Top 20 Most Controversial Movie Castings of All Time
VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb
WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Alexander
These casting decisions drew the ire of fans, critics, or both! For this list, we'll be looking at the most hotly-debated casting choices in Hollywood, no matter if they turned out well or not. Our countdown includes Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Johnny Depp as Tonto, Heath Ledger as The Joker, Chris Pratt as Mario, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and more!
Top 20 Most Controversial Movie Casting Decisions
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Most Controversial Movie Casting Decisions.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most hotly-debated casting choices in Hollywood, no matter if they turned out well or not.
Which of these roles do you think worked out the best? Let us know in the comments!
#20: Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
“The Danish Girl” (2015)
Few roles in film history portray trans joy as thoroughly as the titular part of this biopic. But, that’s precisely why many found it offensive and disappointing when Eddie Redmayne was cast. That’s not to say he isn’t great in the role. On the contrary, he delivered a tender performance that earned him critical acclaim and even an Oscar nomination. But, since trans stories are historically difficult to get greenlit, some found it disheartening that a transgender actor wasn’t headlining a story about their own experience. In 2021, Redmayne himself expressed that, despite his best intentions when cast, he ultimately regretted taking the role.
#19: Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball
“Being the Ricardos” (2021)
This casting may have ended up with critical acclaim, an Oscar nomination, and a Golden Globe win, but it definitely didn’t start out that way. Upon the release of the first trailer, many were miffed that Kidman didn’t look, sound, or act anything like other portrayals of Ball. It didn’t help that Ball had a modern doppelganger in actress Debra Messing, who some felt should have gotten the part instead. But, director Aaron Sorkin didn’t want an impersonation for the film, so he cast Kidman based on her dramatic chops alone. Clearly, it all worked out for the best, anyways.
#18: Zoe Saldaña as Nina Simone
This misguided biopic serves as a cautionary tale for good reason. On principle alone, the casting of an Afro-Latina actress as a famous Black musician raised quite a few eyebrows. To make matters worse, Saldana darkened her skin and wore heavy prosthetics for the film, which only further emphasized that she was hopelessly miscast. The performance isn’t bad, per se, but it can’t escape the impression that the character onscreen isn’t really Nina Simone at all. The film was torn apart by critics, disavowed by Simone’s family, and even lamented by Saldaña herself in 2020. It certainly left a legacy; just not the kind most films want.
#17: Johnny Depp as Tonto
“The Lone Ranger” (2013)
Over the years, this eclectic actor has made a name for himself by never playing two of the same role. Unfortunately, not even Depp’s range extends to different cultures. Disney banked on his name recognition to buoy their next franchise hopeful, “The Lone Ranger.” Apparently, they failed to consider the egregious appropriation of a white guy dressing up as a Native American and making a fool of himself for two hours. While Depp thinks there’s some Native American ancestry in his genes, the portrayal still comes off as problematic. The film completely bombed at the box office, but even if it hadn’t, the heavy audience pushback probably would’ve kept Depp out of the Indian garb for a sequel. Honestly, that’s for the best.
#16: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
“The Hunger Games” (2012)
It’s hard to believe nowadays, but fans of this young-adult series had some serious reservations when this actress picked up the bow. Although, detractors focused on something that had nothing to do with Lawrence’s talent at all - and that was her appearance. In the novel, Katniss is an impoverished tom-boy who hunts wildlife to scrape by, which didn’t quite fit with Lawrence’s clean-cut image at the time. Thankfully, the hesitancy proved unnecessary when the film debuted to unanimous praise. Both fans and critics agreed that Lawrence totally sold the plight of her character, all the while displaying a self-assurance that grounded the larger-than-life narrative. With all that, it’s obvious this casting hit the bullseye.
#15: Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng
Not even one of the most charming actresses in Hollywood can make this okay. Sure, Stone’s comedic talents could elevate any rom-com, but it didn’t save this film from heavy accusations of whitewashing. One of the most integral parts of Allison’s character is that she’s a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian. It ties into the film’s message about legacy and descent, but all of that is muddled by the fact we’re watching a white actress try and convey a cultural identity crisis. In the years since, both Stone and the film’s director have apologized for not getting a more appropriate actress for the role.
