I was in Year 11 at high school when my English teacher told us we would be studying the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Alien. We weren’t watching it for it’s cinematic brilliance or because my teacher was sadistic and wanted us to watch one of the most terrifying films of all time to scare the crap out of us. No, we were watching it as part of a unit of study called “Portrayal of Women in Culture”. We were studying it to look at the character of Ripley- played by Sigourney Weaver, with the knowledge that in the original script, Ripley was written not as a badass, alien-butt kicking, feminist: but as a man.
In fact, the gender-switch came around pretty much at the last minute purely because they hadn’t found the right guy for the job and the director wondered if maybe it was because Ripley shouldn’t have been a guy in the first place. The original script did have a clause stating that all the characters were unisex and could be played by either gender… but the screenwriters admitted they never imagined their heroic lead as anything but a man.
They still weren’t convinced- until Ridley Scott opened up the casting to women and Sigourney Weaver walked in: 6’2, strong, imposing and yet gorgeous and feminine at the same time. She got the part, but they still didn’t change the script, making Ripley unique in that she was a character played as- and by- a very feminine woman, but written as a man. Suddenly a new female action hero was born with all the strength, guts and glory usually attributed to blokes. Consistently named one of the greatest characters of all time, Ripley was among the first women on film who is herself a complete person and isn’t defined by her relationship to the men around her.
By the time the sequel Aliens rolled around a couple of years later, the casting gender-swap allowed the filmmakers to explore a whole whack of issues regarding motherhood, masculinity and what constitutes traditional gender roles: all things that take the Aliens series out of the realm of standard sci-fi schlock and into the heights of cinematic greatness. Alien is proof that sometimes the best TV, movies and characters happen when you look outside the box.
Here are seven more times where, when it came to the dreaded casting couch, risk triumphed over reason.
Walter White, Breaking Bad
One of the most iconic characters to hit the small screen in the last 20 years, Walter White just couldn’t have been played by anyone else but Bryan Cranston. Or could it? Network executives were apparently honing in on a very different “type” and it came down to John Cusack and… Matthew Broderick. In fact, if it wasn’t for series creator Vince Gilligan, Cranston would never have got a look in, the bigwigs having trouble seeing him as anything but the screwball dad from Malcolm In the Middle. It was only when Gilligan showed the execs an episode of The X Files that Cranston had worked on years earlier that he convinced them to take their casting in another direction… and with that, a legend was born.
Delores Van Cartier, Sister Act
The defining role of Whoopi Goldberg’s career wasn’t written with her- or anyone like her in mind. In the script, Goldberg’s fake-nun-on-the-run was a white Jewish lady… set to be played by Bette Midler who eventually pulled out because she didn’t think her fans would believe her in a wimple. At a loss, the producers took a gamble on Goldberg- fresh off an Oscar win for Ghost- and the rest is 90’s movie history.
Red, The Shawshank Redemption
On the page, Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption is ginger haired, middle aged and Irish. He remained that way in auditions until Freeman was brought in on a whim and blew the casting directors away. Some lines got changed, others- such as a joke about him being from Blarney- remained, because you definitely see Morgan Freeman and think, “that guy looks Irish”.
Holly Golightly, Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Another beloved character who changed dramatically from page to screen, Holly Golightly in the book is a blonde bombshell, with “tawny streaks, strands of albino-blonde and yellow”, a far cry from the elegant brunette with the intricate updo that became a fashion icon for young women everywhere. Among the (many) people said to have inspired the character, Marilyn Monroe was who author Truman Capote himself envisioned playing his heroine, but it wasn’t to be. Hepburn- producers felt- turned a role which was essentially that of a fancy prostitute into something classier, more refined, more elegant than the brazen Monroe would have been capable of. She also turned it into one of the most iconic characters ever put on film.
Ben Braddock, The Graduate
Dustin Hoffman was never supposed to be in the movie that catapulted him to Hollywood stardom. He never would have been, had director Mike Nichols not seen him in a tiny off-Broadway play as a transvestite German fishwife. The part of Ben Braddock was written with someone else in mind- tall, blonde, all-American. It was written for Robert Redford. But after seeing hundreds of Redford types- Redford himself among them- it dawned on Nichols that no guy who looked like that could ever convincingly be a loser in love. Enter Hoffman, who thought his audition was a joke after Nichols tracked him down (he didn’t have an agent at the time), thought the whole film was a disaster and thought his career was over before it began. Instead, he was nominated for an Oscar, won two more and never looked back.
Hildy Johnson, His Girl Friday
This 1940’s screwball classic is based on the play The Front Page, about a newspaper editor on the verge of losing his star (male) reporter. Wanting to read an early script draft aloud but lacking another feller to read with him, director Howard Hawks gave the part of the reporter to his secretary who was so brilliant in the role she convinced him to change the character to a female and change the plot to that of sparring ex-lovers- and newspaper co-workers- on the brink of divorce. Not much else was changed, which meant the character of Hildy Johnson became an early feminist icon- written originally as a man she was able to go toe-to-toe with Cary Grant as an equal in marriage and in business- thus creating one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time.
Dana Scully, The X-Files
This one so easily could have been a tragedy. Dana Scully- the 90’s poster child for smart, nerdy girls everywhere, the woman who taught us brains were more important than beauty, who kicked alien butt all over the US (and potentially some galaxies far far away depending on where exactly Scully ventured during her abduction) was almost played by another Anderson… Pamela.
Yep. While the producers were looking for relative unknowns in casting Fox Mulder’s partner in the paranormal, the audition notice was for an unknown who was “leggy, blonde and busty” and apparently Pammy was top of their list. Thank god they decided to widen their (hugely sexist) parameters and gave Gillian Anderson a chance to audition, where- in typical Scully fashion- she knocked their heads together and made them see reason.
Get reacquainted with Sigourney Weaver's amazing performance as Ellen Ripley in Aliens on Saturday night at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.