25 Unpopular Casting Choices That Actually Turned Out Great
There’s no doubting it: casting is the one thing that can make or break a film. Sure, a great project typically needs a good script, a good director and good music too, but ask the wrong star to play a hero or villain, and no amount of excellent dialogue, brilliant special effects or great plot twists can make a fanbase happy again.
Sometimes, casting directors pick entirely the wrong person for a part. Occasionally though, an actor overcomes all the odds to nail a role and turn everyone’s opinions around. Here are some initially unpopular casting choices that have gone down in history for all the right reasons.
25. Sissy Spacek as Carrie White
Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, her prom dress stained and her long blonde hair matted up with fake blood, has become an iconic horror movie image.
From her shrinking vulnerability to her wide, traumatised stare, everything about Spacek’s performance is now instantly recognisable.
While today Spacek’s performance is recognised as gut-wrenchingly sad and deeply terrifying all at the same time, some were initially concerned that Spacek was too pretty to ever deliver Carrie’s darkness.
A lot of the initial criticism Spacek faced came from the fact that Steven King’s book depicts Carrie as chubby, spotty and kind of frumpy – the opposite of the dainty and statuesque Spacek.
Once the movie was released, however, even the most dedicated book loyalists admitted that the actress’ take on the role was a valid one.
For the remake, the 16-year-old prodigy Chloë Grace Moretz was cast, with the role having originally been offered to Lindsay Lohan. Said Spacek, “I was very flattered that they were casting someone to look like me instead of the real Carrie described in the book.”
24. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren
Almost every casting decision in the sequel trilogy of Star Wars has proven controversial, but none more so than Kylo Ren.
Adam Driver came to acting late in life after focusing on a career outside of entertainment (including the military), so at the time of his casting in Star Wars, he didn’t have a lot of roles under his belt.
Many were confused by the choice to cast Driver as the villain, both because of his looks and his age, and the fact that he’d only really starred in comedies including HBO’s Girls up to that point.
However, most sceptics were convinced by Driver’s blend of ferocity and vulnerability as Ren, as well as his commitment to a high-energy and physical performance.
Not only that, but Driver’s later performances in the likes of Marriage Story have proved that he was a rising star to be taken seriously.
23. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
Katniss Everdeen is another beloved book character whose casting was massively scrutinised when the movie adaptation rolled around.
The choice to include Jennifer Lawrence in the starring role proved unpopular for a whole variety of reasons.
Fans were nervous because she was unknown and because she was less slender and olive-skinned than the book demanded. Lawrence’s ability to play an action star was also in question.
However, once the first movie was released, Lawrence’s ability to lead a franchise was immediately cemented, and she went on to lead the next four Hunger Games instalments with increasing confidence.
Fans of the books were still upset by various changes from the source material, but Lawrence was happily no longer one of the sources of their doubt.
22. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is filled will legions of superheroes, but there’s no arguing when it comes to who started it all.
2008’s Iron Man arguably kicked off the trend of superhero obsession that we’re currently living in, and that couldn’t have happened if not for Robert Downey Jr.’s pitch-perfect performance.
With that said, some people at the time weren’t just doubtful of Downey’s ability to play the bad boy billionaire, but furious that he was even allowed to audition.
Thanks to a series of very public brushes with the law, Marvel executives and fans at first considered Downey a liability. Still, director Jon Favreau knew that Downey’s past struggles would inform his acting in the best possible way.
Favreau was obviously right, and Downey’s performance as Tony Stark only got more complex, nuanced and sympathetic as the films went on.
21. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins
In the history of cinema, there have been very few characters more iconic than Mary Poppins.
Julie Andrews’ performance as the magical nanny has inspired and fascinated generations of kids, and the very idea of a sequel was already controversial.
- Credit: Photo by Jay Maidment/Walt Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (10045622a)
Casting Emily Blunt as Poppins drew criticism from all sorts of places with all sorts of arguments – that she wasn’t a classic enough actress, she was too pretty, she wasn’t pretty enough – but chief among them was fans just weren’t sure she had the singing and dancing acumen needed.
However, the release of the movie showed that Blunt was able to embody that classic Hollywood poise, as well as rise to the challenge of multiple songs and tap solos.
Though Mary Poppins Returns had a pretty lukewarm reception at the box office, Emily Blunt was not one of the aspects of the film picked apart by critics.
