The biggest part of getting an iconic performance is casting the right actor for the part. However, sometimes there’s a lot of disagreement over who that right actor is. When an unknown or also-ran lands a major role–whether it’s a blockbuster franchise, sure-fire Oscar-bait or even just a deviation from the type of characters they’re known for portraying– it’s these unpopular casting choices have led to some of the most groundbreaking and memorable performances in movie history.
While the current incarnation of Spiderman featuring Tom Holland receives much (warranted) praise, one must not forget the O.G. Spiderman, played by Toby Maguire. He played the titular web-slinger in Spiderman, Spiderman 2 (2004), 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 (2008)
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 including Frances McDormand and George Clooney, was met with some skepticism. He also seemed a bit old—44—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 Cohen brothers’ film.
This controversial casting seemingly had the opposite problem: instead of a serious actor being seemingly miscast in a comedy role, it’s of a lovable comedian sliding into a very dark, dramatic role. Steve Carell, famous for his portrayals of cringey boss Michael in The Office, and the sexless protagonist in The 40-year-old Virgin, has a goofy, lovable patina that seems incongruent with 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, abusive, and eventually murderous Olympic wrestling coach. Du Pont, warped by immense wealth and a classist, cold upbringing, is a compelling and terrifying figure in Carell’s performance, for which he won an Oscar. Weirdly, one can see how Carell’s experience portraying Michael in The Office actually prepared him for the role of a fragile, hollow, and vindictive man.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
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 Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times put it, “It’s the most honest, vulnerable work he’s ever done.” Surprisingly, the fact that Carrey had to stifle his zaniness actually worked in his favor. David Edelstein of Slate 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.”
Casino Royale (2006)
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.
Wonder Woman (2017)
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 often considered the lone standout in a sea of DC comic movie mistakes. Gadot was able to portray power and ferocity in the role: “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,” writes Elsie Jost of Moviepilot. Speaking of Iron Man…
Iron Man (2008)
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 commented, “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, seeing as Downey isn’t British, didn’t seem “serious” enough, and would be too wacky for the role.
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.
Though in many ways the child cast of the Harry Potter franchise would be blessed with fame that endured into adulthood, they were also somewhat burdened with the mantle of being only known for their adventures in the Wizarding World. This is especially true of Daniel Radcliffe, who played the bespectacled Boy Who Lived. So when Radcliffe tried his hand as portraying Alan Strang in the play Equus, theater-goers were skeptical. The play is a dark, twisted drama, featuring ritual sacrifice, sexual attraction to horses, and religious fanaticism.
Radcliffe portrays a mentally ill young man who reveals, in therapy, his dark, horsey thoughts. Though it’s hard to imagine Harry Potter getting too cozy with horses, Radcliffe pulled off an inspired performance. Reviewer Michael Billington praised Radcliffe, saying, “This is a performance by an actor of real potential.”
The Godfather (1972)
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 filmgoers today would characterize Al Pacino as a “runt.” Over-the-top? On occasion. Scene-chewing? Sure. An “utterly insane,” “screaming weirdo?” Hoo-ha! Yessiree!
But a runt? Never!
House, M.D. (2004)
Let it be said, that as bad as Americans are at pulling off British accents, the opposite is often true (if not worse). Hugh Laurie, thoroughly British and thoroughly funny, seems like an odd choice for the grumpy, American snark-factory that is Dr. House on House. Laurie, of A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster fame, 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 entire run of the show, but he completely became his character to the point where it was difficult to imagine him being portrayed by anyone else. Is there a doctor in the house? Yes, yes there is, and it’s Hugh freaking Laurie.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
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 make the transformation 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, well, dickishness. While the movie itself received only slightly warm reviews, critics praised his performance as “shockingly brilliant.”
The Lord of the Rings (2001)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become something of a cinematic legend, it’s easy to forget that there was a huge amount of initial skepticism. Lovers of the J.R.R Tolkien were wary of how their precious books would be handled by director Peter Jackson and his Middle Earthling cast. When news broke that Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. The Lord of the Rings fans weren’t pleased: she’s an American and hadn’t racked up any film credits that would make her seem particularly elvish.
