With one of those sentences that I’m sure will make you feel sprightly and young, The Truman Show – Peter Weir’s triumphant hit drama – arrives at its 20th birthday this year. Given that we primarily have summer blockbuster seasons with heavy sequels and franchises dominating, it’s easy to overlook that a film so bold and prescient make it not just through the Hollywood studio system but went on to be a handsome hit as well.
It wasn’t without troubles on its journey to the screen, though. And in particular, the film hit something of a casting problem.
Jim Carrey, then most famous for the likes of Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber, took a successful turn into more serious roles with the film, taking on the title role. It’s worth mentioned the always-brilliant Laura Linney too, here playing a woman who’s also an actor, an actor who is putting in a specific performance. I think Linney is brilliant in the film, and her layered work rarely gets the credit it deserves.
But then there’s someone who was originally supposed to be part of the ensemble, who never made it to the final cut of the film. And that person was the late Dennis Hopper.
Hopper by the mid-90s was earning a good trade as a Hollywood villain. He was the nemesis to Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed, of course. And he was the late-cast villain of 1995’s Waterworld. On the surface, he seemed a good choice to thus take on the role of Christof, the effective antagonist of The Truman Show (if you don’t count the reality TV audience, of course). Thus, he signed his deal, and was all set for the movie.
The way that The Truman Show was shot, the location work for the town of Seahaven was scheduled first (filmed in a real Florida town, with barely any modifications made!), and as such, the Christof sequences were all set to be filmed at the back end of production. They could be filmed in a studio environment.
Christof is a much-talked about character in the movie, it should be noted. Certainly, those who see a religious significance in the film cite Christof as an almost-Lucifer-like figure. But the understated performance we see in the final movie wasn’t, it seems, the one that Hopper was delivering. Hopper cited an agreement he made with producer Scott Rudin that he’d start filming the movie, and then should his work not measure up, he’d be let go. It took two days before he was sacked.
That in itself was no easy feat, though. On the disc extras for The Truman Show, it’s openly discussed that director Peter Weir is a very moral filmmaker, and a hugely respected one. He is also described as “loath to ever tell an actor goodbye.” Tellingly, in said extras, Hopper’s name is never mentioned – presumably as an extension of that moral approach – although it was no secret, and Hopper himself would openly talk about his departure from the film.
The problem was Hopper’s work just wasn’t working. And when he was let go, there was no replacement in place. Weir himself would admit that he hadn’t got a handle on the character of Christof when production began. He realised that he needed that casting change, and because of the schedule of the picture, he had two or three months after filming began to solve the problem. Sure, names were suggested. But Weir wasn’t convinced by many of the choices. Weir at first wanted an English actor who didn’t sound English, for instance!
Some actors were approached, and turned the role of Christof down. Paramount was getting antsy. And it got to a point where producer Edward S Feldman – on one Thursday late into filming – was faced with having to shut down production the following Tuesday, if he couldn’t find a new actor to play Christof.
Which is when fate took a turn. He was sat in his office, and one of the talent agencies in Hollywood called. They mentioned Ed Harris’ name. Feldman realised that Harris lived right near where filming was taking place that very night. Harris would agree – after swiftly receiving the script – to head over to the set and meet Peter Weir. He drove over, and Weir was quickly convinced. He showed footage to Harris, and hired him pretty much on the spot, before a deal had been done with his agents.
For Harris, he then had the problem of just a few days to find the character. It was no mean feat either. He would admit in hindsight that the lack of thinking time helped him, as he played Christof very much on instinct. He spent time with wardrobe, briefly suggested that Christof should have a hunchback, although that idea fell quickly by the wayside after a padded physical effect was worked up.
Harris found the character over the weekend, and Weir’s admiration very much comes through on those aforementioned extras. Harris would shoot for a relatively short amount of time on The Truman Show, as it turned out. But it’s telling just what a job he did that Christof’s impact very much lives on. It doesn’t hurt that the reality TV bubble would follow The Truman Show within a year or so, and make Christof feel all the more plausible…!