20. Chris Pratt as Peter Quill
There have been a lot of perfect castings in the MCU, but none seem to be as much of a perfect match as Chris Pratt is for Peter Quill.
Pratt has built an entire brand around being quippy, sarcastic, idiotic and loveable all at once, while still blending comedy with the physical ability to lead an action franchise.
With that said, before his first appearance in the MCU, most people knew Pratt from his turn on Parks and Recreation, where he played the dumb, sloppy Andy Dwyer.
The character was hilarious but not commanding, and his chubby physique had people doubting Pratt’s ability to be the bulky lead of a superhero movie.
Of course, it only took a few months of Pratt working with a Marvel-mandated personal trainer to change the doubters’ minds.
19. Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft
Video game movies already have a reputation for being a little on the not-so-good side, so any adaptation of the much-beloved Tomb Raider series was going to face backlash.
However, Vikander’s Lara Croft faced serious amounts of vitriol right from the beginning, and for some fairly shallow reasons.
Though it had been proven in prior films that Vikander could do many of her own stunts and keep up with the multi-disciplinary demands needed for a versatile action star, fans were just not convinced that she was attractive enough to play Croft.
More specifically, it was decided that her body was not video-game accurate enough, which even led to calls for a boycott.
It was only once the movie dropped that fans collectively decided that body shape didn’t matter as much as Vikander’s character, which was confident, vulnerable and completely Lara Croft. Whether the film itself was any good was another matter.
18. Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk
Many of the actors inducted into the MCU faced pushback, but Mark Ruffalo’s road to becoming the Incredible Hulk was more fraught than many of his colleagues’ experiences.
By the time Ruffalo had been cast, a Hulk movie had already been released by Marvel starring Edward Norton, who quickly became a fan-favourite.
People were suspicious and even angry at the replacement, and insistent that nobody could be a better Bruce Banner than Norton.
However, thanks to the perfect delivery of the iconic line (“That’s my secret Cap, I’m always angry”) in The Avengers, Ruffalo’s past in indies and romantic comedies seemed instantly forgotten, and he was inducted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe family.
Even though he hasn’t got his own solo movie in the MCU, and likely never will, Ruffalo’s performance as both Banner and Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok proved he could balance comedy and sincerity as well as he could do pure pathos.
17. Daniel Craig as James Bond
Right now, it’s hard to imagine a less controversial choice for James Bond than Daniel Craig.
Craig has a smooth voice, looks great in a suit, and can handle the blend between action scenes and witty dialogue only too well.
However, when he was first cast in the role, people were not confident that Craig was worthy of the 007 title.
Why? Well, mostly because of his hair. People were outraged at the idea of a blond James Bond, and it didn’t help that back in 2005 when he was cast, Craig was also relatively unknown.
Petitions were started to revoke Craig’s casting, and even prominent actors and directors – including eventual Skyfall and Spectre director Sam Mendes – speculated about his ability to handle the Bond mantle.
In the end though, Craig proved everybody wrong, becoming the star of a series of Bond movies that were both modern and classic.
16. Heath Ledger as The Joker
Heath Ledger‘s Joker isn’t only one of the most popular comic book portrayals in recent history, it’s also considered to be one of the best performances in a movie full stop.
In fact, Ledger was the first actor ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar in a superhero movie, proving that his turn as the Joker had a serious impact on cinema.
That’s why it’s so surprising that there was ever serious opposition to Heath Ledger’s casting.
Thanks mostly to his previous roles in lighter fare including 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale, many people were unhappy with Ledger being attached to the Dark Knight project – whether they thought he was too pretty, too comedic or just not a good enough actor.
In the end, Ledger’s grimy, realistic and completely unhinged take on the Clown Prince of Crime took audiences completely by surprise.
15. Charlize Theron as Furiosa
Before Fury Road, the Mad Max franchise was just another nostalgic property that was looked back on with considerable fondness, but it wasn’t exactly considered high cinema.
That all changed with the release of the latest instalment in the franchise, Fury Road, which brought a new emotional depth and realism to the story. It also featured stunning cinematography and nuanced performances from the movie’s two leads: Tom Hardy, as the titular Max, and Charlize Theron, playing post-apocalyptic warrior queen Furiosa.
