This excerpt originally ran in February. We are republishing it in honor of Vulture’s Sequels Week.
I’ve always been fascinated by the process of movie casting. When I worked for Vulture, I used to put together an annual roundup of the stars who almost got cast in the year’s biggest movies, just because it was so tantalizing to imagine some of those superhero flicks or awards-season dramas with wildly different faces on the poster.
My book “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road” is filled with juicy stories; if you’ve ever wondered what really went down between stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, or how director George Miller persevered over two decades of setbacks and production shutdowns to make an Oscar-winning miracle, you’ll find all that out and more. But I’ve got to be honest: The chapter of the book that dropped my jaw was the one about the film’s casting. In the seven years since Fury Road came out, so many of its characters have become iconic, but would the film have fared nearly as well if some of the famous also-rans I uncovered had been cast instead?
Miller and his casting director, Ronna Kress, began meeting with actors in 2009, and their casting search was expensive and extensive: To cast the five Wives that Furiosa escapes with in her War Rig, Miller and Kress saw hundreds of women, including future superstars like Margot Robbie and Jennifer Lawrence. Near the end of that process, Miller even set up a meeting with a pop icon. “Usually, actors turn up dressed very casually, but boy, Rihanna looked spectacular when she walked in,” Miller told me. “I’m not sure she was even aware of the content of the movie, so she dressed up as Rihanna, which was the right thing to do.”
But the trickiest thing to cast was the two leads. Mel Gibson went from unknown to megastar after playing the postapocalyptic drifter Max in Miller’s first three films, which set the bar high for whoever would vie to supplant him. And to cast the indomitable Furiosa, Miller and Kress would have to find a female lead who was every bit the equal of their new Max.
A casting director once described her process to me as akin to opening a lock: Once you land on one number, you spin to the next, all the while wondering, Is this combination actually going to work? Here, then, is the series of events that locked in the casting of Hardy and Theron, Fury Road’s most compelling and combustible pair.
EXCERPT FROM ‘BLOOD, SWEAT & CHROME: THE WILD AND TRUE STORY OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD’
Ronna Kress (casting director): When I think of all the people who auditioned for that movie! We saw, at the time, what I consider now to be many of the movie stars of our day.
Josh Helman (“Slit”): Every man and their dog was auditioning for Fury Road.
Megan Gale (“The Valkyrie”): I did a workshop in L.A. with Michael Fassbender, who they were considering for Max. He wasn’t as big a star as he is now, but he was on the rise, so it was a wee bit intimidating for me.
Ronna Kress: For Max, we looked at Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer — and these are the people we didn’t cast. Joel Kinnaman didn’t even have an American agent at the time; he was just out of Scandinavia.
Petrina Hull (production and development executive): There was always a cap of people that thought that Max should be an Australian to take over the reins from Mel. Eric Bana was an Australian actor that was considered. In the general public, there was a big push for Sam Worthington.
Ronna Kress: The whole process of casting Max took close to a year. We were talking about every actor in the world, essentially, and having very in-depth conversations about the benefits of someone famous or someone unknown in the role of Mad Max.
Belinda Johns (assistant to George Miller): For a long time, Heath Ledger was in the picture.
George Miller (director): The person who was foremost in my mind was Heath. Every time he’d come through Sydney, he’d pop in and we’d talk generally about things and then we started to talk about Mad Max. We lost him, which was such a pity — not for Mad Max but because he was an exceptional person. He had a very powerful sense of inquiry and was amazingly humble.
Mark Sexton (lead storyboard artist): This is something I don’t hear about very much and that George never admits, but I have a very, very, very strong memory of George talking about Eminem for Max.
Petrina Hull: That is true! See, that’s one of those wild-card things: There were always these people that George would see in popular culture, and he’d want to know more about this person.
George Miller: He’d done 8 Mile, and I found that really interesting — I thought, He’s got that quality. We’d done the first Happy Feet with the late Brittany Murphy, and she had done 8 Mile, so I asked her what he was like and would this be something really interesting for him? She had no reservations about saying what a wonderful talent he is.
Mark Sexton: I got brought back in to redraw a bunch of storyboards in March 2007 and do a bunch of cut-and-pastes to put blond hair on Max.
George Miller: We did get in touch with him, though that’s as far as it went because we were going to shoot it in Australia at that point, and he simply didn’t want to leave home. I think he had the impression that if he could do it out of his home state, then he’d be up for it.
