[UPDATE: We now have information about how Russell will be "replaced."]
Filming on Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is already well-underway - and yet, we've only just received word that neither Sacha Baron Cohen nor Kurt Russell will be appearing in the spaghetti western throwback after all.
Cohen, whose role in Django was always going to be a limited one, is already on the record as saying that his press tour duties for The Dictator prevented him from appearing in Tarantino's new project; however, an official reason for Russell's departure has yet to be announced. It also stands to mention that Russell was the replacement for Kevin Costner, who dropped out of Django early on during pre-production.
The news about Cohen leaving Django Unchained was made known by the actor, during an interview with Howard Stern (hat tip to HitFix for that tidbit). As the Oscar-nominated performance artist put it, his part was always tantamount to that of a cameo - where he would have portrayed a gambler named Scotty Harmony, who purchases Django's enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and takes her as a companion. So, all in all, it's a small loss.
Russell dropping the role of Ace Woody (as first reported by Variety's Jeff Sneider), though, is a bigger deal. That character, who trains male slaves for death match battles meant to entertain paying white patrons in Django Unchained, has prompted comparisons to Christoph Waltz' sadistic Nazi from Inglourious Bastards; moreover, the way Django deals with the issue of slavery in general has been described as unprecedented (for a Hollywood western, that is).
Due to Tarantino's ballsy approach to revisiting such a dark chapter in U.S. history, there's been speculation that many of the people who've passed on Django - including, Russell, Cohen, Costner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and even Jonah Hill - ultimately balked at the subject matter. Of course, with the exception of Russell, all of those actors have pretty solid alibis (namely, they've been busier than usual of late).
Whatever the real reason behind Russell's departure, it's the mixture of Sergio Leone western and blaxploitation tropes present in Django Unchained that has so many film geeks psyched to see Tarantino's latest creation. The filmmaker's pastiche style of pulpy storytelling can be pretty divisive at times (usually, earning more love than hate), but it's certainly no longer unexpected, at this stage in his career.
Despite the casting setbacks, Django Unchained remains scheduled for a December 25th, 2012 theatrical release date in the U.S. We will let you know if that changes - along with any additional information about who is replacing Cohen and Russell.
UPDATE: AICN says that the Ace Woody character has essentially been merged with the "equally nasty" Billy Crash, who is being played by fan-favorite Walton Goggins (Justified). How's that for making the best out of a rough situation?