In January 2015, two years before he was sworn in as president, Donald Trump was set to step into the same role in a very different capacity: He had signed on to play the president in 2015’s Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!
Producers’ first choice to play the leader of the free world in the Washington, D.C.-set disaster film was Sarah Palin, but negotiations with the former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee had fallen through. That’s when Ian Ziering, the gung-ho star of the schlocky Syfy franchise, had the inspiration to capitalize on the special relationship he’d developed with Trump while taping Celebrity Apprentice (Ziering made it as far as the penultimate task). His reality TV boss would make a good commander in chief, he reasoned. An offer went out. Almost immediately, it elicited a response.
“The Donald said yes,” recalls David Latt, the 51-year-old co-founder of The Asylum, the off-brand assembly line behind the Sharknado series. “He was thrilled to be asked.”
Alas, Trump never did get to fend off a swarm of hammerheads in the Lincoln Bedroom. (More on why later.) But his story is far from unusual — just one of thousands of familiar faces who have been approached to star in a Sharknado, in what has grown over the course of five films into Hollywood’s D-list answer to a federal jobs-growth program.
“It’s the long-lost love child of The Love Boat and Hollywood Squares,” offers Scotty Mullen, the bubbly casting director responsible for wrangling more than 80 celebrity appearances in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, which airs on Syfy on Aug. 6, with a splashy live viewing party in Las Vegas that night. (In true low-budget form, Mullen does double-duty as the newest installment’s screenwriter.)
It sounds like the recipe for a fatal drinking game, but fret not: You’re not expected to spot them all. Some of these faces are famous only overseas, while others haven’t been seen in decades. But you probably will recognize a few, including Charo as the Queen of England, Fabio as the Pope, Clay Aiken doing a spoof on Q from the James Bond films and Olivia Newton-John in her first screen role in 17 years, playing a scientist who gives star Tara Reid a Grease-style makeover.
If this terrain is familiar to anyone, it’s Charo, a fixture on such stunt-casted 1980s escapist fare as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The 66-year-old star was already a Sharknado fan when she was approached to play Her Royal Highness. “I think the Sharknado movies are hysterical,” she says, pronouncing it “shark-NAH-doe.” “Nowadays especially, we need shows that put a smile on your face. Coochie coochie!”
Coochie coochie ka-ching, that is: Sharknado has become an invaluable, if unlikely, crown jewel for Syfy, watched by tens of millions around the world (the globe-hopping new film capitalizes on that international popularity), registering billions of Twitter impressions and popping up in everything from Jeopardy! questions to The New York Times crossword puzzle.
But it began as just another title in a string of B-movies commissioned by Syfy — no-budget thrillers with names like Bats: Human Harvest and Mongolian Death Worm. Its path to the screen was fairly straightforward: An executive at Syfy heard the word “sharknado” and said, “I love it. Let’s make it.”
Asylum, which has cornered the market in this strain of cinematic dreck, was brought on to produce. They paid screenwriter Thunder Levin (his real name — “It was the ‘60s,” he says) $6,000 to turn the word “sharknado” into an actual story — which he did, concocting a tale of a freak cyclone that scoops deadly sharks out of the Pacific and flings them at unsuspecting Angelenos.
With Sharknado script in hand, producers approached more than 100 actors to play male lead Fin Shepard, including Kevin Dillon, Dave Foley, Seth Green, John Stamos and Fred Durst. All of them passed — even the Limp Bizkit frontman, after being told he could also direct. The closest anyone got to signing on before Ziering was Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover.
“I ended up in this 30-minute conversation with him during a location scouting in San Pedro,” recalls madcap director Anthony C. Ferrante, whose genuine enthusiasm for the franchise — he coined the word “sharknado” and has helmed all of the films — calls to mind a slightly more self-aware Ed Wood. “He wanted to play Fin like he had brain damage or something. And in my head I’m like, ‘OK — my job here is to make sure he says yes to the movie.’ ” Glover said no anyway.
But then something exciting happened: A legitimately talented and famous actor — John Heard — signed on as the movie’s comic-relief barfly, George. (Heard died July 21 while undergoing back surgery; there was barely a mention of Sharknado in tributes.) Reid was next to board, playing Fin’s ex-wife, April. This was after Teri Hatcher, Rebecca Romijn, Tiffani Thiessen and several others had already passed. Still, Reid was considered a big get for the project, whose title was proving to be a potent actor-repellent. “Tara had a profile,” says Gerald Webb, an actor and casting director who worked on the first three films (and appeared in the second). “Syfy liked her.”