With that said, not everyone was happy with what they saw as another protagonist being added to the series, especially given Mad Max’s traditional position as a lone wolf being unwillingly drawn into other people’s conflicts and problems.
A contingent of fans even derided the movie as feminist propaganda, thanks to the fact that Charlize Theron seemed to get more lines and screen time than Tom Hardy, who they saw as the “true protagonist”.
However, most were ultimately won over by Theron’s well-rounded and unflinching performance, as well as her willingness to create a look and attitude that fit seamlessly into the universe.
14. Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim
Scott Pilgrim vs The World is an action-comedy with a loyal and dedicated fanbase, based on a series of graphic novels with an equally dedicated group of fans.
These fans were delighted when they discovered an adaptation of the story, directed by Edgar Wright no less, was in the works – but immediately lowered their expectations upon discovering the actor in the running to play Scott.
Michael Cera faced serious backlash around the time the Scott Pilgrim film was announced, with fans assuming Cera would play the same dorky but ultimately loveable character he’d become known for.
Fans of the source material were concerned that Cera would bring an identical performance to Scott Pilgrim vs The World, ignoring the more action-hero elements of the character that required more ego, and more strength.
Cera responded by saying that he was exactly enough of a terrible person to understand how Pilgrim needed to be played, and delivered a hilarious but deeply accurate portrayal that cooled the tempers of most of the doubtful loyalists.
13. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Whenever a new comic book adaptation is in the works, the actor chosen to portray the iconic character – whether Batman, The Joker or even J Jonah Jameson – no doubt elicits a certain scepticism from fans.
However, as the first person ever to portray Wonder Woman in a full-length, big-budget superhero movie, Gal Gadot was under far more scrutiny than actors taking on similarly prestigious characters.
The backlash against Gadot’s casting came from everywhere. Fans were angry that the Israeli actor wasn’t taller and more muscular, but also that she wasn’t curvier and fuller-figured.
Gadot eventually hit out at these criticisms, saying that if fans were truly passionate about accuracy, they should expect all the Amazons to have removed one of their breasts in order to better control their bow and arrows.
When Wonder Woman was finally released, it proved to be DC’s most successful outing in a while, aided in no small part by Gadot’s tender, powerful and immensely likeable characterisation.
12. Keanu Reeves as Jack Traven
Across the decades, Keanu Reeves has proved himself to be one of the most well-rounded and versatile actors in the business, managing to carry blockbusters, indie arthouse efforts and comedies with ease.
However, when he was a younger and less proven actor, his love of genre-hopping didn’t make him a skilled, bankable star, but an unknown quantity who failed to convince the press.
Speed was the first role that Reeves really had to bulk up for, and both the studio and press at the time voiced their uncertainty about him leading a big-budget blockbuster as an action hero.
Partly to distance him from the doofus-y image of Bill & Ted, as well as the other comedy and indie movies Reeves had done in the run-up to speed, the studio even forced him to buzzcut his hair, in the hopes that it would make him appear tougher and more grown-up.
Of course, when the movie finally dropped Reeves carried the whole movie in the part of Jack Traven. The film made him an unexpected action star, one who would become the highest-paid of all time thanks to The Matrix sequels.
11. Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One
If any actor playing a comic book character is already subject to scrutiny, then that scrutiny is increased tenfold if the actor cast in the role represents a significant change from how the character appears on the page.
This might explain why Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange is one of the most controversial decisions Marvel has ever made, despite her not being the protagonist of the movie.
Fans were angry both about the gender switch and the race change, with a white woman playing a traditionally male, Asian character. Accusations of whitewashing dominated the headlines, forcing director Scott Derrickson himself to respond.
Derrickson argued that rather than bring to life a character that is essentially a well-worn stereotype, he had to change both the race and gender in order to distance The Ancient One from its racist roots.
Fans remain divided on the ethics of the choice that was made, but most agree that aside from the controversy, Tilda Swinton plays the grey-morality, mystery and humour of The Ancient One perfectly.
10. Michael Keaton as Batman
With the advent of the internet and the increasing power of fandom in deciding everything from plot developments to character choices, it can seem like casting controversy is a totally modern invention.
However, fans have been upset at the choices made by superhero movie casting directors since the beginning, as evidenced by the response to Tim Burton’s take on Batman.
From letters to national newspapers to interview subjects in The Wall Street Journal, fans were outraged at the idea of Micheal Keaton as Burton’s Batman, mostly due to the prevailing idea that his comedy chops would prevent him from bringing the stoic Bruce Wayne energy.
