Zac Efron Turning Down Barbarian Made Director Zach Cregger Rethink The Character Of AJ

The people have spoken: "Barbarian" is an absolute riot. It's the kind of hit horror film that people should be rushing to see in theaters before Twitter or annoying friends can ruin the twists and turns that the trailer so stealthily conceals. But before buying those tickets, you might want to reconsider your upcoming AirBnB booking, because "Barbarian" takes a look at the horrors that may be lurking beneath a seemingly-normal rental home — a concept that remains haunting long after you've left the theater.

The film begins with an unfortunate evening in the life of Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young woman traveling to Detroit for a job interview and staying in a rented home rather than an expensive hotel. But what should be another forgettable night ends up feeling like, well, a horror movie! When she drives to her rental on a stormy evening, Tess discovers that someone is already staying the night there. Tess later learns that a double booking is the least of her worries, as she realizes that something much more sinister is going on in the house. 

Along with this special tinge of AirBnB horror, writer-director Zach Cregger (via Where Is The Buzz) has said that his idea for the film was centered around "women listening to that little voice inside their head, and choosing not to ignore "red flags." Indeed, red flags recur throughout the film, especially as Tess falls down the rabbit hole of the house's mystery and encounters other characters. Among them is AJ, a mysterious character played by Justin Long, who is only glimpsed in the trailer.

By turning down Barbarian, Zac Efron changed the movie

That central theme of red flags was always a guiding element of the film, but during a chat with Screen Rant, Cregger explained that AJ's character was actually changed by the casting process and, in the end, became a much better fit for that theme. Cregger wrote the role with Zac Efron in mind but when the actor turned down the movie, it gave him the chance to rethink AJ's role in the film:

"I wrote this guy, [and] I think we offered it initially to Zac Efron, because I was thinking I want to go for some beefcake kind of himbo. No diss on Zac Efron, but that's the way that he's portrayed himself a lot. I was just thinking jawbone, biceps, and a haircut. Then he said no, which is why I'm talking so much s*** on him. [Laughs] No, he's great. I wanted him to do the movie. But when he passed, I had time to think. We were putting a list together of who to go out to, and I just realized I'd been thinking about the role all wrong..."

Instead of going the himbo route with the "Baywatch" and "Neighbors" actor, Cregger decided that AJ would be better suited by a "Tom Hanks kind of a guy." After giving it some thought, he decided: "Who's Tom Hanks? Justin Long is Tom Hanks. Let's do that.'"

Barbarian uses casting to its advantage

The statement "Justin Long is Tom Hanks" might raise a few eyebrows out of context, but once you've seen "Barbarian," then Cregger's line of thinking really falls into place. The director also spoke about this elsewhere with Where Is The Buzz TV, where he explained:

"That character on the page is really vile and I think I'd just been thinking, who can play a really good villain ... But as I was going along with the process, I realized that Justin Long is such a warm and disarming and charming, lovable presence onscreen. And that is so much more engaging to me, to have someone with that sort of palette playing a vile character."

Justin Long is the kind of character actor that we're used to seeing in funny, approachable roles. "Barbarian" leans into that charisma to take his character in a dangerously toxic direction. It's brilliant, and it's not even the only bit of clever meta-casting that "Barbarian" employs.

It's certainly not a coincidence that when Tess arrives at her AirBnB to discover someone already staying there, the stranger she considers spending a night alone with is played by Bill Skarsgård aka Pennywise The Dancing Clown. He might be a charming stranger, but something about knowing Skarsgård from prior roles helps to put the audience on edge. Of the many levels that "Barbarian" works on, the casting decisions are one of the cleverest.

"Barbarian" is now playing in theaters.