Mark Sexton: I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen. Eminem, really? Whole different bent there. And the feminist story behind Mad Max: Fury Road might have taken a bit of a hammering if he’d played the role.
Though bigger names had been up for Max, Miller was intrigued by the up-and-coming actor Tom Hardy, a brooding, full-lipped Brit who had a career breakthrough playing a charismatic criminal in the 2008 film Bronson. Off that leading role, Hardy landed a supporting part in Christopher Nolan’s then-upcoming Inception as well as a place on the Fury Road casting sheet.
George Miller: All charisma is paradoxical. Mel and Tom are very accessible and warm, and you feel you can be their best friend — and yet at the same time, there is always something hidden, something held in reserve, inaccessible. I think you can feel that on the screen, and Tom had that quality. I saw it in the work he’d done in Bronson.
Tom Hardy (“Max”): Nobody paid any attention career-wise to me in America until Bronson. It gave me a calling card and passage into America, where I’d always wanted to work.
Petrina Hull: That film made a really strong impression on George. It felt like an edgy choice. And again, that’s sort of something that’s typical of George — he’s really looking for the right thing, not the obvious thing. Every now and again, he’ll surprise you and do something a bit left field.
Lora Kennedy (former head of casting at Warner Bros.): Tom has this amazing duality as a man: He’s got this incredible physical presence that is so scary and mean and masculine, but then he’s supersoft and feminine and delicate at times, which is a unique combination for a guy who looks like that.
Ronna Kress: He was one of the last people that we saw, and in some ways, for George, that was a good thing. By the time we got to Tom, we were ready to make a decision about who was the right person for that part.
Tom Hardy: Initially, I was daunted because obviously Mad Max is synonymous with Mel Gibson and a much-loved character by many people.
Ronna Kress: The night before Tom’s big audition, his agent, Mick Sullivan, called me saying, “He can’t do it.” It was 9:30 on a Friday night, and I was out to dinner with my husband, and I had to walk out of the restaurant. I was like, “What? What are you saying? George flew to Los Angeles to see this guy, and I have an entire day wrapped around him,” because he was supposed to read in the morning with one actor and in the afternoon with another. Mick was like, “He’s not coming,” and I was like, “He’s coming. He is coming.” I said, “Whatever I have to do to tailor the experience to him, I don’t care. Even if it means he just has a cup of coffee with George, he’s coming to that room.” The next day, he showed up.
George Miller: Tom read with the actress Kat Dennings, and one of the things that really struck me is she was kind of anxious doing this exercise, and Tom started helping her relax, coaching her.
Near the end of the process, Hardy emerged as a front-runner alongside Jeremy Renner and Armie Hammer. Hardy and Hammer even read together as part of their audition, and when Hardy gnashed his teeth and spat at his scene partner, Hammer told Miller that Hardy needed to be Max more than he did.
Todd Matthew Grossman (audition camera): Jeremy and Armie were equally wonderful, but there was something about Tom in the room where it felt like that was Max, without a doubt. He had that kind of suppressed emotional dryness that you’d find in a postapocalypse and, buried underneath it, disdain for the world. There was this intensity that burned through the lens.
Ronna Kress: After Tom auditioned, George and I went into another room, and we had a long moment of quiet with each other. Then I said to George, “Is this the person that you can spend nine months in the desert with, telling this story? Is this the person that’s right for you?”
Tom Hardy: I knew he checked my background with other directors to see what it was like to work with me.
George Miller: I had the same feeling about Tom that I had when Mel Gibson first walked into the room: There was a kind of edgy charm, the charisma of animals. You don’t know what’s going on in their inner depths, and yet they’re enormously attractive.
Tom Hardy: I was excited to get the job. It’s such a big fish to land that the seesaw effect, the other side of that, was everybody loves Mel as Max and nobody’s gonna want me. So it’s like being the new boy at school and set up in some way for failure immediately.
With Hardy emerging as the top contender for Max, Kress and Miller worked hard to lock down his female counterpart.
Ronna Kress: There were a lot of women who read for Furiosa. Jessica Chastain read for me, and this is when she was starting out. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ruth Negga, some French actresses read for it. We had really thrown a net around the world and narrowed it down to a handful of people. Gal Gadot read for it, and she gave an incredible audition. Incredible!