With production commencing and still no Fin, a frantic Asylum went back to Ziering, who had already passed several times, and raised the offer to $100,000, according to a source with knowledge of the deal. Also a key conciliation: The title was changed to Dark Skies. (Syfy later changed it back to Sharknado, much to the cast’s dismay.) At the urging of his wife, who had just given birth and wanted Ziering to qualify for SAG medical insurance, he finally said yes.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to the DVD bin: Something about the movie’s ludicrous title and its cast’s commitment to the equally ludicrous premise (the film climaxes with Ziering’s ex-surf champ diving into a great white with a chainsaw) made Sharknado an instant cultural phenomenon when it premiered on July 11, 2013.
While ratings were modest — 1.37 million tuned in — the film lit Twitter on fire, with everyone from Patton Oswalt to Mia Farrow (“Omg omg OMG #sharknado”) singing its so-bad-it’s-good praises.
As a result, Sharknado 2: The Second One was a very different animal. “Everybody wanted to be involved,” recalls Webb. “Every C-list and D-list actor on the planet.” With the unlikely franchise’s new cachet, Asylum decided to take a kitchen-sink approach to casting, with Latt instructing Webb “to literally ask every celebrity we could think of. We came up with a list of a thousand people, including many A-listers.” Most passed. James Franco was a nonstarter. (There was hope he might be up for a cameo after his arc as a serial killer on General Hospital.) William Shatner’s agent replied with a single word: “Sharkna-no.”
But there were a few notable turns in the New York-set sequel, including Judd Hirsch and Airplane‘s Robert Hays playing into type as a taxi driver and jet pilot, respectively; rapper Biz Markie as a pizza chef; and Richard Kind as a Mets legend who bats a shark into the scoreboard. In many cases, their lines were written when they showed up on set.
Sharknado crews are nonunion (they staged a strike on the third installment and were replaced), but the films are SAG-AFTRA-compliant. “Everyone makes the same amount — a flat rate — and nobody was making close to their quote,” says Webb of the cameos. Asked if the pay — for anywhere from two to four hours of set time — would cover the cost of a Ford truck, Webb responds, “Absolutely not. Well, maybe a really beat-up one that would be at the junkyard a week later.”
Bigger roles, which require several days of shooting, pay more. Chris Kattan, whose career has seen some hard knocks since Saturday Night Live, was reluctant to take a cameo in Sharknado 5 — but was open to playing the meatier role of the U.K. prime minister, a part he approached “dead seriously. They were into me doing it that way.” He has gotten good feedback from his co-stars. “Ian said, ‘You’re going to be really, really happy with it,’ ” says Kattan. “So it’s not like Mariah Carey in Glitter — where nobody said anything.”
Mullen, 37, was a struggling screenwriter working as a publicist when his spec script Double-D Island (“It’s like The Hunger Games but topless”) got him noticed by Asylum, which first put him to work writing jokes for Kelly Ripa on Sharknado 2. “They said, ‘We forgot to write something for her,’ ” he recalls of the fateful phone call. “I said, ‘How soon do you need something?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re lighting her now.’ “
But it’s Ann Coulter whom Mullen credits with his big break. Asylum wanted the conservative firebrand to play the vice president in Sharknado 3, but was having no luck through her agent. Mullen suggested the company go through her publicist — “Sharknado‘s more of a publicity opportunity than a thespian exercise” — and Coulter “jumped at the chance. So then they asked me if I was interested in doing more of this.” Asylum agreed to pay Mullen a per-cameo bonus.
He sees his role as very different from that of most casting directors — people whose calls, typically, are eagerly answered by agents and managers. Instead, Mullen says, “you’re always selling them on the publicity value. An agent won’t care because they just want the money, and there is none. But if you pitch it to the publicist, they see all the value to be gotten out of it. You’re here to ride the hell out of that crazy publicity train.”
If it’s really true that there’s “no such thing as bad publicity,” Sharknado is determined to test those boundaries. Some of the most reviled figures in pop culture have popped up as chum. In Sharknado 2 alone, there was Andy Dick (who “was having a tough day that day,” says Webb — Ziering had to hold up cue cards with Dick’s lines on them), Perez Hilton (swallowed whole on a subway platform) and Jared Fogle (“You should really be eating fresh, too,” says Subway’s then pitchman, currently serving 15 years in a federal prison for child porn possession and having sex with minors). Among the few stars Asylum has rejected: porn legend Ron Jeremy, who once stopped by the offices to pitch himself.
