What If? 'Pulp Fiction' Near-Miss Casting
By DAVID WEINER
November 15, 2013
Now almost two decades old, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction almost singlehandedly changed the way Hollywood wanted to make movies in the '90s. Now, a comprehensive new book on the film -- Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece (by Jason Bailey from Voyageur Press) – reveals some intriguing casting near-miss and what if? details, from the possibilities of Daniel Day-Lewis as Vincent Vega (the role now owned by John Travolta) and Meg Ryan as Mia Wallace (the role now defined by Uma Thurman) to even Ellen DeGeneres starring in a supporting role...
After being reduced to playing third wheel to talking babies and dogs in the Look Who's Talking movies, Travolta's career was practically flatlining before the role of Vincent Vega gave him a second lease on life in Hollywood. But the role originally was meant for Michael Madsen, who played Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs (aka Vic Vega, presumably Vincent's brother). Travolta was actually in discussions to play Seth Gecko in Tarantino's From Dusk 'Til Dawn, but he simply didn't want to do a vampire movie. Then, Madsen was forced to pass on Pulp Fiction, having already committed to appear in Wyatt Earp for director Lawrence Kasdan. Still, before Travolta was considered for Vega, Tarantino toyed with the idea of casting Tim Roth as Vega with Gary Oldman as Jules, thinking to rewrite their characters as "two English guys." But the director really wanted Roth to play the diner robbery man Pumpkin opposite Amanda Plummer, and so he set his sights on Travolta, despite Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein's insistence that My Left Foot Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis take the role, who really wanted to do it. He also suggested Sean Penn or William Hurt.
What made Travolta perfect in Tarantino's mind? Already a fan of the actor, it turns out that his Hollywood apartment was the exact same one that Travolta lived in when the star was starting out in the business. He learned this when Travolta went there to meet with him. It was kismet. The two hit it off right away, and even played a vintage Welcome Back Kotter board game together when they first hung out. Tarantino wanted Travolta so badly for the role that he told Weinstein he would walk if he didn't get his way, and the rest is history.
The film's Bruce Willis was also a potential choice to play Vega, and was reportedly miffed at the idea of playing a supporting character and not the lead of the picture. But Willis had already told Tarantino that he was willing to play anyone the director wanted in the movie, and ultimately reigned supreme with a samurai sword as the boxer Butch – a role that was originally out to Matt Dillon. Unfortunately for Dillon, the Drugstore Cowboy star said that he needed to mull it over for a day, and in that meantime, that's when Tarantino met Willis at a BBQ hosted by Harvey Keitel. Again, the rest is history.
Tarantino wrote the character of Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield for Samuel L. Jackson after working with him on True Romance and after a reading for Reservoir Dogs, but a subsequent, lackluster Pulp line reading (Jackson did not realize he had to give an energetic audition for a part written for him) planted doubt in Tarantino's mind – and Jackson lost the role to Paul Calderon, who gave a great reading. Jackson exploded at the news that he lost the role, returning to Los Angeles with a "full-tilt" audition of "Ezekiel 25:17" that blew everyone away. He got it back, and Calderon was relegated to the small role of English Bob. Later, Calderon claims that Tarantino told him that Laurence Fishburne was the first to be thought of for the role – and turned it down.
Uma Thurman memorably killed it as Mia Wallace in Pulp, but believe it or not, Tarantino's first choice was Red Sonja star/Sylvester Stallone's once-wife Brigitte Nielsen, who was a friend of a friend -- and back in 1991 could have potentially helped him finance Pulp as a low-budget short. With the project expanded to a feature-length film script by 1993, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan's agents pitched them for the role, while Tarantino considered Holly Hunter, Meg Tilly, Alfre Woodard and Rosanna Arquette. Arquette tested for the role of Mia, but Thurman eventually won out (even though Tarantino wasn't keen on her for the role before meeting her in person and then hitting it off; still, Uma initially turned down the role because she didn't think she was right for it). Arquette got the role of Jody as a "consolation prize." Interestingly, Ellen DeGeneres read for that role of Jody, as she was trying to transition from sitcoms to films. Tarantino had also considered Pam Grier for the role of Jody, but felt she was too commanding for the part, and saved her for the lead of his Pulp Fiction follow-up, Jackie Brown.
As for Marsellus Wallace, Tarantino thought about casting Blaxploitation star Max Julien, star of The Mack, as the notorious crime boss of Pulp Fiction, but that actor stood his ground after reading the controversial basement rape scene, declaring that his fans just didn't want to see that. Like Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames had previously read for the role of Haldeway in Reservoir Dogs but didn't land it, and fortunately for him, Tarantino remembered him specifically, writing the role of Marsellus just for him and his unique cadence. And again, the rest is history.
Chock full of original art inspired by the film, timelines, quotables, deleted scene details, influences, pop culture references, behind-the-scenes photos, scene breakdowns and more, Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece is available now.