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Superhero movies long have taken a chance on unproven actors in their 30s and 40s for lead roles. Marvel’s Captain America star Chris Evans is 34; Batman v. Superman‘s Henry Cavill is 32; Iron Man‘s Robert Downey Jr. was 41 when he first donned the suit.
But now there’s a new class of more pedigreed actors reaping the rewards of the superhero craze — and many of them get the senior discount. Michael Douglas was 69 when he joined Marvel’s Ant-Man; Robert Redford, the patriarch of indie film, took a supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier at 76; and Glenn Close was 66 when she signed on to Guardians of the Galaxy. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice featured Laurence Fishburne, 54, Kevin Costner, 61, and Jeremy Irons, 67. Marvel’s new release, Captain America: Civil War (May 6), includes William Hurt, 66, as a character he first played in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. And Warner Bros. has assembled its upcoming Justice League with J.K. Simmons, 61, and Willem Dafoe, 60. All of the above have won or been nominated for an Oscar.
What’s behind the surge of A-list AARP members in comics films? Bringing a master thespian into a superhero universe is a strategy that dates to Marlon Brando playing Jor-El in 1978’s Superman. But it’s become more prevalent as superheroes have come to dominate studio slates over the past decade. With more than 20 hero pics set to hit theaters in the next three years alone, there’s a growing need for actors with the experience and esteem to bring gravitas.
It’s a win-win situation, says one agent who represents a veteran star. Actors typically transition to smaller movies late in their careers (especially these days, as studios have trimmed non-tentpole projects), so a superhero film can represent a guaranteed worldwide vehicle that will be seen by millions. “It’s great to have a massive hit once in a while to inject energy into their own personal projects,” says the agent. Plus, the actors are paid well (sources say between $1 million and $4 million on average) for what usually is only a few weeks of work. “These films are scheduled in a way that’s very user-friendly toward doing other movies in the same time period,” adds Circle of Confusion manager Frank Frattaroli, who represents Dafoe.
Frattaroli says Dafoe had passed on offers for other superhero movies because he already played the villain Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. But the actor sparked to Justice League because he would be playing a good guy — although Warner Bros. hasn’t revealed whom, exactly.
“There’s all this speculation on the internet about the mystery of who he’s playing — it just helps build up the movie,” adds Frattaroli.
And the trend is likely to continue for years to come.
The Russo brothers tapped into the vault to bring back Hurt for Civil War eight years after his first Marvel experience. “The Marvel universe is unprecedented,” says Joe Russo. “We have a ton of characters at our disposal and a lot of great actors. We knew we needed a voice for the government for this film — and how can you pass up putting in William Hurt?”
This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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