It’s something you expect to see a lot whenever the announcement is made of the casting for a major adaptation of a beloved property. Whether it’s a comic book or a novel, when the casting is made of a key character, fans will immediately dissect the choice and see if it’s right or not. So often the first impressions are wholly negative, fans not liking the choice and immediately saying “that’s not right at all.”
The obvious recent choice is Ben Affleck as Batman; the reaction online was almost totally negative, citing Affleck’s many bad movies rather than his rise as a respected director and actually acknowledging his good roles in the past. Sometimes it can die down when actual footage is shown of the actor in the role but it generally takes the movie actually opening to get the true reactions out.
Such is the case with this list. There are many cases of actors who are never truly right for roles (Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher or Tyler Perry as Alex Cross) and the movie suffers for that. But then there are the occasions where this seemingly “terrible” choice turns out to not only do well but imbue the part far better than anyone could possibly have imagined.
Several of the actors here won over fans, critics and even a couple of Oscars for their performances and established these seemingly “horrible” picks as nearly perfect and iconic. Here are fifteen cases of how the “wrong” choice turned out great for all involved and a reminder of how it’s best not to judge too quickly.
15 Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Slander
The pressure to play the hardcore tattooed punk hacker of the best-selling novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was intense. It was more so due to how Noomi Rapace had won wide acclaim for the role in the original Swedish film. For the American version, David Fincher considered many such as Scarlett Johansson before settling on Rooney Mara, whose biggest role before was in The Social Network.
Smartly, Mara didn’t ape Rapace but gave the role her own spin; her Lisbeth was less intense but still broken yet willing to fight back as seen by her brutal revenge on a rapist. She didn’t shy from things and even had her own nipples pierced and eyebrows shaved for the role, going as deep as she could to make the part come alive. She earned an Oscar nomination for it and while the series appears stalled, Mara is still the Slander most think of, showing how the unknown choice can be so much better.
14 Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
An Oscar-winning writer and a good actor, sure. But an action star? Matt Damon would never have struck anyone as that type in 2002 which made his casting in The Bourne Identity all the more baffling to fans.
Indeed, the producers approached action-oriented guys like Brad Pitt and before settling on Damon, a man not exactly known as a muscle guy. As it happened, that worked out in the movie’s favor as the way Damon exploded into fights surprised viewers: his amnesiac character kept the viewers on their toes.
Damon insisted on doing as many of the stunts himself as possible and that realism gave a nice edge to the fight sequences while he also showed his character’s struggle with his unknown past while trying to do the right thing. It got more intense as the sequels unfolded and boosted Damon as a box office star while showing you don’t always need the right “action guy” to make an action movie work right.
13 Christopher Reeve as Superman
A lot of guys wanted to wear that iconic “S” on the big screen from Sylvester Stallone to Christopher Walken before Richard Donner decided it was better to go for an unknown. Christopher Reeve impressed first in his audition and then by bulking up with weightlifting rather than wearing a muscled suit.
He nails the presence of Superman, the other-worldly power and the down-to-earth attitude that makes you want to trust and admire him. Reeve is also genius with his Clark Kent, changing his voice and posture, making the bumbling so natural that for the first time, you could buy people not looking past the glasses to see the truth.
Thanks to Reeve, the first two movies were huge successes and the last two may have been poor but you couldn’t blame it on him. The role would follow Reeve for the rest of his life but he turned to be a real superhero following his horse riding accident and why he’s still cited as one of the best super-hero performances of all time.
12 Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
While Downey was known for his great talent, he was more famous before 2008 for his trouble with addictions and the law, numerous arrests and trips to rehab that made him more famous on the front pages of tabloids than movies.
He had the look of Tony Stark but fans doubted he could capture the essence of the character so well. As it happened, Downey Jr actually improved on the Tony of the comics as his on-screen portrayal had great humor but also pain for the suffering his weapons caused while trying to make amends. The scenes of him creating the armor were genius and the film’s success set the tone for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the two sequels and the Avengers films, Downey Jr. made Iron Man a complicated but fascinating hero to root for but still very flawed and it’s likely that without him, the movie and thus the entire MCU as we know it may not even exist.
