When sitting down to write the film that would eventually become Asteroid City, Wes Anderson, along with his co-writer Roman Coppola, had one name in mind: Jason Schwartzman.
“We wanted to write a part for Jason Schwartzman at the center of a movie that would be something he hadn’t done before,” Anderson said at the global press conference for Asteroid City. “That was number one. That’s the beginning. And we didn’t really know what it was, but we sort of had a few notions about what this character was going through.”
Schwartzman first found out that Anderson wanted him to be the star of his next movie in July 2019. Schwartzman knows the exact day, July 11, when Anderson called and pitched him the idea.
“I know it was my anniversary, and I was going with my wife, but Wes was calling, so we pulled over,” Schwartzman explained. “And he said, you know, what I’m sure everyone here gets excited to hear, which was, ‘I’ve got an idea for something. I’m working on it with Roman. I can’t tell you much, but we have an idea for you for something. And we’re gonna work on it, and we’ll get back to you when it’s more completed. But you should be excited.'”
Anderson also wanted to explore two additional concepts: New York theater in the 1950s and the play the actors put on. The play is set in Asteroid City, and the film alternates between the New York theater and the colorful Southwestern desert.
“This interaction of a black and white New York stage and a color cinema scope-ish western cinema kind of story,” Anderson said regarding the two settings. “And everybody’s both an actor and the role they’re playing, but there’s sort of one thing, too, and they kind of mix together. And that is how I got the idea for Asteroid City.”
In the fictional Asteroid City, a group of students and parents converge in the desert for the Junior Stargazer convention. Schwartzman stars as Augie Steenbeck, a wartime photographer and father of Woodrow (Moonrise Kingdom’s Jake Ryan), a Junior Stargazer winner. Augie recently lost his wife, a tragedy he struggles to share with Woodrow and his three daughters.
In Asteroid City, Augie meets Midge (Scarlett Johansson), an old Hollywood actress and mother to Dinah (Grace Edwards), another Junior Stargazer winner. Augie and Midge bond over personal heartbreaks and tragedies as they struggle to cope with their anguish. Despite the bright and colorful setting, Asteroid City explores grief and how each person handles it uniquely.
“There’s no wrong way to feel if you’re grieving and that you should — if you don’t feel sad when everyone else is sad, that’s okay,” Schwartzman said. “It’s worse to feel bad about not feeling a certain way that everyone else is feeling. So you just feel the way you feel. And that’ll be okay.”
“I think when we have the conversation about what connects us, and it’s the enormity of this grief,” Johansson added. “My character says I don’t want that feeling, so I’m just gonna not have it. Which is so great and convenient. I mean, especially if you’re an actor, it’s perfect. You just do not have that feeling and erase it … Maybe you don’t want to either, and that’s perfectly fine. And that’s the world that she’s living in.”
Like Anderson’s previous films, Asteroid City boasts an impressive cast featuring some of the most accomplished and respected actors in the business. The large ensemble includes Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Hope Davis, Steve Carrell, Willem Dafoe, Stephen Park, Bryan Cranston, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Tom Hanks.
Asteroid City was filmed in Spain in 2021, so COVID-19 protocols were still in effect. The cast all stayed together in one hotel, forming a “bubble.” However, the tight quarters created a camaraderie that translated to the screen. Hawke, who plays a school teacher, mentioned how she would watch other scenes of her castmates because Anderson created a “wonderful place” to be engaged with the work.
“It never felt like, ‘Oh, this is my part, this is your part.’ It always felt like everyone was lifting each other up,” Hawke said. “And that built chemistry really quickly and easily, I think.”
Hanks compared the environment to an old movie about Hollywood, where different types of people would end up on the same lot, from a cowboy and a showgirl to a Roman gladiator.
“That’s what it’s like hanging around getting ready to work. We’re all in our costumes all day long,” Hanks said. “We’re all dressed in these different things. We’re all on hold ready to go, to go do the work on the set. We’re just incredibly focused and concentrated.”
The collaborative effort is one of the reasons why Asteroid City has been touted as his best film since Grand Budapest Hotel. In Digital Trends’ review, writer Alex Welch called Asteroid City a “dazzling technicolor dream” and no filmmaker alive is better than Anderson at “exploring how our interior and exterior lives can become at odds with each other.”
Anderson has shown no signs of slowing down, with his short film, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, arriving later this year on Netflix. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes. Anderson has already begun casting his next film, a father-daughter story.
No matter who stars in the next project, actors will be lining up for the “unique” experience of an Anderson film.
“It is a very cozy feeling,” Davis said to describe working with Anderson. “And that’s a very rare feeling in this business.”
Focus Features will release Asteroid City exclusively in NY/LA on June 16, and in theaters everywhere June 23.