This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was love at first sight for Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. But was the same true for Universal Pictures and the new Fifty Shades of Grey stars, Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam?
Sources say the studio explored several other options before settling on the pair, who were announced Sept. 2 via tweets from Fifty Shades author EL James. Ryan Gosling was the original prototype for the 27-year-old billionaire with a penchant for S&M, but he was not interested. Garrett Hedlund was heavily courted by Universal, but the Tron: Legacy star passed in July because he couldn't connect with the character. Other actors in the mix included British TV star Christian Cooke.
Somewhere on the star scale in between Gosling and Cooke is Hunnam, 33, who got his first break on Judd Apatow's short-lived TV series Undeclared. More recently, he has garnered acclaim on FX's Sons of Anarchy. Still, questions remained about whether the Brit could carry a big film. In fact, his highest-profile movie -- July's Pacific Rim -- has been knocked as costing too much given its lack of stars.
Hunnam initially was reluctant to take on the role but said yes to an Aug. 23 meeting with director Sam Taylor-Johnson and producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti. Sources say the meeting convinced Hunnam, who agreed to a chemistry read with Johnson the following week. Universal then closed deals with the actors by Labor Day. The duo are signed for a trilogy.
Given the scrutiny surrounding the sexy project (Fifty Shades books have sold more than 70 million copies worldwide), the process was kept secret, with only a tiny group having read Kelly Marcel's script, including Focus Features head James Schamus, De Luca, Brunetti, James and Taylor-Johnson. (Johnson's and Hunnam's reps weren't allowed to read the script.)
Johnson, 23, best known for a short-lived Fox sitcom (Ben and Kate) and as the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, emerged as the front-runner in the past few weeks despite being the lone non-Brit among the project's principals (James, Marcel, Taylor-Johnson and Hunnam hail from the U.K.). British actress Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) drew interest as well -- insiders say Jones had the look and ability but at 30 is too old to play a 21-year-old college student. Shailene Woodley was an early favorite of James, who was heavily involved in the search, but even though Woodley wasn't afraid of the nudity in the film's explicit sex scenes, she has conflicting press obligations for the would-be franchise Divergent, which opens March 21. Universal and Focus want to begin shooting in late October in Vancouver or Los Angeles, with a release date of Aug. 1, 2014.
Alicia Vikander, Imogen Poots and Elizabeth Olsen also were considered, but sources say Johnson was a top choice for Taylor-Johnson, who got the directing job in June thanks to her test footage that blew everyone away. Still, the studio, leaning toward an unproven draw in Hunnam, had concerns that she wasn't a big enough name. Reps for the stars also were nervous. Handled correctly, Fifty Shades could catapult Johnson and Hunnam to the A-list. If it fails, it could end up like Showgirls, whose star, Elizabeth Berkley, never recovered.
Predictably, fan reaction was split. A petition on Change.org to recast the movie with Matt Bomer and Alexis Bledel generated 5,000 signatures as of Sept. 3, prompting Brunetti to defend the choices. "There is a lot that goes into casting that isn't just looks. Talent, availability, their desire to do it, chemistry with other actor, etc," Brunetti tweeted Sept. 3. "So if your favorite wasn't cast, then it is most likely due to something on that list. Keep that in mind while hating and keep perspective."