Inside the Star-Studded Live Read of The Big Lebowski

It’s got Michael Fassbender, Patton Oswalt, Olivia Munn, and Jennifer Lawrence—with the latter rolling an expert joint at a moment’s notice.

“I’m so excited I’m nervous right now,” says Jason Reitman, sitting alone onstage in front of a sold-out crowd at Montreal’s Olympia Theatre. An arc of nine empty chairs extends to his left. In front of each chair is a music stand containing a script of The Big Lebowski, and in front of the music stands are paper signs featuring character names like “The Stranger,” “Jesus,” “Maude,” and—of course—”The Dude.”  Shortly after, Mike Judge, Martin Starr, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender filled those respective seats. Joining them were Patton Oswalt (Walter), Dennis Quaid (Big Lebowski), Mae Whitman (Donny), Olivia Munn (Bunny), and TJ Miller (Brandt). Almost everyone took the stage with a glass of wine, raising it to an enthusiastic audience of Lebowski fans. Fassbender, who was introduced last, wore a floor-length robe and came onstage smoking a joint.

Reitman began directing live script readings of classic movies four years ago with The Breakfast Club, and has since gathered 33 disparate casts of actors to help him portray memorable, beloved film characters. The reading of The Big Lebowski was part of Montreal’s annual Just For Laughs comedy festival this past weekend, and Jeff Ross took a break from his roasting duties to introduce Reitman. “[Live reads] are are a way for film buffs to get a hidden DVD commentary track,” says Patton Oswalt of the form’s appeal. “It’s fantasy casting. What would have happened if these people had done it instead?”

Oswalt, a noted Lebowski obsessive, was the driving force of the live read in Montreal. As Walter, he was the loudest of the nine participants and served as a kind of second director to Reitman, playfully orchestrating the actors around him when they would veer off script or flub their lines. He also keeled over laughing during some of the read’s most memorable moments, like when Starr, Whitman, and Miller bickered back and forth as the German nihilists. (Each actor voiced a few ancillary characters in addition to their primary role. Oswalt, for instance, read the lines of both Jackie Treehorn and George W. Bush, whom The Dude watches on TV in the film’s opening scene.)

The most jarring departure from original Big Lebowski was Fassbender’s portrayal of The Dude. Despite his robe, he didn’t immediately dazzle on the small stage. This isn’t a knock on Fassbender, but a testament to how inextricably linked The Dude is with Jeff Bridges. The Dude is Bridges; Bridges is The Dude.

But as the reading progressed, Fassbender was able to more thoroughly ensconce himself into the essence of character, nailing line after line like a less-imposing, clean-shaven Bridges. This was largely because he tapped into the true source of the lackadaisical manner with which The Dude engages the chaos around him: weed. Fassbender kept on smoking the joint he entered with throughout the reading. When he found himself without any green at the ready for the “Mind if I smoke a J?” line, he quickly handed something to Lawrence, who was seated to his right. A few minutes later, she raised a half-rolled joint to her mouth, licked the paper, and returned it to her lap to finish twisting it up. She then placed a fully formed joint on Fassbender’s script stand, and a few minutes later he was once again puffing away.

“I think Fassbender went a little too method on us, if you know what I mean,” Oswalt said to the crowd after Fassbender stumbled over one of his lines a few minutes later. “I hope TMZ isn’t here.”

The beauty of live reads—aside from teaching us that J.Law can roll a joint in a high-pressure situation—is that they reveal how dynamic and open-ended film scripts truly are. The finished product we see on the screen is only one of countless ways the source text could have taken shape. “It’s an interesting idea that any of these movies could have had different casts and could have been different movies,” says Miller. “It’s fun for people to understand that part of filmmaking.”

Because we’re able to find hilarious nuggets in the stage directions, hear our favorite scenes play out at different speeds, and realize which classic one-liners were ad-libbed, we’re essentially experiencing the film through an entirely new lens. Nothing is surprising, and yet at the same time everything pops like it’s being seen for the first time. The shift in perspective allows us to appreciate the film in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Whitman’s frenetic reading of the part of Donny isn’t just hilarious, it made us aware of all of the intricacies of Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of the character in the original film. Same goes for how Miller’s take on Brandt allowed us to savor what Philip Seymour Hoffman did with the role.

The magic of the original film, which inevitably wanes with each passing viewing, is totally renewed by the live read. It’s likely that most of the 1,300 Lebowski fans in attendance have never laughed as hard at the film as they did while watching it read onstage in Montreal. It’s also likely that they’ve never been so excited to go back home and re-watch the original. Seventeen years after The Big Lebowski first hit theaters, The Dude continues to abide.

Photos by Gramercy Pictures/Everett Collection; In Article: Courtesy of Dan Dion/ the Just for Laughs Festival