There are countless “what if” stories in the film industry, times when actors came close to portraying famous characters, but fate had other plans. Whether it’s Emily Blunt turning down the role of Black Widow, or Will Smith saying no to Neo and Django, every actor seemingly has a famous role they passed on.
Sometimes, however, casting changes occur well into production, and actors who have secured the role lose it due to a range of circumstances. Often it turns out for the better, as the following list contains some iconic performances. For the sake of amusement though, it is interesting to ponder how the below films could have looked (and sounded) very different.
James Remar – ‘Aliens’ (1986)
In the second (and the best) entry in the hugely popular Sci-Fi series, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) encounters a new Xenomorph threat alongside a squad of colonial marines. Among the hardened, cocky soldiers she finds an ally in Cpl. Hicks and the two work together to survive.
James Remar, best known for playing Ajax in The Warriors, was cast as Hicks and the actor spent several weeks on set. Remar was struggling with a drug problem at the time, however, which resulted in him being arrested and promptly fired from the film. Director James Cameron recruited his past collaborator from The Terminator, Michael Biehn, for the role, while footage of Remar from behind still exists in the film as the marines enter the hive. Aliens is available to stream on Starz.
Heath Ledger – ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ (2009)
Everyone knows about Heath Ledger‘s legendary performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight which was released after his tragic death, but that was not his final film role. That position belongs to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a fantasy journey through multiple different dimensions.
Ledger passed away after filming a third of the film, leaving director Terry Gilliam to ponder beginning from scratch. Instead, the decision was made to recast the role with three different actors, the idea being the character’s appearance would change with each realm visited. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law joined the project, and the finished product is a tribute to the late actor.
Kevin Spacey – ‘All the Money in the World’ (2017)
One of the most well-known examples of recasting happening mid-production, as it occurred at the height of the allegations made against Kevin Spacey. The actor had already filmed his scenes for All the Money in the World and the movie was ready for release, but those behind the film decided to reshoot his parts to distance themselves from the disgraced actor.
Christopher Plummer was brought on board as a replacement, playing the role of J. Paul Getty, a billionaire whose grandson is kidnaped. While the reshoots cost an additional $10 million, it proved a successful one as Plummer’s performance was praised, and he received an Academy Award nomination. All the Money in the World is available to stream on Tubi.
Eric Stoltz – ‘Back to the Future’ (1985)
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Michael J. Fox playing Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but that was almost the case. Fox was always the first choice to play the role, but scheduling conflicts with his show Family Ties meant he was unavailable. Eric Stoltz was cast instead, and the film began production.
During filming, director Robert Zemeckis realized Stoltz was miscast, portraying the character in a serious manner that was at odds with the lighter tone he was after. The actor was fired, and every effort was made to accommodate Fox’s TV schedule to bring him on board.
Samantha Morton – ‘Her’ (2013)
In an unlikely love story between man and machine, Joaquin Phoenix stars as a lonely writer who begins to feel affection for an AI program. Scarlett Johansson voices the artificial intelligence, and the actresses’ vocal performance brings life to a character we never see.
Despite her acclaimed role in Her, Johansson was not the first choice for the part. British actress Samantha Morton recorded all the dialogue for the movie, but Spike Jonze decided during post-production that her voice did not fit the film, so Johansson was brought in to re-record all the character’s lines.
Colin Firth – ‘Paddington’ (2014)
Another character that almost had a different voice, Colin Firth was the original choice to play the beloved bear. Firth’s involvement was heavily advertised when the film was first announced, and he was still attached as post-production on Paddington began.
However, it soon became apparent to everyone involved that Firth’s voice was not the best fit for the character, and he voluntarily withdrew from the film. While Firth’s Paddington surely would have sounded like a very distinguished gentleman, it is hard to imagine the marmalade master without the wholesome tone that Ben Whishaw brings to the two perfect films. Paddington is available to stream on Netflix.
Jean-Claude Van Damme – ‘Predator’ (1987)
The idea of having Jean-Claude Van Damme facing off against Arnold Schwarzenegger is enough to send action fans into a frenzy. This dream scenario almost came true when the then-unknown Van Damme was cast as the titular Predator, tasked with hunting down the cast of one of the best action films of the 80s.
Van Damme had hoped the film would be a showcase of his martial arts abilities to Hollywood, so was disheartened when he learned he would be in costume for the entire film. The costume itself also caused problems, as the build-up of heat would cause the Muscles from Brussels to pass out on set, resulting in him dropping out of the project. Predator is available to stream on Hulu.
Chris D’Elia – ‘Army of the Dead’ (2021)
Polarizing director Zack Snyder‘s latest, Army of the Dead, is a throwback to his debut, Dawn of the Dead, and proved to be a streaming hit for Netflix. The production was not without its troubles, however, as comedian Chris D’Elia, who played helicopter pilot Peters, was hit with sexual misconduct allegations a year after filming had finished.
Rather than stay attached to the disgraced actor, D’Elia was removed from the film and replaced by fellow comedian Tig Notaro. Unfortunately the change occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, making reshoots with the entire cast difficult. Instead, Notaro was digitally added to the film through the use of CGI and green screens. Army of the Dead is available to stream on Netflix.
Chris Farley – ‘Shrek’ (2001)
Shrek is one of the most iconic movies of the early 2000s, a core memory for children from that time period. Development of Shrek began as early as 1995, with Saturday Night Live star Chris Farley cast to voice the titular ogre. Farley sadly passed away in 1997, and while he had recorded most of his lines he had yet to finish the required dialogue.
Fellow SNL alum Mike Myers was brought in as a replacement, and Farley’s version was scrapped entirely. Myers insisted on giving the character his signature Scottish accent, and the film went on to become one of the greatest animated movies of all time. Audio of Farley’s recording has leaked online, giving fans a glimpse of what the late actor would have brought to the role. Shrek is available to stream on Peacock.
Nicole Kidman – ‘Panic Room’ (2002)
A well-regarded thriller from the beginning of the 21st century, Panic Room was another hit for Jodie Foster. The Oscar winner was a late call-up, however, as Nicole Kidman was originally cast to play protagonist Meg Altman. Two weeks into filming, Kidman re-aggravated an injury she sustained on Moulin Rogue, revealed to be a fracture in her knee.
Luckily Foster was able to take over before the production fell into disarray. Director David Fincher claims Foster’s involvement caused them to rewrite the character, as Kidman’s portrayal was intended to be more glamorous and at odds with her tomboyish daughter played by Kristen Stewart. Foster’s version closer aligned with her daughter and the script was rewritten to make Meg a stronger character.