Podcasting existed in a cultural niche – “Hey, do you listen to this podcast? Me too!” – from the time of its inception, until the very moment that Serial launched. For the first time in the medium’s history, there was a podcast made for compulsory listening. A fifteen-year-old murder mystery became water cooler fodder through clever, thorough storytelling.
The storytelling and the remarkable reporting of Serial are exemplary within the true crime genre, regardless of medium. What pushed Serial over the edge were the characters involved, and the way Sarah Koenig and the rest of the podcast’s team truly brought them to life. The premise of the plot is simple – a girl was murdered and a man is in jail, but someone in this story isn’t telling the truth. If Serial had framed its principles as woody archetypes, or relied solely on by-the numbers descriptions of those involved, audience investment would have suffered. Instead, the team behind the reporting fully fleshed out each person’s story, making each of them sympathetic characters in a disturbing real-life mystery.
Naturally, film studios showed immediate interest in the rights to Serial after the stunning success of its first season. Nothing solid is in the works, but that won’t stop us from dreaming up a cast of our own. The “characters” of Serial are all real people, who are related in one way or another to a terrible tragedy, so we want to make sure that the actors we chose are faithful representations of who the individuals involved were, as framed by the podcast. Given the news this week that Adnan Syed is going to get a new trial, we thought it was the perfect time to Cast A Serial Movie.
Note: we are casting a film as if it were told in a similar fashion to Serial season one. We have Adnan Syed as an adult and high school student, the rest of the characters are cast as their age at the time of the crime.
This is our Dream Cast of Serial, the film.
16. Adnan Syed (High School) – Dev Patel
Adnan is the protagonist of the first season Serial, as much as the podcast had one. The Baltimore Area teenager convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000, Syed has doggedly maintained his innocence since day of his conviction. As Serial outlined, there is certainly evidence that supports his claim of wrongful conviction. This week, Adnan was granted a new trial by the court system, two years after the podcast began.
Serial describes teenage Adnan as a kid with a good reputation, someone peers were drawn in by. He balanced a relatively religious and conservative upbringing with the social demands of High School, with varying degrees of success. He played sports, came home before curfew, and was a had a magnetic personality. He also, like many young people, occasionally made bad decisions (stealing money from a Mosque’s donation box) and found himself with a less than reputable crowd (we will get to Jay soon.)
The perfect actor to play Adnan – an enigma in his own right – would have to straddle a number of lines. Handsome, well-liked, family-oriented, but also comfortable in the neighborhood, on the street. We would go with Dev Patel, who can play a sort of bookish straight edge, but also has the natural charisma and good looks that suggest he would do well in any crowd. We also considered Riz Ahmed, who is playing what appears to be a direct Adnan analog in HBO’s The Night After.
15. Adnan Syed (Adult) – Said Taghmaoi
The Adnan that we meet in Serial’s present has lost some of his boyish good looks, and turned a little more inward. Koenig describes him multiple times as extremely engaging, even wondering if she was being played. For the most part, though, he seems like a man who long ago resigned himself to his fate, despite maintaining his influence.
When we met Adnan he had been in prison for fourteen years, after being sentenced to life plus thirty years. The few still working on behalf of Adnan mostly consisted of some family and friends, led by friend and activist Rabia Chaudry, who referred the case to Sarah Koenig and company.
Koenig visited Syed in prison many times, and spoke with him over the phone many times. His moods were various, and could change suddenly from joking and benevolent to defensive or frustrated. Some days he seemed very well adjusted, hopeful even. Others, he seemed to have lost whatever fight was still in him. Unless Dev Patel were to play adult Adnan with some prosthetics, we would be looking for an actor with some intensity, playing a characters seasoned by over a decade of what he believes (and may be) wrongful incarceration. Someone who can alternately be smooth and likeable or despondent, combative even. For adult Adnan Syed, we would choose Said Taghmaoi.
14. Sarah Koenig – Sandra Bullock
Sarah Koenig is the award-winning journalist who hosts and executive produces Serial. She has written for The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, reported for ABC News, and later produced episodes of the Peabody-winning podcast This American Life.
Koenig and Julie Snyder created Serial to tell non-fiction stories one bit at a time, with episodes released weekly. It is an avenue for telling engaging small stories that represent large cultural ideas, an idea that isn’t novel in documentary terms, but certainly was new to the podcasting realm. As host, Koenig’s signature cadence, measured tone and in depth reporting put an immediate hook in the audience. She was able to walk listeners through a real life story in a way that – for the most part – steered clear of exploitation, remaining thoughtful and unbiased throughout.
