Steve’s World

Sony buys the film rights to Steve Jobs biography, but who's right for the role?


One measure of our culture’s esteem for its visionaries is which celebrity is chosen to portray them in the motion picture versions of their lives. For someone like Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, whose alchemy of design elegance and technological wizardry sought to put the digital equivalent of a philosopher’s stone in everybody’s pocket (is the iStone far off?), the casting choice serves as both tribute and critique. Moreover, with Sony’s recent acquisition of the film rights to author Walter Isaacson’s hotly anticipated Steve Jobs: A Biography, it’s imminent.

Steve P. Jobs was about as creative, driven and enigmatic as they come, which presents a colossal challenge to whoever dons the jeans and mock-turtleneck onscreen. Jobs’ curricula vitae is proof-positive of the adage that “America loves a second act,” which, of course, is actor- if not Oscar-bait. Within a year of launching the game-changing Macintosh, Jobs was famously fired from his own company. After some soul-searching and general maturation, Jobs eventually re-entered the game not for revenge, not for money, not for anything but the love of his work. As he said in his 2005 address to Stanford grads, “I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.” That latter sentence will probably end up on a bus ad for the movie.

Among Jobs’ superpowers was his oft-cited ability to generate a “reality distortion field” at will. This, his critics comically alleged, accounted for the near messianic fervor he created around his product launches. Playing these types can literally be a thankless role. (John Lennon, for example, has never been played to universal satisfaction, though Dr. Who‘s Christopher Eccleston recently came close with Lennon Naked.)

Complicating matters is the fact that Jobs shrouded his private life with the same predilection for secrecy with which Apple notoriously guards its product development. What remains are videos of product launches and a smattering of interviews.

In many ways, Jobs remains a cipher—the black-clad wizard of Silicon Valley who demanded perfection and damn near got it. To that end, Eccleston might also be a candidate for Jobs, especially given his similar aquiline nose and ability to muster a hawklike glower. But to the general public, he’s a relative unknown; moviegoers who missed his turns in TV’s Heroes and at the helm of the TARDIS, might simply ask “Who?”

Given Sony’s financial commitment, rumored to be $1 million–$3 million for Isaacson’s rights alone, the budget for the Jobs biopic will likely put its casting in A-list territory. To that end, we shouldn’t expect to see actor Noah Wyle reprise his turn as Jobs in The Pirates of Silicon Valley TV movie of 1999. Wyle’s performance was credible enough, or at least endearing enough to Jobs himself (“I hated the movie, but you were good,” Wyle recounted Jobs saying to him during an interview for Fortune) that he was subsequently invited to perform the first five minutes of Jobs’ keynote as a gag at MacWorld.

Though one can imagine Wyle saying “I’m not Steve Jobs, but I play one on TV,” it doesn’t guarantee an opening weekend. But Samuel L. Jackson does. This was the suggestion of the wags at Gizmodo in a facetious feat of stunt-casting. In terms of capturing Jobs’ occasional bouts of ferocity on the floor of Apple headquarters, Jackson would seem amply qualified (and he can use the black turtleneck from his Nick Fury get-up in the forthcoming Marvel movie The Avengers). However, the novelty would wear thin after about five minutes—or the average length of a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The actor most likely to score the role who has a reality distortion field of his own (which he’s usually in), who has box office draw and A-list provenance is Tom Cruise. Pause, let it sink in. Think back to Cruise’s turn as Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia while leading a self-help seminar. Now, tone that down a couple of notches and throw in some granny glasses. It’s getting close isn’t it? Surely, casting Cruise would be divisive and controversial, but lest we forget in the midst of all his eulogizing, so was the man who encouraged us to “Think Different.” Until the film is made, however, we’ll never know who was the right man for the Jobs.

Sonoma County Library