At the center of this real-life roller coaster, Younger placed a savvy newcomer, Seth Davis, whose hunger for the fast money of the boiler room belies a deeper struggle for acceptance and love from his father, a respected New York judge. “Seth is a 19 year-old who is much brighter than most of his peers. But as smart and successful as Seth is, he still needs his dad to love him,” notes Younger. “That´s his personal dilemma. He´s so quick and he could be so successful in life, but he can´t quite escape his father´s reach. The boiler room is Seth´s way of reaching out to his dad, but their definitions of success are completely opposite. His struggle to do the right thing is the emotional core of the movie and has a lot of truth to it.”
Seth wants it both ways – he wants the easy cash as well as the hard-won closeness with his parents – but his choices bring down the whole house of cards and put him and his father in the middle of a Federal crime investigation.
Giovanni Ribisi – already known for the intensity and complexity of his screen roles such as his acclaimed turn in Steven Spielberg´s Saving Private Ryan – was a clear-cut choice to play Seth Davis. The actor plunged himself into the role. “I started out liking Giovanni and ended up in awe of him,” says Ben Younger of Ribisi. “If there was anyone more committed to this film than me, it was Giovanni. He´s so committed it´s scary.”
Ribisi was drawn to the challenge of immersing himself in the world of telemarketing boiler rooms – which he calls “Wall Street on crack with an extra dose of testosterone.” He recalls a tour of one brokerage firm where the parking lot was filled with Mercedes, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, all driven by kids under 30. He also learned a great deal by watching the pros cold-calling unsuspecting customers.
“What I found is that in these places it´s almost like a competitive athletic game. It´s all about the win, about making the sale and being able to say ´my car cost $250,000,´”observes Ribisi. “But these guys work hard. The guys I observed made literally 700 calls a day, sometimes even doing what they call double-fisting, talking on two phones at the same time.”
Ribisi also had to do some old-fashioned homework, boning up on investment lingo and financial terms. “Before this, I pretty much knew there was a stock market and that´s all,” laughs Ribisi. “I started pouring through dictionaries to learn the terminology and reading books on how the market works. And I also began exploring that aspect of myself that is excited by greed and money.”
Ribisi found himself sympathetic to Seth Davis´ plight. “He really is just a kid who becomes so driven for the money and the success that he almost gets his whole world pulled out from under him,” notes the actor. “All he really wants is a relationship with his father. But the boiler rooms draw you in and a guy like Seth finds himself lying and yelling and screwing people over without realizing what´s happening to him.”
Playing Seth´s boiler room mentor, the hyper-charismatic Chris, is his Saving Private Ryan co-star Vin Diesel. Diesel once had a job selling over the phone and it was an experience that always stuck with him. “I remember how it was and this script was completely on the money,” says Diesel. “This movie seemed like a great chance to go back and show the world how dangerous telemarketing can be.”
He sees the character of Chris as typical of boiler room players. “Chris is an incredible salesman but he´s also a kid who still lives at home with his mother, who has a sense of family,” Diesel notes. “For a guy like Chris, this job is everything because he´s not good at anything else. But he takes this seriously; he works 18 hour days. He´s not a kid who won awards or scholarships but this job brings dignity to him and his family. He´s basically a guy who would have been a gangster if he hadn´t been a salesman, so in a way this is the best possible scenario for him. You know, they´re all basically blue collar or middle-class kids and they´re lured by the idea that anybody can be a millionaire.”
Seth admires Chris but fears his own appointed mentor, senior broker Greg Weinstein, played by Nicky Katt. Like Seth, Greg hails from a conservative Jewish background. But that´s where the camaraderie stops between the two, especially when Seth starts becoming one of the investment firm´s star sellers.
“Seth steals Greg´s thunder,” explains Katt, “and he can´t handle that. This is a guy who has immersed himself in vanity and materialism and being number one.”
Like the rest of the cast, Katt personally interviewed several boiler room workers, which helped him to understand the ethics, or lack thereof, of the job. “What´s scary about it is that it doesn´t seem like a crime to these guys. It´s all very tempting and these guys just do their thing and take their commissions and they never really consider the legality of it. They know there are a lot of loopholes in the laws,” he says.
All along, he was buoyed by his belief in the script´s searing point of view. “There have been other movies about the financial world but this one is a real breath of fresh air,” states Katt. “It´s the first one to really tackle the underbelly, that goes to how morally corrupt this world can be for young men. I think our job is to really disarm people by showing them the truth of the boiler rooms.”
