Your Highness: Casting the Stars

The adventure comedy Your Highness, directed by David Gordon Green, starring Danny McBride, Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman and James Franco, will be released by Universal Pictures on April 8.

From the beginning, Green wanted the production to be comprised of the ideal cast to bring McBride and Best’s screenplay to life, and not necessarily of actors who were known as comedians. He was also interested in finding performers whom the audience would expect to see playing it straight in a period piece. Knowing McBride would be playing the opposite of that would allow for the perfect contrast and for humor to arise out of the preposterous situation. It would prove fortunate that improvisation is always a part of a Green casting session.

Authenticity and attention to detail were meticulously planned for, and the action scenes would be accomplished with first-class stunts, supported by the special effects and visual effects teams brought on board. Elaborate sequences with carriages flipping over and characters flying through the air on wires were just a few of the situations the cast would find themselves in as production began.

The comedy would come naturally as the inept Thadeous realized he was completely out of his depth and ill equipped on all levels to survive…and dragged everyone along with him. As McBride explains: “People die on adventures. They’re dirty and not always comfortable, and those are things that Thadeous doesn’t like. He doesn’t want to go on some sort of quest where he could possibly die.”

When it came to casting the role of the chivalrous (read: perfect) Prince Fabious, James Franco was the natural choice for McBride, Green and Stuber. McBride explains their decision: “I loved my experience on Pineapple Express, and working with James was incredible. David and I knew that we wanted whoever was going to be in this film to have that same sort of appreciation for being in the moment and be willing to push it from there. That’s what David and I really like: We like executing what’s written, but at the same time, there’s almost more enjoyment with coming up with something right in front of the camera that you hadn’t laughed at before until right then.”

Green was pleased his other leading man from Pineapple Express was along for his next production. “When James goes off and does something that is unexpected, that’s when everybody wakes up and looks at him and thinks, ‘That’s right on the money,’” the director notes. “He was testing us in the early days to make sure that we were going to be ballsy enough for him, and we took him to the limit on this one.”

Franco was happy to get back to work with his two previous collaborators. He recalls: “I work really well with David and Danny. The script was funny, but I also understood the process and that it would just get even better. We had a working relationship that I could depend on.”

Despite Thadeous’ obvious disdain for his brother at the beginning of the story, Fabious is willing to see the best in his younger brother and believe in him, no matter the reality of the situation. Franco shares: “Because Thadeous is Fabious’ brother, he has always been willing to give him second, third and fourth chances. Then when they’re out in the wilderness on their own and suddenly Fabious has to depend on him, it changes Thadeous. He has to step up to the plate and live up to the expectations that Fabious has always had of him.”

The performer appreciated that the audience can laugh along at the princes’ quest since Your Highness plays with the tropes of fantasy epics. It also didn’t hurt that he gets to sing for the first time on film. Franco notes: “This movie can get away with a lot more than other fantasy movies that take themselves seriously. Whether it’s the fight scenes, the mythology of the land, or how Fabious expresses his love for Belladonna, everything has this underlayer of comedy. Because of that, the audience has an excuse to not take everything so seriously.”

Before the courageous brother and the dimwitted one could embark on their quest, the filmmakers needed to secure a sexy female warrior, a mentally unstable wizard, a maiden locked in a tower and a couple of misfit servants for the production.

For the role of the beautiful but deadly warrior Isabel, Green and Stuber were certain of the actress who was ideal for the part, and approached Natalie Portman to take on the role. “When we were considering who could embody the iron will, beauty and medieval toughness of Isabel, it didn’t take long to realize that Natalie was our warrior princess,” remembers Stuber. “The actress had to be able to wield a weapon and deliver these hilarious lines without ever breaking character, and Natalie handled that with ease. Plus, she is quite the marksman with a short bow.”

Green explains what Portman offered the role of Isabel: “She almost became the comic relief, because she’s such a straight person in the movie and says such whacked-out things that you can’t imagine hearing Natalie say. We’ve taken this image of prestige and adorable and fashion-magazine-friendly version of her and shown the rough-and-tumble side of Natalie that’s willing to slit a few throats.”

For Portman it was a challenge she readily accepted, as she explains, “When I read the script I thought, ‘Okay, this sounds like an adventure, and it was hilarious and also insane. I was excited that they had thought of me for it because it wasn’t like anything I’d done before: a really big comedy and a character that was just a badass…so a great combination.”

The actress shares how Isabel fits into the world of Your Highness: “Leezar is the focus of both Isabel’s quest and the princes’ quest. They’re trying to rescue Fabious’ kidnapped bride, and Isabel is trying to avenge the death of all her brothers. She’s very focused on her quest and knows she’s capable of taking all the people down that she needs to herself. Every person that she meets along the way is just an opportunity to further her goals, and the princes have some secret tools that she would like to have.”

Of his on-screen love, McBride jokes: “We’re really giving Natalie her big shot in this film, which is very kind of us.” He elaborates upon how Isabel’s story weaves into Thadeous’: “Isabel is a warrior who is also on her own quest—to avenge the death of her family. Thadeous has never met anyone like her. He’s used to the dumb chambermaids, and that’s not what Isabel’s about. So, that intrigues him and makes him want to be the type of dude that she would be into, a guy who has honor and nobility—things that are very far from Thadeous’ reach.”

For Fabious’ love interest, Belladonna, McBride and Green wanted an actress who would be able to play the fairy-tale archetype of a naive young woman who has been locked up in a tower for most of her life, but who would also be able to handle very raunchy comedy and has a fantastic singing voice…no small order. Zooey Deschanel had starred in Green’s All the Real Girls, alongside McBride, and was precisely the performer they were searching for to bring Belladonna to life.