However, the apprehension wasn’t warranted: Tyler managed to pull off the otherworldly grace of Arwen. And though it was controversial, she also had a horse-riding action sequence that brought some depth to a character who may have otherwise been a one-dimensional love interest (after all, it’s hard on-screen to portray the multitudes that Tolkien expressed in his writing).
La La Land (2016)
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 it seemed strange to cast him in a movie where he portrays a jazz musician in a world where people burst out of their cars in a traffic jam to engage in a song-and-dance number.
And 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 (2018)
John Krasinski became well-known as the boyish prankster Jim in The Office. His first escape from type-casting was a bit of a stumble: he was cast as a soldier in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which ended up receiving a very tepid response from critics and audiences.
However, despite people being confused by “goofball Jim from The Office” being cast in a horror movie, A Quiet Place not only turned out to be a pioneering film in the horror genre, but Krasinski also 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.
Monster told 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, based on the real story of the foul-mouthed, murderous Aileen Wuornos. 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.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
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 as t is what held the film together, as she pulls the viewer into the dusty, hopeless, post-apocalyptic future. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said of the movie, “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.”
Interview With A Vampire (1994)
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 them to his side 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.
Jurassic World (2015)
Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation fame, seemed horribly miscast in the dinosaur-filled reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World. His Parks and Recreation character, Andy, was goofy and loveable: 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 Chris 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.”
Abraham Lincoln, one of the most famous U.S Presidents, is a big stovepipe hat for an actor to fill. And when Daniel Day-Lewis was cast to play Honest Abe in Lincoln, there was a mild uproar: Lewis is an English actor, not American! And 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 has become a national hero. And his gentle, higher-pitched voice? Historians think this interpretation is somewhat accurate: “Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
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 (2010)
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 much-loved by fans, so the movie adaptation was under heavy scrutiny. Fans worried that casting Michael Cera, of Arrested Development fame, was a mistake: Cera seemed too meek to capture the antics of the graphic novel version of Scott Pilgrim.
This was a case in which the fans were partially right: Cera’s performance was different from what one might expect based on the graphic novels. He played true-to-type: nervous and socially awkward. However, it worked on film: Cera’s deadpan performance superimposed on a technicolor-video-game-fight-scene wonderland was weirdly effective.
Westworld is a sleek, polished reboot of the classic 1973 film by the same name. It’s dark science fiction, one that requires its actors to remain tempered and compelling as characters within an artificial Wild West. Hamming it up wouldn’t fit, so the casting of James Marsden was a bit of a head-scratcher. His roles in Enchanted, 30-Rock as a prince charming mixed with a bit of boy-next-door, as well as his rendition of earnest superhero Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, seemed like an odd resumé for a role in the dark, sadistic, mysterious Westworld.
However, he’s absolutely brilliant in his role as the kind, good-hearted 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 them blank and remorseless.
The X-Men Franchise (2000-Present)
Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, so it’s easy to forget there was initially controversy over his casting. Fans of the X-Men comic series complained Hugh Jackman looked nothing like the ruggedly hairy immortal (remember what Hugh Jackman looks like clean shaven). Furthermore, Jackman is (gasp) Australian, not American, 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, Hugh Jackman can sing and dance, so hopefully that leaves an X-Men musical on the table!
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 in an interview.
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 (2008)
Possibly Heath Ledger’s most famous role was that of The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). 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.
The Departed (2006)
Leonardo DiCaprio suffered similar typecasting as Heath Ledger: he’s famous for being a rakish, roguish romantic in Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, and as a lovable scammer in Catch Me If You Can. 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 and proved the doubters wrong: he gave 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 and showed he was capable of more than just a waggish smile.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Matt Damon started out 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.”
After The Matrix and John Wick, it’s hard to think of Keanu Reeves as anything but a steely-eyed action hero. However, he was originally a ditzy stoner-dude in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), and his first foray into more serious work received mixed reviews. Though some argue his performance in Point Break (1991) was compelling, the film received a tepid response. And his weird, wooden performance (not to mention terrible English accent) as a vampire-hunter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) seemed to spell doom for him to partake in more serious roles.
However, 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 their MPH drops below 50. Not only did critics praise Reeves’ performance, but it turns out the movie may have been doomed without him. Reeves didn’t like the original screenplay version of his character, of which he thought, “situations [were] set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced—Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” With his input, Jack Traven became the earnest do-gooder audiences loved.