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When Opportunity Knocks

When Opportunity Knocks

Articles - Directing

Garland: Perfect as Dorothy—but producers wanted Shirley
Temple.

Couldn’t get Julia Roberts for your film? Renée
Zellweger was too busy? Not to worry, some inspiring lesser-known
actors will get their day in the sun for this very reason.

Whether it’s because their schedules were too full or the material
too racy, A-list actors have always let meaty roles slip through
their fingers. And guess who’s there to catch them?

Have you seen the movie Almost Famous,
starring Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley? That’s because they both
passed, leaving the lead roles ripe to be plucked by Billy Crudup
and Kate Hudson. Interestingly, that caused a chain reaction.
Polley was originally wanted for Penny Lane and Hudson for Anita,
Patrick Fugit’s airline pilot sister. Once Polley was out of
the picture, Hudson was offered the lead role and Zooey Deschanel
was cast in the supporting one. When she was a guest on the popular
IFC show “Dinner for Five,” Deschanel
revealed that on more than one occasion she hasn’t been the first
choice, but she doesn’t mind. “I’m always getting hand-me-down
roles, so I’m thankful… It just gives me a chance. The Almost
Famous
experience ended up working out really well. I mean,
for me it was just great.”

Earlier this year, Details fueled a rumor that Sofia Coppola
had originally written Lost In Translation for Kirsten Dunst.
When she wasn’t available, Coppola cast Scarlett Johansson, who
garnered critical acclaim opposite Bill Murray—not to mention a
Golden Globe nomination.

Also common are incidents of producers starting with lesser-known
actors but dropping them once bigger names come along. After spending
two years developing American Psycho, Mary Harron and Christian
Bale were given their walking papers from Lions Gate, who got wind
that a white-hot, fresh-off-the-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio
was interested in the title role. It didn’t matter to the Lions
Gate braintrust how right for the part Bale was; they now had their
golden ticket and they were gonna cash in. DiCaprio’s camp later
bailed, saying there had never been a formal contract and that
DiCaprio had merely expressed interest. With their tail jammed
firmly between their legs, Lions Gate crawled back to Harron and
Bale. The budget went from a DiCaprio-inflated $41 million back
to an indie-appropriate $7 million. Christian Bale ended up encompassing
the character of Patrick Bateman so completely that one cannot
imagine anyone else in the role. It also made Bale a hot commodity;
he’s now set to play the next Batman.

Since the Golden Age of cinema, second-choice actors have gotten
their big breaks in the same way. Shirley Temple would have been
following the yellow brick road if she hadn’t passed on The
Wizard of Oz
. Judy Garland made the part her own and the rest
is history.

The same goes for Easy Rider, one of the most important
independent films ever made. Jack Nicholson’s career might never
have been if Dennis Hopper hadn’t pulled a knife on Rip Torn. After
Torn fled the project, Nicholson, who had all but given up on acting,
jumped on the back of Peter Fonda’s Harley and rode it all the
way to an Oscar nomination.

Speaking of passing up Academy Award-worthy roles: when Newsweek asked
Angela Bassett why she passed on the character Halle Berry won
an Oscar for in Monster’s Ball, she replied, “I wasn’t going
to be a prostitute on film. I couldn’t do that, because it’s such
a stereotype about black women and sexuality.” Shocking statements,
especially since Berry didn’t play a prostitute. But even more
surprising was when Lee Daniels, the film’s producer, denied ever
offering Bassett the role.

One of the most recent and noteworthy instances
of “The Scraps
Effect” would be the indie hit Secretary. Maggie Gyllenhaal
went from an unknown to the very top of the Indie It-List (and
gathered Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations
along the way). Sure, we’d all like to believe that Gyllenhaal
was bred from birth to play the role, but anyone who has produced
a film knows all about obstacles.

In an interview on the Rotten Tomatoes Website,
director Steven Shainberg said “Like all independent movies, the first thing
you’re looking for is a name actor who will justify your financing
and, in this case, everybody passed. But in the process of going
down the A-list, I said to Ellen [Parks, casting director on the
film], ‘We all think this is astounding, but they all in the real
world might be afraid of it—we’d better look at other people.’”

Parks remembers the process. “It took close
to a year to cast Secretary,
and we returned to Maggie again and again as ‘the one to beat.’
But since the role was clearly the lead, as well as the most interesting
and challenging part in the movie, it was the one to which ‘name
value’ was most likely to attach.”

They went out to numerous bigger names like Christina Ricci and
Claire Danes, who weren’t available. Other actresses, such as Sarah
Polley and Kate Hudson, simply passed. Parks says Reese Witherspoon
was initially intrigued, but in the end she passed, as well, probably
because the role was too far outside her comfort zone.

Says Parks about her Secretary experience: “I’m
so proud that this was one case where the right person was cast
for the right reasons—and immensely grateful that Steve and the
producers were finally persuaded to value the talent factor above
all and trust Maggie to get the job done.”

Here’s to hoping more plum roles slip through the cracks. MM

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