The biggest part of getting an iconic performance is casting the right actor for the part.
But sometimes there’s disagreement over who that right actor is. Whether it’s an unknown in a major role, sure-fire Oscar bait or just a deviation from the type of characters they’re known for playing, these unpopular casting choices have led to some of the most memorable performances in movie history.
While the current incarnation of Spiderman featuring Tom Holland receives well-deserved praise, one must not forget the O.G. Spiderman, played by Toby Maguire. He played the titular web-slinger in Spiderman, Spiderman 2, and literally no other movie with “Spiderman” in the title… that we care to think of.
Though critics have grown to love Maguire’s performance as the meek, kind, oft-troubled Peter Parker, his casting was at first puzzling to many. His serious roles in the sober films Seabiscuit and Cider House Rules did not seem to lend themselves to high-flying superhero fantasy. Luckily, he proved doubters wrong with his rendition of Spiderman in those TWO films.
Burn After Reading
When you think comedy, Brad Pitt doesn’t readily spring to mind. That’s why his casting in Burn After Reading, a dark comedy with a quirky cast, was met with some skepticism. He also seemed a bit old to play a boyish, dumb jock. And though he had shown some comedy chops in Snatch, he had never been tasked with such a zany role.
He ended up killing it, stealing every scene he was in as the air-headed and guileless gym trainer, Chad. His performance absolutely nails the character of “impish frat-boy in over his head and out of his element,” which may sound dumb on the surface, but somehow works beautifully in the Coen brothers’ film.
This controversial casting had the problem of a lovable comedian sliding into a very dark, dramatic role. Steve Carell – famous for his portrayals of the goofy boss, Michael, in The Office and the sexless protagonist in The 40-year-old Virgin – has a goofy, lovable patina that couldn’t be more different from the role he takes on in Foxcatcher.
The movie is based on the real true crime case of a multimillionaire and his deadly enthusiasm for wrestling. Carell plays John E. du Pont, an obsessive, and abusive Olympic wrestling coach. Du Pont, warped by immense wealth and a classist, cold upbringing, is a compelling and terrifying figure in Carell’s Oscar-winning performance. Weirdly, Carell’s experience in The Office actually prepared him for the role of such a fragile man.
After The Matrix and John Wick, it’s hard to think of Keanu Reeves as anything but a steely-eyed action hero. However, he started as a ditzy stoner-dude in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. A tepid response to Point Break and a terribly accented performance as a vampire hunter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula spelled doom for him to take on more serious roles.
He surprised critics with his performance in Speed as Jack Traven, a frantic cop trying to save a bus full of people doomed to explode if it drops below 50 mph. Not only did critics praise Reeves’ performance, the movie may have been doomed without him.
Reeves didn’t like the original screenplay version of his character, saying, “Situations [were] set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced—Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” His input made Traven the do-gooder audiences loved.
Many people expressed their concerns when Daniel Craig was cast as the iconic James Bond in Casino Royale. The decision was so controversial, internet campaigns threatened to boycott the film in protest. The problem: most fans of the franchise saw James Bond as requiring a sleek elegant, debonair actor, whereas Craig seemed too much like a “meathead.”
The criticism turned out to be massively unwarranted: Craig managed to pull off the cold-blooded charm of the master spy. If anything, Craig’s steely-eyed performance brought more realism to the role. After all, Bond is a jaded, trained killer, something reflected in Craig’s frosty glare.
When former model Gal Gadot was cast as Diana in Wonder Woman, people were skeptical. Think pieces and internet forums were reeling from the decision, either because Gadot wasn’t American (she’s Israeli), that she didn’t “look” the part (which often turned out to be a bit of thinly-veiled racism), or that she was too small and lacked the brawn for the role.
Despite the skepticism, her performance was so well-received, Wonder Woman is considered the lone standout in a sea of DC comic movie mistakes. “Gadot’s take on Wonder Woman is one of those unique cases of an actor merging with their story, similar to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark,” Moviepilot‘s Elsie Jost wrote.
Speaking of Iron Man…
Though it’s now unimaginable that the snarky, slick Robert Downey Jr. could be seen as miscast in the role of Iron Man, initially comic-book fans were leery. In the comics, Tony Stark is more of a Howard Hughes figure: a flamboyant adventurer. Downey seemed too cynical a choice.
