Vice: Casting Dick and Lynne Cheney–Oscar Winner Christian Bale and Oscar Nominee Amy Adams

Adam McKay’s choice to play the quicksilver, Machiavellian Dick Cheney was always clear. He wanted Oscar winner Christian Bale. “I wrote this script with Christian in mind,” admits McKay. I don’t know who else could have done the role and if he decided not to do it, I probably wouldn’t have made the movie.”

“No one ever doubted Christian’s ability to play the part,” says producer Dede Gardner. “As we’ve seen before, his ability to transform and his commitment to a role is unrivaled. We knew it would be a tremendous amount of work and all we wanted is for him to say yes.” Kleiner seconds Gardner’s praise for Bale’s chameleonic abilities: “we experienced that on THE BIG SHORT when Christian wore the real-life character’s clothing on set and spent a great deal of time studying him. The brilliance of his range from funny and lovely to ruthless and frightening is as unparalleled as his work ethic. This film was designed to be a grand epic and who better to carry that off?”

When Bale first heard that McKay wanted him for the role, he thought McKay had lost his mind. But then he read the script.

“Absolutely brilliant,” says Bale. “It expanded well beyond what I ever expected. It was poignant not just in a political way but in a very personal way. It touched on what it is to be a person, to be part of a family, part of a nation. And, as is Adam’s way, it was bloody funny.” Yet, even given his transformative abilities, it took six months of makeup trials before McKay and Bale were satisfied that they had captured Cheney’s singular appearance. It helped that they were working with makeup artist extraordinaire Greg Cannom, who has won three Oscars (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, MRS. DOUBTFIRE, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) and a fourth technical Oscar, in addition to numerous other nominations.

As Bale and Cannom experimented with the external Cheney, the actor was busily internalizing the character. According to executive producer Jeff Waxman, Bale studied the character by looking at every video clip and every interview. “He wanted to know everything about Cheney and to absorb it all. He also met with a nutritionist so he could gain the weight in a healthy manner. He had a dialect coach, a movement coach. Anything that he could do to help him transform into Dick Cheney – the way he walked, the way he talked and moved. Then the day we started shooting, he’d become that character. You literally thought Cheney was standing there in front of you.”

To capture Cheney’s essence, Bale and McKay made a deal to approach the character objectively, setting aside any personal feelings about the former Vice President and his policies. “This man was incredibly influential, a man of real gravitas and power and absolute brilliance in how to work the dynamics of government,” says Bale. “I told Adam I needed to come at the character from a positive point of view because the story can never be predictable; it must surprise people and attract them, no matter which side of the political spectrum they’re on. And that required embracing Cheney – with sincerity.”

Messick contends that Dick Cheney was an astoundingly difficult character to portray, both physically and mentally. “People will be rightly impressed with Christian’s physical appearance, but also with the inner life he created,” says Messick. “He studied everything that Cheney wrote. He really got into the man’s head. That comes across pretty quickly when you start watching the movie.”

McKay’s Conception of Lynne Cheney

She was the driving force behind her husband’s ascent. She is so much more than the typical political wife and cheerleader. Intelligent and strategic, largely living her ambitions through her husband and eventually achieving some significant accomplishments of her own.

McKay went after and secured his first choice: five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams.

Even before McKay sent her the script, Adams relished the opportunity to again work with Bale, with whom she co-starred in two of her Oscar cited roles (AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE FIGHTER). Like Bale, despite the brilliance of the material, she felt somewhat daunted by the challenge. “It wasn’t merely that I’d be playing Lynne from ages twenty to seventy, but that I needed to create empathy for the character’s laser focus and driving ambition,” Adams notes.

Besides reading the prolific Ms. Cheney’s books on the Constitution and James Madison and her memoir, and watching numerous interviews with her, Adams found a personal way into the character. “Lynne reminded me of my grandma who grew up in Provo, Utah, an agricultural town not so different from Casper, Wyoming. She was not on the surface a warm person. But she was a survivor and I absolutely understood the instinct of survival inside of Lynne, who had been raised without much opportunity. Then, through her writing, I really came to respect her intellect and how she became a self-made woman. She was a straight-A student and basically achieved everything she went after, while at the same time, standing beside this man whom she helped ascend to power. I just liked her chutzpah.”

What amazed the actress about McKay’s writing (and later his directing) is the element of unpredictability. “I think the unexpected is Adam’s signature. There’s so much surprise in what he does, so many unique filmmaking techniques. He’s fearless, and one of the reasons I signed onto this came from the conversations I had with him and how much I came to trust his instincts. He created this freedom for us to be bold.”

The Cheney family dynamic is a significant part of McKay’s story and how it diverged and sometimes intersected with Dick and Lynne’s political ambitions, Adams relates. “Lynne and Dick were partners, and as is true in many successful relationships, they respected one another’s opinions,” she says. “Especially when you’re in a town like D.C. with so much power and scrutiny, you have to have to create a solid front with your partner.” Adams also derived insight into their quest for power, specifically Lynne. “It was more about control,” she contends. “It wasn’t simply power for power’s sake. If you’re not in control that means someone else is. It was about controlling your own destiny. Also, Lynne had ideals. She loved America. She loved American history and that’s the point of view through which I approached her.”

