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Sherlock Holmes is a purely British character. But they cast Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films.

Have the filmmakers ever commented on the reason for this casting choice? Was the possibility of casting a British actor ever considered or was this not something the filmmakers deemed an important aspect for casting the role?

  • Robert Downey Jr. Portrayed Charlie Chaplin who had a British accent. He was also nominated for an Oscar for that role. – steelersquirrel Aug 26 '16 at 7:06
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    Yeah, why would they cast a film star who had just scored a massive hit with "Iron Man" in that role? slashfilm.com/… – BCdotWEB Aug 26 '16 at 8:57
  • Ok, I tried to improve the question a little to make it sound less opinionated and would ask the downvoters to reconsider their voting decision. – Napoleon Wilson Aug 26 '16 at 9:51
  • @BCdotWEB If you deem that a sufficient answer, feel free to turn it into an actual answer. – Napoleon Wilson Aug 26 '16 at 9:57
  • People play different nationalities all the time (tons of Americans affecting British accents in Lord of the Rings; the very American House - from the show of the same name - is played by the very British Hugh Laurie; etc). As long as the only thing that needs to be affected is accent and/or mannerisms, it's neither difficult to do nor frowned upon. (Whether or not an individual actor like RDJ actually does a good job of affecting an accent is another story, but I don't think that's the question.) – ghostdog Aug 26 '16 at 15:09
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Because they liked both his star appeal and his acting for the role?

Superstar actors get to play whatever roles they want. They cast Kevin Costner in the very British role of Robin Hood, for goodness sakes. At least Downey did a decent job of maintaining the same accent on consecutive sentences.

This is a Hollywood film, and Hollywood is rife with, shall we say, culturally insensitive casting decisions to get stars in roles? That's well known as "whitewashing," so it get much worse than this. Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany's is the most famous and appalling example of this, I'd say. Christian Bale as Moses has been criticized, where Charlton Heston in pretty much identical casting wasn't. Times have changed.

However, here are examples of, not so much whitewashing, but roles where the actors are chosen to play roles not of their ethnicity.

  • Brad Pitt as an Irish guy Devil's Own.
  • Tom Cruise as an Irish guy in Far and Away.
  • Any movie set in ancient Greece or Rome - British folk
  • Any movie set in medieval times - British folk, or sometimes people with French accents
  • Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones..... three times!
  • Many of the cast of Walking Dead, including Andrew Lincoln, are British.
  • Alan Rickman (British) as German terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard
  • Jeremy Irons (British) as Hans Gruber's brother in Die Hard 3

However, it's called acting, so, if the actor is up for it, it's not that big a deal, as long as it is plausible. The casting of Jonathan Pryce was roundly criticized as an earlier version of whitewashing when he was cast in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. He's such a great actor, though, that he won many awards for that role. So, would it have been better if they cast an Asian in that part? From a purely entertainment perspective? Can you separate that, today, from cultural sensibilities? That makes for interesting discussion.

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    Jonathan Pryce also played the President of the United States in the G.I. Joe movies. It doesn't get more American than that, and they hired a British actor. So there. Hell, Donald Pleasence has even played the POTUS, without changing his accent at all. – John Sensebe Aug 26 '16 at 14:52
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    I feel like Tim Roth has played more parts with an American accent than he has with his native British. – djmadscribbler Aug 26 '16 at 18:49
  • Tim Roth did fantastic russian character in incredible hulk too @djmadscribbler – Vishwa Nov 13 '17 at 13:25
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Aside from the good answers from a casting point of view, you're simplifying a lot here when it comes to American vs British. The Sherlock Holmes stories took place from about 1880 to 1900. Cultural habits, accents and so on will have drastically changed even within Britain itself since then. For authenticity there's no reason to assume a British actor would do better. Sure, he may sound more British, but that's modern-day British, not Sherlock Holmes' British.

You could even go further: American Independence was 1776. This means that the stories are about as close to the point where American and British cultures started diverging as they are to modern day. Depending on how language evolved it could even be the typical modern American Accent comes closer to the 1880 British Accent than a modern British accent. I know it's unlikely and you'd need someone specialized in English language history to confirm/deny that. I just want to point out the flaw in the 'purely British' reasoning.

So, it doesn't matter, as Sherlock Holmes is a 19th century British character and there are no 19th century British people alive today to portray one.

  • Jude Law sorta went into that in one of his interviews for the movie. He actually claimed that Downey was doing a better job of being British than the actual Brits because the modern British accent has been influenced by American media. Now, I can't actually judge RDJ's accent as I'm not from the UK so who knows if that's true or if it was just Law doing the press thing. – Zessa Sep 2 '16 at 4:45
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Why did they pick Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's film or Anthony Hopkins to play Nixon and the American war hero in Legends of the Fall?

There are more cases where British actors played American roles and vice versa. Casting seems to be more focused on an actor's popularity and acting skills rather than their nationalities and accents. In addition, even though Sherlock Holmes is a purely British character, the story is internationally well-known.

One more important factor is the US market is far bigger than the UK market and as a producer, choosing an American actor for the role doesn't seem to be unreasonable.

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    I am beginning to think that British actors have played the POTUS more times than American actors have. – John Sensebe Aug 26 '16 at 14:54
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    @Rathony - Not sure Daniel Day-Lewis is the best example when talking about mere mortal human actors. If that guy had to play a role of someone from ancient history that has a now-dead language, he'd build a flux capacitor, put it in a Delorean, go back in time, live among them for a decade, only eating their foods, before coming back and playing the role authentically, which would screw whomever had to do subtitles, but there you have it. :D – PoloHoleSet Aug 26 '16 at 16:45

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