"Some actors," says the British director Stephen Frears, with a mordant, almost blackly humorous laugh, "have a way of just claiming a role. You don't cast them. You try not to cast them in fact. Yet somehow they claim it."
And that's what happened in "The Grifters."
Frears is noted for unusual casting choices. In "Dangerous Liaisons," for example, he worked against precedent and put Americans Glenn Close and John Malkovich into the center of sexual intrigue in pre-Revolutionary France. The movie dazzled critics and viewers alike.
Now, equally astonishing, he's mixed Mr. Teen Nice Guy John Cusack, the flamboyant but under-used Anjelica Huston and the little-known Annette Bening, in this convulsively amusing version of pulp novelist Jim Thompson's corrosive fable.
As Frears tells it -- tongue perhaps in cheek? -- each of these three simply demanded their roles and the feckless director finally bowed to their force of will, stepped aside, and let them take over the movie.
Cusack had even tried to buy the rights to the book from the Thompson estate, so perfectly suited to the role of young con man Roy Dillon he thought he was.
As for Bening, there was a strange connection to Frears already through the conduit of the "Dangerous Liaisons"/"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" axis. She had starred as Merteuil, the manipulative, conspicuously evil French aristocrat in a film version of Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel. But it was not Frears' version; rather, it was the Milos Forman version, called "Valmont," which, though started a year earlier, reached the screen a year later than Frears' acclaimed version, not that anyone noticed. Glenn Close had played the role, famously, in Frears' version, which was based on a Christopher Hampton screenplay of the novel.
"Annette was very good in the role, and even before I'd cast Glenn, I'd seen her for Merteuil. But that was in the past and now we were in the present. And she just demanded to play Myra. How could I refuse?"
For Frears, the film is a return of sorts to milieu. His first breakthrough movie, after 20 years of directing for British television, was "The Hit," a kind of intellectual gangster movie, with John Hurt and Steven Roth. From that, he was able to segue into some more "respectable" films, such as "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," and "Prick Up Your Ears," all as a preparation for "Dangerous Liaisons."
Now, in "The Grifters," Frears returns to the world of small-time crooks in the margins of society.
Asked why, Frears thought for a moment and said, "I've no idea. I've never met a crook in my life."
He went on to say that he was trained to make movies at the BBC (after a stint at Cambridge studying law) in such a way that his own experience wasn't necessary; in fact, it simply got in the way.
"You learned about the world you were making the movie about; you didn't make a movie about your own world. It was about other people's world. You had to master a new culture; that was just a part of the job."
And now, in "The Grifters," he's moved to America.
Executive producer Martin Scorsese was a great help in getting the "American-ness" right, even as "he made no attempt to interfere with my work. I immediately trusted him and I admire his work."
Ironically, Scorsese was editing another American crime epic, "GoodFellas," as he was supervising Frears' movie.
"We used to joke about who would get done first."
Both movies, however, have enjoyed almost unqualified critical success. And they may end up battling each other for Oscar nominations.