What would you do if you got your hands on one of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s unproduced screenplays? For months, details about “The Thing I Am,” a late-1990s screenplay that Bannon wrote with a collaborator, Julia Jones, which moved Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” to Compton during the Los Angeles riots and reframed the clash between the Romans and the Volscians as a gang war, have been trickling out in news reports. For the video-based news organization NowThis, the answer of what to do with the script was obvious: The company organized a Hollywood table read and is sharing it here exclusively with The Washington Post.
In this production of “The Thing I Am,” Americans can see an extended version of a movie that provides striking insight into Bannon’s ideas about power, race and urban life in America for themselves. In previous explorations of “The Thing I Am,” reporters were sometimes limited to reading or reproducing small excerpts of the work. I was allowed to read the full script on a password-protected site, under the condition that I not reproduce pages from it.
When Bannon and Jones staged a reading of the screenplay in 2006, their invitation sold “The Thing I Am” as an exploration of “how the culture of greed, elitism, discrimination and inhumanity repeats itself today in a self-defeating replay of atrocities.” Other analysts have parsed it for insight into Bannon’s ideas about authoritarianism and populism.
But choosing “Coriolanus” as a way to explore the Los Angeles riots sends a simpler message. “Coriolanus” follows the titular Roman general, who after defeating the Volscians in a major battle has an opportunity to rise in Roman politics. Though his mother urges him to curb his instincts and play to the crowd, he loses his temper and lashes out at them, seeking out his old enemies and forging a vengeful alliance with them. This being a Shakespearean tragedy, it ends badly, with Coriolanus’ pride and inflexibility leading him to his doom.
“The Thing I Am” presents Los Angeles during the riots as a war zone equivalent to the one created by the clash between the Romans and the Volscians. And Coriolanus’ rise and downfall in “The Thing I Am” present him as someone who could stop the violence in his own community but is temperamentally incapable of making the compromises and taking the strong stands necessary to do so. These ideas have a striking resonance with the ways President Trump now talks about American cities and African American communities.
NowThis President Athan Stephanopoulos said that his organization had been able to develop a relationship with Jones over the course of reporting a larger package on Bannon, which also launches today.
“We would want to bring this to life visually, because we are visual storytellers,” he explained. (NowThis targets younger news consumers by building content that lives on and can spread through social-media services.) It didn’t hurt that the 25th anniversary of the riots and Trump’s 100th day in office were both approaching.
Once Jones had given NowThis a copy of the script, the project came together quickly. Comedian Rob Corddry, who stars on “Ballers” and is a veteran of shows such as “Childrens Hospital,” was already providing narration for a video about Bannon’s early life, and joined the table read because “I was so affected by this way of understanding the man,” through Bannon’s creative work. Director Clay Weiner enticed Gary Anthony Williams, who voiced Uncle Ruckus in the animated adaptation of “The Boondocks” and worked on shows including “Black Dynamite” and “Doc McStuffins,” by showing him a page of the script: Williams found the mash-up of Shakespeare (some lines are lifted directly from “Coriolanus”) and Bannon and Jones’s attempts at gang vernacular irresistible.
“I do think he was trying to understand race relations and take this overseer look of ‘Here’s what you’re not seeing.’ I think he thought he had a greater understanding than the people who were going through what they were going through,” Williams told me. “Now, whether he had the tools to do that or not is open to everyone’s interpretation. My answer would be no, spelled in pretty large letters, with a very curly font. … Again, I think Steve Bannon thought he had figured out black people, much in the way of Trump: ‘Carnage! Chicago is carnage! … American carnage! That I have the answer. That if you could listen to me, this can fix that.’ ”
Corddry said he was particularly struck by the script’s heavy use of “when you remember who’s writing it — an inappropriate urban dialect. There’s liberal use of the n-word.”
