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12 Movie Roles That Completely Changed When A Specific Actor Was Cast

Updated February 28, 2021 7.2k votes 1.4k voters 111.2k views12 items

List RulesVote up the best performances that completely changed and redefined the role.

Worlds, stories, and characters are conceived on the page. Whether it be in a novel, comic book, or script, an infinite number of idiosyncratic features have been overcome by actors that redefined their characters. Sometimes roles are written for specific actors, but most of the time, filmmakers search the globe for that special someone. Most characters in entertainment transform to some degree once actors bring them to life (or impose their large personalities upon them). Great performers are respected for redefining characters.

Some roles are rewritten when the actor is cast or changed throughout filming, with the actor taking it in a different direction than anticipated. The role doesn't become fully realized until experimentation and improvisation take hold. This isn't just a matter of changing a few lines here and there; it's a holistic change to the entire vision or persona. Think of the infamous behind-the-scenes confusion when Johnny Depp unveiled his take on Jack Sparrow, or Robin Williams making Aladdin’s genie inseparable from his talent. These are some of the best movie characters that completely changed when a specific actor was cast to play them. Remember to vote up your favorites.

  • Jack Nicholson's role as Frank Costello In Martin Scorsese’s The Departed wasn't even part of the plan. Being a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime film, Internal Affairs, the role was originally a brief cameo. According to Nicholson, it wasn't until after he turned down the movie that they agreed to write a role specifically for him:

    I actually turned the movie down the first time it came to me. because the character didn’t really exist. But Leo (DiCaprio) and Marty talked me into it. I guess you can say I was attracted to the company... Marty is very free with his ideas, and very receptive to yours. We built this character layer by layer, until we had something that fit inside a great genre film, but also pushed the envelope until the movie becomes almost operatic.

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  • According to Jeff Vintar, his screenplay, Hardwired, was a contained murder mystery similar to Isaac Asimov’s short stories (I, Robot) from the 1950s:

    It’s a locked-room mystery. A man is killed in a locked room; nobody was inside but machines, so how could he have been murdered? In that way, it's a very classic, old-fashioned murder mystery at its core. And Isaac Asimov was doing the very same thing.

    Once I, Robot attracted Will Smith to the role of detective Del Spooner, who investigates the alleged suicide of a US robotics founder, the project became the sci-fi epic audiences are familiar with:

    At some point, Will Smith became interested, and that was great for the project because it was a way, obviously, to justify the growing expense. He was great for the role. Akiva [Goldsman] came on to do the Will Smith rewrites, meaning that he took the film even further in the direction of a Will Smith event film... when Will Smith came on, the robot count went up from 50 to 1,000. That was the Will Smith effect. 

    In addition to an increased budget, Goldsman (who has worked with Smith on I Am Legend and Hancock) was enlisted to write for Smith. Not only did the actor bring his signature charisma and star presence to the role, but his involvement also made the movie an entirely different product.

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  • Modern audiences probably best recognize Marlon Brando for his role as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. As is the case with that performance (and many others), Brando gained a reputation for his extreme dedication to method acting. Brando’s other collaboration with Coppola, Apocalypse Now, is hailed as one of the greatest movies of all-time - and one of the most tumultuous productions. Brando’s eccentric nature and movie star demands (such as a $3.5 million payday, refusing to work with Dennis Hopper, and coming to set with an entourage) didn’t make things any easier.

    In the film, Brando plays Colonel Kurtz, a renegade officer who is presumed insane (not to mention homicidal). According to Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness (on which the film is loosely based), Kurtz was supposed to be gaunt/weak from years of living in the jungle. However, Brando ignored this and showed up to set overweight. The actor demanded that he be filmed in shadow (and wear all black) to hide this.

    The differences between him and what was written didn’t stop there; Coppola halted production for a week so that he and Brando could discuss the character. Brando, who was notorious for being unwilling to memorize his lines, improvised a lot of dialogue during these meetings - which Coppola recorded and then implemented into the script. On top of this, an earpiece was put into Brando’s ear so that his ramblings could be replayed for him while on camera. The end result: 15 minutes of screen time that is completely different from what little script there was before Brando arrived.

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  • In Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, his protagonist is described as 6 feet 5 inches tall and 250 pounds; he has an imposing presence. Tom Cruise is 5 feet 7. The comparatively diminutive superstar wasn't Child's first choice to play his ex-military police officer with a taste for righting wrongs. Before Cruise's involvement, thespians like Liam Neeson, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, or Russell Crowe might’ve seemed like more appropriate choices. While Child didn't have the final say in casting, he was involved in the discussions:

    Absolutely Reacher is a big guy, no question about it, but he’s also intelligent, intimidating, he gives off a certain vibe. What if we got everything except the size? How would that work?

    The internet was up in arms when Cruise was initially announced; he was the action star known for films like Top Gun and the Mission: Impossible franchise. Within the first few minutes of the film, you realize that Cruise is also a character actor, bringing his unique style to a character everyone thought they knew.

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