Of all the hot guys in Hollywood, Ridley Scott settled on Brad Pitt. Settled, quite literally — Scott and his casting directors saw nearly every hot guy in Hollywood for the role of J.D., the charming grifter that swindled Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon out of their money in Thelma and Louise. J.D. had to be hot enough to be objectified, boyish enough to be sweet, but cunning enough to make his bamboozle believable. “The J.D. contenders mostly fell into two camps,” Becky Aikman reports in Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma and Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge, out today. “Some adopted the spikey, tousled hair and winning charm of star of the moment Tom Cruise, while others went for the more retro effect of a shuffling, mumbling James Dean. Most feel short.”
George Clooney had a famously terrible audition. Mark Ruffalo, 23 at the time, tried out too. When Dermot Mulroney read for the part, he played opposite his fiancée at the time, Catherine Keener. “He made the biggest classic mistake an actor can do,” Ira Belgrade, an assistant casting director, told Aikman. Ridley Scott liked Keener, and gave her a bit part in the film (she was to be Harvey Keitel’s wife in a scene that was later cut). Dylan McDermott and James LeGros also auditioned before William Baldwin got the role.
But before Baldwin’s contract was a lock, he passed on Thelma and Louise for a part in Ron Howard’s Backdraft, Aikman reports. The backup was Grant Show*, an actor who’d had a role on a TV procedural called True Blue. But Show couldn’t get out of his contract for a mini-series, and had to pass. Scrambling for a replacement, the casting department was passed along a familiar name: Robert Downey Jr.
The casting directors sent out a distress call to all the talent agencies and got an intriguing response. “Hey, Ira,” Lou called out in the office one day. “CAA says Robert Downey Jr. will take it for whatever we have in the budget.”
Downey was then twenty-five and already a certified star, but Ira had his doubts. “Isn’t he too short? Next to Geena?”
Ridley scotched the idea over the phone. Now they had to scramble.
Eventually, Geena Davis read with a handful of last minute choices. Pitt was among the crop, and their chemistry crackled. Davis later described being more nervous than him, flubbing her lines. “I’m so sorry, I’m screwing up your audition,” she recalled. When it was over, Scott and casting director Louis DiGiaimo talked over who should take on the role. Geena Davis famously offered her opinion without being asked: “Would you be interested in what my impression was?” She told them to go with the blond one, and Pitt was hired.
* We’ve updated this post to correct the spelling of Grant Show’s name.