Nothing about star-studded 'Cloud Atlas' is small

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One actress playing six roles for three directors.

In other hands, that might have been a formula for a movie meltdown, but Halle Berry was "so grateful" that they even thought of her and later elated to be part of "Cloud Atlas" directed by Tom Tykwer and siblings Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski.

The Oscar-winning actress was the only one on the wish list for those half-dozen identities, Ms. Wachowski interjected, and Ms. Berry and Tom Hanks now are the most prominent faces on the poster of the movie opening today.

"Lana and Andy speak as one person, and so they finish each other's sentences. Their thoughts are the same. They've talked about this so long that the vision is clear and there's a safe feeling that came with that," Ms. Berry told an overflowing press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie premiered.

"I would have tried anything they said. I figured if I hadn't thought about it, I knew they had and it just might work. ... A fun, fun, fun experience and I think everybody will say that from top to bottom. While it was big and overwhelming and daunting to them, they never let it trickle down to us, and I think we all had a good acting experience where we got to play."

"Cloud Atlas," based on the David Mitchell novel once considered unfilmable, skips among the years of 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2321. It's almost three hours long and boasts themes universal and big, including the desire for freedom and notion that "our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others."

In addition to Ms. Berry and Mr. Hanks, the cast also includes Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.

They each juggle anywhere from three to six roles, and occasionally they're virtually unrecognizable thanks to wardrobe, wigs, makeup and teeth that change their age, race, nationality and even gender.

"I only heard one complaint and that was out of Sturgess," Mr. Hanks quipped, followed by a spot-on impersonation of his British co-star asking someone to "please take this thing off." The "thing" was a fake beard, and its sticky glue compounded the perspiration and medicine being dribbled into his character's mouth.

Shedding facial hair was nothing compared to a literal face-off. That set Mr. Grant off on a tongue-in-cheek rant: "I bitterly regret doing the whole film.

"I thought when they offered these parts, yes, I can show people I've got more strings to my bow than just one. A, I was wrong, and B, it's just sitting in makeup and having plastic applied to your face for hours and hours, and I was very bad tempered."

"And everyone's talked about the nice atmosphere on the set. I tried to make it nastier, I kept telling the American set that the German set was much more interesting, is moving much faster, and vice versa."

The Wachowskis, makers of "The Matrix" trilogy, filmed segments set in 1849, 2144 and the post-apocalyptic 24th century in and around Berlin and Germany's Saxony region, as well as Mallorca, Spain.

The German-born Mr. Tykwer, who turned critics' heads with "Run Lola Run" and "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," used Scotland as a backdrop for 1936, 1973 and 2012 passages. The actors moved among the locations where shooting happened concurrently.

When you have 17 people squeezed into two tight rows at the front of the room, someone naturally serves as the comic relief (Mr. Grant) or ambassador (Mr. Hanks) or beauties of various ages and native languages (the four actresses).

Ms. Sarandon acknowledged the complexity of the project but called it joyful. "I mean, I think that's why I would even work craft service if they asked me to, it didn't matter how big the part was."

With more than four decades of acting to her credit, she speaks from experience when she says, "No matter what the budget, there's a lot of pressure on directors and you can lose the joyfulness, the playfulness of the collaboration, which is really what is so addictive for people. I've never worked with anybody that just has that down in their lives and in their art."

The Wachowskis, born in Chicago two years apart in the mid to late 1960s, have been collaborating since they were inseparable as childhood playmates. "We never wanted to work apart," said Mr. Wachowski, a burly man with a shaved head, sitting next to Lana (who spent years transitioning from Larry) with her fuchsia and purple dreadlocks.

"We started a painting company when we were trying to pay for college, and then we both dropped out almost simultaneously from our respective schools and we ended up building a construction company. Our mom and dad's house was the last job that we did, and it's still standing," he added.

"I just love her to bits," he said, as Ms. Wachowski tipped her forehead to his and then enthused that there's something beautiful about reading a book such as "Cloud Atlas" and then suggesting to her brother, "Go read this, read this, read this."

She continued: "And then they call you at all the same parts where you were freaking out. I know, I know, keep going. ... We had a childhood dream to be writers or filmmakers, and we kind of kept each other trying, in the same way that we brought Tom [Tykwer] on board to realize another impossible dream."

Many readers or directors thought turning "Cloud Atlas" into a movie was impossible. The three directors, however, traveled to Costa Rica to puzzle out how to turn the 528-page book, a complex structure of six narratives written in different styles, into a single movie.

"We all felt the book affects your brain. You read it and your brain no longer splits it up into six stories. Your brain begins making connections itself," Ms. Wachowski said, and the goal was to create a movie that mirrored that structure.

The novelist of the source book applauded the result, telling the trio, "You guys do this amazing thing where you take high-brow ideas and sort of low-brow entertaining narrative motifs and you combine them into a one-brow experience," according to Ms. Wachowski.

"We try to make mono-brow movies. We don't like the whole commercial, market-driven thing of splitting movies up into arthouse and mainstream."

As Mr. Hanks joked: "When I heard they were going to make a German blockbuster that was written in Costa Rica, I said I'm in because I've never heard such a bodacious United Nations approach to making a film before. This was a fully realized vision that was presented to us at the get-go.

"These guys had gone off and were aiming at this sort of piece of cinematic literature and all we really had to do was read the blueprint to see what's going to be expected of me and that sounds like all the things that acting in movies is supposed to be.

"It's going to be brilliant fun, we're going to get to go to cool places, it will be very, very hard work on occasion, and we'll have to go through some sort of emotional trench to get at the moments that are very well highlighted in both the book and the screenplay," he said.

"That's what I do for a living, so I jumped in."

For two-time Oscar winner Mr. Hanks, "Cloud Atlas" was that rare chance to star in a true sci-fi fantasy and not just visit one.

"They don't ask me to make those movies," he said and then referenced the novelist's device of using a comet-shaped birthmark on certain characters to indicate the migration of a single soul.

"It's cosmic, man, these three guys, they all have comet tattoos somewhere on them and they change the lives of everybody they come across. The only reason why Peter Scolari and I were able to crash the set of 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' for all you geeks out there is because we had a long lunch break from 'Bosom Buddies' and wanted to get into trouble."

Now, Mr. Hanks is more likely to command a set instead of crash it.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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