Director Jeff Nichols wanted three magnetic faces to anchor his motorcycle movie, “The Bikeriders” (December 1, 20th Century Studios), which just launched at the Telluride Film Festival. He and his casting director Francine Maisler (“Succession,” “Dune”) landed a stellar multinational cast for this three-hander led by Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, and Jodie Comer.
The Nichols/Maisler collaboration began with “The Tree of Life” producer Sarah Green. “There’s this young guy who could be the next Terry Malick,” Green told Maisler, who checked out “Take Shelter” and met with Nichols back in 2010. “He was very quiet and humble,” Maisler said at a Telluride interview with Nichols.
More from IndieWire
Maisler went on to cast “Mud” (featuring Tye Sheridan, who she had cast in Malick’s “The Tree of Life”) and every Nichols film since, including “Midnight Special,” which featured an early role for Adam Driver, and “Loving,” which landed Irish actress Ruth Negga an Oscar nomination. “You just put an actor in his hands and they can fly,” said Maisler. “You have a script. And they have the talent. And that’s all I need to do good work.”
For the “The Bikeriders,” Maisler and Nichols were looking for faces that might measure up to the Danny Lyons photography book on ’60s Chicago bikers that inspired the movie. Maisler always gets involved with early drafts. “She has this uncanny ability to put her finger on the pulse of who’s right for a part,” said Nichols. “There is something to great casting directors. I’ll sometimes be thinking of a more traditional idea. And you will say ‘no, no, no, you should look at this or this.’ I mean, you were the first one to say, ‘look at Jodie Comer.'”
The British actress was earning kudos on the West End for “Prima Facie,” and later won the Tony for the one-woman show. Maisler knew Comer’s work from “Killing Eve” and “The Last Duel.” The challenge for this role was nailing the accent of Kathy, a Chicago native who falls for Benny (Austin Butler), a biker who would rather fight than talk. Comer knocked it out of the park.
Butler was the first one cast, back in the spring of 2022, before “Elvis” even played Cannes. Maisler had seen the “Elvis” trailer and met with Butler, asking him about how he came to star opposite Denzel Washington in the Scott Rudin production of “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway. She was impressed with his work ethic. “We never talked about ‘Elvis,'” she said, and went on to cast him in “Dune: Part Two.”
“He’s the real deal,” she told Nichols. “There’s more to this kid than being good looking.” When Nichols met Butler, he said, “I fell in love with him.”
Of course, Nichols gave his regular Michael Shannon a juicy role as nasty biker Zipco in “The Bikeriders,” as part of a company of actors he’s developed over the years. But Maisler pushes Nichols to reach high. “Because he’s so humble, ‘Don’t give up, go for it,'” she said. “Reach for whoever the top person is that you want, and don’t ever settle for somebody you’ve worked with. I just always also wanted him to have new experiences.”
Which is how Nichols sent the script to his old friend, Tom Hardy’s manager Jack Whigham, who reminds people that Hardy likes to stay close to his family in London. “This has to be Tom,” he told Nichols. “I have to give it to him.”
Nichols was coming back from doing jury duty at Cannes and stopped off in London. “And I had what I thought was supposed to be an hour-long meeting with him at his house. It turned into a three-and-a- half hour meeting, because he spoke the entire time. And it freaked me out. I would just sit there. He was vibrating. Because it was so rapid-fire. And I was just trying to keep up. And I got a few good ones in. But then I left thinking, ‘I have no idea what just happened to me.’ I felt like I’d taken an AP exam. And then Jack said, ‘Tom said you were the greatest listener.'”
Once the actors arrived on set, the chemistry was palpable. In Comer’s first scene with Hardy, she was so intense that he got caught up in watching her. “She came in with his energy and then Tom countered that energy and got real slow,” said Nichols. “He was a little nervous because they knew of each other. She came in with both barrels of a shotgun blast to his chest to where he actually skipped a line. Because he was just sitting there, like watching her performance. It was just like, knockout.”
In the opening biker bar scene when Kathy, quite scared, first catches the eye of Benny, Hardy is also in the scene, watching. “We were in Cincinnati,” said Nichols. “We had a big chunk in that bar and I’ve got Tom Hardy sitting in the corner. He had a good relationship with Austin but he would mess with him a little bit. We shoot the scene; when it comes time for Butler to sit down [opposite Comer], Tom says, ‘Turn the chair around, spin the chair,’ and Austin did it. And then he puts his arms up, I don’t know if he just rubbed butter on himself or what. We all knew we had something.”
Benny is so seductive that Comer’s character instantly falls for him.
Another combustible moment was also instigated by Hardy. It’s a dark campfire scene. As he talks to Butler, he brings his face closer and closer. “Tom was supposed to get off the bike, come up, talk to Austin, then go back,” said Nichols. “And so we had a Steadicam shot. We put the base of our crane back there to have this big wide overhead to give them light. Tom gets closer and closer and the Steadicam operator, because he’s losing his face, has to keep coming around and coming around and coming around. And if he had gone this way, you would have seen the light. And Tom did that.”
“You’re not really sure from take to take what the hell’s gonna happen next,” said Nichols. “Mike Shannon and I would go to dinner during production. ‘How’s Tom, how’s it going?’ Because they knew each other. They were in an acting troupe that Philip Seymour Hoffman ran way back. Tom doesn’t strike me as an actor, certainly not in the traditional sense. He’s like a force. He’s like a hurricane or a tornado. Like you sit back and watch. But then when you have all that he vibrates.”
Clearly there was some competition between Hardy and the younger Butler. “It was there on set, it came out in a joking way,” said Nichols. “He’d lean over: ‘I used to do that role.’ I say, ‘Not that long ago.’ Yeah, he knows what role he’s there to play. He’s a hyper-intelligent individual. It was pretty healthy, actually. And it’s what makes the scenes work. Tom, you got to keep his attention. He’ll be the first to say, ‘I get bored easily.’ And we all captured each other’s attention that night. And we were like, ‘OK, let’s keep going. Let’s see where this goes.'”
“Most of the people that become movie stars, you can’t take your eyes off them,” Maisler said. “You don’t know what they’re going to do. So that equates to danger. That’s what I love when an actor will surprise and I don’t know what they’re going to do in the scene.”
Finding the faces for the movie was a process. Maisler kept the gallery of pictures on a whiteboard. “You build this array of faces one by one by one,” she said. She found Australians Damon Herriman, who played Charles Manson twice, for David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, and Toby Wallace (“Baby Teeth”) to play gang members. “I cast him in Barry Jenkins’ ‘Underground Railroad.’ And that face. We don’t want to blend: ‘who’s that?'”
Audiences will flock to this energetic motorcycle movie. So will the Academy Actors branch.
Best of IndieWire