When I took the role in Room , I spent a lot of time researching every possible angle of being in captivity because it was a situation that I had never been part of before. But with Jeannette, I had a direct line of communication to her—I could just e-mail her or call her with any question,” Larson describes. “One of my favorite things that happened in our first communication was she said, ‘I want you to tell the truth and I want you to tell your truth. This is my story, but I want you to make this your own. I want you to do whatever feels honest to you, so I’ll tell you anything that you want. There are no questions that are too personal.’ That started off our relationship in this really warm, trusting way.” Walls also left Larson with the impression of someone who had found a way to take exhilarating lessons from a sometimes harrowing childhood. “What Jeannette realized in the end is that the entire experience of growing up with his her parents made her who she is – and not just the good stuff, but the bad stuff which is what made her so resilient,” she observes. Larson’s portrait of Walls takes place largely in New York, after she has left her family behind, or so she thinks, to start her own career. “Jeannette goes to New York to heal from her past but then she realizes how much of her family is still inside of her, even though she’s completely changed her life and is trying to push them away. It’s still an important and core part of her,” says Larson. “I think that part is a very relatable experience. Her situation is extreme but everybody hits that age when they feel they need to become their own person and forge an identity separate from the constructs of their family. She pushes away from them in order to discover herself, but then in discovering herself, it brings her back home.” For Walls the immediate, palpable link with Larson was gratifying. “When I watched Brie in Short Term 12 , I’d never felt such a connection with an actor,” Walls relates. “It was her combination of toughness and tenderness, vulnerability and the willingness to fight—but to fight when it came to other people, not when it came to herself. I so related to her that when she was cast to play me, I thought, ‘thank you, whatever power just made that happen.’” Walls continues: “The more I got to know Brie, the more I found her so smart and so fearless. She was so determined to get to the heart of my character. She wanted to understand everything about me and my family and she was ready to do some really deep diving to get at my inner secrets and embrace them. I found all of that quite spectacular.” With so many roiling and contrasting emotions to navigate, Larson was thrilled to reunite with Cretton, who, she says, has a way of “making the unsafe feel safe.” She goes on: “Destin is the most compassionate, understanding, sensitive person and this is the second time with him that I’ve played a character who required me to sort of lose myself. When you do that, you have to trust that you have a team of people around you that are going to be respectful of that vulnerability and care for you on the other side of it. And that’s exactly who he is.” Larson’s commitment to Jeannette moved each of her cast mates. “Brie’s work is so genuine,” observes Naomi Watts. “The first day I saw her on set she didn’t even have any lines, but she had such powerful eyes and such incredible expressiveness, I thought, wow, she’s magnetic. There’s something about Brie that’s just mesmerizing to watch.” Adds Woody Harrelson, “I was psyched when Brie came aboard. She is an old friend of mine – well, I guess she’s a young, old friend of mine. I’m an old friend of hers. I met her first on Rampart , when she was around 21 and already, at that time, I knew she was an incredibly brave actress. She would make choices that were so compelling. She doesn’t settle. She works hard, and she’s great at it.” There was equal affection from Larson towards Harrelson, which cemented a father-daughter relationship that is both fraught and close. “Woody and his family have been an important part of my life and the family that I’ve made now that I’ve grown older. To be able to do this role with him was a really special experience because we already love each other so much and that brings a lot to the table. With Woody you really feel that, even though Rex can be so tumultuous at times, there’s still this sense of love and care between him and Jeannette,” she elaborates. Reflecting Larson’s performance are the two younger versions of Jeannette: Ella Anderson, who plays Jeannette as an impressionable 9 year-old, as she develops her grit to fight to keep her dreams alive, and Chandler Head, who portrays Jeannette as a younger child. Anderson had an especially challenging task but proved up to it. “Ella’s a very unique 11 year-old. Her questions were so smart and there was zero difference between directing her and directing a 40 year-old. Everybody doing a scene with Ella for the first time Naomi, Woody—came up to me said they were blown away by how talented she is.” Says Larson of Anderson: “We really pushed each other and to be pushed by an 11 year-old is a really powerful thing.”

