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Casting the role of "Pilgrim" featuring Terry Hayes

I guess it was to be expected.

Because I had an earlier life writing and producing movies and television mini-series, there is one question I get asked more often than any other.

“If your book was a movie,” friends and strangers ask, “who would you cast in the role of Pilgrim, the lead character?”

Of course, as most people are very polite, it is possible that it’s a diversionary tactic – they just want to avoid telling me what they really think of the novel. Even so, it happens to be something which has occupied my own thoughts on many occasions – usually at 3am when I have convinced myself that nobody in their right mind will buy the book and a movie seems to offer the only hope of salvaging the story.

Having got over that, I have to admit it’s a topic that has to be taken seriously. Somehow Tom Selleck from Magnum PI as Indiana Jones, Rock Hudson as Ben Huror John Travolta as Forrest Gump don’t seem to have quite the same appeal as the actors who eventually portrayed them. And yet, these three were the first choice of both the director and producer for the roles. When it comes to Hollywood, flirting with disaster doesn’t just happen up on the screen.

In my mind, the first requirement for Pilgrim is that he must be played by an outstanding actor. Fortunately, most movie stars fit into this category but – certainly – not all of them. I don’t wish to be unkind, but Steven Segal and Chuck Norris – stars of countless movies in their time – are probably unlikely to win anOscar any time soon. Hard experience has taught me that really fine actors save a writer time after time – they can make good scenes great and bad scenes passable. If for no other reason than self-preservation, it’s essential to go with a really great actor.

Should I be tempted to ignore this particular dictate and consider somebody who happens to be hot that week, I remind myself of a certain actress in the 1980s. There is a story about her which is so crazy it may well be true. A former child actress, her career wasn’t exactly flourishing until she married a very wealthy man thirty years her senior. Miraculously, she then starred in a number of movies which were almost certainly part-financed by him and even won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year.

Worried that she wasn’t being taken seriously enough, she decided – like any number of other actors and actresses before her – to add heft to her credits by appearing on stage on Broadway. The vehicle she chose for her debut was to play the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank. Did I mention that many actors aren’t fully aware of their own limitations?

What happened at the first preview, so the story goes, is that the audience sat in slack-jawed wonder at her performance until – finally – the Gestapo arrived at the house. That was all many of the long-suffering crowd needed. “She’s in the attic!” they yelled. “She’s in the attic!” Forget 3am – the thought of that sort of response can keep you up all night.

The problem of casting is further complicated because no matter how good an actor a person might be, you often can’t divorce them from their previous roles. A few years after the late Christopher Reeve broke through to stardom playing the legendary Man of Steel, he appeared in a movie which was a complete change of pace. Called Monsignor, he played the role of an ambitious priest and was required, at one particularly dramatic moment, to question everything he believed in. “Who am I?” some screenwriter wrote. “Who am I?!” Christopher Reeve asked. “Superman!” people in darkened movie houses throughout the world answered.

On the same theme, but to return to the stage for a moment, John Voight played a paraplegic in an anti-war movie called “Coming Home”. He falls in love with a married woman – Jane Fonda – and, as these things usually turn out, they ended up having sex. Voight’s character overcame his disability by performing oral sex on the woman, allowing her to achieve her first orgasm.

Some months after the release of the film Voight – who had won an Oscar for his performance – was appearing in a play. When it came time for him to make his eagerly-anticipated entrance, he walked out into the footlights and was greeted by three young women in the front row chanting: “Eat me! Eat me!”

So, Pilgrim needs to be a movie star who is also a great actor – but not one so clearly defined by an earlier role that the audience can’t make the transition to a new character.

And what, exactly, constitutes that character? Pilgrim is highly intelligent, a man with a lot of pain in his past, a person with a good dose of courage and the physical skills to match it – the sort of guy you would want to have on your side in a back alley in Istanbul. At least that was the way I conceived him – naturally, your mileage may vary. Given those attributes – that complexity – I have always believed it is the sort of role that most movie stars would find attractive.

But Pilgrim also happens to be one of the world’s leading intelligence operatives and that brings with it another problem. At least three of the leading contenders – Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon – have all played highly-accomplished agents in big-screen series. Cast Daniel Craig as Pilgrim and I fear that everyone will be expecting him to say: “Bond. James Bond.”

