Tomorrowland: George Clooney Star Vehicle

Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof had only one man in mind to play the disillusioned inventor Frank Walker: George Clooney.

Only One Actor Considered: George Clooney

“From very early on we described Frank as George Clooney-esque,” recalls Lindelof, “and whenever we would talk about actors for Frank, the thinking was: who’s like Clooney? We crossed our fingers and did our best job of writing it, infusing Frank with a curmudgeonly humor and a heroic quality, all of which we think George embodies. And then we sent it off into the universe.”

When approached, Clooney was intrigued by the project and signed on—much to the delight of Bird and Lindelof.  Clooney describes his character Frank as “a disenchanted grump who was a bit of a dreamer as a young boy, a smart little scientist kid. Young Frank goes to a place that he thinks is the greatest in the universe and he believes the world is going to be much better off because of it. He finds out that those things were untrue and becomes probably the most cynical person one could be. He isolates himself on his family farm and plans to spend the rest of his life there but is forced to deal with his past because of situations that happen in the film.”

Casey Newton (played by Britt Robertson)

In the movie, Frank Walker has an unwelcomed intrusion in the form of Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson. Explaining the relationship between the two, Clooney says, “Casey forces Frank to do everything he doesn’t want to do and she’s great at it. She’s just constantly nudging him. Frank is grumpy and angry, and it takes him a long time to trust anybody and certainly he’s not going to trust this young woman who storms her way into his life. But eventually they find their way.”

David Nix (Hugh Laurie)

For the role of brilliant scientist David Nix, Hugh Laurie was approached for what the producers called the actor’s “astonishing intelligence; a little bit of danger undercut by a lot of fun.” Laurie himself recalls being “completely struck by the first conversation I had with Brad and Damon about the morbid defeatism that has gripped the world. There are benefits beyond number to modern life, but they don’t seem to bring us a feeling of satisfaction, triumph or accomplishment. Brad and Damon laid out this extraordinary vision of a future that ran completely counter to all popular ideas about how the world is going, and I was completely taken with it.”

Describing the difference between his character David Nix and Frank Walker, Laurie offers, “Frank’s idea was to create things that are fun, that make people’s lives better because they bring pleasure and joy, and express hope. Nix is only interested in the more utilitarian platform of research; life for him is an endless scientific quest because he believes that man was put on this Earth to accumulate and develop knowledge.”

Frank’s view of Nix is of a cold-hearted bureaucrat who merely looks for the most efficient way of doing something without ever taking account of the joy of discovery, adventure, and exploration. Yet the two men cannot help but begrudgingly admire each other, because “beneath all of that there’s a sneaking regard for each other because they are intellectual equals in a world that doesn’t necessarily understand or welcome visionaries. There is a kinship between the two,” informs Laurie.

“David Nix is not necessarily a malicious man,” adds Laurie, “It’s not to say that he has no sympathy for his fellow man, but his sympathy isn’t enough to override his pragmatism. It’s hard not to agree with him; he has a point about our human tendencies and weaknesses and appetites that can’t simply be wished away. He’s a practical, clear- thinking, brilliant scientist.”

The differences between the two men are indicative, says director Brad Bird, of the reality that great minds do not always think alike, that our human imperfections can derail the best of intentions. Despite the utopian ideals of Plus Ultra, its founders fought and disagreed—we are told Eiffel and Edison were often at odds—as did its later members, represented by Nix and Frank. “Inherent in the notion of Plus Ultra is the idea that brilliant minds wouldn’t necessarily get along,” says Bird. “That’s just wishful thinking. In fact, great minds would probably really annoy each other. Some of them would get along, but a lot of them wouldn’t.”

Once shooting started, the two actors gelled as all had anticipated. Clooney, says Laurie, “was everything you hope George Clooney will be plus about ten percent. He’s extremely funny and kind, very bright and very hard working, and considerate of everybody around. Everything you’ve heard people say about him is true; it’s sort of maddening actually. He has an elegance about him that only enriches what he brings. He’s like an old friend. He engenders in an audience that wonderful feeling of comfort and affection. You know that this is a man of taste and intelligence and good humor, and that time in his company is going to be well spent. He’s an absolute gentleman and it was a wonderful privilege to work with him and get a front row seat as it were.”

Not to be outdone, Clooney comments about Laurie, “Hugh’s got a very dry sense of humor and I’ve always really appreciated it. It was really fun to get to know him and spend time with him. It’s a real pleasure to be around somebody who does things because he wants to do them not because he has to. He‘s a fun guy but it’s also fun to have him there because he wants to be there.”

Clooney adds, “He’s a first-rate, high-caliber man first of all and then a terrific actor, too, so there’s no downside to him except—I don’t want to say this aloud—he’s got a little kleptomania issue and it’s going to have to be addressed because I caught him coming out of my room with some of my belongings and I’d like them back.”

The producers knew there would not be a shortage of actors wanting to work with Clooney and Laurie, but the part of Casey would still be difficult to cast because whoever took on Casey’s role would need to do a great deal of the heavy lifting. She would need a tremendous amount of confidence and bravery and stamina. Many young actors vied for the role but in the end it went to Britt Robertson. “I’ve never come across a young actress with such enthusiasm and dedication,” raves producer Jeffrey Chernov. “She is a trooper. She had to jump in freezing water, get on a wire, be pulled, stretched, yanked, tugged, dipped and dunked, but Britt couldn’t get enough of it.”

