The Saga Behind Casting 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

fifty shades
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, cast members Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson and author E L James arrive for the British premiere of the movie 'Fifty Shades of Grey' in London, February 12, 2015. Paul Hackett/Reuters

By the end of 2013, the saga surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey's casting was almost as much a pop-culture lightning rod as the book itself. Since the film version of E L James's phenomenon was announced, fans of the franchise waited with bated breath to see who would be the on-screen manifestations of their favorite characters.

Tens of thousands of people even attempted to assert their will over the casting process with petitions and agitation. But the excitement wasn't limited to readers; some of Hollywood's most recognizable names made their interest in the project known immediately. So many names ended up in play for the roles of Christian and Anastasia that casting the film became a remarkable ordeal.

As early as February 2013, Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford publicly stated he'd love to be involved with the film, and though he didn't specifically say he was aiming for the role of Christian Grey, his fans immediately took up the mantle of support.

In April, The Vampire Diaries' Ian Somerhalder threw his hat into the ring, saying on On Air With Ryan Seacrest that being cast "would be an incredible thing. Hopefully that could pan out." By April 17, fans had created a "trailer" for a version of Fifty Shades starring Somerhalder and Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel—the video garnered nearly 1 million views. Soon, True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård was on the air with Access Hollywood saying he was "born to play" Christian Grey.

The same month, Universal Studios and Focus Features stoked the fire by hiring Academy Award nominee Gus Van Sant to direct a screen test of the scene in which Anastasia loses her virginity to Christian.

In the Van Sant scene, Alex Pettyfer of Magic Mike reportedly played Christian in an unsuccessful attempt to get the famed director involved on a permanent basis. A-listers Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam were front-runners in the ongoing saga of casting, despite lingering fan support for other candidates. Backing for White Collar's Matt Bomer was so strong—even after Hunnam had been officially cast—that a petition started by fans to cast him garnered almost 100,000 signatures. Though Bomer never actually expressed his interest in the role, he nevertheless publicly voiced his thanks. "I'm so grateful for the fans and touched," said Bomer, who also gave his support to the film's recently announced stars. "I'm looking forward to seeing the movie with Charlie [Hunnam] and Dakota [Johnson]."

Casting Dakota Johnson—daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith and best known for minor but scene-stealing roles in 21 Jump Street and The Social Network—as the virginal college student Anastasia Steele was a long process in itself. Despite early rumors that Emma Watson was being considered, Watson tweeted on March 17, 2013 in no uncertain terms that she would not be involved with the project. "Who here actually thinks I would do 50 Shades of Grey as a movie? Like really. For real. In real life," the Harry Potter star wrote.

Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale auditioned, as did The Carrie Diaries' Chloe Bridges, but neither was quite prepared to tackle the subject matter. Hale said the audition made her "uncomfortable," and Bridges didn't mince words with Cosmopolitan when asked why she balked at the audition.

"The scene was, like, the girl telling her friends about some sexcapade she had," explained Bridges. "But it goes into extreme detail and uses the word 'sperm' a couple times. I was like, 'I don't know, guys, I have to go home to my grandparent's house in a few months at Christmas, I don't know if I can do this.'"

In September 2013, E L James took to Twitter to officially announce Dakota Johnson's casting alongside Charlie Hunnam, and Fifty Shades' vocal fandom flooded the Internet with calls for Hunnam's replacement, which Hunnam seemed to take in stride. However, on October 12, he announced he wouldn't be appearing in the film after all, citing a host of problems, not least of which was the sudden lifestyle change that being involved with a global phenomenon presented.

Only 11 days after Hunnam's exit, however, Once Upon a Time's Jamie Dornan was announced as the new Christian Grey. On Thursday, October 24, Dornan's Twitter feed ballooned to 95,000 followers, and celebrity fans of the books were announcing their newfound love of the Irish actor. By November, the two stars had appeared in character on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and the long, arduous process finally came to an end after one of the most involved castings in movie history.

This article appears in the Newsweek's new book, "Fifty Shades Phenomenon: Exploring a Sexual Revolution," by Issue Editor Courtney Kerrigan and Executive Editor Jeff Ashworth of Topix Media Lab.