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Casting ‘Michael Cohen,’ the Movie

In the inevitable film treatment, who plays the paymaster? Who plays Giuliani? Trump? And does it have to be directed by Michael Mann?

Two years ago, there was a fierce online debate over the cast of a future movie about the 2016 Republican presidential race, which would probably be called Clown Car! (although Every Which Way But Left and A Kochwork Orange were also strong suggestions).

Twitter users attacked difficult questions like, “Could veteran character actor Daniel Von Bargen of Seinfeld fame play George Pataki despite being dead?” and “Was Justin Timberlake training for the role of Rand Paul in his portrayal of dry-humping weenie Scott Delacorte in Bad Teacher?

This week, there’s been similar debate online about the cast of a Michael Cohen-themed movie. It probably started when people noticed the eerie Separated at Birth-style resemblance between Donald Trump’s disgraced personal lawyer and the aging version of the Fonz, Henry Winkler.

But should Winkler play Cohen? How would one cast the rest of the film? Should Trump be played by a human being or by a giant slime-covered animatronic puppet, a la Dr. Pretorius of From Beyond fame? Who should direct? And what would the film be called?

Re that last point: When asked, readers suggested a number of titles for a Cohen-themed film. Among the most popular were a pair of Scorsese homages, Dumbfellas and Taxi Briber, as well as Cohen Down, One Flew Over the Covfefe’s Nest, Stormy Weather and @nate510’s verbose but workable The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Co-Conspirator With the Most Corrupt President In History. Pay it Whoreward is excluded by the trifecta of being an obscure reference that’s in bad taste and reminds people of Kevin Spacey. 

I like @metalli_mom’s simple but ominous Interview With a Mueller, but in the end I’m convinced by @vin34dmb’s suggestion: “Just Michael Cohen instead of Michael Clayton — last scene is looking out the barred back window of a van on his way to the country club prison at Ft Devens, or wherever he’s headed.”

Readers had other suggestions with regard to cast:

MICHAEL COHEN

Henry Winkler
Ben Stiller
David Schwimmer
Bobby Cannavale
Michael Imperioli
A lesser Baldwin brother
John Turturro
Welker White (!)

I got involved with this discussion when I saw a tweet by @fintonotoolbox showing Trump’s lawyer paired with a still from John Turturro in The Night Of. There’s no denying the resemblance of Cohen with the stink-footed John Stone character, and there’s also no question that Turturro could play the part. But I worry he’d bring too much depth to the role.

Cohen should naturally be played by one of the lesser Baldwins, but if one is not available, many suggested Ben Stiller, who has already played Cohen on Saturday Night Live. There was also sentiment for Schwimmer, after his vigorous portrayal of famed legal power-wanker and demon reality-spawner Robert Kardashian. @BenZelevansky made a great catch, noting an amazing resemblance between Cohen and Welker White, the little-known character actress who played “Lois the hat-loving drug mule” in Goodfellas. She should at least audition.

However, in the end, I think the role goes to one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, someone who deserves a shot at a truly grotesque lead role: Bobby Cannavale. If you like movies, you’ve probably seen about twenty good ones featuring Cannavale (my favorites are The Station Agent and Win Win), but he deserves an iconic Oscar-worthy antihero.

Cohen would be a real challenge to play. I doubt there is an I, Tonya script out there that will reveal him to be secretly sympathetic. Still, the plot structure could be similar to I,Tonya: Cohen caught between the sub-brainless criminals who rope him into an infamous conspiracy, and the upper-class Democratic Party snobs bent on making him into an international pariah.

But Cohen surely hasn’t been repeatedly beaten, shot and stabbed by loved ones over the years, and moreover he isn’t an awesome skater. If Cohen skated as well as he practiced law, he’d still be sliding along the edge of the rink with both hands along the walls.

Moreover I don’t think he’s self-aware enough to help a Nick Pileggi type turn him into the Henry Hill of the Trump crime family. There’s just not a lot to his personality except proximity to the accidental importance of Donald Trump. His story says something about the almost supernatural shallowness of modern America, but it would take a gifted actor to bring it out. Cannavale could do it.

RUDY GIULIANI

Robert Duvall
James Woods
Gene Hackman
Christopher Lloyd
Kurtwood Smith
Richard Jenkins
Werner Klemperer
Max Schreck
Willem Dafoe
John Cusack

Every time anyone suggests a Trump-themed movie, someone always wants to put James Woods in the cast, for the obvious reason that he’s an impressively insane Trump fan in addition to being an excellent, iconic, high-octane actor (which of course is not a comment on what kind of human being he is or is not). Also, he has experience in legal roles, including already once playing Rudy himself in the way-too-heartfelt The Rudy Giuliani Story (even a fictional Rudy-Penelope Ann Miller love scene should violate Google’s terms of service).

