French Exit stars Michelle Pfeiffer as widowed New York City socialite Frances Price who relocates to France with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat after her financial fortune dwindles down to nothing. There, she is forced to reckon with her past while finding a social circle she never expected.
Based on the book by Patrick deWitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film earned Pfeiffer a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination earlier this year. Meanwhile, casting directors Nicole Arbusto and Lucy Robitaille are currently nominated for a Casting Society Award for Best Casting of a Studio or Comedy Feature. (Winners will be announced on April 15 in a virtual ceremony.)
Casting Networks® spoke to Jacobs, who also adapted the screenplay with deWitt, about what it took to put together an ensemble cast of A-listers for some pretty quirky roles.
When you and Patrick began adapting his book, did you have anyone in mind to play these roles?
No. It was a whole open world for me. When I write, I think about actors you have no chance of working with because they’re no longer around. It’s a way to not get completely fixated on someone that may not work out. In this case, Patrick and I talked a lot about Bette Davis and Kay Francis. It opened up a whole other level of freedom and was another way into Frances that helped me start having a sense of who this person was.
At what point in the process do you bring in the casting director?
I’ve been working with the same casting director, Nicole Arbusto, for about a dozen years now. She’s become one of my closest collaborators and one of the first people that reads the script, sometimes even before it’s finished. We start having conversations, not so much about actors, but about characters and personalities, and places we want to reach.
After 12 years of working together, she must also have a great sense of what you like.
She knows I’m always looking for actors that are hungry and game. She is always going to plays and watching movies, and thinking outside of the box about who could be hungry for something like this. With French Exit, we knew we were creating a family of misfits so we needed to start from the very top with the casting of Frances Price. Once we had Frances, then it would become very clear who her son and husband would be.
Although, I do have to say that as I read the book and because I had worked with Tracy Letts before, his voice did come to me very early on as like, “Oh, if you want a cat with a soul, that’s Tracy Letts, he can do that.” He was the first person on board, in my own mind.
How did Michelle Pfeiffer’s name enter the conversation as a possibility for Francis?
I was a fan of her role in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother, and especially the HBO film about Bernie Madoff Wizard of Lies, which I thought Michelle was just astounding in. I knew she was incredibly selective, so looking at those films told me this was a person that was interested in going to other places than she had previously gone before.
You are both represented by Creative Artists Agency. Did that help you in being able to reach out to her?
I was able to get the script to her agent at CAA. He read it and gave it to Michelle. I heard that she appreciated the script, and it was an amazing kind of litmus test for me. These characters are so particular that the script is either for you or it’s not. The fact that she responded and then wanted to meet felt like it was already on the right track.
What happened at that initial meeting with her?
Exactly what happens when you make the mistake of writing for who is living! I walked into the room and I was like, “There’s Frances Price!” Suddenly, there was nobody else for the role. It became what can I do to get Michelle to sign on?
What happened next?
At that point she had read the script twice, she read the book, underlined things, and had been thinking really deeply about things. She was asking me questions that were intimidating, and questions that sometimes I didn’t have answers for. That sent me back going through the script and writing out every question that I could possibly think that I could be asked, and digging for answers within myself. Not right or wrong answers, just how I felt about this or that, or what did this mean to me. I had never read and re-read a script or a book as many times as I had for this project. I literally knew what page things were on. And so did she!
What kinds of questions?
It was almost like musings because this socialite world was so foreign for me, so it was more to do with how people like Francis exist in this type of bubble. The aim of this film was not to be timely but to be timeless. It was about questioning all the different ingredients and elements that could make something timeless in terms of just wardrobe and props. Like, what do cell phones mean for these types of people? When you’re that wealthy, you don’t need to run on other people’s time. You run on your own time. You reach people when you want to. And with Frances Price, that dictates her life up until the inciting incident of this story.
In Patrick’s book, her son, Malcolm, is written much older. How did you end up with Lucas Hedges, who is a young actor?
Malcolm being in his 30s was originally how we envisioned it in the script. Then I wound up seeing the Kenneth Lonergan play, The Waverly Gallery, that Lucas was in with Elaine May. I walked away thinking, here is a young actor, but if anyone had the wisdom and the soul and spirit of Malcolm, it would be him. I brought the idea up with Patrick and with Michelle and suddenly it opened up a whole bunch of other things you could do with him being a younger son.
Valerie Mahaffey is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female for playing widow Madame Reynard, an odd bird who wants so desperately to be friends with Francis. How did you cast her?
Valerie was the last person we cast. The character itself was so wacky on the page that the challenge was how to stick to what we love on the page but also humanize this person. I was already in Montreal prepping to shoot the film, so Valerie and I had our first conversation over Skype. We were talking about Madame Reynard’s humanity and how it was not about making fun of her, but showing what was so touching about her. Madame Reynard is the most vulnerable character. Every part of her is exposed to be judged. And she does get judged. And she does get hurt by it. Valerie really understood Madame Reynard.
You have a largely female cast, and each character couldn’t be more different. There’s Michelle and Valerie. Then there is Imogen Poots as Malcolm’s ex-fiancée, Danielle Macdonald as a psychic, Susan Coyne as Francis’ best friend. The list goes on and on.
I think that is what attracted these actresses to these roles. I see this film as a collection of lost souls that feel a little bit less lost when they’re together. Each one of them is bringing such a different and necessary approach to the others’ lives. They all have backstories, so I thought, let’s put them all in there, but have these backstories come out in the gestures, or glances, or the way they look and hold on to each other, or push each other away.
Every character felt fully formed, no matter how many lines they had or scenes they were in, right down to the waiter at the café and the homeless man in the park.
This film was a co-production between Canada and Ireland, so we also worked with Canadian casting director Lucie Robitaille and with French casting over in Europe. These casting directors all wound up working beautifully together. From the smallest roles to even the background actors, everything was thought out, discussed and cast with such care.
French Exit is currently playing in theaters.