18 Controversial Casting Decisions That Made Headlines

Celia San Miguel | May 22, 2016 Movies

Sometimes, Hollywood gets it all wrong, making casting decisions that range from baffling and incongruous to disrespectful and downright offensive. For starters, whitewashing and race-bending practices have existed for years, with white actors playing people of color and infuriating many in the process. Then there are those instances in which the actor selected lacks the temperament, energy, presence, or physical attributes to truly breathe life into a given role. 

But it doesn't always lead to gloom and doom when producers and directors think outside the box. Some of the most memorable on-screen performances were delivered by actors whose castings were met with massive skepticism. Case in point: Heath Ledger's poignant performance as the Joker.

Whether they were disastrous or triumphant, check out some of the casting decisions that kicked up some major dust over the years.


Image via RLJ Entertainment

  • Tom Cruise in 'Interview with the Vampire'


    Image via Warner Bros. Entertainment

    Even author Anne Rice was outraged when Tom Cruise was cast as Lestat in 1994's Interview with a Vampire, the film adaptation of her gothic novel. "[Cruise] is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler," the writer scoffed. "The casting is so bizarre that it's impossible to imagine how it's going to work." In Rice's mind, Lestat had to be strong but tortured, mischievous and impish with just enough gravitas. She doubted Cruise would be able to pull off embodying such qualities, but in the end, she was highly pleased with his performance, praising it effusively.

  • Ben Affleck in 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice'


    Image via Zack Snyder/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Comic book fans never forgave Ben Affleck for his horrific performance in 2003's Daredevil. Ten years later, when he was announced as the choice to heed the bat signal in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Internet went into a tizzy. Within minutes of the announcement, a petition went up on Change.org demanding that DC Comics find another actor to replace Ben Affleck as Batman. Over 95,000 people signed the petition.

  • Hayden Christensen in 'Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' and 'Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith'


    Image via Lucasfilm Ltd.

    Some Star Wars fans are still fuming over Hayden Christensen's being cast as Anakin Skywalker in the Episode II and Episode III prequels. Tasked with portraying how a promising Jedi ultimately transformed into the evil Darth Vader, Christensen largely came across as a petulant, pouty, whiny adolescent. Many argued Christensen should've appeared more menacing, providing a glimpse of what Anakin would become over time. The issue remains divisive, with many Reddit threads devoted to debating the casting decision and Christensen's performance.

  • Emma Stone in 'Aloha'


    Image via Neal Pearston/Columbia Pictures

    Aloha director Cameron Crowe was shoved into the hot seat for casting Emma Stone as Allison Ng, an air force pilot whose father was half Hawaiian and half Chinese. Crowe issued an apology via his blog, but, curiously, the not-at-all-Asian Stone remained silent for almost two months after the film's release and the ensuing backlash. In July 2015, she finally spoke out, saying she had "learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood."

    More from The Stir9 Stars Who Dropped Major Weight for Movie Roles

  • Madonna in 'Evita'


    Image via Cinergi Pictures Entertainment

    Madonna attempted to embody the late Eva Perón in the 1996 musical film Evita, but many Argentinians were not amused by the idea of the "Like a Prayer" singer portraying such a beloved political icon. Critics worried that the legacy of Argentina's former first lady would be tarnished by any association with Madonna, who was best known for her lascivious image and risqué on-stage behavior.

  • Zoe Saldana in 'Nina'


    Image via RLJ Entertainment

    Dominican actress Zoe Saldana ruffled quite a few feathers when she agreed to play Nina Simone in the biopic Nina. The controversy surrounding the casting had lingered for years but reached new heights when the movie trailer emerged in early 2016, showing Zoe Saldana wearing dark makeup, a prosthetic nose, and an Afro wig. Singer India.Arie called the casting "tone deaf." Others rattled off a list of dark-skinned African-American actresses — among them Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, Adepero Oduye, and Lupita Nyong'o — better suited to embody the jazz legend and civil rights activist.

  • Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight'


    Image via Amazon.com

    Although Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, news of his casting in 2006 was not initially well-received. He was labeled a "pretty boy," and Batman fans were skeptical about Ledger's ability to capture the Joker's maniacal and diabolical persona. Their doubts were put to rest upon the movie's release in 2008: Ledger delivered a show-stealing performance as the mercurial, psychopathic, unhinged, terrifying villain.

  • Jennifer Lopez in 'Selena'


    Image via Amazon.com

    The role of Tejana singer Selena Quintanilla moved Jennifer Lopez's acting career into the fast track, establishing her as a versatile and charismatic performer. Initially, however, there was some resistance to a Puerto Rican actress playing Selena, rather than a Mexican-American one. "I was really upset about that,” Lopez's co-star Constance Marie said of the criticism. “Everybody should have been so thankful that an actual Latina was playing [Selena].” In the end, everyone was singing "Como La Flor" right along Lopez. A Mexican-American star was properly remembered and a Nuyorican star was born.

    More from The Stir: 20 Times Jennifer Lopez Wowed Us on 'American Idol'

  • Johnny Depp in 'The Lone Ranger'


    Image via Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc.

