‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and Hollywood’s Leading Man Crisis (Opinion)

Charlie Hunnam
Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Where are the under-40 stars in Hollywood?

For the last 18 months, the ardent fans of “50 Shades of Grey” have engaged in a parlor game of trying to cast Christian Grey. As far as the online groupies are concerned, the frontrunners were, and still are, Matt Bomer and Ian Somerhalder, who may never have actually been in the running with the studio. According to various reports, the role was supposedly offered to Robert Pattinson, Ryan Gosling and Garrett Hedlund, before “Sons of Anarchy” heartthrob Charlie Hunnam reluctantly agreed last month, only to back out of the project this week.

But the real loser in this never-ending casting scrimmage isn’t Focus Features, which is getting the kind of free pre-release publicity heaped on “Avatar.” It’s Hollywood. Even after a ridiculously long casting window, “Fifty Shades of Grey” can’t secure a star because, in part, there is a shortage of young leading men in the industry.

PHOTOS: 10 Actors Who Can Play Christian Grey

It’s been many decades since the public idolized screen legends like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. So, too, are the days gone when Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson ruled the big screen. For a business obsessed with youth, the male box office giants of today are all surprisingly old: Johnny Depp is 50, Brad Pitt is 49, Robert Downey Jr. is 48, Vin Diesel, after all those “Fast and Furious” whirls, is 46, and Will Smith and Hugh Jackman are both 45. Christian Bale, 39, and Leonardo DiCaprio, 38, who came of age just before the Internet transformed celebrity press, are the babies of the group.

There aren’t any male leads in their 20s or early 30s who consistently  appear in blockbusters, unless you count actors — like Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson — who made multiple appearances in a single franchise. And even then, there are still questions about what will happen to their careers after “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” since they’ve both actively shunned other big studio projects. The same goes for Shia LaBeouf, who publicly badmouthed his “Transformers” series.

And that’s the real problem. Hollywood is a now a town with angst-ridden actors jittery about their own fame. A big part of this change comes from the new reality of stardom, if such a thing even exists anymore. In the era of TMZ, celebrity is a bad word, and the instantaneous news cycle has led to high burnout.

Many successful actors now have to take a break from the spotlight (as Gosling recently announced), and when they return, the industry doesn’t always welcome them back. Has anybody seen Ryan Phillippe, Hayden Christensen or Josh Hartnett lately? Taylor Lautner’s latest role was as a prop in an Adam Sandler comedy. Neither Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto have had big screen success outside “Star Trek.”

After a long hiatus, Orlando Bloom reemerged on Broadway this year following his “Lord of the Rings” run, and Jared Leto went into acting retirement for five years before “Dallas Buyers Club.” James Franco has only survived through his experimental art projects, which has allowed him to work because he’s confused the industry into not typecasting him. Channing Tatum may be the lone young male American movie star.

For a while, Hollywood tried to cope by importing foreign actors for super hero films. That explains why Henry Cavill is the first non-American Superman, Andrew Garfield dons Spidey’s tights and Chris Hemsworth wields Thor’s sledgehammer. But after Hemsworth played a non-super hero in “Rush,” audiences didn’t follow him to the movies.

In the late 90s, when “ER’s” George Clooney was announced as the new “Batman,” there was no Twitter outrage, because it hadn’t been invented yet. The blogosphere did no such favors to Ben Affleck, who had to endure a storm of protest before he even said a line of dialogue as the Dark Knight. Hunnam, who has always been a low profile actor, may have been discouraged from the role after fans started a petition demanding that he quit.

Not all new franchises (i.e., the rebooted “Star Wars”) will endure the same casting pains of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which comes with its own baggage. The movie will be sexually explicit and the source material by E.L. James may not naturally lend itself to a hit film. Then again, there must be an actor somewhere who could play the part, and possibly launch his career like Christian Bale did in “American Psycho.”

The latest reports suggest that Alexander Skarsgard, the “True Blood” hunk who has never been in a successful film (see “Battleship”), is on the studio’s short list along with lesser known actors Jamie Dornan, Theo James and Christian Cooke. ‘

Whoever eventually lands the role should do himself a favor — stay away from your computer.