11 Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara
Long before Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight, the book-to-movie adaptation the world was waiting for was Gone With the Wind. While Clark Gable was the obvious go-to pick for Rhett Butler, the search for Scarlett O’Hara was intense and would include just about every major actress in Hollywood.
In the end, the role went to a true surprise candidate: Vivian Leigh, a British actress with a few minor credits on her resume. There was a lot of uproar among the book’s many fans (the joke was that Southerners shrugged “Better a Brit than a Yankee”) and the pressure reportedly got to Leigh on set with her acting up.
In the end, that intensity just fueled her performance as the rough and tumble conniving Scarlett endured heartache but did not give up. It turned into an iconic performance that won Leigh the Oscar and the highlight of her troubled career. It's still ironic how the most famous Southern Belle on film wasn’t even really an American.
10 Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow
In July of 2003, most everyone in Hollywood expected Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl to be the biggest bomb of the year. A pirate movie based on a theme park ride with a leading man less known as a big star and more for quirky character roles?
Instead, the movie was a delight with critics and with audiences and it was all because of Johnny Depp. His Jack Sparrow was a creation unlike anything seen in movies with the bizarre outfit, walk, accent and more, a performance that gained instant “you have to see this” word of mouth that allowed the movie to grow into the biggest live-action hit of that year.
It earned Depp an Oscar nomination and while you can argue it gave him the idea of needing to dress in strange parts to get ahead, you cannot argue how gripping his first turn as Captain Jack was for movie-goers, which created one of the biggest summer blockbusters of recent times.
9 Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf
In France, Edith Piaf is not just a singer, she’s a national icon. Thus, the question of who would play her for the biopic La Vie en Rose was intense. No one expected director Oliver Dahan to choose Marion Cotillard, whose fame in her own native land was low and non-existent elsewhere. He claimed he saw a resemblance in the eyes but many complained over the gorgeous actress bearing no other likeness to Piaf.
The first signs of her able to pull it off were in the first promotional images as an Oscar-winning makeup job made Cotillard the spitting image of the late diva. When the movie was released, all doubts were blown away by Cotillard capturing Piaf’s performances and aura to make her live again. It paid off as Cotillard won the Oscar for Best Actress; it was an ironic case of how playing a star can turn an actress into one.
8 Chris Pratt as Star-Lord
It’s funny to remember that at this point last year, many believed Guardians of the Galaxy would be Marvel’s first big-budget flop. A key reason was that the main star was a man with little major screen credits and best known as the lovable, chubby dimwit of Parks and Recreation. But from the moment Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord sings while breaking into an ancient vault, moviegoers were cheering him on and he helped the film become a winner.
He balanced great humor with a good flair for action and surprising many with his buff body to make the movie a smash. It has launched Pratt to leading man status with Jurassic World and the upcoming Guardians sequel. This was the case of an offbeat choice being needed for an offbeat hero.
7 Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
It’s not that Theron didn’t show some talent but the brutal truth is that before 2003, she was better known for roles in lesser-known movies, most of which involved her showing her nude body off. Thus, you can understand the doubts when it was announced she would be starring in Monster as Wuornos, the woman executed for the murders of several men in Florida and who bore pretty much no resemblance to Theron at all.
When the movie was released, the critical reaction was incredible, with Roger Ebert hailing Theron as “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” The makeup job made her so unrecognizable that many who went into the movie with little knowledge didn’t realize it was Theron until the closing credits. The actress also showed stunning depth getting into the role to make audiences sympathize with this killer and understand why she did what she did. The role won Theron new respect and the Oscar for Best Actress and proved she was far, far more than just a pretty face.
6 Chris Evans as Captain America
It wasn’t just fans who were upset about the casting of Chris Evans as the Star-Spangled Avenger. Even longtime Captain America writers Mark Waid and Ed Brubaker expressed doubts of the actor best known as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films being believable as the leader of the Avengers. Evans, however, showed he had the role well in hand from the start by insisting on playing the weakling Steve Rogers via CGI so viewers could invest themselves in him before he became a Super Soldier.
