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How Adam Sandler was cast in Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler's latest dramatic project Uncut Gems has only been in wide release for a couple of weeks now, but it continues to be a record-setting diamond in the rough for indie studio A24. Directed with relentlessly taut, gritty realism by Good Time filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems is being hailed one of the best film's Sandler has ever appeared in, earning him Oscar buzz for his down-and-dirty performance as a dodgy Diamond District gambler who just doesn't know when to quit. Sandler virtually disappears into the seedy skin of his character Howard Ratner, who's a far cry from the Billy Madison-styled man-children that Sandler has typically played over the years. 

While Sandler's work in Uncut Gems is the very definition of revelatory, and the film wouldn't be what it is without the actor at the forefront, he almost missed out on the role completely. Here's how Adam Sandler was cast in Uncut Gems.

Adam Sandler was the early choice for Uncut Gems

In a December 2019 interview with Vox, Josh Safdie revealed that he and his brother approached Sandler for the lead role in Uncut Gems in 2015, four years before its release. When asked how the duo landed on Sandler to portray Howard Ratner, Safdie explained that there was a certain sense of intuition: he and Benny simply knew Sandler was the perfect person to lead the film.

"We knew that we needed a character who you loved, who had this patriarchal quality, who was lovable and could be grounded in absurd scenarios. And from the very beginning, we knew it was Adam Sandler," he said. "In 2015, we tried to get him."

The actors who were almost cast in Uncut Gems instead of Adam Sandler

Unfortunately, Sandler was unavailable at the time, so the Safdies decided to try to move forward with a different actor.

In the same conversation with Vox, Josh Safdie revealed that Borat funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen was the next in line to try and capture the unhinged maniacal mirth needed to portray the gambling addict at the film's center. However, they only "went down the road" with Cohen for a short while.

Safdie then shared that the scope of Uncut Gems changed dramatically when Martin Scorsese came on board as an executive producer — a turn that helped open the door to another potential lead: Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street star Jonah Hill. As Safdie stated, "Martin Scorsese got involved, which really elevated the profile of the project. Jonah Hill wanted to work together [with him], and we thought it'd be really cool to work with our contemporaries."

In the end, Hill didn't work for Uncut Gems because the Safdies "couldn't figure out a way to 'youth' the character down," and because Hill "got carried away and got swept up with his own film [Mid90s] and then the subsequent shooting of Maniac."

Down another star, the Safdies renewed their search for an actor worthy of a truly demanding dramatic role. By that time, the directors had earned their own accolades for Heaven Knows What and the Robert Pattinson-starring white-knuckler Good Time. The duo ultimately came back around to their original concept for Uncut Gems with Sandler in the lead: "Finally, we were like, 'You know, let's try with Sandler one more time.'"

Will Adam Sandler win an Oscar for Uncut Gems?

This time, Adam Sandler answered the call. In doing so, he made arguably the biggest gamble of his career by tackling an unabashedly selfish character who's patently unlikeable — even as he's vulnerable and often endearing. Essentially Sandler's character is the human equivalent of a spoiled onion that still has untainted layers deep down inside, which could be received in a pretty unsavory way.

The gamble, however, paid off. Though Sandler often revels in the rottenness of Howard Ratner, Uncut Gems soars when the actor probes the ongoing battle between the character's self-serving rottenness and the juicy humanity it frequently overshadows. Balancing that delicate duplicity is obviously no easy feat, yet Sandler does so with dexterity, delivering a knock-out performance that makes you want to smack some sense into his character even as you're sort of rooting for his success.

That all adds an extra layer of tragedy in the film's shocking final moments, and is a big part of why many Hollywood insiders believe the former Saturday Night Live star may take home an Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards. Whether Sandler will actually walk away with a shiny golden statue remains to be seen — particularly as the 2020 Golden Globes have already snubbed both him and Uncut Gems in its nominations.

Still, with his electrifying work in Uncut Gems, Sandler has more than earned a spot in the Best Actor conversation. Imagine what he'd be missing out on if the Safdies gave up on casting him, or if he hadn't picked up the phone the second time around.

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