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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
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.”