P.J. Voeten (producer and first assistant director): That was even before she was in Fast & Furious.
George Miller: She tested, and she did incredibly good work — already, you could see that she was very fine. But here’s the thing about Gal: We were testing her not just for Furiosa but also for the Wives, and in terms of age, she fell in between.
Gal Gadot (actress): I was the runner-up for Mad Max with Charlize. I had so many almosts for big, great things, but I was never big enough of a name.
Ronna Kress: Warner Bros. had that Mad Max audition for years. That’s all I’m saying! But we had an eye on Charlize the whole time, in the same way we had an eye on Tom.
Several years removed from her 2003 Oscar win for Monster, Charlize Theron had hit a quiet patch in her high-profile career. After roles in underperforming films like The Road and The Burning Plain, the formidable Theron was in search of her next great project and had begun to explore options behind the camera.
Charlize Theron (“Furiosa”): I was not really being sparked by anything as an actor, and I didn’t act for three years, but I was working my ass off trying to start a production company. Actors go through spells where you’re not moved by anything and then you go from one extreme to the other, where you can’t stop fucking thinking about something. That was kind of where I was at. Because I was starting a production company, I thought I might need representation as far as material and I should probably meet with agencies. So I had a meeting at CAA with Bryan Lourd, who represents George. The timing of it all is quite crazy because if I had never had that meeting, I don’t think I would have ever known about that script.
Ronna Kress: Charlize was at a point in her career where she may not have been the first choice on studios’ lists. She was established, no question about it, but sometimes you find people and there’s perfect timing in terms of where they are in their lives and careers.
Charlize Theron: Listen, I grew up on all the Mad Max movies. They’re very popular in South Africa. So that part of it, for me, was like, Oh shit, yeah, I wanna be in a Mad Max movie. Are you kidding me? I remember being 12 years old and my dad letting me watch it with him, and it was huge. I was raised on a farm in a country where I was kind of surrounded by violence. Watching the violence of Mad Max felt very visceral, very real, and very connected to my environment. I wasn’t scared by it. I remember kind of being in awe of it. George came to L.A.; I had a meeting with him at lunch. He was absolutely lovely, and I said, “Oh my God, I’ll do whatever I need to do. I really, really want to be part of this movie,” and he said okay.
P.J. Voeten: He cast her there, over that lunch.
Charlize Theron: I couldn’t believe it. I literally couldn’t believe it.
George Miller: I knew behind that elegant façade, there was some real grit to that person. Even as she’s sitting somewhere having lunch, you understand that. And you see it in her work.
Ronna Kress: Charlize was the only person we cast who did not audition. You just couldn’t beat it. It was the perfect moment for her and the perfect piece of casting in that role.
Lora Kennedy: Charlize is so physically powerful: She’s tall, she’s lean, she’s gorgeous. She’s one of the few people that when you see her in person, she doesn’t disappoint. You’re going, Oh yeah, you’re a movie star. She’s breathtaking, she’s got this inner power and inner strength, and I don’t think she’s afraid of anything. To take on this role and to take on Tom — who’s lovely but hard to work with sometimes — you have to be formidable. This isn’t for a weak actress, that’s for sure.
Ronna Kress: The truth of it is that we didn’t end up casting Tom until we had Tom and Charlize together. At that point, George had gone back to Australia, and we did a video-conference call at Warner Bros. with George so he could talk to Tom and Charlize, because it was really important for him to see them together. Once we saw them, we just knew. It was an indescribable, perfect thing.
George Miller: Susan Sarandon said it well: When you’re pairing couples, you always want a female to skew male and a male to skew female. She told me, “If you look at the great male movie stars, they have a female quality — they’re not effeminate, but there’s a looseness to them that reminds one of the female approach to life. And the female stars have always had a male quality, which is to be very direct.” The classic example is Hepburn and Tracy: She was very direct, and Spencer Tracy, for all his rough masculinity, has a looseness with him.
Ronna Kress: After the video call, Tom and Charlize and I were in the parking lot. I was looking at them, and they looked so unbelievable together — it was perfect; there was no question in my mind that we had done the right thing — and while I was waving good-bye to them, I backed my car into a pole and crashed the side of my car. Charlize ran up: “Oh my God, Ronna, are you okay?” I said, “I’m fine. I was just staring at you guys!” That’s how intense it was.
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