Paul Verhoeven Used An Unorthodox Method For Casting Total Recall

While "Starship Troopers" may have solidified Paul Verhoeven's status as a cinematic satirist, and I unashamedly have a bias for "RoboCop" because it's set in my hometown of Detroit, "Total Recall" certainly ranks as one of the director's finest works. The 1990 science fiction action film is one of those ahead-of-its-time movies that force you to put on your thinking cap. Even after many watches, I'm still not sure if the plot is real or just one big exhilarating dream. The unorthodox movie is rivaled only by Verhoeven's unorthodox casting method.

In the movie, which is set in the year 2084, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Doug Quaid, a bored construction worker on Earth who yearns to travel to Mars. Quaid learns that he's a secret agent for the tyrannical government led by Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) on the now-colonized planet; Quaid had willingly allowed his memory to be erased and taken a new identity as part of Cohaagen's plan to kill the leader of the rebel fighters. When Quaid gets back to Mars to take down Cohaagen, he finds a tour guide and ally in a jolly cab driver who has five kids to feed: "Benny's the name! Benny!"

As Quaid discovers, Benny — played by Mel Johnson Jr. — isn't just a cabbie looking for honest work to support his offspring. He's a mole for the government and turns on Quaid after Quaid leads him to the leader of the resisters. It's an unexpected plot twist that makes our protagonist's quest to end the tyrannical government almost impossible. Because of this, Benny plays an important role in the movie; so important that Verhoeven delegated the character's casting to ... his teenage daughters. 

Paul Verhoeven wanted Total Recall to appeal to the youth

According to a 2020 interview with SYFY Wire, Mel Johnson Jr. said he walked into his audition for the role of Benny unaware that Paul Verhoeven was the director. He got the part, and when he got on his flight to Mexico City where the "Total Recall" crew built Mars on Earth – without any CGI – he was unaware of who gave him the role. "These two teenage girls walk down the aisle, and they look at me and they say, 'Oh, you're playing Benny,'" he said. "'We're Paul Verhoeven's daughters, and we picked you,' And I went, 'What?!'"

Verhoeven wanted the movie to reach a younger audience, so he had his daughters, Claudia and Helen, assist him. The pair watched the screen tests for all the Benny hopefuls and concluded that Johnson Jr. was their guy. Without knowing all the other actors who auditioned for the role, I will say that Claudia and Helen made the right choice. Johnson Jr. played his role as the weaseling snake so well. He really suckers you in with his giant smile. 

Many fans are waiting for a follow-up, if you don't count the 2012 reboot with Colin Farrell, and we nearly saw a "Total Recall" sequel. Until Verhoeven announces his retirement, I'll continue to hold out hope. If a "Total Recall 2" does happen, don't be surprised if Verhoeven designates casting duties to more teenagers.