It was Koenig’s voice that listeners heard the most of, and it was her (and her team’s) investigative work that drove the story. So, the actress that we are looking for to be the engine for the film would have to be a name, someone with recognized talent who is also instantly relatable for audiences. This spot on imitation made us first think of Cecily Strong, but the role calls for more than mimicry. We landed on Sandra Bullock, our dream choice for Sarah Koenig.
13. Hae Min Lee – Brenda Song
Serial is all about the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore area high school student in 1999. She was an ex-girlfriend of Adnan Syed’s, but they still talked and shared mutual friends. On January 13, 1999 Lee disappeared; she was reported missing later that day by her family. On February 9, 1999, her body was found in Leakin Park, a park in Baltimore.
By all accounts and by almost any metric, Lee was an exemplary person. Born in South Korea, Lee moved to America with her brother and mother, and she flourished. She was accepted to a magnet program at Woodlawn High School, where she was also a two-sport varsity athlete, member of numerous clubs and activities, and honor roll student.
It’s natural for peers, friends and family to remember the dead fondly, perhaps with more fondness than reality would even dictate. This was not one of those cases. Hae Min Lee was universally liked by her peers, loved by her family, and respected by her teachers and coaches. We chose an actress who could bring Hae’s personality to life, while living in a way that resembled who Hae was as well. Brenda Song has had a successful young career in Hollywood, while maintaining a grounded public image and activity in a number of charitable and philanthropic endeavors.
12. Jay Wilds – Donald Glover
In many ways, Jay Wilds is emblematic of all the uncertainty regarding the Syed murder trial. Wilds, an acquaintance of Adnan’s, gave the lynchpin testimony condemning Syed to his fate. Still, so much is unclear about the validity of Jay’s story, which changed numerous times during the investigation. This much is clear – Jay was at least tangentially involved with the murder of Hae Min Lee (he admitted to helping dispose the body). What role he truly played, and how truthful his testimony was, is still largely in question.
Who Jay is as much of an enigma as what Jay did. Classmates were unable to conveniently categorized him, except for a couple that used Dennis Rodman as a point of comparison. Some described Jay as a free spirit, who listened to any genre of music, wore lip rings, smoked weed, and loved the outdoors. Others described him as edgy, intimidating in the way that people with a quick trigger for violence can be intimidating. He sold drugs and played lacrosse. Dyed his hair different colors. Loved his girlfriend. Fought for fun.
The actor who plays Jay has to be a chameleon. We thought of Donald Glover, who is someone who fits that alternative-individualistic model, while also being able to pull off the hardened petty criminal.
11. Asia Mcclain – Amber Stevens West
If Jay was the key witness of Adnan’s guilt, Asia Mcclain is possibly the key witness of his innocence. In fact, McClain will play an important role in Syed’s new trial, as she is the only person who can support his alibi at the time of the murder.
Since 1999, Asia McClain has maintained that she saw Adnan in school the day Hae Lee Min disappeared. In that time, she has been completely overlooked by defense attorneys (she was never questioned!), maintained a correspondence with Adnan, declined to testify in 2010, written a book, and testified in 2016.
By her own account, McClain was just another student at Woodlawn, bored in the library when a friendly face (Syed) walked in. It’s an unremarkable story, the type of thing that happens every day. And it just might be what swings the upcoming trial in Adnan’s favor.
10. Rabia Chaudry – Mindy Kaling
Rabia Chaudry has been championing Adnan’s Innocence since the day he entered prison. Chaudry, an activist and friend of Adnan’s, brought the case to Sarah Koenig’s attention because Koenig had previously reported on Adnan’s attorney during her time at The Baltimore Sun.
Rabia’s resume is long and distinguished. She is a fellow at the U.S. Institute of peace, and an attorney. She is a published author and a founder of the Safe Nation Collaborative, an outreach program aimed at combating religious extremism. Most importantly to Serial listeners, she is the public advocate to Adnan Syed. Chaudry has been working on his behalf, pulling on whatever threads available to her, to prove his innocence. Without a doubt, she is the reason Serial exists; and if Adnan is proven innocent, she should take a fair share of the credit.