A major challenge of casting The Glass Castle was finding Rex Walls, who was many things to his family: magnetic, philosophical, inventive and romantic, but also deceptive, neglectful and deeply damaged. The task of holding all these qualities in one human container fell to Woody Harrelson, the two-time Oscar®-nominee also seen this year in such contrasting roles as a human warrior in War For the Planet of the Apes and a small-town chief of police in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri . Harrelson takes in the full measure of Rex, from the big, wild ideas that roiled inside him to the alternately rousing and devastating impact he had on the children who needed more from him. “Rex was a really interesting guy,” Harrelson reflects. “He was not perfect, by any means. He was an alcoholic, and he clearly did questionable things as a parent. He didn’t necessarily believe in schooling and there was just a lot about him that made life very difficult for his family. But there were also things about him that made Jeannette’s childhood singular. His whole take on society was different from the traditional, and at times he could be an incredibly loving guy.” The breadth of Harrelson’s performance was exactly what Cretton was seeking. “Woody stunned me every single day. Every day, I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen with him. He took this role extremely seriously and did a lot of his own research, reading through Rex’s personal journals to absorb more of his mindset. We also had a video of Rex from a documentary, which provided more ingredients for Woody to digest. Then, on set, he transformed into this multi-faceted, beautiful, crazy character. He really understood that Rex could be reckless, strong-willed and mean, but he could also be gentle, caring and hilarious. Some of the times he had with the family were like a wild ride, adventurous and super-fun. And at other times, he was very, very vulnerable.” Rex’s journals gave Harrelson fuller insight into the man, or at least the way he wanted to be perceived. “It was clear that Rex had an unusual kind of mind,” says Harrelson. “He wrote that he took an exam to get into the Air Force, and the higher-ups believed he cheated because he scored off the charts. So they put a guard in with him while he did the thing again and he proved it was real. Of course this is Rex’s version of the story, so we can’t be sure if we’re standing on stable ground or quicksand. We know he wrote poetry, was incredibly articulate and a real math whiz. I’d like to have met him.” Jeannette Walls also served as a fount of knowledge for Harrelson. “Woody was especially interested in the physicality of my father, inhabiting him from the inside out,” she says. “I felt he brought a stunning level of humanity and care to his performance. This is not an easy role. My father was somebody who was so conflicted, with extremes of good and bad, of being helpful and being destructive, of loving desperately but then also damaging the people he loves. How on earth do you capture that?” Somehow, Harrelson seemed to channel Rex in his entirety, from his passionate nature to his deepseated cracks. Recalls Walls: “There was once scene I watched on set where Woody was just staring at a drafting table, but when I saw him I gasped. The gestures, the posture, the look in his face – ‘my gosh,’ I
thought, ‘he has resurrected Rex.’ I felt really fortunate that Woody so deeply seemed to understand the pain, the hurt, the love and the beauty of this incredibly complicated man.” Certainly, Harrelson is no stranger to being true to himself. Jeannette remembers talking to his daughter one day and hearing her say, “My daddy doesn’t follow the rules either.” Walls elaborates: “Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Woody could relate to my dad. He’s much more in control than my dad was, but he’s not someone conventional, either. And they both share a love of the environment.” Much as Harrelson enjoyed the more freewheeling, inventive aspects of Rex, he also honed in on the selfdoubt and repressed emotions that ignite his demons. “Rex has a wild and sometimes cruel side to him, but I believe it’s rooted in things from his childhood that he never dealt with. The way Woody plays him, the more you understand him and the more compassion you have for Rex. The story does not apologize for the bad things Rex did, but I think that there is a level of empathy that you can still have for him. Many people have someone like Rex in their lives.” As for “the glass castle” Rex envisions – which became the symbol of all the glimmering but dashed promises of Jeannette Walls’s childhood—Harrelson says: “Rex infatuated his children with his dream of an incredible solar-powered castle, but it never got past the blueprints. It could have been amazing, but that’s how it was with Rex. He was always more a dreamer than a realizer of those dreams.” These days, Jeannette Walls sees her father’s castle as a powerful metaphor. “I’ve come to believe in a way that Rex’s glass castle has now been built, because what it was always about was finding a place in the world of pride,” she explains. “I also realize that in working on those plans, in always thinking, planning and dreaming, he gave me something much more valuable than a fancy house. He gave me hopes and dreams and a belief that I deserved something better than what I had at that moment.” Brie Larson also views the never-materialized castle as propelling Jeannette, in part because it’s a dream she has to chase down herself. “Although Rex is very flawed, he has an incredible mind for engineering which leads him to design this kind of Eden he’s envisioned for the family, this beautiful paradise that is he says is going to come one day,” says Larson. “It takes time for Jeannette to realize Rex’s glass castle is never really going to happen—but that’s also when she realizes that she has to go out and make her own glass castle.” Like the glass castle Rex never builds, he also gifts Jeannette a star that can’t be physically possessed – and yet that faraway cosmic body means the world to her. “There are two points of view on Rex gifting Jeannette a star. One is that you have a dad who’s given you nothing but a made-up story. The other is a dad who has the unique ability to instill wonder and excitement into his daughter, despite having nothing material to give her. Woody does an amazing job finding that balance in his performance.”

