American Hustle: David O’Russell’s Juicy Characters

The rich characters that have become the signature of David O. Russell’s films are one reason that he has been able to attract top-flight actors who have gone on to receive some of the greatest accolades of their careers in his films.  In The Fighter, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo were nominated for Academy Awards® and Bale and Leo won.  In Silver Linings Playbook, four actors–Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver– were nominated for Academy Awards, the first time in over 30 years that a single film had seen actors nominated in all acting categories, and Lawrence went on to win the Oscar®.  In American Hustle, Russell brings together two of these Oscar® winners and two of these Oscar® nominees with Russell first-timer Jeremy Renner, a multiple Oscar® nominee in his own right.


Irving Rosenfeld: Christian Bale 

American Hustle centers on Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time hustler who sees a way to change his life when he meets Sydney Prosser, whose seductive, confident manner enchants him.  Sydney becomes his business partner and lover and their business booms.  But when Irving and Sydney are caught in a con, FBI agent Richie DiMaso forces them to work for him, setting up a sting to capture corrupt government officials, starting with Carmine Polito, a politician trying to remake Atlantic City and bring a new economy to the people he loves, even if it means he has to work with an unusual investor.  DiMaso is quickly seduced by the glamour of Irving and Sydney’s world and sees his chance to change himself into the man he wants to be as well.  Meanwhile, Irving’s wife, Rosalyn – a manipulative loose cannon – is the wild card whose emotional ties to Irving could bring them all down.

Notes producer Suckle:  “The writing has a musicality to it.  David knows these characters, he knows their voices, he knows their mannerisms.  He works with the actors to create moments and dialogue that are tailored specifically for the actors and the characters – Louis C.K.’s ice fishing story, or Jennifer Lawrence singing ‘Live and Let Die.’  These are memorable and real because they’re in the DNA of the characters he created and wrote.  But he also writes to allow the actors to do things they haven’t done in any other movie – can you believe that Irving Rosenfeld is played by the same man who played Bruce Wayne and Dicky Eklund?”

Adds Bradley Cooper, “I love working with David.  If you can give him your trust, he will lead you to an emotional place that is truthful.  The characters and performances become so much more rich and meaningful.  It’s intense, because you’re so vulnerable as an actor, but it’s when you’re most vulnerable that the truth comes out.  The more you know David’s process and are familiar with it, the easier it is to dive right in – and you’re diving in to a family.”

Christian Bale reunites with Russell to take on the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a hustler and a romantic.  “Christian brought an amazing authenticity – it was like he stepped out of the 70s,” says Suckle.  “The way he looked, his mannerisms, the whole Bronx quality.  He embodied the character as written on the page.  It’s unlike any role he’s ever played – he brings comedy, charm, vulnerability.  When he walked onto the set – even though I knew consciously it was Christian Bale – it was like the living, breathing, flesh-and-blood Irving.”

“I never met a more charming character than Christian playing Irving,” says Amy Adams, who plays Sydney Prosser.  “You identify with him – I can see how Sydney gets caught up in it.  Sydney thinks she’s embarking on the greatest love of her life – she doesn’t think she’s a con artist.  Sydney begins as a person who doesn’t like who she is, and she creates a world for herself onto which she can project her fantasies of who she wants to be.  She finds a man who values her intelligence.  And when that’s taken away from her, it creates a conflict – her story is about her hustle but in the end, she wants to find the truth of who she is.”

Producer Jon Gordon notes that it was important to Russell craft the character of Sydney as an equal counterpart to Irving.  “He wanted the women to be very powerful presences in this film – as strong as the male characters,” he says.  Adams, in turn, embraced her role as the mastermind of the situation: “She’s not manipulating Irving – she loves Irving – she’s just not going to let him get away with messing with her.  She doesn’t think of herself as ‘the other woman’… when we were shooting, I thought – and I think Sydney thinks this, too, their relationship is the real relationship. She’s manipulating Richie – that’s the con she’s doing.”

Richie DiMaso: Bradley Cooper

Richie DiMaso, Cooper’s character, is not exactly the prototypical G-man – and for Richie, that’s just the problem.  “He feels like he’s idling through his life – that his life should be much more exciting,” says Cooper.  “He even curls his hair like famous ballplayers, just because he wants to be someone else, and he thinks ballplayers are cool.  So when he meets Irving and Syd, he’s very easily enthralled by their lifestyle. Suddenly, he’s hanging with the cool kids.  Sydney takes him to a disco, changes the way he dresses – he gets very entrenched in that world.”

Gordon notes that Richie’s curly hair is another example of the way that director and actor work together to create the character.  “It started with Bradley – he said, ‘I think my character should have curly hair.’  But then he and David took it to the next step – they tied it into the theme of the movie.  What if his hair isn’t really curly – what if he curls it?  That’s another detail about the little hustles we do to survive.”

Suckle says that Cooper also embraced his role as one of the film’s executive producers – his energy on-set was infectious and kept the entire production moving forward with a full head of steam.  “Bradley is our quarterback,” he says.  “He and David play off each other in a special way – there’s a sort of big brother/younger brother relationship that they have, and it helps drive the train when you’re trying to do so much in such little time.  They have a shorthand… they can look at each other and they don’t even have to say anything – they just know what they need from each other. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Rosalyn: Jennifer Lawrence 

Jennifer Lawrence reunites with Russell to play Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn, an unstable Long Island housewife who is the opposite of Adams’ elegant Sydney.     The character’s lack of sophistication comes through in every aspect – the scenes and dialogue, the performance, and the costume design.  “Rosalyn is very Long Island – red acrylic nails, huge hair all the time, loves leopard print,” Lawrence says. “I imagined her never going out, flipping through the magazines, buying these clothes, imagining that she’d look exactly like the pictures – but she has no idea how to dress for her body.  So costume fittings became all about making sure that nothing really looked good – ‘that’s not tacky enough, that’s too classic.’  I wanted her to look a little awkward.”

“Rosalyn is manic – very up or very down,” Lawrence continues.  “She is so afraid of being alone that she’d rather be unhappily married.  It seems like there’s a simple solution to her problems – she should get a divorce – but she can’t let herself do that. That’s where her desperation comes from.  She’s in survival mode: the marriage isn’t working but she still has expectations for Irv that he can never meet.  Her constant state of disappointment causes her to make some incredibly bad decisions that just make everything worse.”

Carmine Polito: Jeremy Renner

For the target of the sting, Russell cast Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, a New Jersey politician who sees an opportunity to remake the run down, working class region – if he can find the right investor.  “Polito is great at his job,” says Renner.  “He loves his job, he’s principled, he’s a family man, a great communicator – just a no-nonsense politician and human being with a Liberace-meets-Tony Curtis hairdo.”

Renner’s character stands out from the others in that he is not wearing any mask – he says he is trying to do the right thing for the people he represents, and he is.  “David and I talked a lot about his motivations,” Renner says. “The thing that it boiled down to is that he is well-intentioned in everything he does.  Rebuilding the state of New Jersey – that’s what drives him.  Even if he makes a mistake, every good or bad thing he does, it is always well-intended and he is very sympathetic.”

The film also features strong performances by several actors in supporting roles, with Louis C.K. as Cooper’s FBI superior, Stoddard Thorsen; Michael Peña as FBI Agent Paco Hernandez, who poses as the fake Sheik Abdullah; Alessandro Nivola as Anthony Amado, Chief U.S. Prosecutor, Special Task Force; Jack Huston as Pete Musane, a mobster with an interest in Atlantic City; and Elisabeth Röhm as Polito’s wife, Dolly.