McBride states: “When David discussed Zooey, it just seemed like a no-brainer. She’s always had a cool, unique sense of comic timing that we thought would play well into this idea of who Belladonna is. We wanted to make her a damsel in distress, but also demonstrate what not having human interaction would actually make someone like. Zooey captures that: It is beyond ditziness, and it’s just a total lack of understanding of how the world works. It’s the equivalent of Daryl Hannah in Splash, and Zooey nailed it.”

Deschanel discusses her reaction to working on a film she calls a “dirty Princess Bride.” She says: “I’ve worked with David and Danny before, and I was excited to work with them again. I think what makes Your Highness different from other movies that have set a certain tone for a period comedy is the mixing of the authenticity, the comedy and the boldness of the language. This is definitely the dirtiest movie I’ve ever done, but it’s also hilarious. It is a dirty medieval comedy that’s authentically portrayed in every aspect…except the language.”

Belladonna’s captor, the evil wizard Leezar, is the archenemy of the King of Mourne. Leezar has been brought up by his three Mother Witches—played by MATYELOK GIBBS, ANGELA PLEASENCE and ANNA BARRY—to fulfill a macabre and twisted destiny spelled out by an ancient prophecy. When the two moons align, Leezar can impregnate his virgin bride with the child of a dragon and gain untold evil powers.

This antagonist is played by Justin Theroux, who knew after he read the script that he wanted the opportunity to be part of this surreal world McBride and Best had imagined. He liked that he’d be playing a medieval wizard with “middling to fair magical prowess.” Theroux offers: “It’s a movie that doesn’t play by the normal comedic rules. I’m constantly surprised by the style of humor because the jokes come out of places where I’m never expecting them.”

The performer appreciated that Your Highness was, at times, anachronistic. He says: “People walk through this surreal world that we’ve all seen replicated in other movies, but we’ve never seen people speak this way in these films or encounter contemporary situations. That’s what makes it funny.” That, plus Leezar’s promise to his minions to provide them with “a bottomless trove of various psychotropic drugs” and the ability to deliver lines such as “By the two moons, let my manhood swell!”

The overall tone and look of Your Highness was never intended to poke fun at the fantasy genre. Therefore, quite accomplished British actors were called upon to take on key roles within the movie. Summarizes Stuber on the production’s selection of such an accomplished group: “When we began casting the supporting roles, it was clear that we needed both seasoned veterans of British stage and screen, as well as stand-out up-and-coming performers from across the country. The collection of talent inspired us all to up our game. Plus, I am in absolute awe of some of the things that David was able to convince them to do.”

To ensure that Green kept the film’s authentic feel, he cast accomplished actor, director and writer CHARLES DANCE to play the princes’ father, King Tallious, and respected performer Toby Jones as Fabious’ trusted second-in-command, Julie. Jones was fascinated by Green’s take on the material, a film in which he sees elements of The Dark Crystal and Krull. He describes his character, the very strange manservant of Fabious, as “one of the more mysterious characters I’ve ever played. He is slightly wild, certainly incompetent and occasionally viscous.”

Fabious’ right-hand man (pun intended) in battle is the battle-scarred head knight Boremont, who possesses a menacing metal claw in place of the hand he lost during battle. British performer Damian Lewis was asked to come aboard and portray this tough. As Lewis explains: “I play Fabious’ best friend, Boremont. He’s a grizzled, superb warrior and will do anything for Prince Fabious.” Of his appendage, Lewis explains: “Boremont now has a metal claw encased in a housing unit across the top of the arm. This lethal, 12-inch dagger comes out and he use it as a knife.”

Julie’s archrival is Thadeous’ long-suffering manservant, Courtney, whose duty it is to cater to Thadeous’ many whims—from rubbing his feet to cleaning up after him whenever he is soiled. Though Courtney often directly suffers as a result of Thadeous’ misadventures, he remains loyal to his foppish ruler.

Courtney is played by Rasmus Hardiker, an up-and-coming young British actor, who welcomed the opportunity to work with a director and lead actor who encourage improvisation to perfect comedy. He notes: “It makes a piece more realistic and more funny when you are trying to think on your feet, as that’s often a human reaction in life. It builds up like this snowball effect of comedy.” Hardiker appreciated Green’s take on an epic fantasy, and he was even game when he learned that Courtney would be tarred and feathered in the film. He says of the genre twist: “You take a structure, but you just change the bricks and you make things ever so slightly different.”

When Hardiker came in to read for the part, Green, McBride and Stuber knew they had their man. Says Green: “When Rasmus came into an audition in London, it was just immediately clear that this guy with a very expressive face, caustic wit and great physical comedic agility could play off Danny and James really well and fill every frame with little background bits of strange, interesting behavior.”

Additional merry men in Thadeous and Fabious’ quest include SIMON FARNABY as Manious the Bold, DEOBIA OPAREI as Thundarian, and ZHAIDARBEK JUNGUZHINOV and NURLAN ALTAYEV as the Brothers Mein. These men have served Fabious for a long time, but they must prove their loyalty on this most dangerous of quests.

Along his journey, Thadeous will be forced to battle his way out of a dwarvish village populated with some very angry characters whom he’s done wrong and to fight the very creepy supervillain Marteetee, played by JOHN FRICKER. If he loses, being banned from the Kingdom of Mourne will be the least of his worries.

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