Safe House: Casting Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Ruben Blades

With Safe House’s leads locked, the filmmakers turned to finding an ensemble of versatile actors to help bring the gritty journey from page to screen.  “Just because this is an action movie doesn’t mean you don’t want to care about the characters,” Stuber states.  “We have our agency filled with wonderful actors including Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham and Robert Patrick.  Fares Fares and Joel Kinnaman really stand out as well, and both worked with Daniel previously.  We have the multitalented Ruben Blades in this wonderful role, a great counterpoint to Denzel’s Frost.  Nora Arnezeder is a fresh talent out of Paris, and she brings a strong emotionality to Matt’s girlfriend, Ana.”

Vera Farmiga

Though her breakout role came in 2006’s The Departed, actress Vera Farmiga has long been a favorite of film and television.  And if it meant landing Farmiga in the role, the director was quite happy to switch the gender of Guggenheim’s hard-nosed CIA officer.  Espinosa commends: “Vera is maybe the most interesting actress in her generation: She has a soft, natural ability and complexity.”

Farmiga elaborates on her interest in the clandestine character: “There are two films I did in the past year where the roles were originally for men and just the name changed.  Source Code was written for a guy, and in Safe House, I play CIA African Division Branch Chief Linklater.  We added the first name, Catherine, when I was cast.”  Her attraction to the role was fueled by multiple factors.  She says: “Life is all about gray matter and not so much about absolutes.  It can’t be reduced to the good guys and the bad guys; humanity is a wonderful mix.  That complexity is what drew me to the subject matter: that idea of no good guys and no bad guys.  We explore that and the espionage in a thrilling way.”

Brendan Gleeson

Another CIA officer who has worked his way up the ranks is CO David Barlow, Matt Weston’s direct report.  Cast as the savvy and genial Barlow was the chameleon-like Irishman Brendan Gleeson, believable as everything from an antebellum-era Southerner in Cold Mountain to one of the most towering figures of the last century, Sir Winston Churchill, in Into the Storm.

Gleeson walks us through Barlow’s arc: “He is at a particular place in the CIA. He’s been a field operator at a high level, running his own branch, his own operation.  As many of the best field people do, he got pushed into a desk job and was asked to control it from the office, which he’s not happy about.  Nevertheless, Barlow has a particular way of sorting problems out.  I wanted to get into the mindset of this guy who is not just a flag waver.  He’s somebody very practical who has been involved in getting things done rather than being too worried about how they were done.”

Barlow’s supervisor is portrayed by Sam Shepard.  The performer’s longtime work in theater and in film harkens back to legendary Western actors who made their careers out of playing lone heroes.  As CIA Deputy Director of Operations Harlan Whitford, Shepard is a tried-and-true agency man, whose exemplary field performance has segued into internal command.  Shepard notes: “I liked Daniel when we sat down and talked; his background impressed me.  And since Denzel always chooses apt material, I thought there might be something for me in this.”

The actor came to the film having previously delved into the lives of other CIA operatives.  He states: “I’m good friends with Valerie Plame Wilson; I worked with her at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.  She turned me on to a couple of books, which I dipped into and began to feel the atmosphere of what these people live with.”

Ruben Blades

Heading to the other side of the law, we meet ex-revolutionary Carlos Villar. For the part of the operative-turned-counterfeiter, filmmakers chose Ruben Blades.  Washington discusses how the actor and musician came onto the project: “When we were talking about who should play the part of Villar, I brought up Ruben and Daniel was excited about that.  Ruben brought richness and a culture to the character.”  The old friend of Frost’s knows more about the double agent than we ever will.  Explains Washington: “When the audience meets Villar, that’s Tobin’s downward spiral.  Anything Villar touches and anyone he comes in contact with, they’re not long for the world.”

“Villar’s a forger who’s been in the movement, doing God knows what,” relays Blades.  “But he’s got a family, and he provides.  So it’s not the loaded stereotype, a cliché Latin guy.  He has a spine.  Villar is a man who one day got up and discovered that he had more past than future, so he started a family.  He decided to try and enjoy however much time he has left and continues to create documents on the side.  His family has become very important for him, so in that sense, he’s been reborn.”

The black-market conduit’s house is in Langa Township, a suburb of Cape Town that is a hodgepodge of temporary and permanent structures tucked together.  Such townships on the periphery of the city remain a legacy of apartheid, but for Villar, this place serves as a sanctuary.  Frost seeks respite at Villar’s home, but that doesn’t mean he will find it there for long.

Frost is not the only one who has people depending upon him.  The love of Matt Weston’s life is Ana Moreau, a French medical resident working in Cape Town.  Ana is brought off the page by actress Nora Arnezeder.  The performer welcomed Espinosa’s set-up of the perimeters of her scenes and encouragement of his cast to improvise.  She says: “It’s new for me to act in English, but it’s good because with improvisation, everything is always new.  We get to bring ourselves into the characters.  I told Daniel this little story about a party I had when I was a little girl and only two people came.  And he said, ‘Great, we’re going to use that,’ so I brought it into a key scene.”

Stuber reflects on the role that Ana plays in Matt’s world: “In the beginning, Matt is a rookie working at the safe house and trying to move up within the agency.  But he’s also in love with Ana.  He’s attempting to balance both of these things, but when you’re living a secondary truth, sometimes you can’t.  Both Ryan and Nora brought a lot of dimension to this relationship, and a good deal of depth and emotion.”

The actor selected to portray hardened CIA Senior Intelligence Officer Daniel Kiefer was a longtime action star who has entertained many over the years.  Stuber commends: “There’s an interrogation scene with Denzel, and whoever took that part had to be formidable.  He had to be able to intimidate and be someone who could play ball with Denzel.  Robert Patrick just killed it.  He’s such a great, soulful actor.”

Patrick supplies that playing an interrogator who is an expert at waterboarding was most disturbing.  Kiefer’s first order?  “Kill all the surveillance cams.”  The actor notes: “My work on the film was intense.  Daniel wanted to show Kiefer’s disappointment with the damage Frost has done to our country.  In the scene where my character orders his team to kill all the surveillance cams, we try and obtain information from Frost.  Later, when the house is under attack, we go from zero to 600.  There’s so much intensity, violence and chaos.  It’s pure adrenaline rush and overload.  Daniel didn’t want us just running around and playing army, he wanted all the tension, anxiety and grave danger to register on our faces.  It was fun for me to bring that.”

Joining the cast in supporting roles are Irish performer Liam Cunningham as Alec Wade, a disillusioned MI6 operative; Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, who may currently be seen in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as Keller, another safe housekeeper; and Lebanese performer Fares Fares as Vargas, the brutal ex-paramilitary member who will stop at nothing to erase Frost.  Both Kinnaman and Fares had worked with Espinosa before, playing key roles in the director’s last film, Snabba Cash.

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