Spike Lee's “The Miracle at S. Anna” is an epic WWII movie, set in various locations in Italy and the U.S., and using a large, multicultural cast.
Recruiting Multicultural Cast
With American soldiers in Italy battling Germans, director Spike Lee had to assemble a large, culturally diverse cast for the film. “This is an ensemble piece,” he says. “There are the four core Buffalo Soldiers, of course, but the whole cast consists of great American actors, great Italian actors, great German actorseveryone's speaking their native tongue, too, which I really think makes this feel authentic.”
According to Lee, even the four core soldiers represented cultural diversity. “James was
very smart in his varied representation of black men at that time. If you have different aspects, class, social backgrounds, consequently, you will have conflict, too.”
The Core Four
Lee was confident in the actors tapped to play the four Buffalo Soldiers. “I think there's a great rapport that they developed on and off the screen,” he says. “Even though there is a lot of conflict between them, when the bullets start flying, you see them bond.”
Derek Luke was cast in the role of Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps. “He's the leader,” says Lee of the character. Adds James McBride, “Stamps is a well-educated college graduate who has both faith and disappointment in the American system. He's deeply divided as to what his place and the place of the Negro in American society is or should be.”
Luke, whose feature-film debut was in 2002's critically acclaimed drama “Antwone Fisher,” says he could relate to his character. He adds that the film affected him more than he ever expected.”We started shooting in Italy and that was a great experience, but I was just looking for pasta, you know “I found more,” he continues. “I found history. I found the connection between African Americans and Italians.”
Luke recalls a day when they were shooting in the Italian village. He was sitting on a step eating his lunch when an elderly woman approached and started yelling at him in Italian. “I was like, 'Oh no, here we go,'” says Luke. “An Italian PA walks over to me like he has bad news. 'She wants to know why you're not eating bread with your soup' he tells me. And I
wanted to cry, because I felt like that was my grandmother.”
Michael Ealy won the role of Sergeant Bishop Cummings.”Bishop is everything Stamps is not,” says McBride. “He's a hustlin' con artist, a slick talker, a ladies man. He doesn't care about the white man; he's not that enamored with the black man. The only thing he cares about
Lee adds,”Bishop is a happy-go-lucky guy. He does not like to be under the thumb of authority. He likes card games and women.” Still, Ealy found substance behind the character's indifference. “I think Bishop is the voice that doesn't believe change is going to come, and doesn't believe that he belongs over there fighting,” says Ealy. “I think his street smarts, his common sense, if you will, just won't let him buy into the war. He's a good soldier. But that's because he wants to stay alive, not because he believes in the mission.”
Playing the role of Hector Negron, the radio operator, is Laz Alonso, who's no stranger to military roles, having appeared alongside Jamie Foxx, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard in 2005's “Jarhead.” His agent told him to read McBride's book. “I fell in love,” the actor says.
According to McBride, Alonso's character is a reluctant soldier. “Hector Negron is a Puerto Rican from Harlem who really wants nothing to do with any of it,” says McBride. “He's a dark- skinned Puerto Rican, lives in Harlem and
he's part of the black culture, so he finds himself assigned with the black soldiers in the war.”
The character, charged with translating for the Americans and Italians, also speaks fluent Spanish. “Spike wanted to make sure that I really spoke Spanish,” Alonso says. “He didn't
want one or two words, you know, he wanted a fully fluent cat. So I put myself on tape doing
Hector's scenes in Spanish. And it worked.”
Omar Benson Miller
Completing the core four is Omar Benson Miller who was a fan long before he'd heard about the film. “I read that Spike Lee was doing a giant war film, a black war film, the first of its kind. And then when I read the title, I recalled the book, because I read the book as soon as it came out. I remember saying, 'Wow, this is going to be a crazy movie whenever they make it.'”
Miller campaigned hard for the film and won the director over, but he had one big obstacle to overcome. “My physical prep was a little different than everybody else's, because Spike
wanted me for the movie, but he told me I had to lose weight to do it,” says Miller. “I had nine weeks to lose 60 pounds. We got it done.”
Miller portrays Sam Train, a gentle giant. Says McBride, “Sam Train is a simpleton, a big man physically, but an innocent. He's illiterate, though he's not dumb. He's deeply religious and he believes in superstitions that country folk back in that time used to believe in.”