Even Marvel Studios fought against the casting. Director Jon Favreau said, “I have to admit that Robert was a tough sell. He’s a good 10 years older than what they wanted… They also wanted a lesser-known actor with no baggage.”
Thankfully, Favreau and Downey stuck to their guns, and we got the sardonic-businessman-turned-hero-with-a-heart-of-gold that we know and love.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
RDJ just can’t catch a break when it comes to skeptical audiences. There was much knitting of brows when he was cast as the titular detective in Sherlock Holmes. Fans of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels were concerned, as Downey isn’t British and didn’t seem “serious” enough.
However, the casting came together: Downey’s portrayal breathed new life into the character as a rakish, arrogant, and playful detective. And his British accent wasn’t bad, either. With Guy Ritchie’s direction, Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by RDJ went from armchair detective to forensic street brawler.
Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, so it’s easy to forget there was initially controversy over his casting. Fans of the X-Men comics complained the clean-shaven Jackman looked nothing like the ruggedly hairy immortal. Furthermore, he’s (gasp) Australian! So how could he pull off that gruff, grungy American accent?
As we know, the role fit him like an endoskeleton made of adamantium. His snarly, tormented, and somehow vulnerable Logan brought valuable depth to the character. Also, Jackman can sing and dance, so hopefully that leaves an X-Men musical on the table!
Though it may be hard to believe, Marlon Brando’s iconic role in The Godfather may have never materialized. Apparently, the casting of Marlon Brando as the Godfather was unpopular with Paramount executives. They also recoiled at the idea of casting Al Pacino as Michael, complaining, “A runt will not play Michael.”
Fortunately, Francis Ford Coppola ignored their complaints, fighting tooth and nail to get his preferred cast behind the camera. It’s safe to say that few film-goers today would characterize Al Pacino as a “runt.” Over-the-top? On occasion. An utterly insane, screaming weirdo? Hoo-ha! Yessiree!
But a runt? Never!
Westworld is a sleek, polished reboot of the classic 1973 film. The dark science fiction requires its actors remain tempered and compelling as characters within an artificial Wild West. Casting James Marsden was a bit of a head-scratcher. His roles in Enchanted and 30-Rock as a prince charming boy-next-door was an odd resumé for a role in the dark, mysterious Westworld.
However, he’s absolutely brilliant in his role as the kindhearted Teddy, a robotic host whose role is to play sweetheart to Dolores. While it seems like he’s being typecast again, his role requires unexpected range: When his programming is fiddled with, he turns into a cold-blooded killer. He’s surprisingly (and frighteningly) good at switching off the light in his eyes, turning blank and remorseless.
The Dark Knight Rises
The sensual feline-antics of Catwoman didn’t seem to quite fit the wide-eyed good-girl roles Anne Hathaway usually occupies. Fans of the Batman franchise worried Hathaway wouldn’t be enough of a femme fatale to occupy those black latex boots.
Well, roll out the carpet and scratching posts, because Hathaway meows-merized audiences with her coy, playfully insouciant rendition of Catwoman. Vanity Fair deemed her “the best Catwoman ever,” due to her ability to add a bit of je ne sais quoi to Gotham.
When we heard Christian Bale would be portraying Dick Cheney in Vice, it was hard not to wonder how Batman would turn into the sneering, cynical architect of the Iraq War. But Bale seems oddly obsessed with transforming his body (from near-skeletal in The Machinist to the beefy Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins).
He not only managed to transmogrify into the doughy, snarling Cheney (who seemed more like Batman villain The Penguin), but paid homage to Dick Cheney’s behavior. While the movie itself received only slightly warm reviews, critics praised his performance as “shockingly brilliant.”
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become so popular, it’s easy to forget how much skepticism there was initially. Lovers of J.R.R Tolkien feared how their precious books would be handled by director Peter Jackson and his cast.
When news broke that Liv Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, fans weren’t pleased. An American who hadn’t racked up any film credits didn’t make her seem particularly elvish.
However, the apprehension was unwarranted: Tyler seamlessly pulled off the otherworldly grace of Arwen. And, controversy aside, she her horse-riding action sequence brought depth to a character who may have otherwise remained a one-dimensional love interest.