Her auditions were all the more remarkable, too, because she had to perform them having read only a few scenes from the script. “When I first heard about this project, the script was completely on lockdown,” recalls Robertson. “No one, not even any agents or managers, had read it. It was not until maybe six months into the auditioning process that I was finally able to read the whole script. I obviously had a few scenes for auditions but they were completely out of context; I had no idea what any of it meant. When I finally got to read the script, I was so shocked by the fact that it was so different than anything else I had ever read. It has everything—action, adventure, friendships, family drama—and it’s all tied together so perfectly. You don’t read unique material very often anymore. It has been very cool to be a part of this super project.”

Of her character Casey Newton, the daughter of a NASA engineer who is about to be laid off now that the space program has been all but shut down, Robertson says, “She’s this really smart chick who has always wanted to be an astronaut. It’s her passion and what she and her father have bonded over. Casey has this drive to do big things and change the world; she wants the world to be a place that’s full of hope and inspiration, but she doesn’t know how to make it so.”

As is typical in the industry, casting of the children’s parts presented its own challenges. “Young Frank was a little hard because we needed someone that looked like George and who could handle the physicality of the part because we wanted to do so much of it in camera,” says Chernov. “When we found Thomas it was like we struck gold.”

Commenting on his young costar, Hugh Laurie says, “Thomas Robinson gave Young Frank every possible ounce of energy and optimism and idealism that the part needed. For him the world is a huge adventure to be grasped and every day was a chance to discover something more, do something more, try something new. He was fearless and completely charming.”

Describing Young Frank, Thomas Robinson says, “The movie starts off with a flashback and I’m playing young Frank Walker in 1964. Young Frank invents things, like a jet pack, and experiments by making things out of old vacuum cleaners, paint canisters and other stuff. He’s pretty amazing but his dad doesn’t approve of his inventions.”

The filmmakers also struck gold with young Raffey Cassidy, who plays Athena. “Raffey is proof that people can make a difference,” says executive producer John Walker. “Cynicism and sarcasm are fashionable; honesty, optimism and love are a little out of fashion. So it was nice to see this young girl supplying such positivity. When you watch Raffey’s audition tape, at the end of every take she would give a little thumbs-up. She’s just a spark plug of a kid. She is the embodiment of the film.”

Executive producer Jeff Jensen calls Athena the “great hero of Tomorrowland.” “She believes in the mission of Tomorrowland, and right now it has a problem that can only be solved by new people and new ideas. Athena senses that Casey is the kind of spirit that it needs,” says Jensen.

In the film, Athena gives Casey a pin that jumpstarts her quest for Tomorrowland. “Athena had been looking for a recruit,” says young Raffey Cassidy about the character she plays, “and she is really hoping that Casey was the right person to choose because that was Athena’s last pin. Casey has courage and determination and hope, and that is what Tomorrowland needs.”

Explaining the “family dynamic” between Athena, Frank and Casey, George Clooney offers, “The problem is that the youngest one, Athena, is the parent and Casey and Frank are like the two fighting kids. Athena is the one driving and she’s telling the kids to shut up. Frank is a big kid who didn’t really ever grow up and sort of stopped evolving at around 11 years old, so we are fighting all the time. It is like a family but it’s all turned upside down because the real parent is the youngest kid.”

Once the children were hired, says producer Jeffrey Chernov, “I didn’t count on that if you take an eleven-year-old and start them on a movie in the summer and don’t finish the movie until mid-winter, chances are they going to grow, and that includes their teeth. When Raffey showed up in Vancouver to start work, she gave me a big smile and was missing teeth. And then Thomas started losing his teeth one by one. So the kids spent a lot of time having to get “flippers” [fake, removable teeth] made. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn play the Gernsbacks—odd characters who own a memorabilia emporium. Gernsback (his name homage to the publisher of Amazing Stories, the magazine launched in 1926 that created the sci-fi genre) cuts a strange silhouette. “I’m like a Jamaican Grizzly Adams,” says Key. “I’ve got a paunch, a vest that has eyeballs all over it, and an eyeball belt buckle holding up my acid-washed mom jeans. And I’m wearing Birkenstocks with patterned socks. I’m a strange fellow to say the least.”

Odder still is wife Ursula, a Star Trek fan with Vulcan-esque eyebrows and cat-eye glasses to match. “Our mission is to retrieve those pins and find out how they’re being disseminated,” explains Kathryn Hahn. “We are part of a mandate to keep Tomorrowland hidden. When someone comes in with a pin we are not allowed to let that person leave until we find out where or how they have gotten their pin—and then we have to destroy the messenger. So maybe not as much Southern charm as on the surface.”

Tim McGraw

Rounding out the talented cast is Tim McGraw, who plays Casey’s father. Describing his character, McGraw says, “Ed Newton is a guy who has an idealistic view of NASA and the space program, so he is disappointed when the program shuts down and he is laid off. But he isn’t the only one who is disappointed. His daughter, Casey, who is a lot like him with her quick, scientific mind, shares that feeling too. While Ed is trying to figure out what the future holds for him and his family, Casey is out there working to make sure the future she envisions happens. Ed finds himself not only trying to guide his daughter to keep her safe but reining in her wild curiosity as well.”