Berlin: Actresses Are Replacing Men Onscreen in Wake of #MeToo

Salma Hayek, Alexander Skarsgard, The Hummingbird Project Still - H - 2018
Credit: HanWay Films

As the movement continues to drive change, filmmakers are reworking projects to feature more women in roles originally intended for men: “Finally, it has registered how important the female audience is”

The days of men dominating cast lists could well be numbered if developments at the European Film Market are anything to go by.

Several current projects have roles that were originally written for men but later reworked for women, sometimes with distributors themselves pushing for change.

Such was the case with The Hummingbird Project, where feedback from buyers in Cannes saw the role of the nemesis of Alexander Skarsgard’s character swap sexes (and later have Salma Hayek cast in the role).

“We kept hearing from distributors that the project felt quite male,” says HanWay managing director Gabrielle Stewart.

In one image from the film, Hayek leans intimidatingly over a bald Skarsgard, who is in a hot tub. “The idea was, if you’re going to intimidate someone, catch them when they’re naked. But I said, ‘It’s even more intimidating if it’s a woman!,’” laughs Stewart.

In The Burnt Orange Heresy — another project HanWay has in the market — an as-yet-uncast character from the original 1971 book has been switched from male to female.

“As we were talking casting with producers, it just seemed obvious that the kind of women we could cast would be far more interesting, and open it up and make it more balanced,” says Stewart.

For fellow Brit sales banner Cornerstone, both lead roles in the remake of Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated After the Wedding have had a gender flip: Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgard’s characters are now being played by Diane Kruger and Julianne Moore, respectively.

“Once it had been suggested, it made perfect sense,” says Cornerstone co-chief Mark Gooder. “What’s particularly interesting is now it’s not a stretch for audiences or writers or directors or casting agents or financiers to accept that women can have positions of power and wealth,” he adds.

While the current #MeToo movement and drive for equality may make such activities seem particularly relevant, it’s the bottom line that is — of course — a contributing factor.

“Finally, it has registered how important the female audience is,” says Stewart. “All in all, you have a tough time if your film doesn’t attract women.”

Driving this trend is the box-office success of films with strong female leads: Margot Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding in I, Tonya ($26 million domestic gross); Frances McDormand’s avenging mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (worldwide box office: $100 million and counting); and Julia Roberts as the determined mother in Wonder ($286 million globally).

Even Millennium Films, the famously macho production and sales outfit behind such testosterone-driven franchises as The Expendables, is changing with the times.

“We are focusing on some female-driven films,” says Millennium president Jeffrey Greenstein. “Before we’d be targeting guys who’d bring along their girlfriends — now it's girls bringing their boyfriends, or both guys and girls who’ll come in on their own.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 18 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.