Cirque du Freak: Freaks of the Cirque

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“Cirque du Freak,” directed by Paul Weitz and starring John C. Reilly and Chris Massoglia, is the feature film adaptation of Darren Shan’s popular “Cirque du Freak” book series. The film is being released by Universal on October 23, 2009.

Darren’s journey begins the minute he makes a pact with Crepsley to join the traveling freak show. For Weitz and the other producers, bringing together the right combination of actors for the young vampire’s adventure was as important as creating the exact production design for the film.

To play Darren’s mentor, the legendary vampire Larten Crepsley who can run at the speed of light (i.e., “flit”), the filmmakers made an unexpected choice: They cast John C. Reilly, a performer primarily known for his comedic roles. “Crepsley is supposed to be this weird, eccentric dude,” explains Weitz. “He is not your conventional image of a brooding, studly vampire. I needed a really wonderfulcharacter actor to play that part, and John fit the bill.”

Reilly was quite serious about understanding the universe of Larten Crepsley, so over the course of production, he read 12 books in Shan’s series. “After reading the books, I could relate to the fans,” he offers. “I was very conscientious when we were making the movie about not changing things that were vital to the structure of the world of Cirque Du Freak.”

When it came to playing Crepsley, Reilly found little difficulty bringing the two-centuries-old vampire to life. “He just evolved in the way all my characters evolve,” the actor notes. “I read the script and research materials, and Crepsley started to come to life. I didn’t make any big changes in my mind from the book.” He also found playing a nonmortal freeing. “It’s not often you get to play someone who is 220 years old. That got me really excited about the character… how cynical you’d be after living all those years.”

Cast as the mysterious Mr. Tall, the Cirque’s owner and operator, was Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, known to most Western audiences from his Oscarnominated turn opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Mr. Tall remains a strong-willed mediator between the vampires and the vampaneze, and his kindness is matched only by his fierce protection of his own. From rescuing Evra the Snake Boy when he was a baby to his long-standing tolerance of Crepsley’s bending the rules, Mr. Tall runs the Cirque with a kind, yet iron fist.

Leslie explains that with Mr. Tall, Weitz chose to go in a different casting direction than many would expect for a circus barker. “The books are extremely popular in Japan, and Ken is such a huge star in that country, so I’m glad we’re reaching out to that fan base,” Leslie says. “As it’s a circus that travels the world, the Cirque should be multinational.”

For the roles of Darren and his best friend, Steve, the filmmakers looked to, respectively, young performers Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson. As he has done in such films as American Pie, About a Boy and In Good Company, Weitz again selected young actors who are not widely famous. He explains: “It’s always fun for me to take kids who haven’t really been seen widely before, and give them a huge part and lay all my chips on. From the first day, Chris and Josh seem to be building a natural friendship with each other, and that’s a big part of our story: two kids who are really close friends who are going in totally different directions.”

Seventeen-year-old Massoglia found himself getting deeper into Darren’s personal journey—as he moves from the ordinary life of a schoolboy to the world of vampires and their darker counterparts, the vampaneze. “I was excited when I heard about the audition,” says the actor. “I heard the story and thought the concept of being mentored by a vampire and then becoming a half-vampire was really cool. After I met Paul and realized I would get to work with him, that was a bonus.”

Cast in the role of Darren’s longtime best friend and eventual enemy was 16-year-old Josh Hutcherson. The actor has a longer resume than Massoglia, having played characters in Bridge to Terabithia and Journey to the Center of the Earth. While he has often played the good kid, Hutcherson was excited when he heard he would be showing his bad side in The Vampire’s Assistant. Hutcherson explains his character’s motivation: “With Steve, it’s part of his destiny to become a vampaneze. He’s obsessed with vampires, and he’s always wanted the life of a nomad living by his own rules.”

For the filmmakers, it helped that both young men were professionals on and off set. “Chris and Josh are great guys who became fast friends,” Miano says. “They’re sports addicts, so from the get-go they were playing basketball by themselves and with other guys on the crew. Their friendship translates to the screen, and so we got very lucky with two excellent teens.”