The deeper Corddry got into the script, the more “it seemed like, to me, if anything, a white guy, with a chip on his shoulder, saying, ‘I can talk about this, I can say these things this way, because why not? Who are you to say I can’t?’ It almost seemed a way to indulge himself in being racist. … It’s basically, the only metaphor I can think of is ‘I can say that because I have a black friend.’ His black friend was his stated intention. So then he can do anything.”
Stephanopoulos, Weiner and Oscar-nominated director of photography Robert Yeoman decided to treat the table read as a sort of experiment. They didn’t let the actors see the script beforehand, so they could record the players’ “honest reactions as they were saying those words for the first time.” Those responses became part of the performance and, for Stephanopoulos, part of the story.
Both Williams and Corddry have performed in Shakespeare plays before: Williams at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, and Corddry had read “Coriolanus” before being cast in “The Thing I Am.” Corddry also had an unexpectedly relevant experience: He had performed in comedy shows in Los Angeles that were built around staged readings of bad screenplays, including ones organized by the comedian Patton Oswalt.
Williams said that experience made it easy to fall back into the rhythms of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but with a twist.
“Seeing how he was trying to mix Shakespeare with some street language — when you have the words ‘Chill, mama,’ trying to be followed by some iambic pentameter, it’s magic coming out of your mouth. I didn’t say good magic,” he joked. “I remember once somebody going ‘Ice cream is good, and ketchup is good, and if you mix them together, it might not be good, but it’s something your mouth might remember.’ ”
Corddry said he decided to take an approach of “Just treating it so reverently and so seriously that every word is just a diamond, every line a Cadillac. By the end, we were putting our hands on each other’s shoulders and kind of like nodding as if to say, ‘Boy, that was a really good read. You really went deep there.’ ”
Williams agreed, noting, “The crazy part of being an actor is you want to try to make things better than you find them. … There were times when I really wanted to laugh at what was coming out of my own mouth, but I was trying to be true to what he was trying to do at the same time.”
Bannon and Jones’s language was a challenge for the actors, and not simply because the mishmash of styles produced plenty of incongruent moments.
Because Corddry was playing a number of roles from the screenplay’s large chorus, he knew he probably wasn’t going to be assigned some of the more racially inflammatory language that appears in the script, but found himself reading ahead in the screenplay so he wouldn’t be surprised by what was coming out of his mouth. Williams took a different approach, electing to stay entirely in the line being uttered at a given moment instead of reading ahead. But because of the stiffness of Bannon’s attempts at African American vernacular, which Williams described as sounding like they came out of “whatever Street Translate app he had in the early ’90s,” Williams found himself trying not to make eye contact with the rest of the cast lest he burst into laughter.
Bannon’s struggle to make a career in feature films is an oft-cited part of his biography, which is what made that period of his life of such interest to Stephanopoulos and his NowThis colleagues. As for whether Bannon would have made a breakthrough in the feature film business had he kept trying, Corddry and Williams are skeptical. In the overwritten stage directions in the script, Corddry saw someone who “would have been really annoying on set.”
“It’s hard to get anything done in done in Hollywood. That is the reputation and reality for the most part. But, however, I think you can always, you can get further than he did just by being a likable person,” Corddry suggested. “And of course, the material is garbage. [Though] garbage gets produced all the time if people like you and are willing to give you money.”
Williams joked that if only Hollywood had produced “The Thing I Am,” maybe America wouldn’t be in its current predicament: “Maybe if we had only accepted Steve Bannon and made his script with Ice Cube as Coriolanus … he would be the new head of the NAACP right now. He would have Rachel Dolezal-ed us all.”
Beyond the question of the film’s politics, Williams said he thought the script suggested that Bannon lacked a sense of how to create a compelling character arc, relying instead on swift changes of heart that made his Coriolanus seem to lack basic principles.
“I don’t want to tell anyone to never follow their dreams, unless their dreams are, of course, stupid,” Williams said. “But I wouldn’t try. I think he has a lot of other things he can do, and he’s doing one right now — I hope I can say this in this interview — making a mockery of the presidential office and his surroundings. I think he’s good at that.”