Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland.
Kimberley French / Disney
The most pivotal character in Tomorrowland is the one audiences likely know least about. Although the film’s promotional material has put stars Britt Robertson and George Clooney front and center, one aspect that director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) managed to conceal almost entirely was its breakout character of Athena (relative newcomer Raffey Cassidy).
In fact, when he sat down with BuzzFeed News earlier this month, Bird was so nervous about spoiling the character’s surprises that at one point in the interview he leaned into the voice recorder and yelled, “Don’t wreck Athena!”
Bird’s trepidation — and to make this abundantly clear, this story will include some MAJOR SPOILERS about Athena and Tomorrowland — is not unfounded.
Britt Robertson, George Clooney, and Cassidy at the premiere of Tomorrowland on May 9, 2015.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
Athena is likely to be one of the most exceptional and unusual characters to appear in a movie this summer, a brilliant and dogged robot who looks and sounds like a British tween girl but can more than hold her own in a knockdown brawl because she’s been programmed to over the course of her long life. Throughout the film, Athena’s determination to fulfill her mission to find creative and optimistic young scientific minds to join the movie’s titular hidden city reveals the character to be at once perceptive and credulous, cheerful and frustrated, sweet and unnervingly powerful, sometimes all within the same scene. And finding the right actor who could embody all of these disparate qualities appeared to be daunting to Bird and his co-screenwriter, Damon Lindelof. (Full disclosure: Jeff Jensen, who conceived Tomorrowland‘s story with Lindelof and Bird, and served as an executive producer, is a friend and former colleague of mine when I worked at Entertainment Weekly.)
“The problem with the part is that you’re supposed to have a very young character who is both very wise and has some degree of experience — but also has not been worn down by it,” Bird said. “We could either get kids that were positive but didn’t seem like they’d been around for any length of time — or if we had, it’d feel like they were 11 going on 47, you know.”
Two days into the casting process, however, Bird and Lindelof were immediately taken with an audition recorded on an iPhone from a young British actor named Raffey Cassidy, whose biggest credit up to that point was in a nearly wordless cameo as the young Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman. “At the beginning and end of each of the takes, Raffey looked at the camera and gave this big thumbs-up,” said Bird. “She was good in the scene, but we were really struck by the thumbs-up.”
When asked why she bookended her auditions with a thumbs-up, Cassidy, 13, answered with a matter-of-factness that suggested she wasn’t really sure why it was such a big deal. “I couldn’t hear the button being clicked, so I’d thumbs-up just to check whether it was going,” she said with a shrug. “And then I’d introduce myself and go [on with the audition].”
“She had this optimistic, vibrant, girlish [quality],” said Lindelof. “And by girlish, I don’t mean the feminine girlish, I mean the youngish energy that was just required for the character. It was sort of like, Boom, there she is, we found her.”
Cassidy and Keegan-Michael Key in Tomorrowland.
Cassidy indeed appeared to embody the contradictory mix of youthful, earnest maturity needed for the role. She said it was “cool” that she got to interrogate her co-star George Clooney about how he made the movie Gravity — but she only watched that film after she’d been cast in Tomorrowland. Before that, she best knew Clooney because “he’d been in The Descendants, which I really loved,” she said.
Instead of her famous co-star, however, Cassidy was most keen on talking about all of the physical training she went through for Athena’s many fight scenes with the same stunt coordinator Bird used on Mission: Impossible 4. “I did two months of gymnastics, swimming, and martial arts,” she said with a huge smile. “I realized martial arts isn’t just kicking and punching. It actually has meaning behind it.”
“She just couldn’t get enough of all of it,” said Bird, adding that Cassidy did most of her stunts herself. “She wanted large orders of everything.”
Clooney and Cassidy in Tomorrowland.
There was another, vital reason why the actor who played Athena needed to seem both like an innocent girl and yet wise well beyond her years: In Tomorrowland‘s emotional climax, Athena tells Clooney’s character, Frank, who became infatuated with her as a young boy when she brought him to Tomorrowland, that she had manifested feelings for him as well.
If watching a 54-year-old male movie star and a prepubescent girl share a tender emotional moment seems high on the list of things you likely never expected to see in a Disney movie, the filmmakers felt the same way.
“When we first pitched it to [Disney], I was sure they were going to be like, Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys — what is this? We’re not doing this,” said Lindelof. “And they were like, Oh, this is cool. I don’t think that I’ve seen this before. They felt it was worth trying. … I think that was one of the things that Bird and I and certainly George were really excited about, which is like, this is kind of dangerous territory. If we don’t do this right, it’s going to be very off-putting and very strange.”
Bird and Lindelof even scripted and shot a line in which Casey (Britt Robertson), the human teenage girl Athena recruits to help Frank reclaim his sense of hope for the future, blurts out, “This is weird!” But they ultimately chose to cut it. “We don’t need to have anybody underlining the fact that it’s weird,” said Lindelof. “Maybe if we don’t say that it’s weird, then it’s not weird.”
Thomas Robinson and Cassidy in Tomorrowland.
Kimberley French / Disney
The filmmakers also hoped that casting Clooney would help to keep the scene from teetering into unsavory territory. “There’s something about his inherent, Clooney-esque qualities where he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but is highly moral,” said Lindelof. “So you’re sort of like, Oh, this guy is not a rascal. He’s on the up-and-up. We’re safe with George.“
But while Frank may have felt a child’s version of love for Athena when they first met, Bird, Lindelof, and Cassidy all believed that the scene was never meant to be amorous in nature. “I think that she developed emotions for him as a best friend,” said Cassidy. “She’d never really connected with anybody before. But I don’t really think that that was romantic.”
In fact, Athena was never meant to want human emotions in the first place. “Brad and I both agreed that robots in movies and television and stories spend way too much of their time wanting to be human,” said Lindelof. “What if they didn’t give a shit? What if they’re like, No, I’m pretty down with being a robot? … Athena was programmed to love her recruits, as analogous as that word is to protect, to cultivate, to nurture, to inspire. That is love from an AI’s sort of standpoint. But I don’t think that Athena aspired to nor ever achieved the Pinocchio moment, or for Trek fans, the Data moment of the emotion chip.”
Beyond serving as the culmination of Frank and Athena’s emotional journey, the reason Bird and Lindelof wanted to attempt such a potentially fraught scene in the first place was because of the complicated idea embedded within the character of Athena herself, which relates to the movie’s larger themes. “I think that if you see the film beginning to end, it becomes clear [the scene] has a lot more to do with people’s hopes for the future and the nature of technology,” said Bird. If we can grow emotionally attached to the things we build, especially the ones we hope will enrich our lives, it stands to reason that eventually, those things could grow emotionally attached to us as well.