Casting two of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars in Babylon’s lead roles made sense thematically, as well as financially. Pitt and Robbie, who starred together in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, play actors at very different points in their careers, and Chazelle knew his stars would see echoes of their own lives in the parts. “Part of what was magical about working with them in these roles is that each of them felt like they were really able to make the performance the most personal thing they had done,” he says.
The majority of characters in Babylon are fictional, though Chazelle took inspiration from real-life Hollywood stars. Pitt’s character, Jack Conrad, is a hard-partying “über-movie star,” as Chazelle puts it, inspired by the likes of John Gilbert, Clark Gable, and Douglas Fairbanks: “He’s reaching a point in his life in his career where he’s starting to look back and starting to wonder what’s ahead.” (Pitt expressed a similar sentiment about his own work in a recent GQ cover story.)
As for Robbie, she’s playing Nellie LaRoy, a scrappy aspiring actress who’s an amalgam of early stars like Clara Bow, Jeanne Eagels, Joan Crawford, and Alma Rubens. Nellie is a new Hollywood transplant who’s suddenly in the spotlight, an experience that the Wolf of Wall Street’s breakout could relate to. “Margot as a person has this—it’s a very Australian sort of thing—brash, bold, hungry kind of edge to her that she was really able to tap into and do a lot of really fun things with,” says Chazelle.
Calva, the cast’s newcomer, plays Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant who, as an outsider in Hollywood, serves as the audience’s eyes in the world of Babylon. Says Chazelle, “In many ways, he was going through a very similar experience to the character he was playing as well, of just stumbling on a larger-than-life campus and going, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”