It’s often the case that producers of big-budget action and adventure movies look to cast at least one much-venerated actor (more often than not, a star of the British stage) to lend their project some much-needed gravitas.
The Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi, for instance, appears as the head of a bloodline of vampires in 2006’s Underworld: Evolution. Dame Judi Dench was cast opposite Vin Diesel in 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel to sci-fi horror Pitch Black.
And, perhaps most peculiar of all, in 1993, Sir Nigel Hawthorne—one of Britain’s most respected stage actors, with 45 years of theatrical experience behind him—was plucked from relative obscurity in the US to be cast opposite Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man.
Hawthorne’s somewhat unlikely appearance in the movie, however, was later revealed to be part of a covert quid pro quo deal.
For four years before Demolition Man, Hawthorne had been playing the title role in a play, The Madness of George III, on the London stage, earning himself the 1992 Olivier Award for Actor of the Year for his performance along the way. In that time, he had all but made the role his own and was keen to see the play leap to the silver screen.
At that time, however, Hawthorne had only ever appeared in one Hollywood movie (1982’s Firefox, opposite Clint Eastwood), and his relative inexperience was beginning to cost him: despite winning a Tony Award for his performance in Shadowlands, for instance, it was Antony Hopkins who landed the lead role when the play was adapted for cinema in 1993.
Clearly, if Hawthorne were to see his role of George III through to the big screen, he would have to earn his stripes in Hollywood first—and with that in mind, he accepted his supporting role in Demolition Man.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experience doesn’t seem to have been a particularly happy one. “I played the governor of the Los Angeles penitentiary,” Hawthorne told the LA Times in 1995—adding, somewhat diplomatically, that his time on the set of an action movie, “could have been a richer experience.” What’s more, right up until his death in 2001, Hawthorne claimed to have never actually watched the film.
Nevertheless, the experience paid off: the movie of The Madness of King George—the play’s title changed for the big screen, allegedly to avoid audiences expecting it to be the third film in a series! —was released to rave reviews in 1994, and went on to earn Hawthorne a Best Actor Oscar nomination.