9. Cristina Gutierrez – Kathy Bates
Cristina Gutierrez is one of the most dynamic individuals in the first season of Serial. She was a Baltimore-based defense attorney, respected by her field and decorated, having represented a number of high-profile clients. Gutierrez passed away in 2003. Three years before her death, she was disbarred after complaints of negligence, both with client cases and client financials. Despite ending her career in a degree of ignominy, the podcast frames her as a onetime tenacious litigator, a true Pitbull in the courtroom.
Gutierrez’ strategy in the Adnan Syed trial, as outlined by Serial, was peculiar. She seemed to be trying a few different game plans, with none really hitting. Her demeanor could change as quickly as her tactics, switching from agonizingly dull to jarringly aggressive in the audio Serial relays.
The actress tapped to play Gutierrez would have to be a force of nature, brilliant and mercurial. She would have to have a big personality, and an unmatched drive. We think Kathy Bates would be the perfect fit.
8. Mr. S – Jeff Bridges
Mr. S found Hae Min Lee’s body in Leakin Park. By his own story, he was in the park relieving himself on his way home from his job as a maintenance worker at a local school. Mr. S’ narrative immediately raised red flags with investigators – why would he have to stop the car to pee, when his house was six miles from work? Why would he walk 127 feet into the woods, only to pee? When the cops continued to pull up the rug, so to speak, they discovered that Mr. S had been arrested and charged with indecent exposure three separate times.
Mr. S naturally fell under immediate suspicion, amounting to nothing substantial. He very much remains a mystery figure to the Serial team and audience, someone who might have more story to tell than we know.
Mr. S is African-American, and we are completely cognizant of whitewashing as a problem in real life Hollywood. But we hope that readers won’t mind us changing the race of a hard-drinking serial streaker, because we really want to see Jeff Bridges in the role. Mr. S seems like the kind of guy who might enjoy a White Russian or two on his way to work.
7. Jennifer Pusateri – Blake Lively
Jen Pusateri is a peripheral figure in the trial of Adnan Syed, who despite her tangential relationship to Adnan was actually important during the investigation. Rabia Chaudry, public advocate for Adnan, has stated that Adnan and Jen barely knew each other. Still, on the night of Hae Min Lee’s disappearance, Jen’s pager received three distinct calls from Adnan’s phone. Who made those calls is a still a matter of dispute, although Adnan himself said he remembered having his phone on him at the time.
Jen was a close friend of Jay’s, and the first person that Jay told about the murder of Hae. The two met one night, with Jay desperate to get a secret off his chest; he (in his story) had seen Hae’s body in the trunk of a car, and Adnan had confessed to the murder. Jay knew the location of the murder, and the car.
Jen was the first to speak to the police, who were led to Jay, and then to Adnan. Furthermore, the police used the phone calls to Jen’s pager as a road map for the events of Hae’s disappearance. For Jen, we went with Blake Lively.
6. Detectives Greg Macgillivary and Bill Ritz – Jonathan Banks and John Doman
Macgillivary and Ritz were the lead investigators in the case of Hae Min Lee’s murder. Serial never got to interview them – both declined, with Ritz essentially saying he didn’t understand the point, and Macgillivary as firm in his knowledge that Adnan was guilty as you are the sun will rise in the morning. Still, listeners were able to hear some tape of the investigators, as they questioned Mr. S, Jay, and other persons of interest.
Serial frames the investigators pretty much as consummate pros, from what we hear on tape. An ex-Washington, D.C. detective consulting on the podcast went as far as to say the murder investigation was conducted well, above average even. Koenig at one point shows us a report the two seasoned detectives have: Macgillivary opens interrogations unassuming, friendly. Ritz would then enter the conversation with a more leading, direct tone. Lastly, Macgillivary would come over the top, rejoining the conversation in a much harsher, disorienting tone.
For these two we wanted a pair of season vets, actors who can play quiet and loud, all while maintaining authority. Macgillivary and Ritz in our dream cast are Jonathan Banks and John Doman respectively.
5. Don – James Franco
Don was Hae Min Lee’s new boyfriend, who came into her life directly after her relationship with Adnan ended. Hae was described by a number of peers as seeming older, much more mature than her classmates for their age. So in a way it made sense for Hae to find Don, a “cool” older guy (20 years old at the time), with his own job and car. Hae and Don met at the job, a Lenscrafters at the Owings Mills mall in Maryland.