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  1. I read this book in the hospital after surgery, NOT! the best place, all my machines were going off. But on a more serious note, did Ms. James forget her description of Christian Grey?. Not to take anything away from Mr. Dornan, but he is NOT stop in your tracks gorgeous. He does not look younger then 27
    and the fans want every fantasy they have ever had to be met by this man. In essence casting totally missed the mark, if they were going to be this cavalier with the character they should have went with Eric Scarsgard (crazy sexy) or Henry Cavill-superman yum!

  2. Michelle says:

    Jamie is wrong for this role..better to wait and cast the right actor than risk lack of chemistry. Matt bomer may have decline. the role but for whatever reason he was not cast someone of his suitability should be sort. I’ve gone cold on the movie now and im a Hugh fan. even Charlie was more appropriate. shame

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  4. Megs says:

    As a huge Charlie Hunnam fan I am delighted that he saw the light and backed away from the role. I did read the books and do agree that there is a very sweet love story here that is overshadowed by a BDSM theme that practically never emerges. But that is what people who have not read the books have focused on. IMO, CH would have aced the role because Christian is a Jax Teller bad ass in bespoke suits. Clearly there appears to be a worthless script and nobody interested in filling the other roles (Elliott, Kate, Taylor, Elena, etc) The true signs of an impending disaster! No worries, I eagerly wait for Tuesday nights this year and next and then on to film for this talented and very gorgeous actor….

  5. Jill says:

    Hello, Zac Effron! Babe

  6. Bekki says:

    TAYLOR KINNEY would b amazing as christian grey

  7. TN says:

    Uhh… Cruise’s last 3 movies have grossed more than $560 million globally (that’s even counting “Rock of Ages,” which was an ensemble film he didn’t promote); Depp’s (same age as Cruise) last 3 have grossed more than $520 million, yet you place them in 2 separate categories (has beens and contemporary stars). The fact that you listed him with Travolta (9 years older; last hit movie in 2007), Ford (21 years older!!; last hit movie in 2008), and Gibson (7 years older; last hit movie in 2002!!) is criminal. Furthermore, Cruise’s last “Mission: Impossible” movie grossed more than anything Pitt (1 year younger) or Smith (5 years younger) has done in the last two years. It’s an opinion piece, but how about using some facts to back up your article instead of baseless opinions.

  8. Andrew Garfield was born in the US… LA actually.

  9. D Hudgens says:

    Anyone thought of the Indian Cinema star “HRITHIK ROSHAN”???? He CAN ACT the pants off of any actor in Hollywood (check out Agneepath, Guzarrish, Jodha Akbar, Lakshya, Krrish) AND he is GORGEOUS and sexy…just made GQ’s sexiest Asian male again!

  10. Emaroulakis says:

    Everyone,except Gosling would do,i guess..

  11. Jan says:

    I can’t agree that the role of Christian Grey is a “career-breaker” unless the script and director is inferior. There seem to be many people with opinions who have obviously not really read the book. It is a love story — it’s the kinkiness that gets the publicity — but that’s not what the stories are about. The stories are about finding love, change and redemption. It will take a very good actor to pull off Christian Grey because he’s so specific. He doesn’t necessarily have to be played by a well-known actor, but he does have to be good-looking and very sexy and capable of showing intense changes of emotion. That’s his character. I was pulling for Henry Cavill, but that won’t happen so now I hope it’s some other good-looking guy with acting chops.

  12. Thom says:


    Excellent points. It might indeed be best to cast an unknown and let the material speak for itself. You are correct that is pre-sold no matter who is cast.

  13. Jess Michelle says:

    The Hollywood execs are a bunch of idiots if they think they need a star male lead. This movie has so much hype already, it’s only when people don’t know much about a new film that they feel Stars or Name actors will generate heat.

    There are PLENTY of hot, talents actors in Hollywood that could use a break like this, not Ryan Gosling.

    When will Hollywood get the message? Audiences don’t need star names. We need talented new faces and a compelling story.

    And while I’m on this rant, let’s talk about directors cuz good ones can take any smokin hot actor and turn him into a great actor. But what talent directors lack these days, actors have to make up for it.

  14. Fatty McGee says:

    Keanu Reeves. Seriously. He puts butts in seats, plays against type and no mater what you say, gets the job done and has gone beyond, “Pretty boy”. Plus, he wouldn’t care that they’re low-balling w/ $125,000. He’d do it for the challenge. I’m telling you, if you want to be in the business of being in business – Keanu Freakin’ Reeves.

