The Coen Brothers Used No Country For Old Men As A Sort Of Casting Call

"No Country For Old Men" is a stand-out film for Joel and Ethan Coen, finally earning the brothers an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. It is also one of their darkest films. The story is similar to "Fargo"— an incompetent man gets drawn into a criminal scheme and tries to make it out with a big payday — but "No Country" is devoid of the black comedy that made "Fargo" so distinctive. Instead, there's only palpable dread, and the unnerving sense that you can't halt pure evil, personified in the film by the hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem.)

There's another key way in which the film feels different from the Coens' usual oeuvre: the casting.

Casting new actors

Speaking to UK publication The Skinny in 2008, the Coens revealed how they approached making "No Country For Old Men." Ethan Coen explained how he and his brother always aim to experiment with each of their films. Their last few before "No Country," such as "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty," had all been comedies. Thus, they swung hard into darkness with "No Country."

Joel Coen also explained why none of the brothers' regular actors, such as John Turturro, Frances McDormand, or Steve Buscemi were in the film. Unlike most Coens' movies, "No Country" is an adaptation, specifically of a 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy. That means the Coens' felt less ownership over the characters. Joel recounted:

"One of the pleasures of doing an adaptation as opposed to our own story is that when we do our own story we frequently write for actors that we've worked with before but when you're doing an adaptation the characters are provided by the novel and it's an opportunity to meet and cast new people. There's no one really in it that we've worked with before and that's kind of unusual for us."

The Coens instead opted to cast regionally accurate actors. "No Country" is set in Texas, where both Tommy Lee Jones (Sherrif Ed Tom Bell) and Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells) are from. Josh Brolin (Llewyn Moss) is from California, but him not being an authentic Texan actually reflects Moss' macho posturing. The Scottish Kelly Macdonald could be out of place as Moss' wife Carla Jean, but she affects an appropriate accent. The one exception is the Spanish Bardem as Chigurh. The Coens admitted they wanted an "exotic" actor in that part, presumably to add to his sense of mystery.

Adding to the troupe

There is one actor in "No Country" with previous Coens experience: Stephen Root, who plays the corporate middle manager who hires (and is ultimately killed by) Chigurh. Root had previously appeared in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Ladykillers", then would go on to appear in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and "The Tragedy of Macbeth." However, Root is not associated with the Coens to the extent that McDormand or Turturro are. Plus, his "No Country" role is a small one.

However, in "No Country," the Coens added an actor to their rotation of regulars: Josh Brolin. Ironically, the lead they had to be convinced to cast is the one they've worked with the most since. In "True Grit," Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the outlaw pursued by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Chaney isn't that different from Moss in temperament, but much more villainous. Brolin's next Coens collaboration was in one of their most divisive movies: "Hail, Caesar!" "No Country" set the Coens on a darker path— "A Serious Man," "True Grit," and "Inside Llewyn Davis" were all varying degrees of nihilistic. "Hail, Caesar!" a star-studded satire set in Golden Age Hollywood, was their return to comedy.

Brolin is the spine of the film as Eddie Mannix, a real-life Hollywood fixer. In the film, he's investigating the kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by the enigmatic group known as "The Future." Mannix has plenty of funny moments, but he's also conflicted about the ethics of his work; he has more than one scene in a confession booth. The Coens set out to meet new actors when casting "No Country," and it's safe to say that them meeting Brolin proved productive for both parties.