But it was the personal moments between the Cheney’s that most resonated with Adams, she contends. “The intimacy we show between Lynne and her husband is something I identified with,” says the actress. “The goals they set as a couple were one thing, but they were also living their lives. As a married couple. As parents. The power dynamic ebbed and flowed.”

Besides a Shakespearean bedroom scene between Lynne and Dick, which Adams claims was her favorite sequence in the film, the story itself is Bard-worthy, she says. During Cheney’s ascent, he tables his ambition in order to protect his daughter Mary (Alison Pill of NEWSROOM, AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who has recently come out as gay. But later, when the other Cheney daughter Liz (Lily Rabe of (WIZARD OF LIES, AMERICAN HORROR STORY) is running for office, the family circle is broken. With the support of her parents, Liz comes out against gay marriage, alienating Mary. “When they saw his new opportunity for power, it was incredibly enticing and dangerous,” says Adams. “And it’s that danger that had a Shakespearean element. What would they do with the opportunity? What would be the consequences? Because so many of the decisions we make in any given moment have far reaching consequences, and I think that’s what the film shows us.”

For Gardner, Adams is “one of the great actors of our time, and like Christian, it was critical for her to find the humanness of Lynne Cheney, through research and connecting through personal experiences in her own life. In the way she was able to show that the best partnership between husband and wife is the one in which you spur each other to be their best self. The movie is an expression of that and shows that it was a true partnership, that Lynne was not just someone in the background.”

What impressed Kleiner about Adams’ work is the multi-dimensionality of her performance. “She really got inside Lynne. Her hold on Dick’s emotional life is so powerful that at times you feel like she’s driving the story,” says the producer. “She makes us believe how deeply she loved her husband and their shared idea of what they stood for and how they wanted to project themselves.”

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsefeld

The film’s third pivotal character is Donald Rumsfeld who, over the decades, served as Cheney’s mentor, co-worker and, eventually, subordinate. According to Messick, “Rumsfeld was an operative. He knew how to maneuver himself within the levers of power and get his hands on those levers. Those are the tools he gave the young Dick Cheney, in terms of how to navigate. It was less about politics and policy and more about having control and power which were, for better or worse, the lessons Cheney learned.”

For the role of Donald Rumsfeld, McKay tapped Oscar nominated Steve Carell, with whom he’d worked on the ANCHORMAN films and THE BIG SHORT. “Just like Christian, Steve had the ability to disappear into this very enigmatic character,” says Messick.

In the film, Carell must pivot from being Cheney’s mentor to being his subordinate, from being brash and almost amoral, to wounded and vulnerable. The trick was not showing the seams, says Messick. “Steve was phenomenal. The two beats in the movie exemplify whey he was so perfect for the role. One is when, early on, Cheney asks him ‘what do we believe?’ And Rumsfeld literally laughs in his face. The other is towards the end, when Cheney fires him and the emotion and loss he conveys in that moment.”

Unclassifiable, is how producer Kleiner describes Carell. An actor who is equally at ease in comedy and drama. “As Rumsfeld, Steve perfectly captured his unique kind of grandstanding, his extroverted ham quality. The way he projected confidence and command. Later in the movie, when he joins Cheney, this time in a subservient position, you really feel the tension between them. He conveyed it all beautifully with an incredible naturalness.” Adds co-star Bale, “Steve is wonderful. Many people have remarked about his performance, wondering how any actor could make you have sympathy with Donald Rumsfeld. But Steve does just that.” Sam Rockwell, the recipient of the 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was a natural fit for President George W. Bush. “When I was doing FROST/NIXON, Bush was in office and I was looking at the parallels between Nixon and the Pentagon Papers with Bush and Cheney’s Patriot Act. My father told me to watch the news because he said it’s going on right now. This is happening all over again, this is exactly what happened with Nixon. And he was right – it was happening all over again.”

McKay captures that brilliantly, the actor says, because of his astute political sensibilities and empathy for the human condition. According to Rockwell, “Adam is incredibly smart and has strong opinions and he’s also very compassionate. It’s why he has such a strong emotional connection to this material. If you combine the political junkie with a dexterous comic mind you have a point of view that’s interesting and a great take on this story. The key to getting the audience to dive in is Adam’s ability to inject humor into pretty serious topics. It allows the audience to digest and process some fairly complicated and emotional material.” To capture the tone of George W. Bush, Rockwell initially watched different impersonators from Will Ferrell, to Josh Brolin, Steve Bridges and Frank Caliendo. “There were some amazing interpretations,” he says. “Then I watched everything I could find of George W. because I wanted to find my own way into it – to find his innocence and to accentuate his charm. It’s always important to find the character rather than a caricature. In Adam’s style of filmmaking, poking fun or sending up, just doesn’t work. It has to be based in reality.”