La La Land
The issue most people had with Ryan Gosling’s casting in the musical La La Land is that he’s not particularly, well, musical. The actor is known more for his charm than his singing and dancing skills. So casting him to be a jazz musician in a world where people burst out of their cars in traffic jams to engage in song-and-dance.
While it’s true Gosling isn’t really the greatest singer, he manages to make it work. His chemistry with Emma Stone is enough of an emotional whirlwind that we can forget the fact that he’s a bit pitchy.
A Quiet Place
John Krasinski made a name for himself as the boyish prankster Jim in The Office. His first escape from type-casting was a bit of a stumble when cast as a soldier in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which received a mixed reviews.
Despite the confusion of “goofball Jim from The Office” being cast in a horror flick, A Quiet Place turned out to be a pioneering film in the horror genre and Krasinski, as he nailed his role. This time, his wide-eyed looks of shock were not from Dwight’s antics, but from a monstrous stalker with uncanny hearing. So, basically Dwight.
The child cast of the Harry Potter franchise was blessed with fame that endured into adulthood, yet they were also burdened with the inseparable association to their adventures in the Wizarding World. This is especially true of Daniel Radcliffe, who played the bespectacled protagonist.
So, when Radcliffe tried his hand as Alan Strang in the play Equus – a dark drama with ritual sacrifice, sexual attraction to horses, and religious fanaticism – theatre-goers were skeptical.
Radcliffe portrays a mentally ill young man who reveals, his dark, horsey thoughts in therapy. Hard as it is to imagine Harry Potter getting too cozy with horses, Radcliffe pulled off an inspired performance.
Bad as Americans are at British accents, the reverse is often true (if not worse). Hugh Laurie, thoroughly British and funny, was an odd choice for the grumpy, American snark-factory that is Dr. House on House. Laurie is more known for portraying comedically ditzy Brits, so the move to a sardonic, jaded doctor seemed improbable.
Not only did he manage to maintain one of the most convincing British-to-American accents during the show’s run, he completely became his character to the point where no one else could have filled the role.
Is there a doctor in the house? Yes, and it’s Hugh freaking Laurie.
Mad Max: Fury Road
When will people learn their lesson with Charlize Theron being able to pull off a stone cold badass? Skeptics were unhappy with her role as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (perhaps partially due to her robbing the limelight away from Max).
However, she’s perfectly justified in stealing those scenes. Her performance held the film together, as she pulls the viewer into the dusty, hopeless, post-apocalyptic future. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers said, “This is Theron’s show. She’s a knockout in a sensational performance that blends grit and gravity and becomes the film’s bruised heart and soul.”
Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation fame, seemed horribly miscast in the dino-filled reboot of Jurassic Park in Jurassic World. His Parks and Rec character, Andy, was goofy and lovable: The human incarnation of a golden retriever. So his role as a grizzled raptor trainer in Jurassic World was puzzling.
Say what you will about the film, but Pratt sold it as a grumpy protagonist. He was nominated for a People’s Choice Award as “Favorite Movie Actor” and won an MTV Movie Award for “Best Action Performance.”
The Bourne Identity
Matt Damon started as a baby-faced janitor genius in Good Will Hunting. He’s been criticized as being too boring to play an action hero in a high-paced thriller/chase movie. How could this everyman with a college freshman’s face manage to pull off the “dangerous rogue spy” look?
Well, he managed. While critics felt the film was a somewhat superfluous addition to cinema, it was a wildly popular franchise, and Roger Ebert praised Damon’s, “…ability to be focused and sincere.”
Silver Linings Playbook
Jennifer Lawrence was cast in Silver Linings Playbook before her acting range was known, so there was a bit of a skeptical response to the choice: She seemed too young to convincingly play Tiffany, a widowed woman suffering from depression.
Even director David O. Russell worried that, at 21, she’d be too young to fit the role. Despite the fears, she managed her role so well she won her first Academy Award for her performance. Critics praised her maturity and her on-screen chemistry with Bradley Cooper.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an action-comedy based on the graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The series is beloved by fans, so the movie adaptation was under heavy scrutiny. Fans worried that casting Michael Cera, of Arrested Development, was a mistake: Cera seemed too meek to capture the antics of the graphic novel version.
