An old and very dear friend, Toronto casting director Anne Tait, got in touch with us in the wake of the death of a true legend: Peter O’Toole.
Tait cast and co-produced the 2009 feature Iron Road, also shown later as a miniseries. It’s a period love story set in the 1880s, when crews of Chinese workers worked tirelessly in the Canadian Rockies to complete the Pacific National Railway.
O’Toole plays the part of Relic, a reprobate tutor counseling a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man in order to work on one of the crews. Under that cover, she eventually falls in love with the son of a railroad tycoon. Tait previously cast O’Toole in a pair of Toronto stage productions of Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter at the Royal Alex Theatre.
“At that time, I drove him and his 6’3” frame around Toronto in a tiny Volkswagen Beetle,” Tait tells FishbowlNY. “His knees were bent up under his chin! And when he completed work on Iron Road, he told me that he loved the character of Relic and working with Sun Li [a.k.a. Betty Sun], who played the Chinese heroine. He admired her discipline, improvised dialogue with her and called her ‘a little warrior’.”
Like so many of us, Iron Road director David Wu was entranced by Lawrence of Arabia after seeing the movie in Hong Kong as a boy. Working with O’Toole was a dream come true for the Canadian-Chinese filmmaker.
“We compressed all of Peter’s scenes into the first week, filming in southern China,” Tait recalls. “It was about 20 years after he’d shot The Last Emperor there and he was amazed by the enormous changes that had taken place.”
“The huge backlot where we shot was also a tourist attraction, with a pirate show twice a day,” she continues. “Hundreds of Chinese tourists came every day. We could not afford to pay the management to cancel the show, so we had to shoot around it. And guess what? Just as our director called out ‘Action!’ for Peter’s first scene, the great boom of the pirate cannons drowned out his dialogue! We had no alternative but to shoot silent shots and wait.” RIP.
[Photo credit : Jonathan Wenk, Shanghai]