20 Times Actors Came Under Fire For Their Casting In Controversial Roles

Ashley Hunte
a film reel that's been partially unraveled.
Unsplash | Denise Jans

Sometimes, the casting in a movie is so good, it makes you think that the actors involved were born to play those roles. Of course, the opposite can be true too. Some roles are so woefully miscast, you can't help but wonder how these actors got the gigs in the first place.

Here are some actors whose controversial castings got them in the hot seat. Seriously, though, who thought these were good ideas?

Scarlett Johansson — Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson looking out at a reflective surface in a dark area.
IMDB | Paramount Pictures via IMDb

It's no wonder people were unhappy about Johansson's casting in the film. To have her portray an Asian woman on screen is, well, pretty tasteless.

They tried to work around it by making her character an Asian woman in a white woman robot body...which isn't better.

Emma Stone — Aloha

Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper sitting at a bar in the movie Aloha.
IMDB | Columbia Pictures via IMDb

Emma Stone's character in the 2015 movie was Allison Ng, a woman of Chinese, Hawaiian, and Swedish descent. The backlash for this one was, understandably, pretty big.

Cynthia Erivo — Harriet

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
Giphy | Regal

I don't think I need to tell you who Harriet Tubman is — she's arguably one of the most notable figures in American history. People took issue with the fact that a Erivo, a British actress of Nigerian descent, was cast for the role, for that reason. An African American actress would have been preferred.

Not to say that they're wrong, but considering the fact that producers originally wanted Julia Roberts for the role (as Tubman!!), it could've been so much worse.

Matt Damon — The Great Wall

Matt Damon wearing historical clothing and carrying arrows with red ends.
IMDB | The Great Wall via IMDb

Thankfully, Damon's character was European, and this wasn't a case of casting a white person in an Asian role.

But... his presence in the film perpetuates the "white savior" stereotype which isn't much better.

James Corden — The Prom

A GIF of the trailer for the movie the Prom
Giphy | sonybroadway

James Corden is happily married (to a woman) with kids. And yet, he still ended up playing a gay man in The Prom, much to the ire of the audience. Many found his portrayal offensive, since it was rife with out-of-touch stereotypes.

Not to mention Broadway fans being generally over Corden being cast in every movie musical these days.

Jared Leto — Dallas Buyers Club

Scenes from Dallas Buyers Club featuring Jared Leto acting like a transgender woman
Giphy | HBO

Being any kind of minority is really hard in the acting world -— as so many BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ actors just don't get cast for parts. So it really hurt the transgender community when Leto, a cisgender man, portrayed a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club.

And like Corden in The Prom, the performance was full of pretty harmful stereotypes.

Johnny Depp — The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp portraying Tonto from The Lone Ranger

The Native American community is another group that's vastly underrepresented in media — both in terms of characters and actors. When they are featured, it's usually in outdated "cowboys and indians" stories.

Casting Johnny Depp to play Tonto, felt pretty off to a lot of audiences. Though it was done with good intentions, as Depp hoped to help erase negative stereotypes against Native people with his portrayal, it just wasn't the right move.

Zoe Saldana — Nina

Zoe Saldana sitting at a piano, singing for a diverse audience behind her.
IMDB | 66 Productions via IMDb

Back in 2016, Saldana took on the role of Nina Simone, African American musician and activist. Seeing as she wore dark makeup and a prosthetic nose for the role, it's easy to see why Simone's own daughter was one of the most vocal critics of this casting choice.

This controversy is a good example of colorism, which is the more subtle act of preferring lighter-skinned BIPOC actors for roles, even when darker complexions are appropriate.

Elizabeth Taylor — Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, winking and smiling against an ancient Egyptian backdrop.

Though the film came out nearly 60 years ago, people are still a little iffy about the decision to cast Elizabeth Taylor as the titular Egyptian queen. Especially considering the fact that, though Cleopatra may have had Greek ancestry, it was more than likely that she wasn't white.