Fans were partially right, as Cera’s performance was different from expectations based on the graphic novels. He played true to type: nervous and socially awkward. But it totally worked. Cera’s deadpan performance superimposed on a technicolor video game fight scene wonderland was weirdly effective.
Interview With A Vampire
It’s hard to visualize Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt, the sensual, dangerous antihero of Anne Rice’s novels, The Vampire Chronicles. He’s described as being six feet tall with blond curly hair and a narrow face. Not exactly a spitting image of Tom Cruise.
Despite the hesitation of The Vampire Chronicles readers, including the author herself, Cruise managed to win over skeptics with his creepily sensual and sadistic performance in Interview with a Vampire. Cruise admirably held his own against co-stars Brad Pitt and a young Kirsten Dunst; proving the megastar’s range isn’t only a reference to how far he can jump.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
In another surprisingly successful move from comedy to drama, Jim Carrey, famous for his goofy, over-the-top performances in Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber, was able to give a more subtle, emotional performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Far from hamming it up, Carrey defied expectations. As Seattle Times’ Moira MacDonald said, “It’s the most honest, vulnerable work he’s ever done.”
Surprisingly, Carrey stifling his zaniness actually worked in his favor. Slate’s David Edelstein wrote, “You see all that manic comic energy imprisoned in this ordinary man, with the anarchism peeking out and trying to find a way to express itself.”
Michael Keaton’s glowering rendition of Bruce Wayne in 1989’s Batman is now a classic but, at the time, it received numerous complaints. Comic book fans were angry, and critics also voiced concerns. They thought Keaton would be too “campy,” sabotaging the “serious” rendition of Batman. “If you saw him in an alley wearing a bat suit, you would laugh, not run in fear,” comic book writer Beau Smith said.
Those concerns were wildly wrong: Keaton’s brooding, slightly-crazed Batman was captivating, creating a new template for future actors to follow when it came to portraying the billionaire costumed crusader.
The Dark Knight
Possibly Heath Ledger’s most famous role was that of The Joker in The Dark Knight. However, Ledger was known more as a sensitive, handsome, romantic type. Playing a ghoulishly clown-faced psychotic murderer seemed unlikely: Ardent fans of Batman and The Joker thought he wouldn’t have the manic energy.
Not only did Ledger easily shed his “sweet romantic” typecast, he took a terrifying new approach to the Joker as a ragged, unhinged, flippant psychopath. His portrayal is perhaps the most unsettling and captivating rendition of the Joker to ever hit the screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio was initially typecast as a rakish romantic in Romeo + Juliet and Titanic, so his sudden shift to heavier stuff in The Departed, a crime film directed by Martin Scorsese, was met with a bit of scoffing. DiCaprio played an undercover cop who infiltrated the ranks of organized crime as a police informant.
DiCaprio showed his depth as an actor with a tense, gripping and mature performance as a police informant chasing a mob informant while also being chased by said mob informant. This role paved the way for DiCaprio to take on darker roles while showing he was capable of more than just a waggish smile.
Abraham Lincoln, one of the most famous U.S Presidents, is a big stovepipe hat for an actor to fill. When Daniel Day-Lewis was cast to play Honest Abe in Lincoln, there was a mild uproar.
Lewis is English, not American! When the trailer dropped, people were stunned by his reedy, high-pitched voice. The people wanted a real American, with a booming baritone.
Well, movies aren’t a democracy and, in this case, it worked out. Lewis’s portrayal as a contemplative, conflicted Lincoln was vulnerable and realistic. This Lincoln felt very human, a difficult feat when dealing with a historical figure who is a national hero. And his gentle, higher-pitched voice? Historians think this interpretation is actually somewhat accurate.
Monster tells the grim story of Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker turned remorseless serial killer. It was hard for audiences to imagine the beautiful debonair, Charlize Theron, pulling off the gritty crazed killer. And yet, Theron killed… the role, that is. She received an Academy Award for her outstanding performance.
Robert Ebert praised her acting as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” The amazing transformation even made it to the show Arrested Development, where Theron plated Jason Bateman‘s quirky British love interest; when he’s presented with a “before” photo of his new girlfriend pre-plastic surgery, the image is Theron as Wuornos.
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