First published in Guardian on June 3, 2011 by Ben Child..☛. Love him or loathe him, Quentin Tarantino has always been able to cherry pick his actors, and it looks like his forthcoming Django Unchained project may be his most tantalising so far. Until recently there were suggestions that Will Smith was lined up to play the lead role of Django, an escaped slave who learns to become a contract killer and heads home to his old plantation to free his wife in the film’s 19th-century deep south setting. The latest rumour is that The Wire’s Idris Elba may play the part. What Elba has done to deserve such elevation in a movie career that includes Fatal Attraction rip-off Obsessed, and cheap supernatural thriller The Unborn is anyone’s guess, but few who enjoyed his long-running role as upwardly mobile Baltimore gangster Stringer Bell would take issue with seeing him in something more substantial.
An even more intriguing rumour is that Leonardo DiCaprio is considering the role of the main villain, Calvin Candie, who apparently doesn’t turn up until the second half of the film, Kill Bill style. According to those who have read the leaked screenplay, Candie is the plantation owner who Django must kill, an eccentric who adores French culture and demands to be called “monsieur” – but doesn’t actually speak the language. DiCaprio was originally up for the Inglourious Basterds role of SS colonel Hans Landa that won Christoph Waltz a best supporting actor Oscar, but supposedly turned it down because he felt Tarantino needed a native German-speaker in the role. Candie sounds like a more suitable fit for DiCaprio, and the actor may just be lured by the prospect of his first Academy Award (so far he has three nominations for Blood Diamond, The Aviator and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Already confirmed for Django Unchained are Waltz, who will play a German dentist turned bounty hunter who takes the title character under his wing, and Tarantino favourite Samuel L Jackson, who will portray Steven, a slave at Candie’s plantation.
The screenplay received mixed reviews from those who got their hands on a copy when it leaked in May, but then Inglourious Basterds always looked like a monstrous mess, until people actually got to see it. Even bad Tarantino movies usually have more moments of inspired brilliance than most good films from other directors, and Django Unchained already looks suitably absurd and unhinged. If Smith really has turned down the lead, no one should be too shocked. Tarantino may be the director every actor wants to work with (next to Martin Scorsese), but the former Fresh Prince is fiercely protective of his image and may have baulked at a movie that reportedly uses the “N” word more liberally than a 50 Cent ditty. Tarantino might just be denied his usual penchant for stunt casting on this occasion, though I’m struggling to think of a movie in which DiCaprio has played an out-and-out villain. The actor is one of the world’s biggest film stars, but might Django Unchained herald a new era in his career? That would be a feat almost as impressive as Tarantino’s reinvention of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, and may just suit an actor who no longer has the pretty-boy looks of his youth.