It is usually a risky proposition for a director to cast in key roles newcomers with little or no experience. But, as Moonrise Kingdom producer Jeremy Dawson notes, “Wes Anderson trusts his instincts, so it came down to whom he felt he could visualize in these two roles.
Youngsters Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward won Anderson over during the extensive casting process. After an initial audition and three more callbacks over the course of six months, Gilman remembers, “I was getting in the car with my mom on the way home from school, and I asked her if she had any news. She didn’t answer; she called up my father instead, and he pulled a Ryan Seacrest [American Idol results buildup] on me, before he told me I got the part. I screamed, I laughed, and I cried. It was probably the happiest day of my life.”
Hayward’s mother was more straightforward in delivering the good news. The actress recalls, “I had just come home from school, and my mother said, ‘Guess what?’ and I said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘You got the role.’ It took me a minute to digest. It was thrilling. My little five-minute video from the open call got me the movie.
“I love my character. Suzy Bishop is misunderstood at home; she is among three little brothers, a father with issues, and a mother who is having an affair. She’s very sensitive yet also a tough girl.”
Gilman saw his character of Sam Shakusky as “a good kid with amazing scouting skills; he’s earned all these badges. But he’s mistreated by his foster brothers – Sam is an orphan – and by the other Khaki Scouts. He meets Suzy at a church pageant and, over a year, they create a plan to run away together.”
Despite being new to films, the two young stars applied themselves with aplomb and dedication. Both of them memorized the entire script as preparation before arriving on location.
“People tell me I have a good memory,” states Hayward. “So that didn’t really take me long. I read it over until I finally knew it.”
For Gilman, the process was a little lengthier. He explains, “I had to memorize some of the script for the callbacks. Then, before filming, I went to several rehearsals with Kara for which I memorized basically all of my part. By the time we started officially shooting, I really had the script down; it was recorded read onto a file, and I listened to that over and over again on my phone.”
The young stars would also rehearse together in the production office before going to the set. But preparation entailed much more than merely learning their lines; Anderson wanted them to explore their characters, to feel comfortable in their skins, and to understand who they were and why Suzy and Sam do what they do. So, he assigned the kids some homework.
Gilman recounts, “I took canoeing lessons, a couple of karate lessons, and learned some cooking – there’s scenes where I have to cook over a fire.”
With a nod to the movie’s 1965 setting, Gilman notes that “Wes also had me watch a 1963-set Clint Eastwood movie, “Escape from Alcatraz.” It was very good. And I had my parents to rely on, since they grew up in the 1960s.”
Hayward reveals, “Wes had Jared and I write letters to each other. Because in the story, Sam and Suzy write letters for a year to each other after they meet. He would have us start with the beginnings of their sentences –”
“Because in the script, the letters cut off [into the next ones] mid-sentence,” adds Gilman. “Wes thought maybe we could finish them.”
Given the world they live in and have come of age in, the two young performers began the assigned homework of their own correspondences through e-mails. But Anderson swiftly put a stop to that. “I don’t think he felt that the e-mails were authentic enough,” Hayward says. “He wanted the letters.”
Once they abandoned electronic transmission for old-fashioned epistles, they embraced the task wholeheartedly. Hayward says, “I learned a lot about Jared. He’s very entertaining!”
Gilman remarks, “Kara’s letters even had a little label on the top that said, ‘Suzy Bishop,’ with a fake address.”
Once production began, Gilman found the most difficult part to be “the early mornings,” while Hayward was “shocked” to discover that films are typically shot out of sequence.
Then again, she notes, “I had no clue what to expect because I’d never been in a movie or a commercial or anything, just school plays and plays at summer camp. From reading the script on, it was all more than I thought it was going to be. My favorite part about the production was watching the other actors work. That was inspiring.
“What helped me get into character was listening to Wes. He would say, ‘This is what’s happening. This isn’t Kara doing these things. This is Suzy.’”
Picking up on those cues from his leading lady and his director, Gilman would get into character “on the set. Whenever I put on Sam’s coonskin cap and his glasses – a change from my normal glasses – it was, ‘Now I’m Sam.’”
On a weekend day off, Anderson would invite the pair to see edited dailies and would discuss screen chemistry with them. However, Gilman notes, “Wes had us rehearse scenes, but not the kissing one; he wanted that to feel natural, since it’s the first time kissing for Sam and Suzy.”
Another discovery came when Frances McDormand, who portrays Suzy’s mother Mrs. Bishop, pointed out to Hayward the typewriter in her character’s office. Hayward had never seen one before “in real life,” and said so. “Fran thought that was so funny,” Hayward laughs. “She showed me how it worked, typing out our names. The props helped me feel like I was in the 1960s.”
McDormand made a strong impression on the younger actress. Hayward reflects, “Fran is amazing. My favorite scene is probably the one where Suzy is in the bathtub and talking with her mother. It’s very tender and loving, and emotional; it shows how Suzy is feeling.
“Seeing Fran become a different person, and me having to do the same, was awesome. I loved being able to be so different from who I normally am.”
Gilman was also taken under the wing of accomplished costars; Bruce Willis encouraged him to review and run lines before shooting, even if the words were already committed to memory.
Additionally, reveals Gilman, “Bill Murray overheard me tell one of the costumers that I didn’t know how to tie a tie, so he called me over. He basically put his hands around mine and did it, and then had me try it. That’s how I learned to tie a tie.”
Murray offers, “Well, you do what you have to; once I showed a kid how to shave, and this time I showed a kid how to tie a tie.”
Hayward confides, “Bill also told Jared and me to hum in the morning to get our voices ready for filming. It really works!”
Another cast member had to get his voice ready even when no other actors did; Bob Balaban is both heard and seen as the Narrator in Moonrise Kingdom. “When I first read the script, I couldn’t put it down,” says the veteran actor and filmmaker, who then spent weeks growing out his beard to meet Anderson’s conception of the character of the Narrator. “It was really entertaining, with great characters and dialogue that was shot pretty much exactly as written; the words we had to say were so good.”
He adds, “That you see the Narrator reflects the style of the movie. Suzy, the young girl, reads a lot and loves adventure books for kids. I’d say I’m kind of like the voice of the book, her own adventure, that she’s writing in her head. But my character also has an on-screen connection to the boy.”
“What’s universal and relatable about Moonrise Kingdom is that this is a story about first love and a magical summer,” comments Dawson. “It’s about a young boy and girl who run away to be together. There is a sweetness and charm to this movie, and it’s also funny.
“The title references the cove that the two kids run away to. It has the technical name of Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet on the map, but for them it’s a secret, magical place, so they re-name it: Moonrise Kingdom.”