When Darren and Steve first enter the world of the Cirque Du Freak, they find humans and humanoids unlike anything they’ve ever seen. The fact that they’d dare eschew boringness and normality infuriates one of their teachers, Mr. Kersey (Christmas With the Kranks PATRICK BREEN), mortifies Darren’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Shan, played by Ocean’s Thirteen’s DON MCMANUS and Four Christmases’ COLLEEN CAMP, and fascinates his kid sister Annie, played by newcomer MORGAN SAYLOR. Shuler Donner gives us a look inside the world of these freaks. “The characters are wild,” she says. “We have the beautiful Madame Truska, played by Salma Hayek, who grows a beard, and Alexander Ribs [Orlando Jones], who is one of the world’s thinnest men. There’s Corma Limbs [Jane Krakowski], who can take off her arm and it’ll grow back. We meet Gertha Teeth [Kristen Schaal], who can hang onto a flagpole by her teeth and Rhamus Twobellies [Frankie Faison], who can eat anything and put together anything in his stomach. My favorite is Evra the Snake Boy [Patrick Fugit], who is just as he sounds.

“There are all these really fun characters, which is another reason I was drawn to this movie,” she continues. “I knew we wanted the film to incorporate the Cirque, and not in a pathetic, sad way, but in a way that you understand these people who are born with deformities. If you take it one step further, everybody has a little something wrong with us…we just take it to the nth degree.”

Madame Truska not only portrays Crepsley’s frustrated girlfriend, the bearded lady of the Cirque is also a powerful psychic who warns Darren of the looming war between the vampires and the vampaneze. Of her casting, Weitz explains, “I wanted someone who is conventionally voluptuous to be able to sprout a beard at will. Salma fit the bill, and she’s really fun.”

The actress agreed to the role because she read Madame Truska as someone who “is strong and knows what she wants, but at the same time she can be very sweet and vulnerable.” Hayek agreed with Shuler Donner that one of the most curious aspects of the Cirque performers was not their peculiarities but their humanity. “She is madly in love with a vampire. You definitely recognize in her a lot of the longings every woman has. She just wants this man to love her for who she is and to settle down. To see these very strange women deal with such common problems was fascinating to me.”

Salma Hayek’s on-screen love interest, John C. Reilly, explains the complexity of Truska and Crepsley’s relationship. “One of the recurring things in these vampires’ lives is, ‘Don’t mess with mortals because they get old a lot faster and they’re eventually going to die in front of you,’” he says. “If you fall in love with someone, then you have to watch them grow old and die while you age much more slowly. That’s the pain of their love.”

Little does Darren know but he has been destined for the war between the vampires and the vicious vampaneze since before he was born. The leader of the murderous sect is the ironically named Mr. Tiny, played by character actor Michael Cerveris. His second-incommand is the vampaneze killer Murlaugh, portrayed by Ray Stevenson.

Leslie explains the motivation of the sociopath who tries to snatch Darren the minute he becomes undead: “Murlaugh is a good foil for Crepsley and is ultimately whom Crepsley ends up battling. The result of this battle changes the course of human and vampire history in this film.” Of Stevenson, he commends, “Ray has a wicked sense of humor. He’s from Ireland, but he’s doing a Northern English brogue. Even though he’s this menacing, terrifying creature, there’s a bit of a twinkle in his eye.”

To play Crepsley’s longtime friend and fellow vampire Gavner Purl the filmmakers cast award-winning actor Willem Dafoe. Weitz had worked with Dafoe on Weitz’s last film, American Dreamz, and was excited to bring back the man who’d hilariously played the Machiavellian U.S. vice president in that comedy. To create the signature look of the timeless Purl, Weitz and costume designer Judianna Makovsky drew inspiration from a ’30s photograph of Salvador Dali, complete with Dali’s signature slicked down hair and pencil-thin mustache.