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Darkhorse Casting

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Sometimes, a director doesn't want big stars in their movie. Maybe it's to avoid a bias from the viewers, maybe they just want a challenge, or maybe they just want to help struggling actors and actresses in the brutal world of show biz. For whatever reason, a director will go out of their way to find more obscure names to put in their movie.

Compare Amateur Cast and constrast All-Star Cast. Look at Ensemble Dark Horse for a definition of darkhorse.

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Examples

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    Films — Live-Action 
  • What George Lucas was trying to do, and almost succeeded in doing, when casting for the original Star Wars trilogy. Harrison Ford read the part of Han Solo while they were casting for Leia, and did so well in the role that Lucas finally relented.
    • And again in the sequel trilogy. Besides some of the original cast, actors and actresses in the main leads are relatively unknown, such as Daisy Ridley, Crystal Clarke and Pip Andersen.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia manages to almost pull it off, Liam Neeson as Aslan being one of the only mainstream actors in the films.
  • Exaggerated in Boy Meets Girl, where Michelle Hendley was cast from Missouri on the basis of her YouTube channel. She had never acted prior to playing the lead in that film.
  • Harry Potter film series had a lot of famous British actors for the adult characters such as Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Richard Harris etc. The child actors playing the younger characters such as the main trio started their careers in this franchise.
  • Pacific Rim pushed Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba into the main roles. Elba is already famous thanks to his role as Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while Kikuchi is only known for her Oscar-nominated role in Babel and is not very famous in her home country. Unless one watches Sons of Anarchy, a lot of people don't even know who Hunnam is. Asides from Elba, Ron Perlman seemed to be the only other recognized name in the movie.
  • While The Matrix was in pre-production, the suits wanted a big name actress to play Trinity. The Wachowskis fought hard to get their choice, a then-unknown Carrie-Anne Moss.
  • Watchmen: None of the actors who played the superheroes were huge stars at the time of the film's release, arguably the two biggest names (Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan) had primarily gotten work as a child star and in parts on TV, respectively.
  • It: Chapter Two: Zigzagged. While James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader are all certainly established Hollywood stars, the other main casts members are much less well known; James Ransone's best known for his work in The Wire and Sinister. Andy Bean and Jay Ryan are both best known for their television work as Greg in Power and Vincent in Beauty and the Beast (2012), respectively (though Ryan also has/had significant roles in other TV shows). In fact, It: Chapter Two will be both Ransone's and Ryan's first time as leading men in a major theatrical film. Likewise, Isaiah Mustafa is most famed for being The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, which is a viral commercial, and, to a lesser extent, his role in the show Shadowhunters and Jess Weixler is mainly known for her lead role in the independent horror movie Teeth.
    • Likewise, the supporting cast aren't major Hollywood stars many fans were expecting the sequel to such a smash hit to get. It's mostly people who have acting experience from lesser known films, as well as TV shows.
  • The Kid Who Would Be King: With the exceptions of Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson, no one in the cast is patricularly well known. Though given the majority of the characters are preteens, this was a probably given.
  • In spite of being a reboot of one of most iconic sci-fi franchises of all time, this is surprisingly utilized in Terminator: Dark Fate. Other than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reprising their roles and Mackenzie Davis joining the cast, the rest of the cast is much less known. Natalia Reyes, who plays one of the main characters, has had only 2 film roles prior to this and both of them were indie films released within a year from each other(one of them being the critically acclaimed Birds of Passage). Most of her other screen credits were telenovas that have never aired outside of Latin America. Gabriel Luna is primarly known for playing Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and nothing else. Diego Boneta has had roles in Scream Queens (2015) and Rock of Ages, but that's about it. Jude Collie, who replaces Edward Furlong as John Connor, doesn't even have an IMDB page yet. This could likely be a homage to the original film, as most of the cast was unknown at the time, though that was mainly due to the fact it was a low-budget production(a little over 6 million) whereas Dark Fate has a whopping 160-200 million budget.