  15. deedee says:

    What about A lister, Colin Farrell? Under 40 and as hot and talented as anyone in Hollywood

  16. Zoe says:


  17. Teri says:

    I am so disappointed that Charlie Hunnam dropped out of playing the roll of Christian Grey,because he would have been perfect.
    I think the next best runner up for the part would be Ian Somerhalder. I’m still hopeful Charlie Hunnam will have a change of heart…

  18. Somebunny says:

    I hope whomever takes this role is prepared for a fail move in their career. While the book was a mommy-porn read, with successful sales, this movie will not translate well with the chosen actors career. The movie will sell lots of tickets as the studio will want, but noting more. Kind of like the Magic Mike hype. Awful script and not very good acting. I am a huge fan of Charlie’s and he did the right thing.

  19. lulu says:

    Forget Alexander Skarsgard, never liked Bomer or the Ian choices. I think either Jamie Dornan (who will probably get the part) and Theo James are the best choices. With the names being floated like this, I believe they are just getting the public ready for the selection.

    I think the selection has been made. They’re just getting the public ready for the choices. So far, Skarsgard, Dornan and James are not bringing any kind of backlash which makes me believe it’s one of them. Dornan moreso since he’s from the UK and it looks like that’s where they want the lead to come from.

    The announcement will be sometime this weekend. Just my guess.

  20. mizzcorrie says:

    Alexander Skarsgard would be awesome…you cld not go wrong with him…

  21. Julienne says:

    Look at the latest flops with big stars…”IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY!” If you don’t have a story the dating crowd is going to go want to see, it’s going to flop.

  22. Julienne says:

    Yeahp! Most younger leading actors are punks and have zero character. Drunks, drug addicts, lazy, dis-respectful partying punks. We need some new blood in the younger male leads category, or the industry is going to fade into MTV land.

  23. Santos says:

    Ever since i first viewed the film Brick i have believed imho Joseph Godon Levitt is Hollywoods next leading actor.

  24. Erik says:

    Most of this article is on-the-mark, almost frighteningly so, but to assert that Chris Pine hasn’t had success outside Star Trek? Immediately, the excellent “Bottle Shock” comes to mind, not to mention “Unstoppable” – a marginally-plotted movie that nonetheless has fine performances from both its leads.

    But that’s all besides the point…it’s pretty obvious that Twittering and other Internet nonsense hasn’t done much anything good and really just causes excess stress, distraction, and meanness…while my answer’s not to participate in it, perhaps the next to-be star’s best answer is to ignore it. Besides, the best revenge is success.

  25. Jennine says:

    Alexander skarsgard would be perfect as Christian grey!

    • gracie says:

      Alexander Skarsgard is perfect for the role, I do agree and every web site for Alexander says so…He has so many demensions to his acting and can play, the Dom with no problem and lovable too, and he fits Christians description better than any other actors mentioned…he is tall, sexy and classy…If you want the movie to be successful then hire Alexander

    • Julienne says:

      No class.

    • Sherry says:


  26. tonya olim says:

    I think charlie gunman should play Christian greys. I watch him on soa and he can take control and n sensitive. And switch in seconds. That is Christian. And his body is perfect. I’m am devastated. I dont know if any one else can play it just right.

  27. Is it really surprising that actors are reticent? Fifty Shades wasn’t written for realism or depth of character. It did well because women could deny having read it. They couldn’t quite do that in a movie theatre. And nor could the lead actor.

  28. Take me as the lead! I’m an actor, check out my IMDb page! It would be a dream role


  29. Reynolds says:

    It is actually hollywood’s own fault. Matt Bomer is a prime example. Very talented actor who can do drama and comedy. No one as or more handsome in a leading man way. Excellent set working reputation. 36 yet looks 26. Large and growing fan base. Yet never given an opportunity as a lead until upcoming TNH and Monty. All due to the homophobia in the business. Shameful. He has leading man looks and talent in the bag.

    • Sherry says:

      Totally agree! He IS perfect for the role. He would class it up and make this movie about a love story and not all about sex like the media is making it out to be!! They NEED a class act like Matt Bomer to help them now!! Some of their other choices are soooo wrong!!

      • Winnie says:

        Matt Bomber would be perfect. He is sexy has a great body a wonderful
        Disposition and could play the sexy LOVE screeners with class.
        The book is a love story at its core.

  30. Lee Ann says:

    Alex O’Loughlin (Hawaii Five-O and The Back-Up Plan) would be a great Christian Grey! Another choice: Taylor Kinney (Severied on Chicago Fire)!!