So, the potential pool – large at first blush – gets smaller. Trying to find the ideal actor from those remaining on the list – in my view – comes down to one thing. Vulnerability.

Pilgrim is a hero in the truest sense of the word – he is an ordinary man who goes on an extraordinary journey; he doesn’t have super-powers, he is a person not too far removed from any of us. Or at least what we would like to be.

As a consequence, he finds the mission he undertakes a hard road to travel and we believe that at any stage he could falter and fail. He is vulnerable to defeat, to mistakes, to self-doubt and to failure.

But – and I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here – he finds the great bravery and the necessary resources deep within himself to eventually triumph. May we all be so fortunate, I suppose.

For that reason – the ability to convey vulnerability and also to be clearly someone who is rooted in the real world – my two top choices would be Daniel Day Lewis and Brad Pitt. Vastly different men, from entirely different backgrounds, but both incredibly talented and each a genuine high-voltage movie star.

I watch DDL’s performances and often I ask myself – “is there anything this man couldn’t play?” If there is, I haven’t been able to think of it. He would make a wonderful Pilgrim – cerebral, tough, complex and achingly human.

Brad Pitt? Sorry ladies, but forget the good looks – I think there is a tremendous likeability to him. Who wouldn’t want to go on a remarkable and epic journey with him? Would you believe in his anguish, be willing to fight alongside him, to live vicariously through his triumphs and defeats? I certainly would.

Hence, those two actors would be my two suggestions. But, like Pilgrim, I have to inhabit the real world and that means convincing either one of them to take the role is a Herculean task. They would only want to work with one of the world’s leading directors, a half dozen people maybe; there is the question of a huge fee and a percentage of the profits; they would want approval over the script and other casting. Then, even if you could overcome those hurdles, there is the problem of scheduling. Major movie stars frequently have their roles and careers mapped out several years ahead.

As a result, you spend months trying to pull the pieces of the puzzle together until, finally, you decide you have to abandon your dreams of the first-choice actor and move on. I have enough experience of Hollywood to know where that frequently ends up – hell I could even write the dialogue for the phone call myself. It goes like this:

“Steven? Steven Seagal? Hi Steve, this is Terry – first, I just want to say how much I admire your work.”

Ahh, Hollywood. As a famous screenwriter and novelist once remarked “the only people that don’t hate it are sober”.

Terry Hayes is the award-winning writer and producer of numerous movies.  His credits include Payback, Road Warrior, and Dead Calm (featuring Nicole Kidman).  He lives in Switzerland with his wife, Kristen, and their four children.

This astonishing debut espionage thriller depicts the collision course between two geniuses, one a tortured hero and one a determined terrorist, in a breakneck story reminiscent of John le Carré and Robert Ludlum at their finest.

PILGRIM is the code name for a world class and legendary secret agent. His adversary is a man known only to the reader as the Saracen. As a young boy, the Saracen barely sees his dissident father beheaded in a Saudi Arabian public square. But the event marks him for life and creates a burning desire to destroy the special relationship between the US and the Kingdom. Everything in the Saracen’s life from this moment forward will be in service to jihad.

At the novel’s opening, we find ourselves in a seedy hotel near Ground Zero. A woman lies face down in a pool of acid, features melted off her face, teeth missing, fingerprints gone. The room has been sprayed down with DNA-eradicating antiseptic spray. All the techniques are pulled directly from Pilgrim's book, a cult classic of forensic science written under a pen name.

In offering the NYPD some casual assistance with the case, Pilgrim gets pulled back into the intelligence underground. What follows is a thriller that jockeys between astonishingly detailed character study and breakneck globetrotting. The author shifts effortlessly from Pilgrim’s hidden life of leisure in Paris to the Saracen’s squalid warrior life in Afghanistan, from the hallways of an exclusive Swiss bank to the laboratories of a nefarious biotech facility in Syria.

The inevitable encounter between Pilgrim and the Saracen will come in Turkey, around the murder of a wealthy American, in a thrilling, twisting, beautifully orchestrated finale.

Q & A with Author Gale Martin

Location, Location, Location! by Sally Clements