Jake Gyllenhaal — Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Jake Gyllenhaal sitting on a seat, reading a scroll another man is handing to him, while a third man looks on from his other side.
IMDB | Walt Disney Pictures via IMDb

Since it was an adaptation of a video game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time already had a lot going against it. But casting Jake Gyllenhaal to play the literal Prince of Persia was just whitewashing at its finest.

Eddie Redmayne — The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of a transgender woman in the Danish Girl
Giphy | Prime Video UK

Much like Jared Leto's role in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne was under fire for his portrayal of a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. Trans rights activists were pretty unhappy, especially since real transgender actors have a hard time landing roles in Hollywood.

Scarlett Johannson (again): Rub & Tug

Scarlett Johansson looking slightly shocked in an SNL skit.
Giphy | HULU

Scarlett is no stranger to controversial roles, it seems. When it was announced she would portray a transgender man in an upcoming film, Rub & Tuck, people were, rightfully, outraged.

She did eventually step down from the role, though.

Tilda Swinton — Doctor Strange

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange

Swinton's character, The Ancient One, is originally an Asian man in the Doctor Strange comics. So casting a white woman like Swinton for the role is confusing, to say the least. Though it was argued that the Ancient One was beyond ethnicity and culture, the character still retained many of the Asian trappings.

Christian Bale — Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
IMDB | Exodus: Gods and Kings via IMDb

This is just another example of Hollywood whitewashing Middle Eastern characters and people to make blockbuster movies. In this case, a very British Christian Bale was cast as Moses. Yeah, that Moses.

Jennifer Lawrence — The Hunger Games

Katniss and Effie on the stage at District 12 in the Hunger Games
Giphy | The Hunger Games

When it was first announced that Jennifer Lawrence was going to portray Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and its sequels, people were a little confused. Naturally blonde, blue eyed, and pale, Lawrence didn't really match the dark haired, gray-eyed, olive-skinned Katniss from the books.

Ed Skrein — Hellboy

David Harbour as Hellboy (2019).
IMDB | Summit Entertainment via IMDb

Ed Skrein of Deadpool fame was originally slated to play the character Ben Daimio in the 2019 Hellboy movie. The only problem is, Daimio is Japanese American, and Skrein is, well, not. He later dropped out of the role amid the criticism.

Helen Mirren — Golda

Golda Meir, as portrayed by Helen Mirren
IMDB | Golda via IMDb

In a movie slated for 2022, Helen Mirren is portraying Golda Meir, Israel's first female prime minister. Even before the film's release, people are criticizing the choice, since Mirren isn't Jewish or Israeli.

Mirren later confirmed she was unsure if she should take the role, but was convinced by director Guy Nattiv that it would be great.

Rooney Mara — Pan

Tiger Lily from Pan hanging from a rope.
IMDB | Warner Bros. via IMDb

A lot of people took issue in Mara's portrayal of Tiger Lily in Pan. Since the character is heavily coded as Native American and the Peter Pan story already struggles with stereotypes, it's easy to see why people saw this as yet another instance of Hollywood whitewashing.

Angelina Jolie — A Mighty Heart

Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, standing in front of a white board.
IMDb | A Mighty Heart via IMDb

In this 2007 film, Jolie played Mariane Pearl, a French journalist of African, Chinese, Cuban, and Dutch descent. Casting a white woman to play a woman of multi-ethnic descent, complete with skin-darkening, is in pretty poor taste.

Jim Sturgess — Cloud Atlas

The promotional poster for Cloud Atlas
IMDB | Cloud Atlas via IMDb

In Cloud Atlas, we see white actor Jim Sturgess playing a character named Hae-Joo Chang, who is supposed to be Korean. Yeah, there's definitely a trend going on here. In fact, Cloud Atlas has a lot of questionable choices as the actors play different roles (and ethnicities) throughout the movie.