    • Sherry says:

      Totally agree! He IS perfect for the role. He would class it up and make this movie about a love story and not all about sex like the media is making it out to be!! They NEED a class act like Matt Bomer to help them now!! Some of their other choices are soooo wrong!!

  31. Paulette Slabber says:

    Jared Padalecki!!

  32. david says:

    I have always felt that companies tend to put to much emphasis on the “leading man.” The films that truly stick with us like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Graduate had relative unknowns in the lead roles. I would think Marlon Brando’s recognition had went down considerably when he was cast in The Godfather. Of course studios feel more comfortable with people like Tom Cruise, and are happy to pay him $20 million for a film, spend 50 million advertising it, and brag that it grossed 250 million.

  33. blip says:

    For all its draconian qualities, old Hollywood under the studio system did an amazing job of grooming acting talent– of both genders and at all ages. That’s what’s lacking in so many young performers today: the seemingly effortless professional polish of yesteryear. But, that said, to point out the obvious– and to echo what many on this thread have already said: no actor with a gram of class or two brain cells to rub together would touch this garbage with a barge pole.

  34. dulce says:

    The problem isn’t the actors but the films themselves. There aren’t enough good scripts for all the talented actors out there. Btw, you left off Bradley Cooper, Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joaquin Phoenix, James McAvoy, Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster, Jim Sturgess and Michael Fassbender.

  35. Tam says:

    Well- thinking outside the box : Kivanc Tatlitug has the look!

  36. Thom says:

    I have not read the book but here is a suggestion of a younger actor: Justin Timberlake.

    • cynic says:

      Variety ran an article last week advising Timberlake to stop acting for the good of the world. They don’t consider him a leading man.

  37. Tania says:

    To the author of this article: did you read the book? (Calling it “novel” would be an insult to novels). I did, I read it all (for dare, actually). I didn’t think anything could be worse than Twilight. I was wrong. This is slightly worse.
    Unfortunately for New Line, most young men can read…they will eventually read a few pages of that thing…and they will throw the wretched stuff right out of the window. This is the kiss of death for any actor who has a career. They will have to rely on a newcomer because no sane actor would touch it with a 6 feet pole, unless he is pursued by Russian mafia for unpaid debts. This is a Razzie sweep, sure thing…why would Gosling or Fassbender do that?
    So I would not blame “shortage of young leading men”. Rather “shortage of good scripts in Hw”, and this worries me much more than a non existant shortage of pretty boys.

    • cynic says:

      It makes sense that 50 Shades is worse than Twilight since EL James is a Twihard who wrote the book as a Twilight fanfic and adapted it to be a standalone novel.

      And you’re right about actors’ reluctance to take the role. This could do as much damage to an actor’s career as Last Tango in Paris did to the life and work of the young actress who starred in it.

  38. David says:

    I agree with this person’s point: http://ynit.me/1cVLPV4

    Do we really need a movie star anymore? I’d rather have a good actor and story. I think the only people I still pay to see just because they’re in the movie is Leo DiCarprio and Tom Cruise. That’s because they seem to give their all in every performance and pick their movies carefully.

  39. Leslie-Anne says:

    Alexander Skarsgard has been successful in movies!? The East, What Masie knew, and Disconnect. All had amazing crital ratings though the box office numbers weren’t there, the quality was! Battleship was just a disaster all around ! ASkars would be the perfect Christian Grey!

  40. d says:

    Not fair, his films mostly Indies have been very successful, as for Battleship one cannot blame him for that fiasco, he was in the film for all of 20 minutes. Alex with his intensity and wonderful acting and looks is the perfect actor for Christian Grey. And he is well known outside of the States unlike the others who are very little known outside of the UK. Alex yes, please make it happen. He would bring his millions of fans into the theater.

  41. Mel says:

    I don’t think that the problem lies with there not being enough young actors in the industry. I don’t even think it’s because today’s young actors lack charisma (however true that may be). The problem is that I don’t think any working actor wants to be associated with what is probably the “Showgirls” of book franchises. Seriously, “50 Shades” is a zit on the face of modern literature that makes trite like “Twilight” seem like Steinbeck in comparison. Of course, are studios going to care at all that this is garbage? Probably not, just that the film is going to cater to the same lonely housewives who bought the book and who will squeal this film franchise into a multi-million dollar success. That, however, does not mean that they’ll get a quality or even A-list actor to step up to the role. Actors like Gosling, Leto and Hemsworth- they don’t need something like this to advance their careers and your Depps, Clooneys and Pitts have already reached that point where they don’t even need to make a movie to be recognized. Someone will take this role, but it won’t be someone anyone will recognize, unless of course you are an avid fan of daytime soap operas, where I guarantee, the future star of this film is waiting right now.

