Meet the new action heroines

Angelina Jolie is the latest Hollywood actress to take on a role originally written for a man – a trend that is growing fast

Hollywood may be a man's world but there are some films that would be nothing – or at least a lot less – without a woman in the lead role. Producers of a spate of new films and television series are ditching male actors and casting women for roles originally written for men.

Angelina Jolie's latest film, Salt, will be released in the UK in August. Her character, Evelyn Salt, has to kick ass, shoot straight and ride fast motorbikes while trying to prove she's not a Russian sleeper agent. It's the kind of film you'd expect Tom Cruise to star in – and he was originally supposed to. When he dropped out, the character's name was changed from Edwin to Evelyn after Jolie expressed an interest.

Prime Suspect star and Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren has just signed up to star opposite Russell Brand in the remake of the 1981 comedy classic Arthur. In the original, Dudley Moore played a drunken playboy, and Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his part as Arthur's valet. That valet role has been rewritten as a nanny to accommodate Mirren.

On television, sci-fi fans can see the Emmy award-winning "reimagining" of Battlestar Galactica. Except the part of cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking ace pilot Lieutenant Starbuck – played by Dirk Benedict in the 1978 original – is filled by Katee Sackhoff.

Also on TV, both leading American networks, CBS and NBC, have cast Oscar-winning actresses – Kathy Bates and Sissy Spacek – in parts originally written for men in two new dramas.

Stella Bruzzi, a professor of film studies at Warwick University, said that the "androgynous woman" allowed Hollywood to address issues of sexism without actually changing its output. "There's a view that only boys and men watch films like Die Hard," she said. "It's not true, but casting a woman is intended to broaden the appeal to women and girls.

"And ever since Terminator 2, Hollywood has been attracted to the androgynous woman, which allows producers to expand female roles without actually addressing the issues that lead to accusations of sexism – that there are few decent roles for older women."

Helen Mirren

Arthur

Who better to play a drunken playboy than Russell Brand in a remake of the 1981 comedy classic? And who better to keep him in line than The Queen star Helen Mirren? Dame Helen will play a nanny, taking over Sir John Gielgud's original role?

Angelina Jolie

Salt

The Tomb Raider star gets to leap off tall buildings in this spy thriller originally intended for Tom Cruise. When Cruise dropped out, interest from Jolie – who along with Brad Pitt makes up the world's most powerful Hollywood couple – prompted a rewrite and name change for the lead character from Edwin to Evelyn.

Kathy Bates

Kindreds

David Kelley, the TV mastermind behind LA Law, wanted Bates so much for his new NBC show that he changed the script. Oscar-winner Bates, best known for smashing James Caan's ankles in 1990's Misery, plays a curmudgeonly former patents lawyer, originally intended to be a man, in this year's pilot episode.

Sigourney Weaver

Alien series

You wouldn't want to bump into an angry Ellen Ripley down a dark spaceship corridor. The then little-known Weaver says she was attracted to the role in 1979 because it was written for a man and wasn't changed.

Sissy Spacek

Untitled Medical Drama

CBS has hired its own Oscar-winning actress for its new drama in which "a mobile team of volunteer doctors led by a driven visionary travel the world helping those in need". Spacek's character is now called Adrianne instead of Adrian.

Jodie Foster

Flightplan

Foster played a widow who runs around a plane looking for her missing daughter in this 2005 thriller. Director Robert Schwentke said he filmed one shot with an actor in the leading role and realised "this is maybe [the wrong story] to do with a man – maybe we need to do this with a mother".

Lucy Liu

Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever

A revenge action flick written for two men who would spend the entire film trying to kill each other. Director Wych Kaosayananda convinced the studio it would make a better dynamic if one of the adversaries was a woman, so Liu was cast opposite Antonio Banderas in the 2002 film.

Katee Sackhoff

Battlestar Galactica

The award-winning "reimagining", now on Sky, cast a woman in Dirk Benedict's original role, retaining the hard-drinking tough-guy character but wiping out its clichés in one masterstroke.

Zhang Ziyi

Rush Hour 2

The East-meets-West cop action film series starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker was designed to clean up at the box office in 2001. Zhang Ziyi was cast as the beautiful but deadly assassin Hu Li after director Brett Ratner saw her in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and had her role rewritten and expanded.

Eva Mendes

Live

The world's one-time sexiest woman, according to Esquire magazine, produced this 2007 satire on reality television and cast herself as the creator of a Russian roulette game show. "[The part] was originally written for a man, and I changed it to a woman and got it made," she said earlier this month, commenting on the dearth of good Hollywood roles for women.

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