More Controversial Casting Choices And How They Turned Out

Some casting announcements don't tend to go down very well - but how do things turn out once the film is out?

Note: This is the second time we’ve explored controversial casting choices…mostly because there’s no shortage of this kind of controversy.

It’s pretty much commonplace now that when a casting announcement comes out, there’s instant dissection. They’ll be rubbish! They’ll be brilliant! He’s too tall! She’s too short! You pretty much know the drill. This has always been so, though, and whilst the internet has inevitably amplified such reactions in modern days, controversial casting is nothing new. Here are 11 examples.

Let’s start with a double dose of Tom Cruise…

Tom Cruise – Interview With The Vampire

Tom Cruise has gone through two major casting controversies in his life to date, so let’s do them in turn. The first was when he was cast as Lestat in the adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire.

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Neil Jordan directed the movie, working on the screenplay with Rice (although Rice would get sole credit for it), and Cruise led an impressive cast. However, Rice was unimpressed about him getting the job, and she led the howls of protest against his casting.

Tom Cruise, she argued, was “no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G Robinson is Rhett Butler.” She plunged the knife a little deeper, adding that she thought the casting was “so bizarre” and that “it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work.”

Cruise kept his head down and got on with the job. And in advance of the film’s release, Warner Bros gave Rice a preview copy of Interview With The Vampire on VHS. Cue an about face, and to Rice’s credit, she was as loud with her praise as she had been with her criticism.

She thus took out a full page advert in Variety, writing:

“ON TOM CRUISE: From the moment he appeared Tom was Lestat for me. He has the immense physical and moral presence; he was defiant and yet never without conscience; he was beautiful beyond description yet compelled to do cruel things. The sheer beauty of Tom was dazzling, but the polish of his acting, his flawless plunge into the Lestat persona, his ability to speak rather boldly poetic lines, and speak them with seeming ease and conviction were exhilarating and uplifting. The guy is great.”

She further clarified that her initial protests had not been personal about Cruise, rather that she thought he had been miscast.

Interview With The Vampire proved to be a sizeable worldwide hit, and mostly won over audiences and fans of Rice’s novel. However, Cruise would not reprise the role, and instead, Stuart Townsend would play Lestat in the subsequent Queen Of The Damned.

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How did the casting turn out?

It turned out well. The film and Tom Cruise hit big. Warner Bros won its gamble. But I can’t help but wonder if the furor discouraged Cruise from filming a second Lestat movie.

Jack reacher – Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise then waded into another casting minefield two decades later, when he took on the role of Jack Reacher. Reacher is the star of a series of novels by Lee Child, of which the 20th is published this year. The character is described as a veteran of the military police, a former Major, and with blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. Crucially, he’s also 6’5″, and weighs between 100 and 115kg. Get ready for one of cinema’s easiest ever games of spot the difference.

Tom Cruise does not have blonde hair, nor would he in the movie. In real life he is 5’7″, and we couldn’t tell you how much he weighs. But even loose followers of the Jack Reacher series sensed that this was miscasting.

The Jack Reacher movie nonetheless pressed ahead, and it arrived in cinemas back in 2012. To be fair, it’s quite a good film too. Director Christopher McQuarrie’s opening sequence for a start is outstanding, and the casting of Werner Herzog quite inspired.

However, there’s no sense really that Cruise effectively made his way into the shoes of Jack Reacher, the character from the books. Rather, his lead role felt more like the hero (perhaps with an edge of anti-hero) of a good Tom Cruise thriller, than anywhere close to a faithful Reacher.

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The film did decent business, and there’s still occasional talk of another movie. McQuarrie and Cruise, however, have teamed up on this summer’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and that’s their immediate priority.

How did the casting turn out?

So-so. A faithful Reacher this was not, a decent film it was. There are still apparently plans for another, but things have gone a little quiet on that front.

Renee Zellweger – Bridget Jones’ Diary

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels tell of a thirtysomething single woman, struggling with weight, smoking, and drinking too much. She charts her insecurities and the highs and lows of her life in her diary, and lives in London.

For the film version, then, it would be fair to say that eyebrows were raised back in February 2000, when it was announced that Texas-born Renee Zellweger had the role. She seemingly had little in common with the character she would be playing, and as Zellweger herself told the BBC back in 2001, “I figured that this was a film that would be made in Britain and that it would be played by a British actress – and that was that”.