They also argued that Keaton’s less than heroic height of 5’10”, along with an apparently weak jaw and skinny frame, meant he could never pull off the more intimidating aspects of the Caped Crusader.
Micheal Keaton might not rank as everybody’s favourite Batman – the debate today tends to pit him against Dark Knight star Christian Bale – but the release of Burton’s movie did prove the actor was capable of an intense dramatic performance, as well as all the stoicism that the character required.
9. Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat
Interview with the Vampire is one of the few entrants on this list that wasn’t originally a comic book property, and instead began as a supernatural romance series with a famously devoted fanbase.
Not only that, but Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice herself had a reputation for being uncompromising regarding her beloved characters and stories, making the casting process for the movie a breeding ground for controversy.
When Cruise was cast as the decadant aristocratic French vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, it was seen as one of the casting mistakes of the century, given Cruise’s status as an All-American Golden Boy used to playing far more wholesome roles.
Rice herself was sceptical, famously distancing herself from Cruise and making it clear that she didn’t in any way approve of his casting.
As it turned out, Cruise pulled off the ego and distance of Lestat perfectly, while Cruise also made the antihero likeable enough that thousands of book fans fell in love all over again. Not only that, but the actor’s clipped accent wasn’t bad either.
8. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman
Catwoman has been portrayed a number of times on the screen, but the character doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to being brought to life.
Numerous versions of Selina Kyle have flopped or been categorised as goofy or overly-sexual by the fanbase, making the balance to strike for any prospective actress hoping to play the role a very difficult one.
This put Anne Hathaway in an almost impossible position, given that The Dark Knight Rises – in which she plays Catwoman – was released at the peak of public hatred levelled against her thanks to a few bumbling acceptance speeches and phony-sounding interviews.
Already at a disadvantage, Hathaway’s casting was further questioned due to fan doubts that she couldn’t play sexy or duplicitous, and that a lifetime of family films and rom-coms had made her too likeable.
As it happened, Hathaway’s performance was precisely as subtle as the darker Nolan-verse demanded, while also maintaining the integral sultry and humorous essence of the character.
7. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
If there’s any role more fraught than a beloved fictional character, it’s a real-life historical figure, whose likeness, voice, mannerisms and personality are a matter of public record.
For Daniel Day-Lewis, his job was even harder than the average biopic, given that he was tasked with bringing to life Abraham Lincoln, one of the most beloved icons in all of American history.
As if the deck wasn’t already stacked against him enough, Day-Lewis is an English actor, and many Americans were horrified at the idea of a Brit playing their national icon and political hero.
Not only that, but Day made the decision to play Lincoln as a man with a high-pitched, almost reedy, voice – a very different sound from the booming and velvety baritone that many portrayals of the 16th president defaulted to.
In the end, though, Americans accepted Day-Lewis’ portrayal as powerful and stately, even if it wasn’t exactly what they expected. Not only that, but historians validated the actor’s speaking choices, saying the voice he created was potentially closer to reality than anyone thought.
6. Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
Nowadays, the idea that Matt Damon isn’t capable of fronting a big-budget action movie is kind of laughable, but there was a time when making him the star of a tentpole movie was considered a serious risk.
Though Damon had already impressed with his performances in Saving Private Ryan and Good Will Hunting, the role of Jason Bourne was a world away from the high drama and sensitivity he’ displayed in previous performances.
Both the studio and fans were uncertain about the actor’s suitability, and even Damon himself had doubts, especially once the script for the film was adapted into a much more straightforward, high-octane action flick than he expected.
However, director Doug Liman was determined to keep Damon on the project, partly to help anchor his vision of a more arthouse-style thriller than people were expecting from the title.
The risk did eventually pay off, but not without a few production hiccups along the way.
The movie underwent several rewrites, a hectic shooting schedule and a lot of studio nervousness, but Damon’s performance was one of the few constants that kept the project afloat.
5. Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Ever since the fictional diary entries of writer Helen Fielding’s character first appeared in British newspaper The Independent in 1995, Bridget Jones became a cultural phenomenon.
The popularity of Fielding’s column resulted in the 1996 novelisation – and this, in turn, became a bestseller, meaning talk of Bridget Jones’ Diary: the movie wasn’t far behind.
