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The Vow: Fantasy Casting the Inevitable NXIVM Movie

Hollywood, we know you're circling this highly cinematic cult story. We've got your cast picked out.
  • Introducing our NXIVM all-stars: Mark Ruffalo, Allison Brie, Sam Rockwell and Marcia Gay Harden.
    Introducing our NXIVM all-stars: Mark Ruffalo, Allison Brie, Sam Rockwell and Marcia Gay Harden.

    What's been great about HBO's The Vow is the wildly compelling story at its center, about a Scientology-esque cult called NXIVM and the dark subculture of sexual slavery that took place within it. What's been highly frustrating about The Vow is that it's been presented in an often meandering manner. There is a crackerjack story in there waiting to be told, though, and it feels like Hollywood is going to keep going after it until they get it right. That's certainly what it seems with the recent news that Starz is set to air its own docuseries about NXIVM. Titled Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult and premiering this Sunday just as The Vow airs its finale on HBO, the Staz docuseries focuses on the story of India Oxenberg, whose mother Catherine Oxenberg spent much of the back half of The Vow trying to liberate her from the cult.

    But the real pot of gold here is what seems like the inevitable: a narrative feature film (or prestige imited series) about the NXIVM cult, starring big name Hollywood actors as the major players in the story. (Forget that 2019 Lifetime TV movie.) Naturally, after watching all these episodes of The Vow, we've become familiar with these people, and our inner amateur casting director has been bursting with suggestions. None of the following actors have been approached for a NXIVM movie as far as we know, but here's the thing: they should!

    Sam Rockwell as Keith Raniere

    The thing about playing NXIVM founder and "vanguard" Keith Raniere is you have to be able to play someone who is objectively a self-help-spouting, volleyball-playing, scarf-wearing dork who nevertheless was able to draw men and women into his orbit and get them believing in his path to improvement and enlightenment. Sam Rockwell has played his share of freaks and weirdos, but there is always this inner core of enigmatic charisma that keeps you interested. It's a shockingly easy mental exercise to imagine him adopting Keith's familiar, patronizing tone, both pathetic and insidious at once.

    Marcia Gay Harden as Nancy Salzman

    If you imagine Nancy as the secret hardass of the organization, whose instructive demeanor on those countless ESP videos masked a barely sub-surface rage just looking for the slightest excuse to let itself out, you could ask for no one better to portray her than Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden. She projects the kind of intelligence needed to play a leader of a thought movement, yet you know that crossing her would be the last mistake you'd ever want to make. She's also provided some fascinating parent/child dynamics in her films, which would be good for her interactions with her daughter, Lauren (keep reading).

    Brie Larson as Allison Mack

    The Smallville actress Allison Mack was instrumental in helping to draw fellow actors into NXIVM, and her rise to the upper echelon of DOS — to the point where the infamous brand burned into the women enslaved by the group was seen as both Keith Raniere's initials AND Allison Mack's — marks a frightening progression for an actress whose persona never communicated anything less than brightness and innocence. This seems like a fantastic chance for Brie Larson to layer in some real darkness beneath her Oscar-winning, Captain-Marvel-portraying, "Hey, Peter Parker" persona. She and Rockwell together as some kind of fucked-up predatory power couple would be electric.

    Carrie Coon as Sarah Edmondson

    There are a couple of directions you could go with this role, depending on the POV you want to take. If, like, The Vow, you want to frame your story around Sarah's awakening, her ultimate break away from NVXIM, and her going public in an attempt to help the women still involved in DOS, then Carrie Coon is your perfect conflicted protagonist. If you want to go a little darker and plumb the depths of Edmondson's complicity in the NXIVM timeline, well, Coon has the chops to play that too. After The Leftovers, she's proven that she can carry a weighty drama and play incredibly complex characters in a way that makes you care deeply about them. That's exactly what a Vow movie is going to need.

    Justin Theroux as Nippy

    And of course, if you're casting someone to play Carrie Coon's well-meaning-but-still-kinda-implicated-by-everything-he-was-involved-in husband, you need look no farther than her Leftovers co-star Justin Theroux. Not only would a Coon-Theroux reunion be a great hook for your project, but it would also instantly invest the audience in Sarah and Nippy's relationship. Get ready for Nippy in a towel to join Kevin Garvey jogging in sweatpants in the pantheon of Justin Theroux onscreen gratuity.

    Mark Ruffalo as Mark Vicente

    Mark Ruffalo has made a fantastic career out of playing characters beset by moral crises. Look no farther than his recent work in the environmental/legal drama Dark Waters and the Best Picture winning Spotlight for examples of that. Not to mention his recent, Emmy-winning dual role on HBO's I Know This Much Is True. And while documentarian Mark Vicente's role both inside and outside the NXIVM bubble isn't the work of actual twins, you'd definitely need an actor capable of portraying the ESP-boosting, stripe-path-climbing Mark Vicente from the Mark who separated from the cult and then worked overtime to try to get the word out about how bad the cult was.

    Abbie Cornish as Bonnie Piesse

    For once, we'd like to allow poor Abbie Cornish — who has played British and American and whatever the hell kind of accent she was delivering in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — to speak in her native Australian accent. Which is why we're enthusiastically casting the star of Bright Star and W.E. in the role of Bonnie, wife to Mark Vicente and the first person to break away from NXIVM and begin ringing alarm bells about DOS.

    Jenny Slate as Lauren Salzman

    Lauren's a smaller but incredibly pivotal role. She's Nancy's daughter, Keith's alleged lover, and Sarah's best friend who becomes Sarah's "master" within the DOS subculture, pulling her in, demanding subservience, and ultimately branding her. Much like Allison Mack, it's a role that requires darkness coming from a place you wouldn't expect it. Imagining Jenny Slate as a good-time best friend is pretty easy; imagining her taking that funny, friendly vibe of hers and turning it into something predatory and insidious is rather exciting. And from what she showed us in movies like Obvious Child, she's got the chops for it.

    Joely Richardson as Catherine Oxenberg

    Perhaps the trickiest role in this entire saga to cast is that of Catherine Oxenberg. The former Dynasty star and daughter of European royalty spends the back half of The Vow fighting to publicize NXIVM's wrongdoings and liberate her daughter India from their clutches. Oxenberg has a harried patrician vibe to her, at once above the fray and yet desperately grasping at anything that can help her cause. After considering and ultimately discarding such intriguing yet imperfect options as Succession's Harriet Walter (too imposing) and Juliet Stevenson (too relatable), we settled on another scion of royalty — in this case, acting royalty: Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck; 101 Dalmatians), daughter of Vanessa Redgrave. She's exactly the kind of posh you could believe would drive to Niagara Falls to meet a conspiracy blogger in order to save her kid.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Vow, HBO, Starz, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, Abbie Cornish, Allison Mack, Brie Larson, Carrie Coon, Catherine Oxenberg, Jenny Slate, Joely Richardson, Justin Theroux, Keith Raniere, Marcia Gay Harden, Mark Ruffalo, Sam Rockwell