It is said that every time Ray Winstone attempts an American accent a kitten dies. Who says this? We don’t know. Did we just make it up? ....yes. But Winstone, great as he is, is just one example of an actor who is frequently and totally miscast. It’s a lot rarer to see an actor in a role they were born to play, which makes it such a pleasant surprise when it happens. So instead of having a good old moan about poor casting choices, we thought we’d celebrate ten of the most inspired. See? That’s some glass-half-full thinking for you.
Soph! The Sophster! Sophestry! Everyone who caught Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine’s debut, was utterly bowled over by Olivia Colman’s gut-wrenchingly honest portrayal of the emotionally and physically subjugated Hannah. She was, simply, extraordinary, and in wringing such a performance from an actress we’d come to know from chucklesome roles in Channel 4 comedies, Considine must’ve known Colman had the chops. But we didn’t know, and – as she’s admitted in interviews – she didn’t either. An actor playing against type only occasionally succeeds, but Colman did and then some. It’s no understatement to say that her omission from The Oscars was the stupidest decision made by stupid people ever.
It was the part that reintroduced Downey Jr as a Hollywood A-lister, after a very public series of drug-related arrests and subsequent stints in correctional facilities and treatment centres. In 2008 Downey Jr wasn’t a leading man at all – he was busy rebuilding his career with supporting roles in films like Gothika and A Scanner Darkly, but director Jon Favreau picked him to play Tony Starkdespite his, let’s say, ‘wobbly’ reputation for reliability because he felt the actor could make Stark ‘a likeable asshole.’ This was a rare case where both fans of the film and the source material were equally appeased, and the film certainly owes as much to Downey Jr as he does to the film.
Chopper means willy. Good, now that’s out of the way we can begin. Prior to Chopper, Bana had made something of a name for himself down under as a popular sketch and stand-up comedian. He’d had a small role in low-key drama The Castle, but it was his comedy skits that had impressed Chopper director Andrew Dominik to such an extent that he was convinced he’d finally found his leading man, despite Bana’s almost total dramatic inexperience. He was right. Bana poured himself into the role: after spending time with Mark Reid to learn his mannerisms and gaining 30lbs to mirror his build, he gave a performance so strong that it kick-started his wildly successful Hollywood career.
Bowie’s movie work is, even to his staunchest fans, a decidedly mixed bag (Pontius Pilate, anyone?) but, for this early role as the alien dispatched to Earth, he was nigh-on perfect. Let’s face it, Bowie looked alien anyway – a fact director Nicolas Roeg had noted when seeing him peer out quizzically from his limousine window. It was this sight that that led to Bowie winning the role, and he’s a fantastically dark screen presence. It’s one of those ‘born to play’ parts which, at the time, represented a daring departure for Bowie – one which, looking back, seems inevitable – and a brave move on the part of Roeg.
What? That’s... Charlize Theron?! But that character’s a munter! Indeed, the bonny actress was truly unrecognisable as the pasty-faced, mass-murdering Wuornos, yet the only prominent prostheses used in the transformation were dentures and contacts – the rest was achieved with dabs of pasty, greasy makeup, a weight gain of 30lbs and the sheer physicality of Theron’s performance. It was remarkable, and completely out of the blue: her previous appearances in films like The Devil’s Advocate and The Cider House Rules, while accomplished, showed little of the range she displayed in here. Yet director Patty Jenkins believed in her, and the gamble paid off.
Mickey Rourke’s journey – from 80s heartthrob to professional boxer, to drug hoover and then to eventual redemption - was such a public one that the crags and scars across his pummelled thigh of a face were potent reminder of his tumultuous story; a story we all knew. His physical appearance, and the melancholy and fragility Rourke brought with it, gave power and a tangible verisimilitude to The Ram because of the striking parallels between the two men. It really was almost like we knew the character already - as we saw The Ram bounce back, we saw the resurgent Rourke do the same.
It seems so obvious with hindsight – almost as if it could never, feasibly, have been anyone else. McKellen embodies each facet of the character with such apparent ease: he has the avuncular joviality, the solemn, weary wisdom, the bellowing authority and he’s also the able and pragmatic warrior. The trilogy enjoys its fair share of casting brilliance (Viggo Mortensen, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis and Bernard Hill are all excellent appointments), but McKellen was perfect. So much so that it seems bizarre he almost missed out on the role: due to a scheduling conflict with X-Men he was told he had to choose between the two, and it was only thanks to New Line Cinema boss Bob Shaye (who re-jigged LOTR’s filming schedule to allow him to participate) that we got the Gandalf we know and love.
After Pitt had publicly espoused his love of Guy Ritchie’s debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels a collaboration between the two seemed unlikely: the pant-moistening all-American didn’t really fit into Ritchie’s grubby, cheeky-chappie worldview - one full of dildos and Scousers and Vinnie Jones and such. Yet Pitt, somehow, stole every scene he was in, playing a character from a background he, presumably, had no prior knowledge of whatsoever. He’s almost unrecognisable, and manages to be hilarious, dangerous and utterly incomprehensible all at the same time.
Mega-chinned geek supremo Quentin Tarantino has always had a deft touch for casting - he almost single-handedly rescued John Travolta’s career from fatal atrophy with Pulp Fiction (only for Travolta to wreck it again by touching up masseurs and serving Lord Xenu), and in Kill Bill he did the same for Daryl Hannah. For her, the nineties’ successes had been a pale shadow of 80s hits like Splash, Roxanne, Wall Street and Blade Runner, and Tarantino’s decision to cast her was a masterstroke: Hannah, as the psychotic and cycloptic Elle Driver, was an unlikely revelation. She was a snarling, brutal and immense baddie.
Christopher Nolan had wanted to work with Heath Ledger for some time before filming began on The Dark Knight, but, upon hearing of Ledger’s appointment as the antagonist in the Batman sequel, fans weren’t initially too pleased - Ledger had some decent credits to his name but he was still trying to shake off the musty whiff of ‘rom-com leading man’, and a character actor he was not. Paul Bettany, Adrian Brody, Steve Carell and Robin Williams had also all expressed interest in the role, and the prospects of each were intriguing. Yet Nolan had faith in his actor, and the Joker we saw was almost entirely Ledger’s creation: twitching, tongue flicking like a reptile, totally unhinged and completely mesmerising. Ledger thoroughly deserved his posthumous Oscar; so tragic that this was his last full film, yet a genre-shifting, powerhouse performance on which to bow out.