Analyzing the cast of Wes Anderson's latest, The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou features Wes Anderson's usual variety of kooky characters. Instead of a dysfunctional patriarch or a child prodigy, the star here is an oceanographer in crisis. Out for revenge, Steve Zissou is surrounded by his faithful crew, his skeptical wife, a new crewmate who may be his long lost son, a journalist and his arch nemesis. Writer/director Anderson said he hears all of these characters in his head as he creates them.

"It's hearing voices in your head, or sitting there talking to yourself, which is the nice thing about having a writing partner who you're really in sync with, because we do the dialogue back and forth while we sit there," Anderson said. "But it's not usually like I say one character's line and he says one character's line. I might say three lines in a row and then he'll take over the scene for a minute and then we'll go back and forth and we're both hearing these voices in our heads and muttering to ourselves. In the restaurant [where we wrote together], it's very strange, because we'll kind of come out of our trance and see people looking at us."

Anderson took inspiration from the most famous real life nature documentarians and turned him and his crew into a Wes Anderson cast. "The germ of the idea was the Cousteau stuff from TV that I watched growing up and Jane Goodall and National Geographic specials and Mutual of Omaha and Wild Kingdom and all of that stuff. Those hero scientists, which we don't have too many of those any more. And Zissou comes from this French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, one of my favorite photographers. His brother was nicknamed Zissou, and he took many, many photographs of him, some of his most beautiful photographs and he was this amazing character who was an inventor and he built, this was around the turn of the century, he built airplanes and little cars that would go downhill and things for going under water and so he photographed him with his crazy inventions that worked or didn't work, crashed or didn't crash and so I just liked the spirit of that character. Originally he was called Steve Cocteau, but I felt like that had too many associations. I think those guys are the more like an idea of a character, like a surface of a character, and they're a setting. But the actual story and the actual relationships among the characters and the actual role that Bill Murray is playing, that's drawn more from people I've known and my own experiences and all of that kind of stuff, I think."

Like Anderson's previous films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is not a straight comedy, and in fact has many poignant moments of drama. For veterans like Bill Murray, the elements go hand in hand. "You don't have to research your character to be emotional," Murray said. "You have to show emotion, you have to be able to do it. We all have these emotions, but how do you execute it? How do you demonstrate it and affect people? This is a pretty hot group of actors. These people all have serious chops, you know. So when this movie gets emotional, everybody's working on it. It's really pounding. That scene in the submarine is very emotional. That's because everybody's in it. They're right on top of it, and completely dedicated to what they have to do. They did their research in what they have to do."

Owen Wilson was a bit unsure he could pull off the drama of Ned Plimpton. "When I got the script, I was kind of like, ‘Ah, I don't really see myself as this character' because he seemed sort of like a straight man and very sort of sincere and kind of innocent," Wilson said. "Then, when I went to meet with Wes in Rome and kind of started working on it, we came up with making him more of a southern gentleman. Then he became more fun for me to play."

Huston found inspiration for her character, Eleanor Zissou, among the crew. "Usually a few people come to mind when I'm working on characters," she said. "Sometimes halfway through the movie I realize that it's somebody that I know. This character was a kind of amalgam of several women I know. I don't think anyone you would know, actually, but one of them was out costume designer Milena Canonero who has a particularly cool vibe and it was great when she was around because it was somewhat based on her."

Willem Dafoe donned a German accent to play crew member Klaus Daimler. "I thought the thing that made it specifically German for me was I like the fact that it kind of in the story, along with his insecurity and the split between what the public thinks he has and who he really is, it kind of exposes the myth of German efficiency," Dafoe said. "And I've been in Germany enough that, of course, I'm dealing with generalizations and clichés, but in the German character, I think it's fair to say that efficiency is valued, right? And also some kind of stoicism sometimes is valued and that's a cultural thing. It's not necessarily true of the people, that's all."

Jeff Goldblum, who plays rival oceanographer Alistair Hennessey, wasn't ready to call himself the bad guy. "I don't think I'm such a clearly just a bad guy," Goldblum said. "I know Bill's character says a couple of nasty things to me and about me. I'm complicated. I do hit the dog, there's no getting around that, there's nothing nice about that, and I'm sorry for that and I wish I could have gone back and saved the dog. So Bill's character says some nasty things about me but I think that's because we shouldn't trust that exactly, and objectively rating my character because he's cockeyed at this point admittedly. He says he has one foot off the merry go round, as Wes is such a word smith, and he's so threatened I think by my character. We have a long history and currently I'm succeeding wildly in this field that he's struggling with and connected still very soulfully and deeply and beautifully to his wife with whom he's formerly married as you know and that says something about who my character is. She is such a conspicuously angelic, delicious, delightful, rich, real, authentic, down to earth, beautiful, powerful person that I must be okay too in some ways. And I can be guarded around him, that's true, because he can be passively aggressive or prickly and I won't take that. I'm sad for him, a little bemused by him. He's a funny guy and finally I get to rescue him, however much I enjoy the idea that I can rescue him, and then he returns the favor. But then you're right, at the end of the movie all of us have this shared redemption after we've lost sons and crew and health and things, we find union amongst ourselves and forgiveness, another theme that's common in Wes's movies, between us and something deeply human and sweet and gentle and awesome, that is who we are and who the big fish is and what we have to share between us that's kind of lovely."

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens wide Christmas Day.

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