    • Sherry says:

      I think your comments are cruel and judgemental. As a teacher I encourage ANY reading by anyone, even the back of a cereal box!! At least children are seeing their mothers reading which is modeling a positive behavior, which is desperately needed for a nation that is lacking in its literacy skills. According to research fathers used to be the major role model for this behavior by reading the newspaper and Bible but now they are to busy playing on cell phones and watching sports on TV. While mothers have taken over the role by reading bedtime stories and taking time for pleasure reading.

      Everyone has their preferences. I deal with children all day, come home and have my own 3 boys and husband and household to run. Schoolwork to do. IF I have a chance to read I enjoy romance novels like “50 Shades”. My colleagues may prefer a classic or mystery, you may prefer sci fi. Point is, we all like what we like, reading is our escape, our chance to visit some place different and no one has any right to judge that.

      I’m assuming u r a man, and not the only man that has made comments like this about “50 Shades”. Funny how u all say that those of us that read it are “lonely housewives”. Most of us are not lonely housewives and we’ve enjoyed a lot of “kinky fuckery” ourselves, but if that’s what u believe…if that’s the mentality u have, u better reevaluate ur manliness. Because u r obviously doing something wrong if your feeling threatened by a fictional character.

      • charlene says:

        I agree with you 100%
        I was told alot of the same about reading harry potter. My learned to read young and read the 1st potter book as he was starting kindergarten. No one should be judged because of the books they like to read. I read twilight and 50. Im an accountant not a housewife. Normally the books i read are Stephen king and robin cook type authors. I still liked both 50 and twilight.

  42. steve says:

    Umm what about Joseph Gordon-Levitt.. guy’s young, funny and personable. I’m surprised he wasn’t mentioned at all in this article..

  43. Ryan says:

    I think Preston Jones should play the part! He looks great, and he was on True Blood and totally killed it! He’s barely 30, and he has star potential written all over him! Preston Jones is absolutely Christian Grey!

  44. John says:

    One aspect of the “where have all the stars gone” story that I feel is missing from this article is what I perceive as the studios’ clear intentions to avoid creating movie stars and thus not needing to grant them the power (and salaries) they have enjoyed in the past. The studios save untold millions if they aren’t reliant upon stars to open their movies. But like all the corporate bottom-line, commerce-over-art-in-every-instance thinking that dominates the minds of the media emperors, this too is coming around to bite them in the ass.

  45. Sal says:

    You can’t be seriously having this article on Variety about 50SOG. It is toilet paper material as a book and if an authentic adaptation is to be made they’re ought to make a porn movie to be true to the material so what is the point? You’re making such a big deal out of it. Shame.

    • Tania says:

      Don’t insult toilet paper…it has its use. On the contrary, this book has none. It’s the most un-erotic thing I’ve read in all my life.

    • Cee-dog says:


      The book is basically Mommy porn. On paper it’s okay, maybe. (Where a character’s inner-monologue can always be heard.)

      But on film? The danger is it ends up as Mickey Rourke “9 1/2 Weeks” redux.

      Or worse yet, “Showgirls” without the “dancing.” (Kyle MacLachlan probably still has nightmares about the sex-in-the-pool scene with Elizabeth Berkley.)

      No wonder that leading men, famous or not, are leery of this one.

  46. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you have hit
    the nail on the head. The issue is something that too few men and women are speaking intelligently about.
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  47. Samantha says:

    This film is ruined as long as Dakota Johnson stays on as Ana.

  48. Roy Atkinson says:

    I must admit to knowing little about Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son. But I see he has a role in Brad Pitt’s Second World War tank crew film “Fury” –now filming in Great Britain. And someone mentioned him as a “Fifty Shades of Grey ” possibility.Are things begining to move for Scott Eastwood’s career?

  49. Guess what? This movie isn’t an A lister….That’s why Charlie bailed….

  50. Cj says:

    Every considered seriously looking beyond White men for leading actors?

    After all, in an international film market (not to mention the world’s actual population) Whites are in the minority…

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