#14: Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone
“The Godfather Part III” (1990)
Sequels are never easy, even with the right actors. To be fair, several talented performers like Julia Roberts, Madonna, and Winona Ryder all nearly appeared as Mary in the film. But, when they all fell through, director Francis Ford Coppola decided to cast his own daughter, Sofia. The obvious nepotism aside, Sofia’s flat delivery and utter lack of emotion is an irrevocable stain on the film. Fans weren’t kind to her then, and they aren’t in modern-day either. Even after the movie received a recut in 2020, her performance still lives on as one of the most despised parts of an otherwise iconic franchise.
#13: Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi
“Ghost in the Shell” (2017)
It’s almost impressive to make a film that’s widely hated before it even hits theaters. This American adaptation of a beloved anime opted for star power over ethnic consistency, which meant rewriting the main character so that a white actress could play the part. Neither newcomers nor fans of the original were pleased, a feeling that was only exacerbated once the film itself was released. In a third act-twist, it’s revealed that Major was originally Japanese, but had her brain placed into the body of a white-passing robot. This attempt to justify Johansson’s casting only left the burning question of why man-made technology was white in the first place.
#12: Chris Pratt as Mario
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (2023)
For decades, the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom have been brought to life by a remarkably consistent batch of voice actors. But, despite his lengthy history with the character, Charles Martinet won’t be returning as Mario in the “Mario” movie. Fans were quick to voice their outrage, especially once the first clips of Chris Pratt in the role surfaced. Some felt that he lacked the same charm or energy of Martinet’s performance and that it set a dangerous precedent for future video game films. Sure, Martinet is still a part of the movie, but many argue there’s no point of making a “Mario” film without the Mario voice everyone knows and loves.
#11: Female Leads
Who ya gonna call? Well, apparently, it won’t be these actresses again. The announcement of a female-led “Ghostbusters” reboot faced intense backlash from fans who were displeased with the new entry’s supposed feminist leanings. The onslaught of negativity and review-bombing unfortunately drowned out a film that really wasn’t too bad. The comedic-all stars at the center of the movie did a great job with what they were given, but that just wasn’t enough to overcome the mountainous controversy. The franchise pivoted to a new, family-friendly direction after this, which had much broader appeal and a lot less fuss.
#10: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
“Iron Man” (2008)
Nowadays, it’s hard to picture any actor who could’ve done a better job beneath the helmet. But, before the MCU became a bonafide sensation, the thought of casting Downey Jr. as the lead of a major franchise was questionable at best after a slew of personal and professional stumbles. But, director Jon Favreau fought for his creative vision, and the result was a performance that defined the Marvel Universe for over a decade. RDJ didn’t just prove his naysayers wrong, he flew that iron suit all the way back to A-list status and beyond.
#9: T.J. Miller as Weasel
“Deadpool 2” (2018)
The Merc with a Mouth has a knack for the crude, quirky, and hilarious. But, there are some things even Deadpool can’t make funny. Like, say, a slew of sexual misconduct allegations against his co-star. Miller’s Weasel was a total scene-stealer in the first film, but after several serious accusations came to light, fans started a campaign to have him removed from the sequel. Reportedly, “Deadpool 2” was too deep into post-production for such a significant change, but that didn’t stop fan disapproval when the film launched. While Miller managed to stay in the first follow-up, it’s surprising that he’ll be with Deadpool for a third go-around.
#8: Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt
“Interview with the Vampire” (1994)
Page-to-screen adaptations always have some concessions. However, they aren’t usually voiced by the actual author. Anne Rice, who wrote both the original novel and the screenplay for the adaptation, initially opposed Cruise’s casting as the infamous bloodsucker. She even went as far as recommending other actors for the part. But, Cruise’s name recognition earned him the role, and he lived up to those expectations with an iconic performance and heaps at the box office. Lestat’s fangs even sucked Rice’s own reservations dry. By the time production finished, she admitted that Cruise had become the character in her mind.
