Nineties action movie classic Con Air celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. As is often the case, there were plenty of near-misses, casting wise. Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke both came close to playing Cyrus the Virus. Comedian Denis Leary really wanted Steve Buscemi’s role. And John Cusack almost turned it down, until he was told he was allowed to wear Birkenstocks.
Nicolas Cage won the Oscar for Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, and then immediately made three of the best action movies of all time back-to-back; The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997) and Face/Off (1997). Which we’re sure you’ll agree is legend behaviour. When Con Air was celebrating its 20th anniversary five years ago, Empire magazine did a retrospective.
In the piece, it’s revealed that John Cusack didn’t like the script, but figured that starring in a blockbuster would help his career and the pay also helped. But, Cusack had one demand. Writer Scott Rosenberg says that he insisted on wearing idiosyncratic footwear. “He was like, ‘I wanna create the very first action hero who wears Birkenstocks. Charlton Heston wore sandals and he kicked ass. I wanna do the same.’ Thus, Larkin wears sandals.”
Nicolas Cage was fully invested, totally prepared and rarely went beyond three takes. John Malkovich, on the other hand, “appeared not to have read the script,” director Simon West says, and just asked the director each time what he wanted him to do before coming up with hilarious, expletive-strewn improvisations. John Cusack, while great, didn’t hide his disdain for the film. For Rosenberg, it was disheartening. “It was kind of a bummer. He thought he was selling out.”
“You can imagine, it got pretty macho out there in the desert,” says West. “Everyone went a little crazy. They built a dojo so at lunch they could all fight and wrestle each other, and it did become a bit like a prison. Everybody was stripped to the waist all the time because it was so hot, everyone was showing off their muscles. There was competition over who could do the most pull-ups and push-ups.”
Filming Con Air sounds like it was quite the experience. Check out our guide to the best thriller movies.