From writer/director Danny Strong, the biographical drama Rebel in the Rye is a fascinating look at the life of legendary writer J.D. Salinger, one of the most renowned and enigmatic authors or our time. As a young Salinger (played brilliantly by Nicholas Hoult) struggled to find his voice, a failed love affair and his experience fighting on the frontlines of World War II helped inform the creation of his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, but that also came with overnight fame and notoriety that lead him to withdraw from the public eye for the rest of his life.
During this phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Danny Strong and actor Nicholas Hoult talked about the influence of The Catcher in the Rye on so many millions of people, figuring out how to understand someone so mysterious, the importance of casting, reworking the film after screening it at Sundance, and why this movie would never have been made while Salinger was still alive. Hoult also talked about working with Simon Kinberg, who’s gone from producer to director for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, while Strong talked about the challenges of making the TV series Empire, which he co-created with Lee Daniels.
Collider: Danny, you’ve talked about seeing a J.D. Salinger biography in a book shop and buying it to read it, but did you have any interest in him, as an author and as a person, prior to that moment?
DANNY STRONG: Well, I loved The Catcher in the Rye in high school. It had been very influential on me, the way the book is influential on millions and millions of people. Also, when I was in high school, he was a major American mystery. There was no internet, and there was this big mystery of, where’s J.D. Salinger? What’s J.D. Salinger doing? What is her writing? So, when I saw this biography, I very naively was surprised that there was even enough information publicly known about him to write a whole biography. I was like, “What is this about? How did this guy do that? I’ve gotta read that! That sounds interesting to me!” That’s exactly why I bought it.
Nick, what was your first experience with J.D. Salinger’s work?
NICHOLAS HOULT: My first experience was with The Catcher in the Rye, as well. I hadn’t read many of his other works before researching for this, but I read the script and just loved it. The insight that Danny provided through that, but also the connection to the character and an understanding of him got me intrigued. I wanted to learn more, so I went back and read all of his other works and re-read Catcher. I studied biographies about him and tried to learn as much as possible.
It seems like a dream role for any actor, but what were the biggest challenges and what were your biggest fears, in playing J.D. Salinger?
HOULT: The biggest fear is that everyone has an idea of J.D. Salinger in their mind, even though there’s not really any videos or recordings of him. It’s this strange thing where you’re creating a character that people have very strong feelings about. You can’t prove to be right or wrong through impressions or things that people actually know exist. It’s about getting a real understanding of who the person was and what they stood for. With Salinger, it was his honesty and his dedication to not compromising with this art, and then how the war affected him. I just loved getting an understanding of him through learning about him, and then trying to translate that into the character.