Babel: A real-life casting

To bring to life the array of diverse characters in BABEL, Inarritu knew he would need to assemble an entirely international cast of actors. He began with the American couple who find themselves the victims of a shooting while on vacation in the mountains of Morocco. For these roles, the director cast two of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors: box-office star Brad Pitt and Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett.

In the role of Richard, Inarritu had a vision of “an icon of the All-American male,” faced with trouble in a Muslim country in the days we are living in now. He felt Pitt was not an obvious choice for the part, but a very interesting one. “He hasn’t done this type of role before, and I felt it was a challenge and I was excited — and I think he was too – to transform him into a middle-aged man in crisis. He did an amazing job and gave me everything he had.”

For the actress who would portray Richard’s wife, Susan, Inarritu likewise knew he would need an actress of consummate skill and depth. “I felt that only an actress of Cate’s range and scale could deliver something interesting from what is essentially ‘lying on the floor’. The director says Blanchett raised the bar in terms of acting on the set. “She’s a princess and she has the power to transform herself into anything she wants. I relied on her to sustain the gravity of the story. As a director, she makes your life so easy,” he says. “She proved that small parts don’t exist. It’s just about what you do with them. ”

BABEL marks the first time Inarritu has directed non-actors, a decision he did not make lightly. “Working with non-actors was a great challenge, but it also made everything more real,” he notes. “When we started casting, I realized that professional actors in Morocco could look like fake desert people. Their skin was too smooth and their look too well-groomed for the part.” Carpenters, computer programmers, and humble store owners were hand-picked by the casting department, formed by two French and one Mexican collaborators. Arriving at humble villages in the Sahara, casting calls were announced from the speakers of their mosques, and hundreds of people lined up to be taped, in what Inarritu considers the best decision taken in the film. For the portrait of two young Moroccan brothers, Yussef and Ahmed, whose boyish attempt to test their rifle’s range has startling results for them and their whole village, Inarritu and his casting team found Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani. Through extensive local casting calls that drew thousands of young Moroccans, they were chosen because their haunting expressive faces stood out in the crowd.

For the gripping story of a lost nanny that unfolds against the U.S.-Mexico border, Inarritu began to search for Amelia, the illegal immigrant character who crosses back over the border for her son’s wedding. To cast the role, the director auditioned hundreds of bilingual actresses, looking for that elusive combination of determination and vulnerability that Amelia embodies. It was just after, that his wife, Maria Eladia, reminded him of the actress that he worked with in “Amores Perros.” Adriana Barraza sent a tape to the director and immediately proved herself perfect for the part. “Every scene she performed hit me in the heart and the gut.” She has that quality of unconditional maternal love, a loving mother, who is also tough and endures a lot of pain”, he says. Also key to the story that unwinds in Mexico are the children Amelia brings with her over the border: Mike, who is played by newcomer Nathan Gamble, and Debbie, who is portrayed by Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota. It’s through their wide-eyed, unpolished perspective that Inarritu unveils an unseen side of Mexico. “There are some prejudices that exist in American society about Mexico, so I wanted to show the country through the eyes of children, where there is an air of innocence and sense of discovery,” reveals the director. ‘What can be judged as dirty, eccentric and poor, in the eyes of kids can be playful, colorful, different and fun.”

To play Santiago, Amelia’s nephew who drunkenly leads her and the children into their own desert odyssey, Inarritu turned to Gael Garcia Bernal, the actor whom the director first discovered when he cast him as Octavio in “Amores Perros,” and has since become an international star. Gael had been on my mind since the first time I thought about this story. I couldn’t end this triptech without him. He’s one of my favorite actors in the world. He portrayed subtlely the complicated nature of Santiago who represents the double nature of a certain type of Mexican man, who can be lovely, friendly and enthusiastic, but when he drinks, can be very irresponsible, angry and resentful,” he comments. ‘We also represents how some Mexicans who cross the borders every day, feel about American authority. Santiago’s sudden rage is not because of that night or because he is drunk, but because of the sum of years of humiliation and resentment that he has been holding back for a long time.”

Perhaps the most intimate story in BABEL is the portion that unfolds amidst the crowds, chaos and constant motion of Tokyo. For the role of Yasujiro, the father who cannot emotionally reach his daughter, Inarritu cast one of Japan’s most prestigious actors, Koji Yakusho. Though the role is small, the director knew he needed an actor who could leave a powerful and memorable mark in a short span of time. “The father appears in just a couple of scenes, but we had to find an actor who had so much presence and gravity that you remember him long after his scenes have passed,” states Inarritu who admires the actor’s “economy of movement.” In December of 2004, Inarritu also began auditioning for the complex role of Yasujiro’s daughter: the angry, sexually exploring, deaf mute, Chieko. When 24-year-old Rinko Kikuchi came in for a reading, Inarritu was “blown away by her talent, but reluctant to the fact she wasn’t deaf.” Kikuchi was so determined to get the part, that she began taking lessons in sign language for 9 months, based on her own decision, without the certainty that she would get the part. Though he continued to audition dozens of deaf teenagers for several months, unable to find the spirit that he needed for Chieko, he finally decided upon Rinko. “It was a very brave and wise decision,” comments Inarritu on her determination to learn sign language. “Sometimes the magic and art of performance is about transformation.”

The challenge of directing foreign non-professional actors meant for the director not only trying to decipher their cultural points of view, but also teaching them to perform some actions or react to certain situations for the very first time. “Directing actors is difficult. Directing actors in another language that you more or less speak is very difficult, as I already knew from 21 Grams but directing non-actors in a language where you don’t have a clue, that’s the most stupid, irresponsible, challenging and satisfying idea that I have ever had,” he says.

To help Inarritu with this obstacle of communication, he was fortunate to have the assistance of three amazing women, who more than “translators,” enabled the director to transcend the barrier of language and direct as if language was not an issue. “Fortunately in Morocco, I relied on Hiam Abbass who more than a language coach or translator, was the person who really helped me to build the emotional link with the Arabic non-actors. Without her, I would never have been able to make it,” he says. He continued to say that, “The same is true of Mariko and Rieko in Japan. Mariko, our deaf translator, enabled me to communicate with the deaf cast members and, together, we were able to bridge the gap that could have so easily have been misunderstood and thus collapsed. Rieko, who was my Japanese language translator, allowed my voice to be heard and understood, which given the circumstances, was no easy task.” For the director, they were his saving grace.