“The Giver,” based on the novel by Lois Lowry, hits theaters Aug. 15, bringing with it memories of required reading in school—but not in a bad way. “We didn’t really know how big the book was until we started working on it. All the young people who came in and read for the part had read the book in school and loved the book,” says Venus Kanani, who cast the film with Mary Vernieu. Director Phillip Noyce puts faces to the well-crafted characters in the dystopian novel, in which pain has been elimiated and only the title character has memories of the past—before he passes them on to 12-year-old Jonas. “The themes of the book and the story are just super universal,” she says. To set the film's tone, it was important that the performances stood the test of time and, for the roles of Jonas and Fiona, that the performances were accessible.
Jeff Bridges, who was involved in developing the novel into a film, plays the title role of the Giver, while Meryl Streep plays the Chief Elder, a stern omnipresent disciplinarian. Although they knew they wanted Streep, it took everyone involved to make it happen with her shooting schedule on “Into the Woods.” “When you have actors of that stature, the other actors, they really rise to the challenge,” says Kanani.
With solid actors in those two pivotal roles, the key to making the cast work was the role of Jonas, the young boy who is selected to receive the memories and changes the world as his people know it. Vernieu and Kanani had seen Brenton Thwaites several times since the Australian actor arrives in the states and had just cast him in independent film “The Signal” (which premiered at Sundance). “We’d just seen him getting better and better, and sharper and sharper,” says Kanani. But that didn’t mean the search was easy. Vernieu and Kanani watched hundreds of audition tapes in addition to all the actors they saw. “We saw a lot of people for that part and he really won out,” says Vernieu.
Thwaites auditioned early in the process, but it took a while to actually win the part. “Oftentimes, you’ll see the first person that walks in the room and then you’ll go see 300 people and then you’ll come back to that first person,” says Vernieu. They came back to Thwaites: “You just can’t stop watching him. He’s totally charismatic and has movie star presence, but also is very relatable,” Kanani says. “Very accessible,” adds Vernieu.
Vernieusays they saw a lot of girls for Fiona as well. Although she knew Odeya Rush from “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” it was still a long process as Rush not only had to be right for the role, but also match well with Thwaites. “She’s really timeless and also very relatable and beautiful,” says Vernieu.
“Brenton and Odeya both went through a lot to get the parts. They came in a lot of times. We really put them through the paces,” says Kanani. But, says Vernieu, “I don’t think it’s ever easy. I mean, maybe when you’re Meryl Streep, but I think that’s why [acting is] such a hard job.”
Pictured: Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites in "The Giver."