Rose Mary:

For Jeannette Walls, one person in her family stands out as the most difficult to embody: her mother Rose Mary, a painter who was more fired up by the idea of creating a lasting working of art than protecting her children. “She’s the one who causes the heated arguments in the book clubs. She’s the one that causes people
to yell at each other,” notes Walls. “She was a terrible mom. But some people inevitably defend Mom — and it’s often somebody who knows an artist.” Taking on the challenge of Rose Mary is Naomi Watts, a two-time Oscar® nominee for her roles in 21 Grams and The Impossible , who dove into the deep end with the role, meeting personally with Rose Mary, who now lives on Jeannette’s property with her, and trying to meet her on her own terms. “Naomi disappears into Rose Mary,” says Cretton. “Rose Mary is an artist who is more focused on her life than her children’s, constantly upbeat, yet unable, or unwilling, to see her husband’s behavior for what it is.” Brie Larson was awed by how far Watts was willing to go to inhabit a character who can be as anarchic as she is spirited. “I found Naomi’s performance absolutely incredible,” she says. “It’s a really tough role because she is sort of unhinged at times, but Naomi captures her beautifully. It’s as if the character was running in her veins. In the arm wrestling scene that takes place when Jeannette is an adult you see her as an older woman who can still be so childlike and she really nails that dichotomy.” Like Harrelson, Watts wanted to embody Rose Mary’s reality fully and candidly, even knowing many will see her as a dangerously negligent mother. “I’ve found that Rose Mary is someone who is driven profoundly by creativity,” Watts says. “She has to paint every single day. Even when she’s not painting, she’s thinking of what she can paint. Painting to her is like food and water are to most people. If she doesn’t paint every day, she’s going to fall apart.” She also anchored her performance in intensive research. “Preparation is my favorite part of creating a character,” Watts notes, “and when you’re portraying a real-life person, especially one who is alive, you have an extra sense of responsibility to be as honest as possible. You have to find a real connection and a sense of empathy for that person. So I had endless conversations with Jeannette and Rose Mary and there were lots of emails back and forth.” In interviewing both mother and daughter, Watts turned up some revealing discrepancies. “I found it intriguing that their stories of the same events could be so different. But somewhere in there obviously is the truth, so I looked for that, and then tried to make it my own,” she explains of the process. Jeannette Walls was stunned by how much Watts was able to assume her mother’s one-of-a-kind persona. “Naomi worked so hard to understand this woman who is a bundle of wild contradictions. She came at it from different angles and was relentless in getting inside, and she really got it.” The real Rose Mary Walls was hesitant at first to be involved in the film project at all, but Watts won her cooperation. “Initially, Mom feared the film was only going to ridicule her for who she was,” says Jeannette. “But when she found out that Naomi Watts had been cast, she called up my older sister and asked, ‘So who’s this Naomi Watts woman?’ And when Lori said, ‘She’s a very talented and very beautiful artist,’ that’s when Mom was onboard.” Watts also spent time pondering the link between Rose Mary and Rex. “Both Rose Mary and Rex were bold thinkers, with a love for life and the fire to always fight for their rights – even if they made a mess of things in their family,” says Watts. “Rose Mary’s spirit is what intrigued Rex. She had and still has a great sense of humor. There’s some inner wisdom in her as well. They had a tumultuous love affair which was driven in part by a power struggle, I would say.” That played out in Watts’s organic rapport with Harrelson. “I thoroughly enjoyed working with Woody,” Watts says. “We both had the same aim: to find the essence of each scene and make it as truthful as we each possibly could. As an actor, it really doesn’t get much better than that.”

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