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Wes Anderson says lockdown helped inspire ‘Asteroid City’

Wes Anderson’s new film puts Westerns, theatre, 1950s Americana and an alien into a blender for another of his atypical — and star-packed — concoctions that he says is about “reckoning with forces beyond your control”.

As always, “Asteroid City”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday, features a roster of actors that reads like a Hollywood phonebook. 

Tom Hanks, Steve Carell and Margot Robbie — newcomers to the Anderson family — join past collaborators Scarlett Johansson and Edward Norton and regulars like Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Tilda Swinton in the film.

The one-of-a-kind director never seems too influenced by events in the real world, but he told AFP the Covid-19 pandemic did have an impact. 

“This movie is certainly informed by the most bizarre viral moment in recent history,” he said. 

“Writing it during this pandemic, in the middle of the most locked-down lockdown, we were not sure we would ever go out again — so I think that’s sorta in it.

– Hanks is ‘intimidating’ –

“Asteroid City” is a bizarre and knotty tale set in a remote desert town where a group of child geniuses are gathered for a science competition that is interrupted by an alien visitor, leaving them locked up in quarantine. 

But in typically convoluted Anderson form, the desert story is presented as a play being performed in New York.

Anderson says he wanted to pay homage to actors, who remain something of a mystery to him, even after working with the biggest names in the business. 

“Many of the actors are my friends now, but nevertheless they are different on set,” Anderson said. 

“Actors recognise something in each other that normal people don’t go through — this thing of being the one who everyone is going to watch. It has this interesting strange effect. It became part of what the movie is about.” 

Working with Hanks was a joy, he told AFP, though he was initially nervous. 

“He’s a wonderful actor but also a huge movie star… it’s intimidating.

“But his manner on set is: you suggest something and he says ‘Sorry, I should have thought of that.’ That encourages you to be better because you’re empowered by this person with such an aura.”

– Scarlett’s smokey voice –

One person who is glaringly absent is Bill Murray, who has appeared in all Anderson’s films since “Rushmore” in 1998. 

“Bill was cast in a part but then he got Covid three days before we were supposed to shoot,” said Anderson. “We replaced him very quickly with the wonderful Steve Carell who was great.”

Luckily, Murray’s health improved to come hang out on set for the last of the shoot, he added, and Carell turns in a hilarious cameo as a hotel owner. 

What Anderson often loves most about his actors is their voice, something he discovered when he cast George Clooney as the lead in animated film “Fantastic Mr Fox”. 

“Only when I recorded George did I realise how much it’s about his voice. And that kinda applies to the…

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