As Bridget Jones was written as a thirtysomething Londoner, many expected a British star like Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham-Carter to land the role.
So when it came to light that American actress Renée Zellweger had been cast instead, fans were very quick to voice their opposition.
Zellwegger was best known at the time for her supporting roles in Jerry Maguire and Me, Myself and Irene. Not only were there doubts that she could convincingly portray an Englishwoman, many also feared she didn’t have the charisma to be a leading lady full stop.
Happily, when the Bridget Jones’ Diary movie opened in 2001, Zellwegger’s performance went down a storm, and earned the actress her first Oscar nomination. She’s since reprised the role in two sequels.
4. Bruce Willis as John McClane
In 1988, audiences had certain key expectations of their action stars: they had to be big, buff and so macho it hurts.
So when a new hotly anticipated action thriller called Die Hard landed on screens, it seemed logical that Schwarzenegger, Stallone or someone of that ilk would be the leading man.
However, the part of John McClane had instead been given to Bruce Willis, a TV star best known for comedy series Moonlighting.
As hard as it may be to imagine now, action fans were aghast at Willis’ casting at the time; cinema audiences are reported to have laughed and booed when he appeared in the Die Hard trailer.
Of course, once people actually sat down to watch the movie, they realised that casting the less muscular, more comedically-inclined Willis as McClane had been a masterstroke, helping make Die Hard one of the best and most influential action movies of all time.
No one would ever laugh at the idea of Bruce Willis playing a tough guy again; he’s appeared in scores of action films since, as well as playing John McClane again in four Die Hard sequels.
3. Mos Def as Ford Prefect
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started life as a radio series written by Douglas Adams, which later became a TV show and a series of novels.
Whichever medium the story was told in, one thing remained constant: the quintessentially English sensibility of Adams’ distinctive, cerebral humour.
As such, the idea of an African-American rapper playing one of the leading roles in 2005 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie did not go down well in all corners.
Mos Def was cast as Ford Prefect, best friend of the fretful Arthur Dent (played by Martin Freeman, whose casting was considerably better received by fans).
Douglas Adams never specified Ford’s skin-tone, but there were many who felt the role should at least be played English. However, in a sense Mos Def’s clear differences from Martin Freeman only helped underline the fact that, unbeknownst to Arthur, his friend Ford is actually an extra-terrestrial.
Ultimately, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t go down as well on the big screen as it had in its other forms, but viewers could agree that whatever problems the film had, Mos Def’s performance was not one of them.
2. Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street was released at a time when the horror genre was dominated by gory slasher movies.
These films usually had very simple stipulations: a pretty young cast, a lot of blood, and a big scary guy in a mask taking them out one by one.
A Nightmare on Elm Street definitely had the pretty cast and the blood – but in the killer role, writer-director Wes Craven chose some guy called Robert Englund.
At the time, Englund was best known for playing a somewhat nerdy supporting character on sci-fi TV show V; and, as a skinny guy standing 5’8″ tall, he was a far cry from the hulking madmen of Halloween and Friday the 13th.
However, as Freddy Krueger speaks a lot more than most horror antagonists, Wes Craven realised that he needed someone who was first and foremost a great actor. Englund fit the bill, and the dark sense of humour he brought to Freddy only made the character even scarier.
Englund went down a storm in the role, and his performance helped make A Nightmare on Elm Street the most successful horror franchise of the 80s, which remains hugely popular to this day.
1. Idris Elba as Roland Deschain
Many Stephen King readers consider the author’s long-running fantasy series The Dark Tower to be his true masterpiece.
Fans had been hoping for a faithful screen adaptation of the books for many years – but when The Dark Tower movie finally got off the ground, it was immediately swept up in controversy.
The central protagonist of the novels, Roland Deschain the Gunslinger, was generally imagined to be a white cowboy – so when black British actor Idris Elba was cast in the role, a vocal contingent of fans were furious.
This was in spite of the fact that Stephen King himself endorsed Elba’s casting, and insisted he had never specified that Roland was white.
In the end, Elba was as charismatic as ever in The Dark Tower – but alas, neither his performance nor that of Matthew McConaughey as the evil Man in Black were enough to save the movie. Fans of the novels blasted The Dark Tower as a one-dimensional over-simplification of King’s epic narrative, whilst general audiences were mostly just bored by it.