Alien: Covenant, the sixth movie in the franchise, came out in Hong Kong this week. While the Alien films may fit the stereotype of a “guy movie”, one thing that doesn’t get as much press is the fact that the lead role of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the earlier films was initially written for a man.
When the original script was written, the spaceship crew was all male. Producer-writers David Giler and Walter Hill added two female crewmembers, but it was then-CEO of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr, who is said to have asked why the hero’s gender couldn’t be switched.
While this was 1979, and a (gasp) female hero in a horror /sci-fi film was pretty unthinkable, director Ridley Scott thought it made perfect sense. Not a single line of dialogue was altered, and Ripley became one of the best recognised badasses – male or female – in film history.
Gender-blind casting doesn’t always work; or, at least, doesn’t always go down well. Especially when audiences are attached to a classic character, and filmmakers change the gender for a new version. But there are many examples of a character written for a man, that is then played by a woman, or of a woman being cast a role that society seems to dictate be played by a man.
Angelina Jolie – Salt
Tom Cruise seemed like a natural choice for a film about a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy, but he turned down the part. Angelina Jolie had once playfully said to Sony Pictures Co-Chairman, Amy Pascal, that she wanted to play James Bond, so Pascal mentioned her name to the team. The rest is history.
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
The film was written with a female lead, a rarity for the sci-fi genre, and Sandra Bullock was cast in the role. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s son, Jonas, who co-wrote the script with his father, said that “it was always important to us that the central character be a woman, because we felt there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth.”
Gwendoline Christie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Game of Thrones actress didn’t even know her character, a Stormtrooper baddie named Captain Phasma, was originally written for a man until she was in an interview.
But the Force Awakens writer Lawrence Kasdan said: “When the idea came up to make Phasma female, it was instantaneous: Everyone just said, ‘Yes. That’s great.’”
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Sicario received three Oscar nods, but as director Denis Villeneuve explained at the Cannes film festival in 2015, not everyone was happy the film would feature a female lead.
“The screenplay was written some years ago,” Villeneuve said, “and people were afraid that the lead part was a female character. I know several times [Taylor Sheridan, an American actor, screenwriter and director] had been asked to rewrite the role.”