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Alexander Payne “Heartbroken” to Premiere ‘The Holdovers’ Without Lead Actors

Alexander Payne brought his 1970-set dramedy The Holdovers to the Toronto Film Festival on Monday, and earned a rapturous ovation from the Princess of Wales Theatre audience on Monday.

But the Sideways director expressed sadness that he had come on stage alone and without his principal cast, led by Paul Giamatti and newcomer Dominic Sessa, owing to Hollywood actors strike restrictions. “It is, of course, heartbreaking that the actors and the screenwriter can’t be with us,” Payne said.

In The Holdovers, Giamatti plays a curmudgeonly private school instructor at a New England prep school who forms an unlikely bond with Angus Tully, a damaged, brainy troublemaker played by Sessa. Also unable to appear on stage is screenwriter David Hemingson, who also produces alongside Mark Johnson and Bill Block.

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Payne added he told Sessa, a first-time actor fresh out of drama school, that he had been “deprived” of the immediacy of seeing a film festival audience watch his breakout performance, much as musicians and stage actors can connect with their audience.

 During the post-screening Q&A, Payne explained casting Giamatti was a given to play the prep school instructor, but finding a young actor to play Angus Tully was a bigger challenge. He said 800 submissions for the role came in, and Payne viewed around 60 digital auditions, but without success.

So he and casting director Susan Shopmaker decided to call up the drama departments of the schools where they were set to shoot the prep school dramedy. “And there he (Sessa) was, at Deerfield Academy… He’d never been in front of a camera. He starred in the drama department, a real ham,” Payne recalled.

Many Payne movies have screened in Toronto, but The Holdovers also marks a return to TIFF as Focus Features nabbed the worldwide rights to the Miramax pic, excluding the Middle East last year as the movie played as part of an informal market and outside the main festival lineup.

 The Toronto Film Festival continues through to Sept. 17.

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