#7: Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne
After standout roles in films like “Mr. Mom” and “Night Shift,” it’s understandable that audiences in the 80s thought Keaton was the next comedy legend. Batman isn’t quite known for his quips, so when the actor put on the cowl, it led to a serious amount of head-scratching. Fans doubted that Keaton could convincingly shoulder a serious film, and if he could, that audiences wouldn’t be able to take it seriously. But, of course, Keaton proved viewers, critics, and everyone else wrong with a legendary performance that lives on to this day. You know what they say: he is vengeance, he is the night, he is Batman.
#6: Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince Dastan of Persia
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (2010)
Even though the character’s country of origin is literally in the movie’s name, Hollywood decided to look anywhere but there for a leading man. Naturally, it didn’t go over well. The whitewashing accusations, poor characterization, and Gyllenhaal’s overall bland performance sank the film into its own kind of quicksand. The character’s lack of cultural sensitivity, especially given his role as the nation’s literal prince, led to a massive shrug from audiences. The film was a box office disappointment and critical flop, most of which is attributed to the fact it stars yet another white guy playing a character from an underrepresented community.
#5: Daniel Craig as James Bond
“Casino Royale” (2006)
This famed spy is known for being tall, dark, and handsome - three traits that some vocal fans thought Craig lacked in his initial casting announcement. The blonde actor was considered too rugged and edgy for such a suave role, and even support from several past Bonds couldn’t assuage fan concern. Thankfully, Bond, James Bond, went all in on “Casino Royale” and won the jackpot with an exciting reinvention of the character. Craig’s magnetic and charming take on the part easily elevated the material all the while redefining what Bond could be. He wasn’t tall, dark, and handsome, - he was tall, cool, and fresh, which is exactly what the character needed.
#4: Heath Ledger as The Joker
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Over the years, this iconic Batman villain has been brought to life by some downright legendary performers. There was a hefty legacy to live up to, which is why Ledger’s casting attracted so much ire. Up until then, he was seen as a Hollywood heartthrob with starring roles in rom-coms and dramas. Suffice it to say, Ledger wasn’t quite the eclectic character actor most fans had in mind. Later, his detractors went quiet when he delivered an untouchable, genre-defining performance that earned him a posthumous Academy Award. Honestly, the most impressive part of Ledger’s legacy is that he left bigger shoes to fill than the ones he’d stepped into.
“The Last Airbender” (2010)
It takes some serious skill to fumble the casting of nearly every single character in a film - especially when there’s acclaimed source material to base off of. Without even touching upon the obvious whitewashing, the ensemble they assembled here was immediately criticized for their apparent lack of experience in the industry. Their leading man wasn’t even an actor, but a martial artist cast for his stunt prowess. The rest of the cast didn’t inspire much faith, either. The end result didn’t change anyone’s minds, with the film releasing to toxic reviews and earning a legacy as one of the worst adaptations of anything, period.
#2: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
This film may be well-regarded as a timeless classic, but not every aspect has aged quite as gracefully. A white actor portraying an Asian landlord is already hard to excuse. But, it’s even worse since both Rooney and the script use prosthetics and lazy jokes to indulge every single negative Asian stereotype. It develops Mr. Yunioshi into one of the most offensive, racist caricatures ever seen in cinema. While the movie continues to be popular to this day, Rooney’s role has been the subject of intense scrutiny, examination, and backlash from modern audiences. Many of those involved in the film, including the director and Rooney himself, have since regretted the tasteless character.
#1: John Wayne as Temujin / Genghis Khan
“The Conqueror” (1956)
It’s fitting that what is widely considered one of the worst films of all time also has one of the most baffling cast lists ever assembled. It’s already bad enough when a white actor takes an ethnically inappropriate role, let alone when that part is Genghis Khan himself. Abhorrent, misguided, and just plain weird doesn’t even begin to cover it. The all-American John Wayne is notoriously horrible in the role, to the point that it wouldn’t even pass as a good parody. At least, in the end, Wayne’s casting really isn’t all that disputed. The one thing everyone agrees on is that his performance is outrageously awful.