Kristen Stewart Cast as Princess Diana and More Surprising Times Stars Have Played Real-Life Icons
By Zach Seemayer
GP Images/Getty Images; Open Road Films; Warner Bros. Pictures; Buena Vista Pictures
When it was announced that Kristen Stewart had been cast to play Princess Diana in the upcoming film Spencer, it raised a lot of eyebrows among critics. There have been more then a few attempts at dramatizing the tragic story of Princess Diana, and Stewart seemed to strike many as an odd, unlikely choice to play the seemingly demure late royal.
The truth is, finding the right actors to portray real people is no easy feat. When it comes to casting biopics, there are so many factors that need to be taken into consideration, from how much the actor looks like the real-life person they will be portraying to their ability to match vocal inflections and physical quirks.
Then again, some filmmakers don't let any of that worry them and they cast whomever they want in their biopics and just try to make it work. Sometimes, these shocking (and occasionally controversial) casting choices end up working out brilliantly.
With that in mind, we're taking a look at some of the most shocking and unexpected casting choices that left people baffled when they were first announced, and how those same surprising decisions ended up playing out.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana
Back in June, it was revealed that Stewart would be starring as Princess Diana in Spencer, which details just a small slice of her high-profile marriage to Prince Charles. The film -- directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín and penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight -- is set during a weekend in the early 1990s when Diana came to the realization that her marriage was crumbling. Production is set to begin in early 2021, so critics will have to wait a while to see how Stewart's portrayal of the beloved princess stacks up against their expectations.
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan
Director Todd Haynes' experimental biopic, I'm Not There, loosely told the life story of Bob Dylan through six different fictionalized versions of the iconic rocker, each representing a different phase or aspect of his life and his music. Each version was also played by a different actor, but Blanchett's casting was certainly the one that garnered the most attention. The surprise was largely centered on casting a woman to play the famous folk rocker, but given Blanchett's undeniable talent -- and the unorthodox nature of the film itself -- few doubted she'd be able to pull it off. To this day, it's her performance that people remember most about the entire project, and she earned the film it's only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla
Selena Quintanilla was a truly beloved musical artist and when it came time to cast an actress to embody her, filmmakers turned to Lopez -- who was best known for dancing in a handful of smaller film roles. Initially, many fans protested the idea of her playing Selena, and Lopez would later recall to Entertainment Weekly that some felt she wasn't right for the role because she was of Puerto Rican descent, and therefore the "wrong kind" of Latina to portray the late singer. Needless to say, the role went on to be Lopez's breakthough into mainstream stardom and cemented her career in Hollywood both as a screen actress and a music star.
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs
To get into the role of Apple founder and tech world icon Steve Jobs for the 2013 biopic Jobs, the actor studied every aspect of the computer guru's life, and even undertook a "fruitarian" diet, which apparently landed him in the hospital due to a lack of specific important nutrients. Essentially, when it came to playing Jobs -- whom Kutcher has admitted was a huge inspiration for him personally -- the actor really committed. And while Kutcher successfully managed to pull off the part, unfortunately, many felt the film was unforgivably bland, and currently has a 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor
Lohan being cast as Elizabeth Taylor in the 2012 biopic Liz & Dick was absolutely surprising. Fans doubted that Lohan had the gravitas or experience to portray one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood history. In the end, fans and critics were impressed by the made-for-TV movie's attention to detail when it came to the project's costumes and production design, but were far less favorable toward Lohan's portrayal of the two-time Oscar-winning movie legend.
Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dali
So much of Pattinson's career has seemed to revolve around him escaping the crushing shadow of his Twilight Saga role, but the 2008 biopic Little Ashes came right after he'd first portrayed Edward Cullen, and the reviews were unfortunate. Pattinson, only 22 at the time, played a young Salvador Dali, and the general consensus was that the underwritten, timid role didn't let Pattinson do anything memorable enough to shake the baggage that came with his vampire heartthrob persona. After seeing what he can do in films like The Lighthouse and Cosmopolis, one can only wonder what he'd be able to accomplish playing Dali in a film that embraced the surrealist's wilder side.
Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great
As with all Oliver Stone biopics, liberties were taken and accuracy was placed on the back burner in favor of storytelling when it came to the 2004 historical drama Alexander. That being said, Stone was savaged by critics for his almost enthusiastic disregard for historical accuracy and Farrell was nominated for a Razzie for his blonde, Irish-brogue-sporting portrayal of the Ancient Macedonian warlord. Years after the film came out, Farrell admitted that the reviews of his performance almost made him quit acting altogether, but that he's now come to find the humor in his long, golden locks -- or what he refers to as his "Doris Day look."
Joel Edgerton as Ramesses II
When Ridley Scott cast English actor Christian Bale to play Moses and Australian actor Joel Edgerton to play Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II in his 2014 biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, more than a few critics decried the choices, pointing to yet another example of Hollywood casting white, European actors to play Middle Eastern figures. While Bale's Moses was mostly just a bearded dude in armor, Edgerton's full Egyptian Pharaoh ensemble stood out as particularly jarring for many.
What made the controversy worse was Scott's defense of his casting, explaining that he couldn't have cast actors who were actually Middle Eastern or Egyptian because they wouldn't have had the star power to get him the financing to make the film. "I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such," Scott said in a profile for Varietyat the time. "I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up."
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone
Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, took a lot of heat when it was revealed that she'd been cast to play legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The controversy over her casting only escalated when the first images and trailers were released, and it appeared that filmmakers had darkened Saldana's skin to play the Black music icon. Simone's family was vocally critical of the casting choice, while Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, "disavowed" the film, although she also defended Saldana, saying she didn't blame the actress for trying to bring her best to the project.
“There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses," she said in an interview with Time in 2016. "And Nina, in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that." Critics largely agreed, and the film sits at 2 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with a majority of the criticism directed not toward Saldana or her performance, but toward the script and directing.
Madonna as Eva Peron
Before Madonna played Eva Peron in Alan Parker's 1996 big-screen adaptation of the musical Evita, her film credits included Who's That Girl, Dick Tracy and Shanghai Surprise -- none of which really proved Madonna to be an acting powerhouse. But, she spent years fighting for the chance to play the first lady of Argentina. However, her diva reputation concerned the filmmakers and producers, and Andrew Lloyd Webber was convinced her talents as a pop singer wouldn't help when it came to pulling off the film's big, classic operatic numbers. Undeterred, Madonna took vocal lessons and worked hard, and the effort paid off -- the film was a financial success and Madonna earned a Golden Globe for her performance.
Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
When Theron was cast to play real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 crime drama biopic Monster, fans and critics had no idea how the famously beautiful actress would portray the character in a way that would feel real. Theron shocked moviegoers with her transformation and ended up taking home an Oscar for her performance.
She told ET in November 2019 that, before Monster, she'd mostly be relegated to playing "a lot of wives and a lot of girlfriends," but that her powerhouse turn as Wuornos showed what she was truly capable of. "I think from that moment on, I built a career that has kind of defined what I really wanted my career to be -- not typecast, not stereotypical roles, but to really do things that are interesting and challenges the psyche of how we look at people."
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
A Queen biopic had long been in the works, with Sacha Baron Cohen long considered to be the front-runner to play the legendary rocker Freddie Mercury. The film gestated for years in development hell, cycling through possible directors and screenwriters before finally coming to fruition with Malek in the lead role. Known almost exclusively for his quiet, under-played role as a reclusive hacker on the TV drama Mr. Robot, Malek was a surprising choice to play the larger-than-life Queen frontman. However, the multitude of doubts were quickly dismissed when the first photos from set were leaked, and Malek looked like Mercury to a shocking degree. Despite on-set dramas, Malek ended up proving any naysayers wrong, and added an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and a BAFTA to his now-crowded mantel.