Casting a movie is often a tricky process. The director and casting department not only have to find talented actors who have that je ne sais quoi, that certain star quality, but who also bring the character they're playing to life. Thus far, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has been spot on, casting the impeccable Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, and of course, Chris Hemsworth as Thor. For the most recent outing, Thor: Ragnarok, currently in production, New Zealand-born director Taika Waititi pulled in some heavy hitters for certain roles, including Thor’s antagonists Skurge (Karl Urban), Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), and Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
One casting choice, however, set some comic book purists on edge – Tessa Thompson in the role of Valkyrie (a.k.a. Brunhilde in the Marvel comics realm). The director recently opened up about his rationale behind his non-traditional Norse heroine.
In a interview with CBR, Waititi explored his creative divergence from the comic book. While many Marvel devotees have learned to expect some drastic changeups as of late, others found casting the Afro-Latin-American Thompson as the traditionally blond-haired Caucasian Valkyrie unacceptable. Waititi, director of the critically acclaimed Hunt For the Wilderpeople, dismissed the character changes offhand, saying:
“People forget that. Die-hard fans will say, 'That’s not really authentic to the comics,' but as soon as they watch the movie, and they’re involved in the story, and actually what’s happening, everybody forgets. The fact that we even have to keep having this conversation is ridiculous, because we keep forgetting. Unless it’s the topic of the film, it just shouldn’t even be — what do we even care?”
The Thor 3 helmer also delved into the character, as well as what he and the Marvel casting department wanted for their Valkyrie. Waititi said:
“Right from the start we wanted to diversify the cast, and it’s hard when you’re working with Vikings. [Laughs.] You want to be more inclusive and provide a broader representation. And at that point, you have to look at the source material as a very loose inspiration. And then take it from there and go with your gut. Say, 'You know what? None of that stuff matters. Just because the character was blonde and white in the comic book. That doesn’t matter. That’s not what [that character] is about.'”
Most of all, Waititi discussed the importance of casting to fit the role:
“I think the story is king, and you want the best person for the job. And Tessa tested against — we cast a very broad net, and Tessa was the best person.”
Backlash in Hollywood over the casting of traditional versus non-traditional roles has been a hot-button issue as of late. Between people angered about whitewashing in major cinematic films like Gods of Egypt and those upset about recasting traditionally white characters as people of color, such as Idris Elba as the Gunslinger in The Dark Tower, the debate over the importance of diversity versus traditional imagery rages on. Marvel itself isn’t averse to multicultural casting (although they’ve had their hurdles). For instance, within the Thor series, Heimdall – typically a white character in the comic book – is played by the consummate thesp Idris Elba, which no one seems to mind anymore.
In the long run, the backlash over diversifying characters in Hollywood is less important than whether they nail the role, as Waititi himself points out: If the actor fits the role, run with it. It remains to be seen what Valkyrie’s precise role in Thor: Ragnarok will be. If her performances in Creed and Selma are any indication of what’s to come, though, she possesses the talent and intensity to shine as Thor's cosmic cohort and possible love interest.
Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.