“We had cast for about six months and had not found the right match,” explains Rocket Science’s writer/director Jeffrey Blitz. The production was in serious jeopardy of being pulled from the roster by HBO if its filmmakers didn’t find a male lead – and fast.
So, in a last ditch effort to save the project, Blitz took a look through a box of audition tapes that had been shelved away in quiet obscurity. It’s here, in this lowly box, that he found Thompson’s tape. The rest – as they say – is history.
What’s so hard about casting a movie, you ask? Well, that’s like assuming just anybody could’ve done with Napoleon Dynamite what Jon Heder did.
For his role, Thompson takes on a painfully accurate stutter to portray high school dork extraordinaire, Hal Hefner. In the film, his character is recruited for his school’s debate team by a fast-talking priss named Ginny (Anna Kendrick). However, her motives are questionable considering she’s still reeling from a disappointing debate tournament from the previous year.
Poor Hal’s suffering doesn’t end at school. His home life is wrecked as well. His parents’ marriage is on the fritz, and his brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) is a brand of psychotic that you only hear about in urban myths.
To prepare for his role, Thompson jokes that director Blitz put the cast through some ... interesting exercises. Piazza, Thompson and Aaron Yoo (Disturbia), who plays Hal’s clingy friend Heston, attended a funny outing with the filmmaker.
The rule for the evening was that each of the cast members had to order dinner in character and remain that way for the entire meal. Blitz even joined his actors by adopting the persona of a sleazoid misogynist named Uncle Chazz (a reference from the film).
To recap, that’s a perv, a psycho, a stutterer and his quietly creepy buddy. Each character did his best to stump the waitress, but in the end, she was unflappable.
“Reece took probably 45 minutes to order,” says Blitz, laughing. It was in that moment that he knew for sure that his actors were ready for camera.
Still, there was the debate issue. Several of the performers had to learn to convincingly portray master debaters at the state championship level. This is much harder than it sounds.
Policy debate, which is the primary event that Rocket Science centers around, involves a form of extemporaneous speaking called “spreading.” To perfect their technique, Kendrick and actor Nicholas D’Agosto (who plays Ben, Ginny’s former teammate and crush) researched high school and collegiate national debates.
“I’m told that I talk fast,” admits Kendrick, “so I was thinking it wouldn’t be a problem.” But she and her loquacious costars soon found they were out of their league. Arguing a topic with accuracy is one thing; that can be achieved with clever screenwriting.
But doing so at the same level as the experts was an entirely different story. Blitz still wanted the debates to be coherent to audiences’ ears, so he opted for a slightly slower version of the lightning-fast speeches.
“If those [national champions] were actually debating in Rocket Science,” jokes Yoo, “it would’ve been a short film.”
As the buzz for this unique movie continues to steamroll, its young players stand poised for future success. D’Agosto is at work on NBC’s highly popular series, “Heroes.” He will play Claire the cheerleader’s new love interest. And he’s got a superpower of his own, although the actor won’t divulge what it is.
Kendrick has an upcoming role in 2008’s highly anticipated, The Marc Pease Experience. “I’m sort of the romantic interest for Jason Schwartzman and sort of Ben Stiller,” she confesses.
Yoo will take the screen opposite Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey in 21, a feature about MIT students who attempt to beat Vegas at its own game – gambling.
And America’s soon-to-be-favorite Canuck (Thompson) will appear in Afterwards, a drama co-starring John Malkovich and “Lost’s” Evangeline Lilly.
In the meantime, the cast of Rocket Science is enjoying its fast rise into the Hollywood stratosphere, alongside all the other stars.
Rocket Science releases in select theaters Aug. 10.