Over the last twenty years Christopher Nolan has emerged as one of the seminal directors of our time. Able to effortlessly balance commercial success with lofty ideas and concepts, each new Nolan project comes with a sense of genuine excitement. So far he has explored a variety of different genres from science fiction to crime to comic books, and in July Nolan will turn his camera to war in Dunkirk.
Scanning the cast list, the likes of Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh cause you to nod in contented approval...and then you reach Harry Styles. Yes, Harry Styles, the floppy-haired One Directioner. You rub your eyes in disbelief, take another look, and his name is still there - just below Mark Rylance, widely regarded as the greatest stage actor of all time.
Thankfully, as well as becoming synonymous with great filmmaking, Christopher Nolan has become known for his unorthodox casting choices and making them work. So, before you dismiss Styles and lambaste Nolan, let us remind you of a few other choices that never should have worked.
5. Guy Pearce – Memento
Having come away from not one, but two, hugely popular Australian soap operas a few years prior, Guy Pearce clearly had all the aesthetic ingredients of a leading man. Having dabbled in Hollywood fare mostly as soldiers and cops, Pearce’s casting as a mentally broken, tattoo-covered avenging angel was a peculiar one.
The question of whether Pearce could carry a film so heavily reliant on such a complex central performance was soon answered. Appearing gaunt, savage and unwaveringly focused, whilst portraying the maddeningly frustrating memory issues with aplomb, Pearce makes for one of the most compelling characters in Nolan’s repertoire.
Pearce's irreplaceable casting just goes to show that Nolan can pluck a tortured hero from the most unlikely places.
4. Tom Hardy – Bane
Seemingly coming out of nowhere before skyrocketing to the tippy top of the A-list, Tom Hardy has emerged as one of the major talents currently working today. Becoming one of Nolan’s go-to actors, audiences and fans none the less let out a communal ‘...come again?’ when the sleight, 5 foot 7 inch Hardy was cast as muscle-bound giant Bane in Batman finale The Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Hardy did not let little things like height and weight stand in his way. Bulking up his once slender frame, Hardy became a man who you could believably wipe the floor with Batman without even breaking a sweat. His pretty-boy looks mostly covered by a mechanical mask, Hardy proved that he could portray more emotion with his eyes than most actors can with their whole face.
Those in the know had already seen Hardy throw his weight around as Bronson, but oddly Nolan was not one of them. Having cast the actor based on his performance as a gay getaway driver in 2008’s Rocknrolla, Bane is solid proof that Nolan can see potential where most mortals can’t.
3. Robin Williams – Insomnia
Williams will always be remembered for his incredible comic timing and hilarious performances, but once in awhile the beloved actor delved into serious material. A bearded councillor, an existential robot and an eccentric doctor are just some of his more sombre roles... oh, and a creepy, methodical killer. That’s right, Chris Nolan cast the genie from Aladdin as a sociopathic murderer in his 2002 thriller, Insomnia.
Equal parts contemptible yet endearing, Williams’ turn as Walter Finch the small town killer is a masterclass of a performance. It’s easy to play outwardly evil, but playing restrained evil is a much more daunting task. Williams' talent was well-known by the time he was cast in Insomnia, but on paper the universally adored actor never should have worked as such a villainous presence. The fact that it works so undeniably well is yet more evidence that Nolan knows exactly what he’s doing.
2. Matt Damon – Interstellar
Speaking of surprising villains, the cameo from all-around good guy Matt Damon in Nolan’s space-set passion project Interstellar was arguably more surprising for the audience than for the characters. When Damon’s Dr Mann emerged from his stasis pod, it felt like everything was going to be alright. McConaughey’s struggling astronaut now had Jason Bourne on his side.
How wrong we were.
Not only did Damon not even attempt to help our daring hero and his crew, he tried to bring them to an untimely end in order to save himself. The casting of Damon was a masterstroke, keeping the audience guessing, and showed that Damon can play more than just the hero. Who knew? Nolan, that's who.
1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
The fan uproar at the casting of Heath Ledger as such an iconic comic book character is so ridiculous in hindsight that it’s difficult to believe people ever had their doubts. In fairness to easily enraged fans, nothing on Heath Ledger’s resume suggested he could play a man as villainous and maniacal as the Joker. Coming from the same sun-kissed beaches as Guy Pearce, the floppy-haired pretty boy was virtually the exact opposite type expected to be cast as the clown prince of crime.
Of course, everybody knows what happened next. Not only did Heath Ledger become arguably the defining portrayal of the character, he was awarded a posthumous Oscar for his efforts. Disappearing so far into the character that he became unrecognisable, Ledger crafted some of the most iconic moments in modern cinema history. His petrifying voice, facial tics and constant improvising took the Joker from a pantomime bad-guy to a complex, horrifying human being.
Ledger created nothing short of a cultural icon, testament not only to the actor's stellar work but to Nolan's unique eye for casting the unexpected.
Jon Fuge is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.