  • DC Extended Universe:
    • Gal Gadot's only works of note was a supporting role in The Fast and the Furious franchise before she became Wonder Woman. She even said she was considering quitting acting for good because the roles were so thin, and thanked Zack Snyder for giving her career such a boost.
    • Victor Stone/Cyborg is Ray Fisher's very first movie role. He was previously better known for his theatre roles on Broadway.
    • Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain in Birds of Prey. She only had small roles in TV series before.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • To an extent. For the most part Marvel Studios prefers to cast more obscure actors or have them Playing Against Type as the film leads, while relegating more famous actors to side characters. As a result the films tend to be a Star-Making Role for them.
    • They're also developing this with the directors they hire in recent years, bringing in indie directors and/or people who've only directed smaller films that wouldn't suggest they'd ever direct action heavy superhero movies. Like the actors above, this tends to get them some more attention. Even before, they tended to bring in directors who may not of been expected even when the franchise was still establishing itself, due to working in other genres or working more in television.
  • Crazy Rich Asians: Michelle Yeoh and Ken Jeong are the only actors who are recognized internationally. Constance Wu, Jimmy O. Yang, and Harry Shum Jr. may be recognizable to TV audiences (for their roles in Fresh Off the Boat, Silicon Valley, and Glee and Shadowhunters, respectively). Sonoya Mizuno and Gemma Chan's filmography are composed of supporting roles while the most of the cast are from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. The casting though, was so successful that the cast of Crazy Rich Asians will be getting the Hollywood Breakout Ensemble Award at the 22nd annual Hollywood Film Awards.
  • The Rocketeer: Billy Campbell's casting caused a stir among Disney execs, who wanted a more A-list lead. Likewise Jennifer Connelly was on the rise but still mostly known for her Ms. Fanservice roles (she wouldn't get a proper breakout until Requiem for a Dream nine years later). Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton were the biggest names in the cast overall, and the latter of whom was playing the villain.
  • Prior to Withnail & I, both Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann had acted onstage and McGann had some success on television, but neither of them had done a film before and were complete unknowns.
  • George Lazenby was a former car salesman turned male model whose sole acting experience was in adverts for Fry's chocolate. And he was chosen to play James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
  • Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston were complete unknowns prior to Shallow Grave. In fact, Kerry Fox's presence actually got the film green-lit, as she was the only name actor in the main cast.
  • Prior to Alien, Sigourney Weaver had only minor parts in a couple of films and mostly acted on the stage.
  • Errol Flynn had only a couple of minor parts in films before his Star-Making Role in Captain Blood.
  • Prior to Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole had an impressive career on the English stage, but only minor film roles. In fact, David Lean cast him after seeing his small role in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.
  • Sam J. Jones was cast in Flash Gordon (1980) after Dino De Laurentiis' mother-in-law saw him on an episode of The Dating Game. The filmmakers were banking on casting an unknown, following Christopher Reeve's success as Superman.
  • Katie Jarvis had never acted before Fish Tank. A casting director spotted her having a fight with her boyfriend at a train station and offered her the role.
  • At the time of the making of RoboCop (1987), Peter Weller was a barely known method actor whose notable credit include the title role of Buckaroo Banzai from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. However, after this movie, Weller became a well-known name for this role.
  • Denis Villeneuve deliberately chose actresses for the main female roles in Blade Runner 2049 (Luv, Joi, Ana, and Mariette) who weren't well known in the United States or had only recently experienced a Career Resurrection (Robin Wright).
  • For Fantastic Four (2015), Josh Trank wanted to go for rising stars as opposed to safe bets in order to make the Younger and Hipper aspect of the film more believable.
  • Jason and the Argonauts: Nigel Green is certainly not what the popular image of Hercules was at the time, lacking the stereotypical Heroic Build and muscleman physique.
  • Montgomery Clift made his film debut in Red River after Howard Hawks saw him on Broadway.
  • Prior to Shaft, Richard Roundtree was a model whose acting experience was limited to commericals.