Serial listeners will remember a few key details about Don. Don usually worked at Owings Mills, but on the day of Hae’s murder he was working a shift at the Hunt Valley story, which was confirmed by the Hunt Valley manager. Now, this is the intriguing bit: the manager of the Hunt Valley store was Don’s mother. In September of 1999, the defense filed a subpoena requesting LensCrafters employment records for Don, which initially showed that Don only worked at Owings Mills that week. A few days later, LensCrafters turned up an additional timecard placing Don at Hunt Valley on the day in question, as he claimed.
4. Saad Chaudry – Kal Penn
Saad Chaudry is Rabia’s younger brother and best friend to Adnan. They first met in their freshman year of high school, four years before the events surrounding the murder of Hae Min Lee. Saad has remained in constant contact with Adnan during his incarceration, and like many of Adnan’s close associates maintains that the cops got the wrong guy.
Chaudry was an honor student, two sport varsity athlete, and homecoming king in high school. He was a card carrying member of the cool kid/jock crowd, while balancing his life at home as a good Muslim in a conservative household.
We don’t know much about Saad – he didn’t play an active role in the disappearance/murder of Hae, and only sort of knew many of the principle players through mutual friends. Still, he has been Adnan’s closest confidant over his time in prison, and vehemently supports Adnan’s innocence. We want to see Kal Penn in the role of Saad Chaudry.
3. Stephanie Mcpherson – Zoe Kravitz
Stephanie’s role in all of this is convoluted, and needs more space than we have to fully outline. A lot of it is conjecture, and he-said she-said gossip. Here are the basic facts. Stephanie was Jay’s girlfriend, whom he loved dearly. She was also close to Adnan, to a much greater extent than Jay was himself.
The murky part of Stephanie’s story, which she has neglected to tell in any way, shape, or form over the last 17 years, is this: the day Hae Min Lee disappeared was Stephanie’s birthday. This could be a coincidence, except there were rumblings at the time that Jay may have been seeing other girls behind Stephanie’s back (Gutierrez goes as far as alleging this in court). Further blurring all this, Stephanie was absent during the trial (she only watched Jay testify), and has maintained complete silence in the years since.
The void created by Stephanie’s absence has been filled with conjecture, by Koenig, lawyers, and fans of the podcast. There is a prevailing theory that Hae was going to confront Stephanie with Jay’s infidelity, giving Jay motive to commit the crime. Importantly, this is just a theory with nothing to back it.
2. Nisha – Kiersey Clemons
Nisha is a bit part in the Serial saga, but her small screen time is of great importance. Serial fans know “The Nisha Call” immediately as a tide turning incident, one of the strongest bits of evidence of Adnan’s guilt.
On January 13, 1999, the day of Hae’s disappearance, Adnan made a cell phone call to a friend of his name Nisha, a friend who did not know Jay. For some reason, he put Jay on the phone with her and the two exchanged a few words – this is all according to Nisha’s testimony. Adnan maintained at the time that neither his phone nor car were in his possession, instead that Jay had them both. The suggestion being that Jay mistakenly called Nisha and unknowingly left a voicemail, which Nisha did not corroborate.
1. The Best Buy Phone – The Payphone from Die Hard: With a Vengeance
The advent of cell phones marked a new era, forcing cinema’s phone booths and landlines to adapt much like silent film actors were forced to adapt to talkies. Sure, some can still find work typecast in the occasional period piece, or maybe as an extra in an urban landscape if they are lucky. But gone are the days of the movie star phonebooth, when phones with cords lit up the screen in films like Goodfellas, sparring with Robert De Niro, or in Phone Booth, imprisoning Colin Farrell.
The Best Buy phone in Serial largely a phantom, shaped by whoever is remembering the events at the time. Jay claims that Adnan called him from a pay phone, that was either on the inside of the Best Buy lobby or just outside the doors. The existence of the phone booth became important once Koenig and company were unable to confirm that it had ever been there in the first place. Blueprints were unearthed from old file cabinets, phone companies were called, experts were consulted – but at the end of the season, Koenig can only merely suggest that there may have been a pay phone there.
For the role of Best Buy Phone, we considered numerous choices – with such a sparsity of work for that particular segment, it was important to get it right. Payphones were considered from films ranging from The Matrix to Anchorman. We went with a Payphone from Die Hard: With a Vengeance; one of the last films to truly feature landlines in a starring role.