Who Would Play Hortensia?
My boyfriend and I recently treated ourselves to an early Christmas present box-set of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and our evenings are now spent happily marvelling at the charisma of Steve Buscemi while wistfully regretting our own inability to write anything half as good. Last night’s episode featured a scene where racketeer Albert ‘Chalky’ White delivers a chilling monologue to a shackled Ku Klux Klan leader in prelude to torturing him for information on the murder of a black associate. White is played by the actor Michael K. Williams, but I know I won’t be alone in saying that as brilliant as his portrayal is, when I look at Williams I can’t help but see Omar Little, the deliciously amoral rip and run artist he played in The Wire (unquestionably the greatest TV show of all time).
Most novelists would surely admit to the vanity of fantasising which actors might play the characters in a film adaptation of their book. I am more than happy to proffer my casting suggestions for my forthcoming novel Rivals of the Republic: The Movie which include Jon Hamm as Crassus, Dominic West as Pompey, Tom Hiddleston as Caepio*, Benedict Cumberbatch as Cicero and Alfred Molina as Hortensius. I haven’t quite hit on the right person to play my chief protagonist Hortensia yet - it’s got to be someone with a great voice as well as the right look - but Debra Winger in her 80s heyday would have been perfect.
One of the most useful tips anyone gave me when writing the novel was to imagine the narrative as a film reel - what would the next scene be if it were a movie? Where would the director make his or her cut? If I were passing on a tip of my own, I would say that when you can’t quite decide what a character looks and sounds like, try and imagine a particular actor or public figure in the role and base your characterisation on them. I found this particularly helpful when I was writing Crassus, the obscenely wealthy and powerful consul who is at the heart of the corrupt political scene portrayed in the book. Crassus probably exists most powerfully in the modern imagination through Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of him as a sinister, self-controlled villain in the movieSpartacus, but my vision is quite different. Historical sources give us a few glimpses of Crassus’ character but it wasn’t until I had a vision of him as a Mitt Romney figure - smiling, genial, glad-handing and back-slapping his supporters but all the while keeping a calculating eye on the opinion polls - that I felt I knew who he really was.
Late in the writing of Rivals, I decided to introduce a character I hadn’t initially planned on including - the elusive master forger Petro, who as it turns out holds the key to unlocking the secret of the conspiracy that Hortensia is so desperate to discover. Petro was a joy to write - devious and charming, taking delight in sparring with Hortensia and never letting her see where his true allegiances lie - and I realised quite quickly who I had based him on. Omar Little was my favourite character in The Wire, and I think he may well also be my favourite character in my novel. Like Hortensia, he will return in future books. In the meantime, I will have to just keep that cast-list on file.
*Tom Hiddleston was a Classics undergraduate at Cambridge when I was doing my PhD. Much to my regret however, and no matter how much I have racked my brain, I can’t actually remember him. But a friend who tutored him tells me he was charming and had lovely manners. So clearly the perfect person to play Hortensia’s delightful and understanding husband.