Up in the Air: Casting the Witty Comedy

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“Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s satire starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, is one of the best films of the year.  Paramount will release it December 25, 2009.

As in his previous two films, Jason Reitman knew that Up in the Air would hang on the bones of its tricky central character, a man who had to be charming, sharp and relatable while hiding an unrecognized sense of emptiness behind his confident swagger and his supposed joy at being “baggage-free.”

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham

So, from the beginning, the story was written with Academy Award winner George Clooney in mind.  “If you’re going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and wants to live alone, he better be a darn charming actor.  And there really isn’t anyone better at that than George Clooney,” Reitman explains.  “The role was tailor-made for him and it was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life when he finished reading it and said to me, ‘Jason, it’s great.’”

Reitman says Clooney brought a diversity of shadings to Ryan Bingham, playing him with a humanity that keeps the character darkly funny without slipping into farce.  “At a moment’s notice, George can jump right into any type of scene, be it emotional or comedic,” he says.  “George and I have a very similar comedic sensibility.  We both believe comedy should be dealt with honestly, that you shouldn’t try to make something funny.  The writing needs to be funny, but the acting needs to be honest.”

Clooney also brought an air of excitement to the entire production.  “He’s just a lovely guy to have on set,” Reitman concludes.  “People say that a lot and you presume that it’s gotta be hype, but it’s not.  He’s the real deal and he makes people comfortable.  That was an enormous asset.”

Many were struck by the chemistry between the writing and Clooney’s delivery.  “Jason is able to write dialogue that is sharp and cutting, yet has real soul, and that’s who George is,” sums up Jeffrey Clifford.

Vera Farmiga as Alex

With Clooney cast in the main role, Reitman focused on the two unusual women who force Ryan to question the contours of his future as a perennial free agent.  For the vital role of Alex, whose elite travel program savvy seduces Ryan but who also triggers a desire for real sharing, he turned to award-winning actress Vera Farmiga, best known for her role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

“The role of Alex is a tricky one,” comments Reitman.  “This is the woman who captures George Clooney’s heart and she’s also a unique female movie character.  Vera came at it perfectly, with such charm, beauty and, frankly, balls that you fall in love with her as she’s flirting over mileage status. What I love about these characters, and about how the actors including Vera played them, is that you don’t judge them.  They’re just real people.”

Farmiga was drawn both to the story and to working with Reitman.  “The writing in this script was sharp as a tack, and the characters brilliantly edgy and witty,” says the actress.  “I think heroines in a Jason Reitman film are quicker, sharper, more intelligent and more eccentric than most other film female characters.  And that’s what drew me to Alex.  The film also has such poignancy and enormous social relevance.”

She also found it plain funny.  “Jason knows comedy – it’s in his genes,” she says.  “I had to trust him because I am terrified of irony, but he really has an excellent sense of how humor works.”

Naturally, she was not averse to a heated romance with George Clooney but, beyond that, Farmiga admits she was actually quite moved by the path that their relationship takes.  “Ryan thinks he’s met his match in Alex, a woman he doesn’t have to worry about, who won’t ask more of the relationship than what they have.  She fits well into his philosophy of no attachments – only he’s the one who becomes attached.”

As for working with Clooney, she summarizes: “George was exactly the partner I needed because I have never felt as insecure as I did coming into this role.  I had just given birth to my first child two weeks before my first costume fitting.  I really needed an ally and he was simply wonderful.  The most attractive thing about him is his wit.  He brings himself to this role, a wry, clever, cool, detached guy, and happily so.  Yet he’s the consummate gentleman, extremely kind and loving.  And there was plenty of laughter on the set.”

Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener

Just as Ryan Bingham meets Alex, another woman comes into his life – the young numbers-cruncher Natalie Keener, who arrives at Ryan’s company only to threaten the freedom of his hyperkinetic lifestyle.  It is Natalie’s budget-cutting idea to bring Ryan and his associates in from the road and have them work via remote video conferencing, a move that threatens to alter and complicate Ryan’s life and de-humanize the firing process even more.  But when Ryan takes Natalie on a trip to show her the ropes, she gains new insight into how profoundly unsettling and challenging the act of laying someone off can be, and it proves to be more affecting than she can bear.

Playing Natalie is Anna Kendrick, who became the second youngest Tony Award nominee ever when she was nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Dinah in the Broadway revival of “High Society.”  She has since gone on to a range of film roles from her debut in Rocket Science to her participation in the Twilight film series.

“The secret is that I actually wrote Natalie for Anna Kendrick,” Reitman confesses.  “I had seen her in Rocket Science, and thought she was simply incredible, different from any actress her age.  And when she came in to audition for Up in the Air, she proved it.  She has a completely unique voice that separates her from her generation.”
He continues: “I’m very proud of the character of Natalie, I think she’s different from most young female characters.  Usually if you have a female character in her twenties, she’s some sort of romantic lead.  But Natalie is an unromantic, business-minded, bull-headed young woman who reminds me of several women I adore, including my wife.”

Kendrick was equally taken with Natalie.  “When I was first talking to Jason about the role, he said that it was based on several women he knew who feel frustrated because they’re always the smartest ones in the room.  Natalie is smart but also uptight, uncomfortable in her own skin and socially awkward.  Now, I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I did connect with the control freak aspect of it and I’m really an awkward person,” she laughs.

As much as she enjoyed the character, the irony for Kendrick being cast in this particular movie is that she finds airports a personal hell.  “I hate them and I find no pleasure in flying.  It was hilarious to me that we were going to be filming non-stop in airports.  For me, that is the essence of losing personal control.”

She also had her concerns about working beside George Clooney, but those were quickly put to rest.  “I was terrified, excited and nervous,” she says, “not just because it was George Clooney, though obviously that is intimidating.  But also I was so excited about the role and so dearly wanted to do well.  Then I met him and understood why everyone had tried to calm me by saying, ‘You’ll be fine.’  He’s just a great guy.”