Lee adds,”Train, the biggest one of the group, is a man-child. He's the one who befriends the young Italian boy.” Plagued by the boy's traumatic past and language barriers, the characters must find a way to communicate.
Miller did just that, says Lee. “We have a scene where his character, Train, is trying to communicate with the kid,” says the director. “He speaks English, the kid speaks Italian, but they have to find some way to communicate and Train comes up with this system of tapping. That was improv. It wasn't scripted. I think it's one of the few kind, gentle scenes you can have in a World War II film.”
Matteo Sciabordi was cast to play Angelo, the traumatized young Italian child befriended
by Sam Train. Director Lee says casting the part wasn't easy. “The crucial role for this film
was the kid,” says Lee.”That was a wild card. We had to get the right kid. If you look at the
great films of Italian neorealism: 'The Bicycle Thief,' 'Rome, Open City,' 'Germany Year Zero,' 'Miracle in Milan'all those films are in some aspect about the effect of the war on children.
It was amazing that James incorporated that into his novel having never seen any of those films at the time. “So we put out a call-radio, TV, flyers, magazines-letting people know we needed this kid, and 5,000 people came through,” Lee continues. “I saw the last 100. And Matteo-when I saw him, I knew this was the kid. We were blessed. It was a miracle finding this kid, the one out of 5,000.”
Sciabordi says he had fun working on his first film.”It felt like playing a game,” he says. “The only thing I didn't like was having to get up in the morningsometimes like 5:30 a.m.” The 9-year-old Nordica, Italy, native shot most of his scenes with Miller, who played Train, or as Sciabordi's character called him, the chocolate giant. “Omar was great fun,” says Sciabordi. “We were always playing and he even taught me how to play baseball.”
When it came time to cast the Italian roles, Lee found new challenges. “I spent weeks casting in Rome, and we had to be very particular, because the same way people in New York don't sound like people from Mississippi, peopleo from Tuscany have a very distinct dialect versus people in the south. The actors who were from Rome had to be coached so they'd sound like they were from Tuscany.”
Showcasing the political strife in Italy during the war is a provocative character known as The Great Butterfly. According to McBride, Peppi Grotta represents the great Partisan leaders who led thousands in Italy throughout the war. “He's a deeply thoughtful young man,” says McBride. “After witnessing several atrocities, he basically snaps and becomes one of the most ruthless and most clever and most soughtafter Partisans. Although he's ruthless against his enemies, he's always a fair–minded person, deeply kind, fighting for his country-not fighting to kill Germans, fighting to kill the enemy. He's a leader with a heart.”
Pierfrancesco Favino was tapped for the role. “He is probably one of the best Italian actors of his generation,” says producer Musini. “He's very versatile and talented. He's working a lot abroad right now: he appears in this year's 'The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian' and next year's 'Angels & Demons.'”
The character Renata was one of the key roles in the film and an instant ally for the Buffalo Soldiers. Says McBride, “Renata exemplifies the difficulties Italian women faced during the war. Her husband was drafted and she hasn't heard from him in two years. She's very smart and is one of the few people in her village who has learned some English. She tries very hard to make her father renounce his Fascist beliefs.”
Italian actress Valentina Cervi was cast in the role. “She is a young actress who has an international reputation,” says producer Cicutto. “She's worked in Italian films, French films, with Jane Campion in 'The Portrait of a Lady,' and she has a fresh potential that clearly comes out in 'Miracle at St. Anna.'”
Rounding Out the Cast
Rounding out the cast are John Turturro as Detective Ricci, charged with investigating the post office murder; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the reporter assigned to cover the murder and subsequent discovery of the Italian artifact; John Leguizamo in a cameo role as Enrico; Kerry Washington as Zana Wilder, the lawyer hired to represent the suspected post office murderer; D.B. Sweeney as Colonel Driscoll, an advocate for the Buffalo Soldiers; Robert John Burke
as General Almond, a high-ranking official who doesn't support the 92nd Division; Omari Hardwick as Platoon Commander Huggs; Omero Antonutti as Ludovico, Renata's Fascist father; Sergio Albelli as Rodolfo, an Italian of questionable loyalties; and Lydia Biondi as Natalina, the village healer.