Why Did Sacha Baron Cohen (and Others) Bail on Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained?

Django Unchained is about slaves forced to fight to the death. What could possibly go wrong?

By Leslie Gornstein May 13, 2012 2:30 PMTags
Sacha Baron Cohen, Quentin TarantinoCharley Gallay/Getty Images; Weinstein Company

How many actors have dropped out of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Western, Django Unchained?
—Korper Sale, via the inbox

Right now the body count on that flick stands at five, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, depending on who to you talk to, Jonah Hill. Still in the saddle—at least, at this hour—are Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington.

Five actors in, and then out? Here's what I was able to dig up:

Forget The Dictator or Inglourious Basterds or Remember Me. Django Unchained is a movie that I guarantee will face controversy. The plot? How about an ex-slave who seeks revenge against a plantation owner, who, in turn, forces his own human chattel to battle to the death? What could possibly go wrong?

As for why so many actors have shown interest in one form or another only to drop out, most have cited "scheduling conflicts." Now, that excuse is very common, and I am told it's sometimes even true.

"Sliding schedules are a frequent reality of film production, be it a result of a lost location, an unexpected illness or other standard production delays," says producer Adam Targum of Vision Entertainment Group, a production company that has done movies with stars such as Melanie Griffith.

Cohen has described his role as a "cameo," even, and said he needed to focus on promoting The Dictator.

Now, Django Unchained has been shooting since earlier this year. And, I am told, most dropouts due to scheduling conflicts happen during preproduction, not in the middle of the big show. (Yes, there are exceptions, "particularly if there are delays in the shooting schedule that cause the actors to miss their shooting windows," entertainment attorney Jeremiah T. Reynolds of Kinsella Weitzman tells me.)

So what else might be going on? It's very possible that at least one of these actors balked at how the tone of the movie was shaping up, and things got heated.

After all, points out Ron Dolecki, attorney at Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman in Beverly Hills, there are contracts in play here, contracts that cost producers or actors money if they just walk away without good reason. If a producer is holding up his end of the deal and an actor walks, "the more likely scenario is that the actor was fired.

"Such can occur because of personality conflicts, the actor's conduct or creative differences," Dolecki tells me.

Whatever is going on out there in Tarantino's Wild West, it's a odd phenomenon.

"Multiple defections in a single project are rare," says Aspen Hughes of V1 Entertainment Films. "If it's in preproduction and talent drops out, it's normally not too big a deal, but during shooting, it can throw off all scheduling for days or even weeks, which can jeopardize the entire project."

Maybe Tarantino should just have stuck with Nazis instead?