Only it wasn’t. Zellweger landed the role, and threw herself into preparation. She was 32 at the time of the film’s release, and by then had perfected a British accent, and added the weight needed to properly realise the role of Bridget. The end result? A huge hit, award nominations, and arguably the finest performance of her impressive career.

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Zellweger has returned for one, less impressive sequel to date. Rumors persist of a third film, but Zellweger is so long past the point of having anything to prove, that it’s hard to imagine another Bridget film without her.

How did the casting turn out?

Very well, and Zellweger also cemented her position as a very strong actress, who can handle both comedy and drama. It’s a shame she’s not done more comedies in particular, as she’s got a real talent for it.

Marlon Brando – The Godfather

There’s a sketch from the BBC’s Harry Enfield’s Television Programme where Wayne and Waynetta Slob go to have their child baptised. Who’s the godfather, questions the exasperated vicar? The two Slobs look at each in unison, before affirming in unison “Marlon Brando!”

For who else could it be? So synonymous is the late Brando with the role of Don Corleone, it’s impossible to think of anyone else playing the role. And yet, within the corridors of the studio at least, Brando was a contentious choice. Director Francis Ford Coppola championed him, and was keen to get his man, but Stanley Jaffe, the boss of the studio, wasn’t convinced. In fact, that’s an understatement. “As long as I’m president of the studio, Marlon Brando will not be in the picture,” he said.

Jaffe only budged after setting three conditions. That Brando take a pay cut, that he take on the financial responsibility for any delays, and that he do a screen test. To the surprise of many, Brando ceded to all three. Jaffe ultimately allowed his casting after said screen test, and come the release of The Godfather, Brando would reap thunderous, and richly-deserved, acclaim.

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How did the casting turn out?

Superbly well. So much so that Coppola would call Brando again when he opted to make Apocalypse Now. And what a quiet, easy shoot that turned out to be…

Wesley Snipes – Rising Sun

Ink and pixels have been deployed generously in dissecting the casting for this summer’s Fantastic Four movie. Josh Trank’s reboot has cast Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm/Human Torch, and you don’t have to explore too many comments fields to find the outrage this has caused. There are two issues, it seems: that the race of the character has been changed, and that he’ll be of different skin colour to the rest of Marvel’s rebooted first family.

Changing the skin colour and background of a character has been at the heart of such controversies before, though. Take Phillip Kaufman’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. The film was already a contentious one, dealing with the unease between Japanese and America cultures (it took an American-owned studio, Fox, to finance it). But the late Crichton for one was singularly unimpressed that the film changed the Caucasian character of police liaison Peter Smith to an African-American in the film, when Wesley Snipes took on the part.

Co-star Sean Connery insisted that the switch enhanced the film, but not everyone agreed. As the Media Action Network for Asian Americans argued at the time, “it can only exacerbate tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans”. The group sought an Asian actor to take on the role.

The film was under fire throughout production for its depiction of Japan and Japanese cultures, although many aim the same view at the source novel. Either way, Snipes’ casting may have been divisive, but the film never really resonated anyway. Middling reviews at best didn’t aid it much on the way to a $107m global take. And, on the whole, Rising Sun is the kind of movie that barely seems to register, some 20 years after its original release.

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How did the casting turn out?

Not really worth all the bother. Snipes wasn’t bad in Rising Sun, but the film around him had plenty of problems. 1993’s Michael Crichton movie to watch would remain Jurassic Park.

Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis – The Bonfire Of The Vanities

Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, was seen as a definite story of the 1980s. And one character particularly stood out, that of ‘master of the universe’ and Wall Street shit Sherman McCoy. Think The Wolf Of Wall Street, but in a different time, and you’re not too far off.

It would be fair to say that when Warner Bros picked up the movie rights to Wolfe’s book then, that eyebrows were raised after the casting. Director Brian De Palma was looking in the direction of Jack Nicholson to take on the part of journalist Peter Fallow, and John Cleese also turned the role down. In the end, Bruce Willis took it on, a choice coming from the studio, with one eye on the cash that was rolling in from Die Hard (and knowing that Die Hard 2 was around the corner).

