It’s rare that Peter Berg looks nervous. The actor-turned-director has a habit of putting other people on edge, like that poor Israeli reporter who recently admitted to Berg that he hadn’t yet signed up for the country’s mandatory military service. Or the day when Berg, during what I expected to be a simple 20-minute phoner, ordered me down to his Santa Monica office to watch the first 50 minutes of his $200 million Battleship.
After the screening, though, Berg indeed looked nervous. He was most concerned about conveying two things: One, his movie isn’t a total Transformers rip-off. (It isn’t; read Lisa Schwarzbaum’s B+ review here.) And two, Rihanna can act.
“What did you think of her, what you saw of her?” he asked, fidgeting in his seat. “Did you feel she was solid? Did she jump out to you? Did she seem wrong?” When I told Berg I thought Rihanna came across as totally credible, that I was impressed that she did not feel out of place playing a naval grunt, Berg betrayed just a hint of relief. But that didn’t resolve my gnawing question: Why cast her in the first place? Berg had a surprising answer, along with some tales of Rihanna’s Valley girl audition, her surprising physicality on set, and the one big demand she made of Berg when she agreed to take on the part. Check out our Q&A below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you cast such a massive music superstar in what amounts to a run-and-gun supporting role? Did Universal want a big name? Did she seek out the role?
PETER BERG: No, it was totally me. I’d obviously seen [Rihanna’s] videos and was a fan of hers. The videos were really sexy and obviously, you know, very entertaining to say the least. But what first caught my eye about Rihanna was an interview she did with Diane Sawyer after the Chris Brown incident, where she was very articulate, very poised, obviously a smart girl who talked about a very traumatic experience. That was a legitimate, violent, real experience that would traumatize anyone. I thought she handled herself very well. I was intrigued. That was the first time I really remember Rihanna kind of coming on my radar, someone that was more than just kind of a sexy girl that sang hip-hop songs.
So as I was getting ready to cast, I was thinking about Rihanna. I’ve been a big believer in musicians turned actor, going back to Sinatra winning the Oscar for From Here To Eternity. David Bowie in Man Who Fell to Earth, Kris Kristofferson’s been great in a bunch of films. Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, I thought was great in Precious — remember her in Precious? And I had great luck with Tim McGraw twice in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom. I love finding off-beat casting and finding someone you know in one way and you reinvent them in another way. I like doing that as a director.
So what happened when you reached out to Rihanna?
I asked to meet her, she came in in a pair of blue jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, and for two hours we just improv’d.
She read all the roles in the movie. She read Liam Neeson’s role in a Valley girl accent, just this really kind of crazed, slightly off-balance Valley girl, which is very funny. She improvised. She cried. She did it as if she was drunk. She did it as if she was a nun.
It sounds like you were impressed.
What I was looking for with her was a sense of adventure. You know to me, being a good actor, the most important quality is you’ve got to love to play, and to just be open to anything. And this girl clearly was. I knew right away that she’d be great, I knew what the demands of the role were, that I’m not asking her to carry a film.
What was her reaction when you offered her the part?
She called me and she said, “I’ll do it, but please you have to promise me you won’t treat me special, you’ll treat me like you would any other actor, you’ll make me work and you won’t go easy on me.” And I’m like, “Deal.” She stayed in the same crappy hotels that we stayed in; she got there at 6 a.m. and left at 10 p.m. sometimes. She was on that boat in the water where there are no bathrooms except for jumping in the water. She never complained and she worked her ass off.
And, you know, it’s not bad that she happens to be one of the biggest stars on the planet. I won’t deny that, you know, I’m thrilled, but the reality is, she, you know, for her first film, and I said to her “This is a great first film for you.” I’m predicting people will say exactly what you said. She’s just perfectly fine. She does a really solid job. I couldn’t be happier with her.
You put her through her acting paces beforehand, clearly, but there’s also a lot of action in this film. Did you know if she’d be able to handle that?
No, I had no idea. The first real stunt she had to do — or that we had her stunt double do — was when Taylor Kitsch gets blasted back [from the alien ship] and she has to run out of the [boat] and pull him up [out of the ocean]. We were about a mile out in the ocean, there are sharks in the area so you have snipers and rescue swimmers. You’re out there pretty far and there’s lots of things that could go wrong.
So we put her stunt double in and Rihanna stood next to me at the monitor. The stunt double did it and Rihanna got real quiet. The stunt double did it again, and I could feel something was going on with [Rihanna]. I go, “What?” She says, “I don’t like the way she runs.” The stunt double wasn’t running very athletically. Rihanna said, “Can I do it?”
I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think, it’s really that safe or that smart. It’s trained stunt doubles, it’s not that easy to run through water, you know, that’s [knee] high.” She said, “Let me do it once.” She jumped out of that [boat], sprinted across a hundred times more effectively than the stunt double, grabbed Taylor, yanked his ass up.
So obviously, she did more of her own stunts.
[Nods] I didn’t know how physical and agile she’d be. I mean, there are scenes later in the film where she’s sprinting all over [a battleship], and it’s, you know, tight little corners. The girl is extraordinarily agile. That’s all her, getting slammed against walls, you know, being able to take a hit, throwing punches, shooting. She did all of it.