He was great in the fight scenes but also captured Cap’s love for his country, his never-say-die attitude and good humor that makes him so winning a character and leader. In both his own movies and The Avengers, Evans perfectly showcases why Cap is such an icon for the Marvel Universe and looks ready to continue that as the next phase of the MCU rolls on.
5 Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
When the first X-Men movie cast was announced, several choices were greeted with enthusiasm, mostly Patrick Stewart as Professor X. Not surprisingly, the biggest reaction was saved for the most popular X-Man of them all.
At first, Dougray Scott was cast but had to bow out due to scheduling so director Bryan Singer went with Hugh Jackman, a man totally unknown outside his native Australia whose lack of fame was a key issue. Not helping was how the character (meant to be short) was now touching six feet and lacking his distinctive mask.
But in the role that would propel him to stardom, Jackman won fans over by showcasing Wolverine as the feral fighter ready to go off at any minute and became the highlight of the film. Jackman has continued to play the part in every sequel and two spin-off movies, clearly the role he’ll always be remembered for and another reason not to judge too harshly.
4 Michael Keaton as Batman
This is pretty much the go-to answer for “bad castings that worked out great” for many. If the Internet community had existed in 1988 the way it does now, message boards and sites would be lit up over the announcement of “Mr. Mom” cast as the Dark Knight.
Many instantly jumped to the idea the Tim Burton movie would be more campy than the 1960s TV series: Michael Keaton would turn Batman into a joke and the franchise would die instantly. Warner Bros. responded with an early trailer and the instant Keaton rasped “I’m Batman” at a terrified crook, the doubts died.
Even today, Keaton’s role as the moody Batman, balancing a troubled Bruce Wayne with the intensity of the Caped Crusader, is a go-to for great comic book performances, a Batman all others are judged by and how thinking outside the box in casting can score.
3 Daniel Craig as James Bond
It wasn’t that Daniel Craig didn’t have the handsome demeanor to play 007. It was that he came off more as a rough and tumble type of guy, not the suave adventurer Bond has become known as for generations (the blonde hair didn’t help either).
As it turned out, Craig was perfect for this reboot of the franchise, giving Bond a much more dangerous air, the first actor truly believable as a cold agent with a license to kill. His movies delve more into the personal side of Bond and what it takes to be this top agent but still throw in the great action from fist fights to full scale action pieces.
With Spectre coming out later this year, Craig has placed himself high on the list of the top Bond actors and proven how you may need to shake and stir the franchise up to keep it going.
2 Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
It’s easy to forget that just five years ago, Jennifer Lawrence was a little-known actress in Hollywood. Yes, she’d had an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone but she was still overlooked among the massive talent around. When it was announced she would be playing Katniss Everdeen in the anticipated adaptation of The Hunger Games, the uproar was huge. Fans said she was too old, too blonde and too gorgeous to properly play this tough teenage heroine.
That was all silenced when the actual movie came out and Lawrence dug deep into Katniss, showing her amazing strength amid her fears of competing in this horrible tournament and grounding the adaptation nicely. Her rise to fame as an Oscar-winner seemed to grow the character more in the sequels, with Lawrence riding the fame just as well as her character did. With the final film ready to hit theaters, Lawrence has proven herself as an actress and star, with this “risky” move paying off dividends.
1 Heath Ledger as the Joker
In the initial backlash after the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman, one fan sought to give everyone a reminder by putting together a massive collage of the Internet reactions in 2006 when it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker in The Dark Knight. Fans were livid, citing Ledger as too serious and the Brokeback Mountain jokes were too numerous to count.
The reports of Ledger going more serious in the role and the first images of the Joker with his scarred mouth didn’t win much more respect. But then the first footage aired and fans were stunned at how Ledger perfectly captured the pure chaotic insanity of the Joker like no one before him.
Tragically, the actor died just months before his triumph which added more power to his performance, cited as a stunning achievement that would win Ledger just about every Supporting Actor award there was, including the Oscar. It’s something to remember for the Affleck Batman as few gave credence to the last portrayal of his arch-enemy.