Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) stars as a teenager in love in a small desert town in the indie drama Katie Says Goodbye. To make ends meet, she waitresses at a truck-stop diner in addition to prostituting herself to regular customers. When she meets and falls for an ex-convict (Christopher Abbott), the romance upsets the balance of the men who take advantage of her and slowly spirals her life out of control. Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi, Mireille Enos, and Nate Corddry costar.
Written and directed by Wayne Roberts, Katie Says Goodbye premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. You can currently find it in theaters and on VOD. Casting Networks sat down with Roberts to find out how he managed to assemble a luminous cast of young up-and-comers like Cooke and Abbott, along with seasoned veterans like Belushi and Steenburgen.
How did you build the cast of Katie Says Goodbye?
This one had a unique process because we already had someone attached to the role of Katie. I think it’s always smart to cast the lead [first] because it’s alchemy. We had somebody cast as Katie, and then we cast everyone else around her. Then three weeks before we were supposed to get on set, we parted ways with our lead. But then we found Olivia, and luckily, it worked. It worked to an even stronger degree of chemistry and alchemy. Olivia just elevated the film.
How did you find Olivia so last minute?
Olivia was presented to us by our casting directors Cindy Tolan and Adam Caldwell. They made me familiar with her work. I don’t watch television for the most part, so I’m not always familiar [with] young talent. Luckily for us, we had brilliant casting directors.
Did you have to recast the secondary roles around her character?
No, we were lucky that everyone stayed on board. It’s so easy for a project to fall apart, particularly if you had your lead walk away. But we had a great team of actors around us who believed in this story and had faith that things would work out for the better. And they did.
Jim Belushi plays a truck driver who has a sexual relationship with Katie in exchange for cash. It’s not a role you’d expect to be played by a guy who starred on a network television sitcom called According to Jim for 8 seasons.
I believe that if you’re a comedian, there’s also a great well of sadness that exists in you. In addition, nobody wants to be locked into just one thing. People also want to show that they are capable of doing other things. In this case, during the casting process, the agencies put together actual books with hard copies of the actor’s headshots of the talent that they have. I will always remember having a reaction in my gut, a ping against the spine, like a nerve, when I saw a photo of Jim Belushi’s face.
So you followed your gut instinct. Did you worry about the audience accepting him in a kind of role they’ve never seen him portray?
For Jim, I didn’t think it would be a problem, but I see what you’re saying. There are some people who have a public persona that’s not even the result of their own doing, but just the beast that is Hollywood. I wasn’t worried about that with Jim. I knew he would do a good job. He read the script before we made an offer, and he and I connected. He had a complete understanding of the material and of the character. And he wanted it. When an actor wants it, then you’re in the best position possible to bring out the best in your talent. I could not be more proud of the work that Jim did. He really dedicated himself to the role.
Bruno, played by Christopher Abbott of Catch-22 and Girls, has a past that’s never discussed or alluded to. All we know is that he’s been in prison. But there is obviously much more going on there. Do you come up with the backstory for the characters, or do the actors do it themselves?
Christopher is a good friend of mine, and I knew him before we shot the film. He and I had conversations regarding the backstory of Bruno. But for all the other cast, I put together a long, 15- to 30-page document of the backstory, as well as some potential things the characters went off to do after the film is told. So the actors have a wellspring that they can tap in to. They have a skeletal structure of who their character was beforehand. It’s their job to put the muscle and the meat and the flesh on it. They have some freedom to work with, but also a clear understanding of what has made their character who they are before the film starts.
Which role was the most difficult to cast?
The most difficult role to cast was Katie because of what was going to be required from that actress. I needed to make sure that whoever was going to portray her was comfortable with what we were doing. I didn’t want to cause any lifelong damage to the actress who would be playing her. She needed to be extremely strong because in the film there’s nudity and horrible things that happen to the character. Sometimes residue of that kind of stuff can affect an actor’s personal life, and I didn’t want that to happen to the actress we cast. Olivia is mature. She’s European—British—so there were no holdups about nudity. If you’re making a film about prostitutes, and if you can’t blatantly present that as it is without any sort of judgment, then you are passing judgment on the actual actions themselves. It won’t work. It’s not going to hold up.
Katie has many sexual partners in the film, some of whom she is with willingly, some not willingly. How do you decide when it’s appropriate to show nudity that often comes with sex?
I wouldn’t do nudity for nudity’s sake to satisfy the urges of perverts and teenagers. But if it’s a situation where you’ve just had sex with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you’re usually completely naked and having a conversation after. In situations where it might be transactional, you might not even undress at all.
Do you write with certain actors in mind?
There are things I’ve written with particular people in mind, but if they don’t do it, that’s alright. I will take no for an answer and move on because, otherwise, you’ll have someone working for you in a half-assed fashion. Generally, I write with no one in mind. I just don’t think it’s the smartest thing to do unless you already have a working relationship with that person and understand them.
How important is it for you that actors stick to the script during shooting?
The way I work, I want the language to be respected and stuck to. Unfortunately, I see this approach right now where, to add to the performance, a lot of actors use the script as a jumping-off point. It’s not a freewheeling thing! Those words are carefully selected for a reason. You change the word, you screw up the rhythm of it and destroy the cadence. You’ve got to sit down, do the work, learn the lines, and be professional with it.