There are plenty of routes a film can take to greatness—deep emotional resonance, a startlingly fresh vision, the mere presence of Bill Murray. But a universal destination is definitiveness: the sensation that Robert De Niro—and only Robert De Niro—is Travis Bickle; that the specific shower where Marion Crane was slaughtered is the shower; that Elio fucks that peach and not some other peach, and definitely not a plum or a goddamn nectarine.
The reality, though, is that within any movie, there’s an infinite number of alternate permutations—locations that fell through, actors who passed, costumes that might’ve contained a few more ruffles if another department was in charge. Take it from Gayle Keller, who helped put together what’s easily the year’s most sparkling cast for the true-crime stripper movie Hustlers: “When a movie is ultimately made, a lot of times people go, ‘Oh, my God, the casting is so great! You got all these people!’ But so often, they're not our first choice.”
With Hustlers, that’s hard to believe. The film is based on the real-life story of a group of strippers who used their sex appeal (and drugs) to Robin Hood rich Wall Streeters after the financial crisis. But many of the performances will make you forget that the characters are based on real people at all. Constance Wu is the dewy-eyed aspirant stripper, Destiny. Jennifer Lopez is the dazzling, fur-wrapped veteran stripper, Ramona. And Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart disappear into the supporting members of the hustler squad, Mercedes and Annabelle.
Surprisingly, none of these parts were written specifically for these actors. Unlike some filmmakers who build characters around actors, Lorene Scafaria, who wrote and directed Hustlers, doesn’t think about casting until she finishes a script. But as soon as Scafaria was done writing, one role became clear: the larger-than-life Ramona. “Jennifer leapt off the page as soon as I opened the script back up,” Scafaria says. “The character has qualities that I think Jennifer possesses: She's so maternal and warm, and she's also so cool and tough and sexy.”
Lopez quickly took to the script, and the challenge became finding a Destiny. Other actresses, like Dakota Johnson, were reportedly in contention. But Constance Wu, who’d brought Scafaria to tears in Crazy Rich Asians, won the part with some combination of talent and grit. Wu voluntarily put herself on tape, demonstrating how much she wanted the part, and she further impressed Scafaria in a preliminary meeting. “We talked about all the themes the role touched on—the loneliness and isolation of the character, what this friendship means to her, what this sisterhood and family means to her—and all of that seemed to really be meaningful to Constance,” Scafaria says.
Rather than through traditional auditions, many of the film’s big parts were cast through these sorts of extended coffee meetings. Keke Palmer, in particular, impressed Scafaria when the two met in Los Angeles. “We really wanted someone who could bring comedy to the role [of Mercedes],” Keller, the casting director, says. “To us, she had a lot of energy and a lot of chutzpah." After their meeting, Keller says, “Lorene was like, ‘I know this girl, I sat with her. She makes me laugh.’ ”
Lili Reinhart, whose Annabelle is a compulsive barfer, was the last of the primary puzzle pieces to be put in place. A lot of names, including Ozark’s Julia Garner, were tossed around; some were unavailable. Producers were concerned with star power; Scafaria was concerned with chemistry. “We always knew [Annabelle] was sort of the ingenue,” Keller explains. “She was always going to be the youngest one of the group, the girl who had just started dancing. And we wanted to make sure she had a lot of vulnerability and also had a sense of humor, because her character throws up when she gets nervous.” The 22-year-old Reinhart checked all the boxes, and also seemed like a good fit with the other actresses.
If, at this point, male actors seem conspicuously absent, that’s because, in a true Hollywood anomaly, they weren’t the priority. The men in Hustlers are mainly a collection of strip-club schlubs and Wall Street sleazeballs. And for many of those roles, Scafaria (who dates a prominent comedian) and Keller (who’s worked on Louie and Crashing) targeted "that guy" comedians. Big Jay Oakerson is the strip-club DJ. Dov Davidoff is a louche club manager. And Jon Glaser, as Ramona’s Old Navy boss, is the movie’s premier asshole. He chews on a measly sandwich as he denies Ramona’s pleas to get out early for other work. The sandwich wasn’t scripted. “In his audition, he pretended to eat a sandwich,” Keller says. “He didn't even have a real sandwich. And when he left the room, Lorene was like, 'I want him to eat a sandwich in the scene.’ ”
And the margins are also where the movie really gets sexy. Cardi B and Lizzo play strippers, which is both an obvious choice (Cardi’s a former stripper; Lizzo’s fully in her element) and an incredibly savvy one (each bursts out of the trailer). Trace Lysette, who actually used to work at the club where the action takes place, does too (the power of a tweet). Usher (the one person actually written into the script) makes a cameo as his 2007 self. And—spoiler—G-Eazy shows up as Destiny’s slimy fair-weather boyfriend (“We wanted to find somebody that was going to pop and be kind of a fun thing,” Keller says).
The inclusion of so many pop superstars was born out of Scafaria’s own fandom—”I think pop music may be America's greatest export”—and executed with recruiting help from Lopez. But, as Scafaria readily acknowledges, the film’s biggest miracle was wrangling all of its uber-busy superstars—many simultaneously—with only a 29-day shooting window, during festival season no less.
“Twenty years ago, this movie would’ve been made in 60 days,” producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas says. “We really had to reverse-engineer it. Jennifer had to rehearse for her summer tour. And then we knew that we had Marry Me, this big sort of Notting Hill musical that we were going to do in the fall. Then we had to figure out Lili Reinhart’s schedule with Riverdale, Madeline Brewer's [she plays a reckless hustler] schedule with Handmaid's Tale, Cardi B's schedule with her life, Lizzo's schedule with her life, Usher's schedule with his life.”
It all just narrowly came together. The big, flashy, end-of-an-era strip-club scene that features Cardi, Lizzo, and Usher couldn’t be shot until the last day of principal photography. Lizzo had to be flown in and then flown out two days later to go to another show. And once all the schedules were lined up, the producers had to quickly book a strip club. That day of filming, which began at 3:00 P.M. and went until about 7:00 A.M., also involved corralling 300 extras, all of whom had to act like it was 2007 and Usher had just walked into the club—and, crucially, not like it was 2019 and a half-naked Cardi B was standing next to them.
Somehow, it worked. “We start the music, Usher walks in, and he's throwing the money,” Goldsmith-Thomas recalls. “The girls are dancing, and they play it all out. I'm upstairs with my other producers, and we're watching it on the monitor, and it was surreal. Like we were transported.” If all the pieces hadn’t fallen into place, Scafaria would’ve found a work-around; but it’s hard to imagine Hustlers any other way.
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Originally Appeared on GQ