Why Spaceman’s director cast Adam Sandler in a heavy dramatic role: ‘This is about me, very much’

Why Spaceman’s director cast Adam Sandler in a heavy dramatic role: ‘This is about me, very much’

Watching Netflix’s cosmic philosophy movie Spaceman, the most obvious question is about the plot: Is that giant alien space spider real, or a hallucination? But the second most obvious question might be Why is Adam Sandler starring in this movie? Sandler has taken on a number of increasingly high-profile dramatic roles since he first surprised his fans and dodged his comedy-career typecasting with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love back in 2002. But his roles have always been tinged with comedy, even if it’s dark, wry, or despairing comedy. Spaceman is something new: a grim story that doesn’t crack a smile as it sends Sandler into space as Czech astronaut Jakub, a man whose life, relationship, and maybe psyche are all disintegrating during a long solo journey.

So why did director Johan Renck see Sandler in the role? “There’s two answers to that,” he told Polygon ahead of the movie’s release. “One is that I had a general meeting with Adam in Los Angeles a few years ago, and we started talking about various things, as one does. This film came up — he had heard about it and was curious about it. And when I told him about it, he said, ‘I want to do that. That’s me, this vain, sort of narcissist guy who’s chasing his own dreams and ambitions and forgetting about the people who are important to him. That’s something I’ve gone through multiple times. So yes, let’s do it.’”

Director Johan Renck stands on the set of Spaceman, in a colorful spaceship capsule, reaching for something above his head Photo: Jon Pack/Netflix

Sandler seeing himself in the role was a bonus, but Renck beat him to it: For him, Spaceman is openly a reflection on his own failings, which is the second reason he cast Sandler. “For me, making a movie which is quintessentially a self-biography — this is about me, very much,” he says. “If I was to be asked, ‘If somebody’s gonna make a movie about your life, who’s gonna play you?’ the answer would be Adam Sandler. He’s the perfect guy to play me. So it was pretty straightforward.”

Why cast Sandler as a metaphorical version of himself? “You know, he’s handsome as hell,” Renck says. “Of course you want somebody playing you to be handsome like a motherfucker.”

But the more serious answer is that Renck has admired Sandler’s work in the past, and has identified with his characters in other movies. Sandler has often returned to a roughly similar kind of figure — the details vary, but his movie characters in dramas and comedies alike often struggle with arrogance and ego, with the difficulty of connecting to other people, and with temperaments that push other people away. They also frequently have difficulties when they’re trying to let their guards down and let other people get close to them.

“I think the same kind of insecurities that he’s so good at performing are something I’ve inhabited inside of me,” Renck says. “I always feel like nobody understands me, and everything I do in life is trying to figure out ways to make myself understood, to be honest. And I feel the same in terms of Adam’s processes, to some extent. When I saw Punch-Drunk Love for the first time, I felt like, That’s literally me walking around this world, trying to fucking understand shit.”

Director Johan Renck, wearing a white T-shirt, stands on a set on his movie Spaceman, in a black space surrounded by naked wooden beams and star-like pinpoints of light Photo: Larry Horricks/Netflix

The challenge of directing Sandler in Spaceman was getting him to abandon his usual energy and volume, and play a particularly quiet, internal version of that signature character. “I’m always looking for subtle performances,” Renck says. “I’m European, originally. I like it to be a little more low-key than big and theatrical, in terms of performances on screen. And for Adam, it became even more evidently important for me to do that, because of all the characters he’d been through earlier.”

He says that figuring out how the performance should look was, in part, a question of what Jakub “deserved” to bring across his failings. “He’s arrogant, he’s dour, there’s a certain bitterness to him, even,” Renck says. “And he is pueriley naive when it comes to his own vanity and narcissism. All of those, again, are things I feel that I’ve been in some way. And they require a performance to be the opposite of flamboyant, the opposite of theatrical. He’s on a solo mission, he’s tired, he’s got cabin fever, all that. So to me, it’s just about trying to bring things down to something that has intimacy and subtleness. Adam responded to that immediately.”

Another challenge was that Spaceman is a character drama where the characters are rarely in the same space — and the two leads weren’t, either. The giant space-spider Hanuš, voiced by Paul Dano, is entirely a CG creation — which Renck says gave him a lot of freedom to retool the character even after production.

“There’s a curse and a blessing with a CGI character, which is that you can rewrite this character into perpetuity, which is beautiful,” he says. “What happens when you shoot a film with actors — if there’s something you don’t like, you cut it or omit it from the film. But with a CGI character, you can continuously redo him.”

A figure in a spacesuit is dwarfed by cranes, cameras, and equipment in a brightly light green-and-purple high-ceilinged space on the set of Netflix’s Spaceman Photo: Jon Pack/Netflix

That said, since Dano and Sandler’s conversations weren’t being recorded during production, Dano was rarely on set to interact in character. “It just didn’t work out,” Renck says. “You can’t have a movie star like Paul Dano just hanging around [set] to be behind a curtain to do this kind of stuff. […] But for the efficiency of the film, and in order to make it feasible enough, we couldn’t have him there.”

So Sandler spent most of the movie talking to a tennis ball and pretending it was an alien monstrosity, with Renck or a stand-in reading Hanuš’ lines. “I was really worried about that, but it worked out tremendously well,” Renck says.

And in the end, he thinks that method worked out better for the movie than having both actors working together would have: “I think now that I’ve gotten to know Adam and his very humble personality, his very respectful personality — which I also saw when he was acting against Carey [Mulligan], for instance — I think it benefited him to not have to be courteous or respectful toward another actor,” Renck says. “He could just completely be free to be whoever he wanted against that tennis ball.

“I’ve never said this to Adam, but I really think this was something he benefited from, because of his beautiful human soul. That was good for him, to be as arrogant, as not pleasant [as he had to be for this role]. I think he would have had issues with that if Paul was there, because he’s such a tremendously beautiful, nice guy.”