Khan roulette (from left): Ricardo Montalbán, Benicio del Toro, Benedict Cumberbatch (Everett/Getty/Paramount)
When J.J. Abrams started casting the villain role for "Star Trek Into Darkness," he was looking almost exclusively at actors of Latin descent.
Why, you ask?
Well, Abrams himself admitted early in the film's development that he was thinking seriously about adding to the mix Khan Noonien Singh – aka the guy who royally ticks off Captain Kirk in the 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." In it, Khan is played by a Latin actor – the late Ricardo Montalbán – also known for his leading role in the long-running '70s and '80s television show "Fantasy Island." (Fun fact: Montalbán first played Khan in a 1967 television episode of "Star Trek" called "Space Seed.")
When it came to looking for the right actor to carry the torch first lit by Montalbán, it makes sense that Abrams sought someone who could pull off Khan's Latin accent from the original series.
Abrams considered Édgar Ramirez ("Zero Dark Thirty," "The Bourne Ultimatum"), Jordi Mollà ("Blow," "Colombiana"), and several others. "We were looking for the right actor. We met a lot of people," Abrams told Yahoo! Movies during a recent interview.
Eventually the mega director locked in on Benicio del Toro. And the Internet became abuzz. The "Traffic" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" actor, who is known for his dark intensity onscreen, was starting to spark excitement among fans. This guy might be the perfect choice for Khan.
Del Toro had the bad-guy role clinched, but, to the disappointment of observers, he turned down the role. The 46-year-old actor, originally from Puerto Rico, walked away from the highly anticipated Abrams project when his pay couldn't be agreed upon, according to Vulture.
Back to square one.
This apparently gave Abrams time to expand his thinking on the possibilities of his villain.
Enter Damon Lindelof – Abrams's longtime collaborator and "Lost" television show co-creator.
"Damon Lindelof said, 'You should check out "Sherlock."' I watched 'Sherlock' [and] he was just brilliant," Abrams remembers of Benedict Cumberbatch's performance on the BBC show.
With the "Into Darkness" film shoot just a couple of months away, Cumberbatch was officially made part of the cast. His iPhone audition was just a formality, Abrams has said – his work on "Sherlock" all but sealed the deal.
Once the 36-year-old, new "Star Trek" villain was on set, he upped everyone's game, according to Abrams. "He is literally one of the best actors I have ever seen," the new "Star Wars" director gushed to us.
"He is incredible and terrifying and oddly sympathetic in this movie," said the 46-year-old director-producer extraordinaire of Cumberbatch. "His performance, his physicality – just everything blew me away."
Unlike 'Wrath of Khan,' the villain gets on board the Enterprise in 'Into Darkness' (Photo: Paramount)
The film and its very British villain make anew several moments from the original "Wrath of Khan." (Spoiler alert!) For one, Spock says (in both films), "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." The main difference is that this time, he doesn't die at the hands of Khan. (Well, not Khan's literal hands – Montalbán's Khan kept a safe distance from the USS Enterprise snug in his own spaceship throughout the original film. He and Kirk are never actually in the same place, and only speak to each other on video screens. Conversely, Cumberbatch totally hangs out on the Enterprise in "Into Darkness.")
It's no secret that Dr. Carol Marcus is in both films – but the huge revelation about her and Kirk's lovechild is not really suggested in the Abrams reboot. It is a parallel universe that he is depicting, after all. He can do whatever he wants.
Finally, in a major role reversal from "Wrath of Khan," Chris Pine's Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock touch their hands to the glass as one of them dies – but this time it's Kirk who gets the short end of that stick. And it's Spock this time who furiously yells, "Khaaaan!!!"
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