Inspired by the 2011 box office hit French film Les Intouchables, The Upside is an inspirational comedy based on the true-life friendship and lifelong bond forged between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and the ex-con he hires as his live- in care giver
Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), with a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, it chronicles the unexpected friendship between Phillip Lacasse (Cranston), a Park Avenue billionaire left paralyzed after a paragliding accident, and ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), in need of a fresh start. Newly paroled and in desperate need of a job, Dell is frustrated by the menial opportunities available to an ex-con. After finding himself at the wrong job interview Dell uses his irreverent charisma to charm Phillip, who, despite protests from his chief-of-staff Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), offers him the home aid position.
Despite a rocky start, the two quickly realize how much they can learn from each other’s experiences. From worlds apart, Phillip and Dell form an unlikely bond, bridging their differences and gaining invaluable wisdom in the process, giving each man a renewed sense of passion for all of life’s possibilities.
Producers Jason Blumenthal, Todd Black and Steve Tisch from Escape Artists were thrilled at the prospect of recreating the French classic, having seen it a few years back and absolutely loving the story. Says Black, “Our decision to remake Les Intouchables stemmed from a desire to dive deeper into the lives of the incredible real people the original film is based on. We wanted to know more about their stories and believed we could give audiences a fresh interpretation that honored the brilliance of the French version.”
Though Director Neil Burger had immense admiration for the original, he was clear in communicating to Blumenthal, Black and Tisch that he felt an English language adaptation could bring the story to an entirely new level for American audiences. While Burger was specific in what he envisioned for the film, it was his ability to collaborate with the producers as well as with writer Jon Hartmere that eventually brought the script to fruition. “Neil is a producer’s dream,” says Black. “He has a very firm vision of what he wants, but he also encourages feedback and fosters a collaborative and open working environment that we believe made the film even more powerful.”
“The movie is about people bridging the divisions between us, which to me is an incredibly important theme,” explains director Neil Burger. “I wanted the movie to feel real and to be as honest as possible. That goes with the depiction of Phillip and his disability. To be as honest as we could about that experience and ultimately be as respectful as we could about that. And the same with Kevin’s character’s experience. His background being from the South Bronx and what he’s going through in his life. The movie is about respect and it’s about compassion. And I think that had to be part of the filmmaking as well. To be as honest and respectful as possible.”
The filmmaking team were long-time admirers of both Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, and hoped the film would be a welcome challenge for the actors, albeit in different ways, and looked forward to seeing their respective interpretations of the beloved characters from the original film. For Hart, this role was a departure and offered the actor an opportunity to introduce audiences to his dramatic talents, while still infusing his signature wit and humor into his performance.
“People are going to be blown away, because Kevin has incredible dramatic chops that nobody’s seen before,” says director Neil Burger.
“When people hear Kevin Hart, they immediately think it’s going to be broad and funny,” Blumenthal says. “We will see funny Kevin for sure, but also a more serious, dramatic Kevin. We wanted to make sure we signaled to the audience that this was not your typical Kevin Hart movie. Though Kevin brings humor to the film, his role goes beyond comedic relief while his character struggles to turn his life around.”
“It was a challenge that I welcomed with open arms,” says Hart. Adding, “I’ve yet to do something like this. I’ve yet to step into this space. I’m about opening up doors. And this is a door that I’ve been hesitant to open because I wanted to make sure that the project was right when I actually did it. The Upside is the perfect project for me to step in that direction of a drama-esque performance but still stay true to my comedy roots.”
Cranston describes his co-star’s work on the film saying, “This is a drama with comedic undertones because you find some humor in tragic situations. We needed that to buoy the story and propel it along. But Kevin is a very smart guy and he knew exactly what the tone of this was and what he needed to do. It’s perfect for him, in his career, to be able to step into a role that’s not necessarily in his wheelhouse. Kevin is profoundly talented. It goes into his bones on some deep meta level and it’s just there. He delivers when he needs to.”
From the onset of the film, audiences can identify with Dell as he encounters this new situation and discover with him what it is like to be a person with quadriplegia. While Dell initially takes on the role of Phillip’s care giver, as the film progresses it becomes clear that both Dell and Phillip rely equally on each other. They have different struggles, but it’s their ability to learn from one another that ultimately builds their incredibly unique relationship.
“I realize that’s really the crux of the story: facing the challenges,” says Cranston. “Whether you’re an African American male just getting out of prison, or a 60 something person with quadriplegia who can’t move anything below his neck for the rest of his life, neither see much of a future for themselves. There are dilemmas. Life is not easy.”
“What neither Phillip nor Dell expected is that they both came into each other’s lives at the perfect moment, and changed each other’s lives when they most needed it,” says Blumenthal.
“Casting Bryan Cranston was just a no brainer,” says Burger. “He’s really one of the great actors of our generation. He worked so hard on the role to do it right, and to do it respectfully, as somebody who was in a wheelchair. He’s an actor that has such incredible empathy, yet also, such a wonderful and light sense of humor. It was the perfect combination for that character.”
Though Cranston has played a wide variety of characters, the physical requirements involved in playing a person with quadriplegia presented a new challenge for the actor. “Before the movie, I didn’t realize how often actors depend on their entire bodies to sell a performance and a scene,” says Blumenthal. “This role required Bryan to approach his character in an entirely new way, and discover how to deliver an emotional, funny and at times heartbreaking performance without using most of the tools he’s used to having at his disposal.”