Sharknado 3 features a cameo by Anthony Weiner, the disgraced ex-congressman who in May pleaded guilty to sexting with a 15-year-old girl. “I guess I am on that C- to D-level cusp of celebrity that they were looking for,” Weiner told THR in 2015. “But I wouldn’t have conceived of doing it if I were going to play myself.” In fact, a sexting-scandal spoof was exactly what the producers wanted; when Weiner refused, he was enlisted to play a dull NASA administrator instead. Most of his performance was edited out.
For Sharknado 5, everything is bigger, starting with the budget ($3 million, double the cost of the original) and star salaries — Ziering now makes $500,000 per picture. Asylum manages to limit costs when it comes to Reid’s paycheck — she makes about a quarter of what her male co-star earns on each installment. She protested the disparity during the filming of Sharknado 3. Syfy later asked fans whether or not to kill off her character — but the network flatly denies that the two incidents are related. (Fans voted to let her live.) “I think Sharknado cares more about their ‘extra of the day’ than they do about their own cast,” Reid says, clearly weary of the franchise. “You work at something for five years and you don’t get treated as well as someone who shows up for a single day?”
She may be on to something, as the piled-on cameos haven’t added up to higher ratings for the franchise, which peaked at 3.87 million viewers for 2014’s Sharknado 2 before dropping to 2.77 million viewers for 2016’s Sharknado 4. The newest installment — which introduces the concept of wormholes to the, uh, Sharknado mythology — shot on location in London, Tokyo, Rome, Sydney, New York, Los Angeles and Sofia, Bulgaria. Some cameo players were flown to those far-flung places (Greg Louganis jetted off to Sofia to play an art thief), while others (Fabio, Poison’s Bret Michaels — also a Celebrity Apprentice alum) shot a few close-ups at home in L.A., with their stunt doubles in rocker wigs doing the heavy lifting overseas.
Lee Mountjoy, a London-based casting director, was brought on to fill out the ranks and went about enlisting local talent Katie Price (the “Kim Kardashian of the U.K.”) and diving champion Tom Daley — Mountjoy randomly “bumped into him in a train station in London. I said, ‘Do you know Sharknado?’ And he said, ‘Oh, my God, definitely!’ “
Similarly, the Asylum guys ran into George R.R. Martin at a Comic-Con event in 2014, whereupon the Game of Thrones author confessed to being a Sharknado superfan. “I own a theater in New Mexico, and they wouldn’t let me play it,” bemoaned Martin. The producers pulled some strings, and Martin was able to screen the original movie at his theater. (He later showed up in Sharknado 3.)
“We look for cameos from all areas of pop culture to appeal to every fan watching the movie,” says Josh Van Houdt, Syfy’s vp original co-productions. “Whether we’re casting a professional athlete, reality star, actor, musician or politician, our goal is to include a wide variety of stars for viewers to either get excited about or, on the flip side, witness getting eaten by a shark in a spectacular fashion.”
And so it might have been for our 45th president. “We got pretty far,” says Webb of the Trump negotiations. “It was serious talks.” A contract was drawn up and sent to Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen — the same attorney currently under FBI investigation in connection with the Russia inquiry.
But enthusiasm turned into weeks of silence from the Trump camp. Eventually, a reason for the stalling emerged. “Donald’s thinking about making a legitimate run for the presidency, so we’ll get back to you,” Latt recalls Cohen saying. “This might not be the best time.” With the production clock ticking, Asylum pulled the trigger on a backup plan, offering the role to Mark Cuban — a modest casting coup that Syfy trumpeted with a press release.
“Then we immediately heard from Trump’s lawyer,” recalls Latt. “He basically said, ‘How dare you? Donald wanted to do this. We’re going to sue you! We’re going to shut the entire show down!’ ” Contacted by THR, Cohen acknowledges a dinner with Ziering to discuss casting Trump but says he has no recollection of the angry correspondence.
Webb, now at his own production company, is philosophical about the dustup. “I took it personally, but I get it now,” he says. “That was my moment of doing business with Donald Trump. And that’s Sharknado.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.