  • Prior to To Have and Have Not, Lauren Bacall was an 18-year-old model. She appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar, and was noticed by Howard Hawks' wife, Nancy "Slim" Keith, who showed the cover photo to her husband. Hawks sought Bacall out in April 1943 and signed her for the role, her first movie appearance.
  • Warren Beatty made his film debut in Splendor in the Grass, having acted mainly on television.
  • Prior to East of Eden, James Dean's acting career was limited to television and extra work.
  • Prior to his big break in If..., Malcolm McDowell had small roles on the stage. His only prior film role was in Ken Loach's Poor Cow, where he ended up on the cutting room floor.
  • There's a story that Steven Seagal was given the starring role in Above the Law due to a bet made by a studio executive that he could make anyone a star and cast his martial arts instructor.
  • Dustin Hoffman was a complete unknown prior to The Graduate, having acted mainly in theatre and had one small film credit to his name.
  • Die Hard was Alan Rickman's first film role. He was cast after Joel Silver saw him in Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway.
  • Prior to Body Heat, Kathleen Turner's career was mainly in theatre, with occasional television work.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones had a lot of unknown actors and actresses at that time and the one of the only mainstream actors in the cast is Sean Bean whose character got killed off in episode nine of season one.
  • How I Met Your Mother: Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan (and maybe Jason Segel) are the only mainstream actors in the main cast back then. In fact, the actress who played the Mother is unknown.
    • Even then, NPH had left TV for stage work and had been doing mostly guest spots if anything for almost 10 years, Hannigan coming off of Buffy into a sitcom was hardly a lock... and Segal was just starting to attention, most of it still 'cultish' due to Freaks and Geeks.
  • Every Disney Channel and Nickelodeon live-action series is given an almost entirely unknown child cast (as most of them are just starting their careers). The adults could be people who rose up the Kidcom ranks (i.e. Jerry Trainor, Beth Littleford, Brian Stepanek), D-list actors from obscure adult shows (i.e. Rosa Blasi, Steve Valentine, Hal Sparks), Black sitcom parents (i.e. Kadeem Hardison, Chico Benymon), people more known for voice acting (i.e. Daran Norris, Jack DeSena), or comedians (i.e. Chris Tallman, Stephen Glickman)
  • At least four of the leads of Arrested Development (Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, and Alia Shawkat) were completely unknown when the show began. Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, David Cross, and Jeffrey Tambor were all fairly well-known at the time; Jessica Walter was somewhere in the middle.
  • Band of Brothers: David Schwimmer seemed to be the only recognized name among the cast due to his popularity in Friends and he only had a small role as Captain Herbert Sobel. The rest of Easy Company characters were played by actors who were unknown at that time.
  • Titans (2018) mainly consists of lesser-known actors who were chosen specifically for their talent. The best known so far are Brenton Thwaites, Ryan Potter, Alan Ritchson, Minka Kelly and Conor Leslie, but even they aren't exactly A-list. One notable example is Teagan Croft, an Australian child actress that was completely unknown outside her home country and still very obscure in it, as Raven herself.
  • The Witcher has Henry Cavill as the star, who's definitely well-known, but virtually everyone else is lesser-known to completely obscure, with a standout being the newcomer Freya Allan as Ciri.
  • Of the four main actors in Our Friends in the North, Christopher Eccleston was the only established name. While Daniel Craig and Mark Strong had television credits, they weren't big names.
  • Most of the actors to star in Doctor Who have had varying degrees of experience and recognition. Probably the least well-known at the time of casting was Matt Smith, who didn't even have an IMDB page prior to the series, despite some television roles. Colin Baker was primarily well-known for acting in theatre, Sylvester McCoy was better known for performance art and presenting than acting and David Tennant was little-known at the time of his casting.
  • Prior to Star Trek: The Original Series, DeForest Kelley had appeared in many films and television shows, but mostly in smaller roles that showcased him as a villain. Leonard Nimoy also had previous television and film experience but was not well known either. William Shatner was well known in the trade, having appeared in several notable films, played Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, and even turned down the part of Dr. Kildare. However, when roles became sparse he took the regular job after Jeffrey Hunter's contract was not renewed.
  • Succession has a fairly big star in Brian Cox, with the rest of the cast comprised either of character actors (Alan Ruck), indie movie actors (Hiam Abbass, Kieran Culkin) or virtual unknowns (Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun).

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