Hollywood is littered with tales of actors who go to painstaking
lengths to learn a role, from Robert De Niro driving a cab as
research for "Taxi Driver" to any number of svelte stars who gain
huge amounts of weight to look like their characters.
But few feats of research seem to generate more fascination - and
are so consistently rewarded come awards season - as learning a
musical instrument. Whether it's Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of
the pianist Clara Schumann in "Song of Love," Tom Hulce in the title
role of "Amadeus," Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in "Shine," or
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash
in "Walk the Line," audiences expect on-screen musicians to look, if
not sound, realistic.
At the same time, musician roles raise questions over what's real
and what's fake, when and where hand doubles are used, and whether
prior musical training was needed. And if Tom Cruise can learn Haydn
in five weeks, we wonder, why can't I?
Such questions resurface with the release of "August Rush," a new
film about an orphaned 11-year-old musical prodigy who uses his
gifts as a clue to finding his birth parents. Cast members spent
over three months learning to play instruments, including Keri
Russell, who portrays a concert cellist, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who
plays a rock singer-songwriter, and Freddie Highmore, who, in the
title role, plays both guitar and organ and conducts a symphony
While Rhys Meyers had some prior guitar experience, Russell and
Highmore had to start from scratch learning their instruments and
playing along to the professional recording that audiences hear in
the theater. Director Kirsten Sheridan believes learning the
instruments gave the actors a deeper connection to their roles and
mostly eliminated the need for hand doubles. "We wanted them to feel
the emotion of the music they were playing," she says.
Working with two teachers, Russell started with simple scales and
worked her way up to the film's climactic piece, the Elgar Cello
"Faking a cello is not like faking a guitar," Russell explains.
"First of all, there are two very different hands. One is the
fingering hand that's all up and down, and over and across. It would
look really silly when your fingering hand is way up high when it
should be down low. The bowing is also very specific."
Highmore's challenges were different. Although he didn't have to
master any intricate fingerpicking or fast chord changes, the pieces
were very loose rhythmically and difficult to sync with the recorded
track on set. …