How Frances McDormand Beat Out Julia Roberts For Her Darkman Role

Sam Raimi's 1990 film "Darkman" may be classified as a superhero film, but it bears just as much genre resemblance to a 1930s Universal monster movie. The titular Darkman, Dr. Westlake (Liam Neeson), barely survives and explosion and facial acid bath, leaving only a small fraction of his skin left unburned. Fleeing the hospital, sans a lot of his face, Dr. Westlake begins operating out of a dank basement, working to construct a mask of synthetic skin that will allow him to appear as his did prior to the accident. Synthetic skin, you see was his field of expertise. His realistic mask, however, begins to melt and degrade if it's in direct sunlight for too long, hence his need to be a Darkman. 

The aforementioned explosion/acid bath was done by goons working for the crime boss Robert G. Durant (an excellent Larry Drake) who was looking for some incriminating documents uncovered by Dr. Westlake's girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). McDormand, it should be noted, had previously worked with Raimi on the 1985 film "Crimewave," and was also married to Joel Coen, a friend of Raimi's and the co-writer of "Crimewave." The connection between Raimi, McDormand, and the Coens goes back many years. McDormand wasn't so enamored of Julie as a character, however, once calling her "the only bimbo I've ever played." 

In a 30th anniversary retrospective in the Hollywood Reporter, McDormand and casting director Nancy Nayor recall the web of personal connections that led McDormand to playing Julie, and the personal reasons that caused a pre-"Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts to nearly take, and then turn down the role.

Neeson and Roberts

Joel Coen and McDormand weren't just frequent collaborators of Raimi's. They were all roommates. As such, when Raimi landed the job directing "Darkman," thought of the person he lived with first. To McDormand's recollection, "At the time, I had been sharing a house in Los Angeles with Sam, and Joel and Ethan Coen. When the project came up, Sam was very influential in getting me an audition." 

According to Nayor, the studio was pushing for Julia Roberts for the role, as she was rising quickly in the Hollywood firmament due to her recent appearances in "Mystic Pizza" and "Steel Magnolias." The studio also wanted Kelly Lynch, who was then just coming off of Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy." Roberts seemed like the more logical choice, however, as she and the already-cast Neeson had already worked together on the 1988 film "Satisfaction," a.k.a. "Girls of Summer" starring Justine Bateman. According to Irish Central, Neeson and Roberts also briefly "had a passionate love affair" on the set of that film, when he was 35 and she was 19. Although they had broken up by 1990, the two still auditioned very well. 

Perhaps too well. According to Nayor, Roberts' agent put the kibosh on things. She said: 

"[Roberts] and Liam had dated briefly and were broken up. When they read the audition scene together, both actors had tears in their eyes. It was so intimate. Right after, her agent called and said she felt it might be better if she was taken out of consideration. I think she felt it would just be too awkward for them to work together again so soon under the circumstances."

Roberts went on to make "Pretty Woman" instead. 

The joy of socks

Despite what the Nayor and Roberts' agent had to say, McDormand recalls having a great deal of chemistry with Neeson. She also recalled that, for their love scenes, McDormand pushed for a fun, small character detail that Raimi didn't necessarily approve of, but allowed for a deeper level of intimacy between Julie and Dr. Westlake. She recalled:

"I think Liam had a lot to do with helping me get cast. We had a very good time together in the audition. I remember for the intimate scene being attached to the idea of making love with my socks on. I felt that was a really important element of the comfortable relationship. Sam said, 'I am not sure about the socks,' and I said, 'I'm wearing the socks. I am wearing the socks.'" 

McDormand was wisely heeded. Neither she nor Neeson would appear in further Raimi films, but the director would make a cameo appearance in the Coens' "The Hudsucker Proxy" as a favor after the brothers appeared very briefly in "Darkman." If you pay close attention to the yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88 (Raimi's car that appears in all his films), one can briefly see the Coens inside. 

The most notable connection between Raimi and the Coen is, of course, actor Bruce Campbell, who has appeared in many of the collected filmmakers' works. Campbell cameoed in "Darkman" as, well, Darkman, at the end when Liam Neeson puts on the face of another man. He also appeared briefly in "Fargo" and in "The Hudsucker Proxy." The filmmakers were careful to give one another constant legs up. Next up, Raimi will direct a stark Shakespeare adaptation, and Joel Coen will make a "Doctor Strange" sequel