Rounding out the boys club of the boiler room are Scott Caan as the belligerent Richie and Jamie Kennedy, who recently drew acclaim for Three Kings, as Greg´s wisecracking sidekick, Adam. Says Caan: “I felt ready for the role because I´ve always known how to talk somebody into doing something they don´t want to do. This just takes it to the criminal level. These guys are the ultimate con men.” Adds Jamie Kennedy: “I think for a lot of us the real draw was getting to work with this incredible group of actors in a really different story. It´s exciting to form this kind of camaraderie off screen and then carry it over to the film.”
On the executive side of the boiler room, Tom Everett Scott was cast against type as the baby-faced head of the investment firm. “What I loved about the character is that he´s not the kind of guy you´d imagine would have more money than God,” notes Scott. “But he does. He´s not the guy who went to Harvard, who worked for years on Wall Street, who you would expect to head a brokerage. But what he is, this guy, is very, very assured of himself, the kind of guy who could sell snowballs to Eskimos. It was a lot of fun to play with this.”
Adds Ben Younger: “Tom is such a sweetheart that people wondered about him in this role, but he really pushed it and played up the contrasts for the sleaziest role in the movie. It was great to have someone who is at the very opposite of the extreme play a real scumbag.”
And then there´s the recruiter who brings Seth into the boiler room, played by Academy Award™-winning multi-talent Ben Affleck. “Ben´s role was key,” says Ben Younger. “There was something I wanted to show about how when you get a bunch of guys together, especially uneducated guys in their late 20s, and you put a really strong male authoritative figure in front of them making promises, you can get these guys to do anything. Ben Affleck is that guy.”
Affleck indulged in the two-day role with a vengeance. “Ben just nailed this character,” says Ben Younger. “He got in his suit, got in that room in front of those kids and he just became that same recruiter guy at the boiler room. He was just nuts. For two days he transformed into the character, and he was always selling. We´d be in line at lunch and he´d be closing me on a reason to have a piece of chocolate cake. He was incredible.”
For Affleck, the writing made the challenge a pleasure. “I was drawn by the exceptional writing of Ben Younger and by a really original story,” he states. “Here was an interesting part that would let me stretch and do something different. What could be more fun than playing a guy who is super confident, super in control, super confrontational – who tells it like it is and wins converts?”
Affleck´s research took some interesting turns. “The character is an amalgam of several characters, one of whom is now in jail, if you know what I mean,” comments Affleck. “We all did research but it was hard because everyone in this world is hyper-paranoid.”
The lone woman in this sea of sharks is Debbie, the level-headed receptionist who works for the good pay and asks no questions, played by Nia Long. “I saw Debbie as Seth´s backbone throughout much of the film,” says Ben Younger. “Since there are no women in the boiler room, I thought it would be interesting for Seth to have someone who he could talk to about what´s really going on with him. He leans against Debbie really hard and it all works because the chemistry between Giovanni and Nia was so real.”
For Nia Long, playing the only female who really influences the boiler room was an enticing proposition. “I love that fact that Debbie is really the only female lead in the film,” admits Long. “She´s a great character, a woman who comes from nothing, who is taking care of her mother, and who feels like she deserves to make this money. We see how she ends up sacrificing her morals to accommodate her lifestyle.”
Long adds: “Debbie´s not a bad person. She´s just caught up in this situation where she´s making good money and she´s the hot chick in the office and she likes it that way. All she really wants is to get hers and she´s going to make sure that happens.”
When it came to the relationship between Debbie and Seth, Long went for an emotional rather than logical response. “When I first read the script, I thought that there were many different ways I could go with the relationship,” she says. “I could play it that she was vindictive and manipulative or I could play it that she really cared for Seth and was just caught up in a scandalous situation. I thought it gave the character a lot more credibility to say that she cared for him and Ben Younger was on the same track.”
As for working with Giovanni Ribisi, Long calls him “just a doll.” “The very first day we sat and talked as friends and I think we developed a certain trust right away,” she says. “There was this sense that he had my back and I had his.”
The only people who mean more to Seth than Debbie are his family, particularly his demanding and emotionally cut-off father, played by Ron Rifkin. Rifkin likened the script to a modern Greek tragedy. “It read to me like myth, a story about this kid who has the power to become anything he wants and yet blows his chances. There are so many missed opportunities and crossed paths between father and son, it really moved me in a way I don´t often get touched,” he comments.
As for the character of Marty Davis, Rifkin says: “I think he´s a very moral guy who loves his children but just isn´t able to express it. He wants so much more out of his son, who he feels is squandering his great talents. He is deeply and profoundly disappointed in him, but the only way he knows how to express it is in disdain. He´s a very human character to me, humanly flawed.”
Younger summarizes about the final ensemble: “I never dreamed of getting a cast of this calibre but it was really nice to know that people genuinely believed in the material. Each person brought a real hunger and passion to the movie.”