In the research process, Rockwell developed a certain fondness for the former President. “It’s clear from Adam’s script that he was essentially being manipulated and by his second term, I think he got hip to that fact. It seemed like he started to fight back a little bit. In an Oprah interview I saw, he discussed dodging the war and the National Guard and his regrets regarding weapons of mass destruction and going into Iraq too soon or at all. I believe he’d become a completely different person by the end of his second term.”

The rest of the cast was replete with ambitious and confident choices on the part of McKay and his casting director Francine Maisler, Gardner contends. “Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell was an amazing idea as was the ferociously gifted Lisa Gay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice. Alison Pill and Lily Rabe as the Cheney daughters. Even down to Alfred Molina who has one scene (as a surrealistic waiter), who read the script and said ‘I want to do it.’”

According to Perry (GONE GIRL, DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN), playing Powell was something “I never thought or imagined that I’d ever attempt to do. But when I talked to Adam, he convinced me and I wanted to sink my teeth into the role and do the best that I could because the chance to play someone so strong and so powerful was very intriguing to me.” But it was McKay’s script that dazzled him. “Brilliantly written with incredible poetic and melodic moments, the kind of cinematic feat only Adam could pull off. I loved the way he took this true story and like in THE BIG SHORT, broke it down in a way that anybody can understand. He takes these critical moments in history that were swept completely under the rug, and brings them to a very basic level of understanding.”

The challenge in playing a real person is the audience’s familiarity with him and how close an actor comes to realizing the character. “I just tried to study him as much as I could,” says Perry, “but also allowed enough of myself to get inside the character. Even though the story’s based on truth, I don’t know the intimate details of his life or his thoughts. So, I needed to take some liberties.” A retired Four-star General, it was Powell’s reputation for integrity that helped him convince many in Congress that Iraq posed an imminent threat.

Although Powell did not agree with George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, in 2003 he appeared before the U.N. Security Council to present evidence that Iraq had concealed weapons of mass destruction. “Colin was a brilliant and very, very smart man,” says Perry. “Going before the U.N. Security Council was challenging for him because he really didn’t agree that the country should go to war with Iraq. Like many participants in the project, Perry had no idea how influential Cheney was, nor that he was such an adept puppet master. “I’d heard the saying absolute power corrupts absolutely but now I fully understand it,” says Perry. “I’ve often wondered why people, once they’ve reached a certain position, want to push further and further. It’s that greed for power and there is no more powerful place in the world than the halls of the White House.”

“What amazes me is that we seem to be living in a time where this is repeating itself. And if nobody brings attention to it, if nobody’s raising flags, it will continue to repeat itself. For me, the timing of this movie is just impeccable. The world will get a chance and an opportunity to say, wait a minute, we’ll be going down the same path if we’re not careful.”

Alison Pill portrays Cheney’s younger daughter Mary, who at the age of seventeen came out to her conservative parents. The actress read Mary Cheney’s memoir prior to production. “I cannot even fathom the courage it took in 1986 to come out to her parents,” says Pill. “Reading her story gave me a great deal of respect for her and more of an appreciation for what she went through. It helped me figure out how to get her essence across in small scenes, small moments.”

Dick and Lynne accepted their daughter, and later her partner Heather, into the family fold. By 2004, when Mary campaigned with her father as George W. Bush’s running mate, she and Heather had been together for two decades. “It must have been so difficult for her to remain silent on the subject of the Federal Marriage Amendment Act while at the same time campaigning to elect a president who supported that,” notes Pill. “Her father never did come out against gay marriage instead saying that it was a state issue.” But in a key scene in the film, audiences will get to see the family’s stance change when their elder daughter Liz ran for office in Wyoming. Accused by the right of not being socially conservative enough, she subsequently came out strongly against gay marriage, causing a huge rift in the family.

According to Rabe, “Liz Cheney had such admiration for her father. I was particularly touched by a photograph of her and her father hugging, taken when she won the primary in Wyoming. It said so much to me. I watched several interviews they did together and it helped make their relationship very clear to me.” Rabe was particularly impressed with the way McKay “threads the story of the Cheney family into the movie. Before this, when thinking about Dick Cheney, I never thought about him much as a dad, a family man. And it’s such an important element of his life. This is a family that was devoted to one another. And I think that carried over into Liz’s own marriage. Like her parents, she is dogged and has an unrelenting determination. She’s very passionate about politics, about her beliefs.”

Rabe’s take on the fallout of Liz Cheney’s stance against gay marriage seems to dovetail with the dichotomy between a loving family and relentless political ambition. “I would say it’s not her relationship with her sister that complicates Liz’s political ambitions; it’s her political ambition. I can’t speak for Liz Cheney, but I do believe she felt she would not win the election unless she spoke publicly against gay marriage. That choice wasn’t about love or hate or jealousy, it was just about winning.”