The Woods version of Giuliani was significantly more alert than the pre-embalmed version we currently see on TV. Woods tried to capture Rudy through nauseating dialogue (“Democrats always talked about things getting better — Republicans did what they could to make them better”) and through a hilariously insulting rubber comb-over that looked like a radial tire with hair on it.

That was only the second-funniest lawyer costume Woods ever wore, after the amazing 1989 film True Believer. Woods’ interpretation of washout liberal lawyer Eddie Dore mostly rested on the most appalling false ponytail in the history of cinema — it looked like an alien species from the original Star Trek.

The current-Giuliani is a molasses-brained plodder who’d need to be played by an actor capable of conveying the essence of a decaying one- or two-note mind. That probably rules out fast talkers like Woods and Hackman, and maybe also Robert Duvall, who of course has great experience playing a mob lawyer.

There were multiple calls for Christopher Lloyd of Judge Doom fame, but the lovability factor of the Back to the Future star (plus the unspoken background confusion with Taxi and Cohen’s taxi past) probably excludes him too.

Props to @marinmaven for suggesting Kurtwood Smith, best known as campy Robocop villain Clarence Boddicker. Respect also for @gonzomingle’s suggestion of Werner Klemperer (better known as Colonel Klink), but I’m not sure the Cologne native would have been able to pull off Giuliani’s uniquely American brand of lunacy. Also, he’s dead.

I suggested Max Schreck of Nosferatu fame, and wasn’t at all afraid of the fact that Schreck has been dead since 1936 (in fact, that might even help). But Tweeters suggested a compromise: Willem Dafoe, who of course played Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire and moreover seems to have a natural aptitude for unpleasant insane people. Tough call, but I’d go for Dafoe.

STORMY DANIELS

Stormy Daniels
Loni Anderson
Scarlett Johansson
Ivanka Trump
Joelle Carter
Jennifer Coolidge
Pamela Anderson
Blake Lively
Virginia Madsen

The three most popular choices were Johansson (she “just needs the right wig”), Ivanka Trump (she “apparently bears some resemblance”), and Stormy Daniels, herself. A suggestion by @graftonstringer of Senator Lindsey Graham is interesting, but I’m waiting for Graham to play the murdering ventriloquist’s doll in the long-overdue remake of the 1978 horror classic Magic.

If Daniels doesn’t want the part herself, I don’t think this role can really go to anyone other than longtime comic actress Jennifer Coolidge, better known as “Stiffler’s mom.” If there is a recreation of the sex scene (and hopefully no animals will be harmed in the filming of this movie) I do hope Coolidge or whoever gets the opportunity to sit it out and let Industrial Light and Magic do a digitized version.

We didn’t get into too many of the other roles, but briefly:

ANDERSON COOPER

An informal poll of friends suggests Cooper pretty much has to do the role himself, although there was an interesting minority vote for Tilda Swinton.

DONALD TRUMP

We covered Trump in the piece two years ago, but since then there seems to be more and more popular support for Gerard Depardieu to take the role. Chris Farley would have supporters if he were alive. I also like the idea of a crude two-person Trump suit — like a cow suit, only with one person playing the gesticulating/Tweeting top, the other playing the cheeseburger-collecting seat.

STEVE BANNON

It’s not clear what role Bannon would have in the film, but if he’s in it, I think the part has to go to either Ray Winstone of Vincent and The Departed fame (he is the only actor with the correct neck), Russell Crowe (increasingly uncanny likeness) or Brendan Gleeson (who could easily play multiple characters in this story, Peter Sellers-in-Strangelove style).

Deceased actor Kenneth McMillan, best known as floating pustule-covered villain Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune, would have been a fine Bannon. But he’s been dead since 1989 and we just can’t have too many corpses on set. No comment on suggestions of Rosie O’Donnell or Kathy Bates for the role.

Obviously it’s an incomplete list. There has to be a Robert Mueller, and the late Edward Hermann would have been perfect (imagine Rex Rexroth with a badge), but I somehow think it’s going to end up being a wildly overacting Kenneth Branagh. Finally, Hollywood should show the decency Trump did not and leave Melania out of the movie.

P.S. Cusack was also a popular suggestion for the Cohen role, and I like the idea of making him play Giuliani as part of some weird circle-of-life thing tied to his long-ago role in City Hall. But I feel like John is better saved for the inevitable third Martin Blank movie in which the emotionally absent hit man gets elected president in 2020, even though the whole country knows he’s a murdering psychopath.

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