Stanley Kubrick is an eccentric character. His movies are wonderfully put together, owing, in no small part, to his meticulous eye for detail. But, even with his known eccentricities, few could have expected the casting of his wartime epic Full Metal Jacket to have gone this way.
Full Metal Jacket is one of the greatest and most powerful films about the Vietnam War. Released in 1987, the movie was the pioneering director’s penultimate release before his final effort, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio star as young marines who struggle under the oppressive regime of Gunnery Sargeant Hartman, played terrifyingly well by Lee Ermey.
Not only does the film possess the record for most weight gained by an actor for a role, awarded to D’Onofrio, who piled on 70 pounds to play Private Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence, but Full Metal Jacket has plenty of other fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, particularly regarding the casting process. Modine, who plays Private J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis, went through a reasonably straightforward process. He said, “I received the script through my mail slot in New York with a letter from Stanley introducing himself.”
The letter read, “Hi, my name is Stanley Kubrick. I’ve got this film I’m making about the Vietnam war, and I wonder if you’d consider participating.” According to Modine, “He didn’t say it was for the part of Private Joker, and I’d finished a movie just previous to this called Birdy. So when I read the script, I thought maybe he was asking me to audition for Private Pyle because of the fragility of that character.”
However, Kubrick decided to find other characters through a casting call that required the auditions to be recorded via videotape. The director recieved over 3,000 submissions, which his assistants whittled down to 800 for him to watch. The role of Gomer Pyle was handed to D’Onofrio, who had been suggested by Modine, calling him “an amazing actor.” Modine urged the newcomer to send in a videotape, and after four submissions, the actor secured the part. The character was initially written as “a skinny ignorant redneck”; however, Kubrick thought a fat, clumsy persona would give the role more weight. Modine recalled, “Vincent auditioned, and Stanley said, ‘He’s perfect – will he gain the weight?’ I said, ‘That’s up to you guys.'”
As for the role of Hartman, Tim Colceri was the original choice, fully dedicating himself to the film. After seeing an advert in the THR requesting taped submissions for a military drama directed by Kubrick, his friend urged him to send in a video, believing Colceri, a former marine, was the perfect fit. Employing a young marine to star in his video, Colceri portrayed the drill sergeant with tremendous effort, channelling his previous experience. “They saw thousands and thousands of tapes for three years. I’d completely forgotten about my tape,” Colceri shared. Yet one fateful day, he recieved a call from Kubrick’s assistant, Leon Vitali, telling him he had got the part.
However, he ended up, much to his devastation, replaced by Ermey, a technical advisor on the set of Full Metal Jacket and former drill sergeant. After filming himself hurling insults at a group of marines being considered as background characters, Kubrick realised that he “was a genius for this part.” Colceri was given a smaller role as a door gunner, spouting the famous lines, “Get some!”
Despite Kubrick’s unusual casting methods, it seems as though they paid off. Full Metal Jacket is an incredible film that vividly paints the horrors of war and can be found on Netflix right now.