    When Johnny Depp was first linked to 2011's The Lone Ranger, everyone assumed he'd be playing the masked lawman — not his Native American sidekick! Depp, however, insisted on playing Tonto and said he hoped to upend many of the pervasive stereotypes about Native Americans in Hollywood. Despite his possible good intentions, Depp only exacerbated notions of American Indians as mystical beings able to communicate with animals (and resurrect them!) and spirits from beyond the grave.

  • Vince Vaughn in 'Psycho'


    Image via Universal Pictures

    Audiences and critics alike don't seem to buy Vince Vaughn as a dramatic actor: Before his performance on season 2 of HBO's True Detective was widely panned, the Wedding Crashers star was mocked for his portrayal of Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho remake. At the time, Vaughn was primarily known for his work in Swingers, making him a perplexing choice for the role. The sight of the beefy Vaughn in a blonde wig channeling "Mother" proved downright comical — which, of course, wasn't the intent.

  • Al Pacino in 'Scarface'


    Image via Amazon.com

    It was a gruesome, needlessly bloody, campy gangster flick chock-full of quotable lines ("Say hello to my little friend!"), but Scarface's rise to cult classic status was far from immediate. Its popularity was bolstered in the mid-to-late '90s by rappers who continuously name-checked the gangster flick. In 1983, however, many critics and moviegoers were unenthused by Al Pacino's portrayal of Cuban refugee turned drug kingpin Tony Montana. Pacino's over-the-top accent in the Brian DePalma film continues to make gaggles of Latino viewers wince.

  • Jamie Dornan in 'Fifty Shades of Grey'


    Image via Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures

    It raked in over $500 million globally, but Fifty Shades of Grey was a controversial project from the beginning — not only due to its S&M subject matter, but also due to the casting troubles that plagued the production. Fans of EL James's erotic romance balked at the notion of Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam playing Christian Grey, so when he backed out, clearing the way for Jamie Dornan, it seemed like fate had intervened. Then came the inevitable backlash as viewers complained about a lack of chemistry between Jamie Dornan and leading lady Dakota Johnson. Perhaps the sequel's performance will show how fans really feel about the spark (or lack thereof) between the leads.

    More from The Stir: 10 Celebs Who Hate 'Fifty Shades of Grey' & Aren't Even Shy About It

  • Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra'


    Image via Amazon.com

    Hollywood has a long history of racial miscastings, and blue-eyed Elizabeth Taylor playing Egyptian queen Cleopatra is one blatant example of the infuriating phenomenon. For years, some defended the casting, citing theories that Cleopatra had been of Greek descent and was likely light-skinned. These theories have now been debunked: in 2008, scientists produced computer-generated renderings showing the famous ruler as a mixed-race beauty with olive skin and full lips.

  • Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story'


    Image via Amazon.com

    A modernized Romeo and Juliet tale, West Side Story centered on the forbidden romance between two teens with ties to rival street gangs. Given the fim's themes — racial tensions between the Italian and Puerto Rican youths and the hardships faced by Puerto Rican immigrants in 1950s New York City — casting a Latina actress as Maria should have been a no-brainer. Instead, white actress Natalie Wood was tapped as the star. Rita Moreno, who played the feisty Anita, was the only Puerto Rican in the main cast. Even crazier: All the actors playing Puerto Ricans wore brown makeup on their faces and bodies, with the exception of Natalie Wood, whose fair skin remained untouched, arguably reinforcing colorist beauty standards.

  • Laurence Olivier in 'Othello'


    Image via Amazon.com

    In 1965, the very same year when Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march and, consequently, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, British actor Laurence Olivier donned blackface to play Shakespeare's tragic, jealousy-stricken Othello, the Moor of Venice, on the silver screen. Fortunately, Americans denounced the cinematic minstrel show and, two days after the film's release, it was pulled out of theaters.

  • Tom Cruise in 'Jack Reacher'


    Image via Paramount Pictures

    Fans of Lee Child's best-selling Jack Reacher book series were outraged when Tom Cruise was tapped to play the brutal ex-military officer in a 2012 movie adaptation. Their gripe? In the novels, Jack Reacher was described as a gargantuan creature, standing 6'5" tall, weighing 220 lbs., and having a massive 50" chest. Tom Cruise, meanwhile, is 5'7" and weighs about 150 lbs., and hardly has "giant battered fists that bunch into fists the size of footballs."

    More from The Stir: 18 Surprisingly Short Male Celebrities

  • Katharine Hepburn in 'Dragon Seed'


    Image via Amazon.com

    In 1944, Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese woman fighting against Japanese imperialists in the film Dragon Seed. To make matters worse, producers attempted to make her look "more Asian" by giving her slanted eyes using special effects makeup, arching her brows, and plopping on a wig tied into a top bun.

  • John Wayne in 'The Conqueror'


    Image via Amazon.com

    Everything about the Howard Hughes–produced 1956 film The Conqueror was a bad idea — down to the fact that it was filmed on nuclear weapons testing ground in Nevada. But the most offensive and downright absurd aspect of the film was the decision to have John Wayne play 12th century Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan. In 1979, Wayne himself voiced his regret over his time in yellowface, saying the moral was, "Don’t make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you are not suited for."

celebrities tv movies

More Slideshows