For Sherman McCoy, the film was soon on a hiding to nothing when the character was toned down in the screenplay, making him far more sympathetic on screen than he was on the page. As such, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Tom Cruise were reportedly all courted for the part, but it was Tom Hanks who got the nod.

It’s important to note that this was a pre-Saving Private RyanPhiladelphia, and Forrest Gump Tom Hanks. At this stage, he was best known for his comedies, and for his Oscar-nominated turn in Big.

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Julie Salamon would chart the production of The Bonfire Of The Vanities in her excellent book, The Devil’s Candy, from which Tom Hanks emerges with far more credit than Bruce Willis. Yet neither role worked on screen, and there was a strong sense that the casting had been a fundamental boo-boo.

How did the casting turn out?

Disastrously, really. Both Hanks and Willis would go on to prove that their acting range was broader than they were given credit for around the time of The Bonfire Of The Vanities‘ release. The stink of The Bonfire Of The Vanities box office failure would be covered up not long after for Willis by the time the underrated Hudson Hawkcame around.

Sylvester Stallone – Judge Dredd

It’s easy to forget, in hindsight, that Danny Cannon’s 1995 movie of Judge Dreddwas hugely unlikely to have got off the ground at all had Sylvester Stallone not displayed an interest in making it. Stallone, then in the midst of his career second wind off the back of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, was nobody’s first choice outside of the accounts department to bring Judge Dredd to the screen. And he hardly helped his cause when it was quickly revealed that he’d be taking his helmet off in the movie. Sacrilege then, sacrilege now.

At the time, Dredd seemed ideal for a then-sixtysomething Clint Eastwood, and once upon a time, Arnold Schwarzenegger had been linked with the role (in the early 1990s).

Stallone admitted that, before he was offered the part of Dredd, he wasn’t familiar with the character. And you’d have to say that – appreciating the movie does have some merits – that you can tell. Outside of the first five minutes, and the occasional facial expression, he barely comes within waving distance of encapsulating what makes Dredd work.

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The behind the scenes stories don’t help. Director Danny Cannon wanted a darker, more violent film, whilst Stallone was chasing more action and comedy. The movie star won, and you’d have to say that the film ultimately lost. Karl Urban would head to the screen nearly two decades later and right a great deal of Stallone’s wrongs on this one…

How did the casting turn out?

Brilliantly! Well, in 2012 at least. Not so well in 1995…

Anthony Hopkins – Nixon

To tackle the story of a high profile American president, not least the only one to resign the role, Oliver Stone was always going to attract criticism. Stone drew up his shortlist, which included the likes of Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman and Robin Williams. But whilst the studio was pushing in the direction of someone like Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson, Stone was gravitating towards a Welshman: Sir Anthony Hopkins.

When his casting was announced, there was certainly criticism. Interestingly, Hopkins opted not to outright mimic Tricky Dicky in his performance too (the opposite of the approach taken by Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, for instance), and his ultimate performance was and is really quite excellent. The film? A bit bumpier, although the extended cut really is some piece of work.

How did the casting turn out?

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Well. Although not that many people noticed in the end. A real shame, as it’s one of Stone’s most ambitious, complex films. In a good way.

Angelia Jolie – A Mighty Heart

When Ben Kingsley won his Best Actor Oscar for playing Gandhi back in 1982, the controversy over a Caucasian actor taking on the role was limited at best. In fairness, Kingsley’s performance was and is excellent, and the 80s would see others changing race on screen. Soul Man, starring C Thomas Howell, is not a high point (Lenny Henry, interestingly, inverted this with his not-very-good Hollywood debut, True Identity, in 1991).

It tells something of how times have changed that when it was announced that Angelina Jolie – a white woman – was to portray Marianne Pearl, the reaction was far frostier. It was declared at the time that Pearl was mixed-race, but actually, her background is that of a Dutch-Jewish father and an Afro-Chinese-Cuban mother. That notwithstanding, there was loud criticism that Jolie was inappropriate casting.

However, a robust defence came from Pearl herself, who argued that “it is not about the colour of your skin, it is about who you are”. Pearl says she asked Jolie to take on the role, and was more than happy with the actress’ work. Jolie’s performance would win critical acclaim.

How did the casting turn out?

The underappreciated film may not have set the world alight, but Angelina Jolie’s leading performance was certainly of real merit. It would be remiss to say that the controversy was ever fully extinguished, though.

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