In July 2008, MGM announced it had acquired and greenlit the Cabin script. The project was further developed at MGM’s subsidiary United Artists, which was being partly overseen by Tom Cruise. As a result, Goddard and Whedon found themselves in the unusual position of receiving notes from Jerry Maguire. “That was definitely one of those surreal experiences,” says Goddard. “It was wonderful. I mean, Tom Cruise — at least in my experience with him — I’ve never met a more enthusiastic, creative, and supportive person. He has that energy and to feel that energy directed towards you about you, it’s like a drug. It’s wonderful. He was so excited about the script and so complimentary and really just pointed out scenes in the movie that he felt we should bring out more. And he was totally right.”
In traditional horror-movie style, Goddard cast up-and-comers to play the five archetypal hero-victims in the film whose budget the director describes as being in the “low-to-middle” range. Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams won the role of the studious Holden; New Zealand actress Anna Hutchison secured the part of blond party girl Jules; Guiding Light graduate Kristen Connolly was hired to portray the virginal Dana; and Fran Kranz from the Whedon-created Dollhouse was cast as the conspiracy-obsessed stoner Marty.
Kranz says that the fact he was working closely with Whedon on Dollhouse at the time caused some stressful moments as the actor waited to hear if he had gotten the part in Cabin. “It was awkward,” he admits. “We had a good working relationship so I felt comfortable talking to him about mostly anything. But there was this big elephant in the room, at least for me. I would be on pins and needles whenever he walked by. At one point (Dollhouse star) Eliza Dushku asked him how Cabin in the Woods was coming and he said, ‘We’re just putting together a really second-rate cast.’ It was a joke but I was so insecure I was like, ‘Oh, s—, what’s happening?’ It totally freaked me out. Of course, he’s screwing around. But that’s how insecure actors can be.” Kranz knew that if he didn’t secure the role it would “be on my mind the rest of my life. When I read that script, being a fan of horror and just movies period, I was telling people, it’s like an action movie, it’s just epic, it’s insane. So it was like, ‘F—k, if I don’t get this part it’s going to haunt me.’”
Finally, Goddard cast the then relatively unknown Hemsworth to play the film’s jock, Curt. “We probably saw over 100 people for that role,” says the director. “I was looking for actors that can break your heart. These people need to be real, because we go to such unreal places. He just had that. As soon as he walked out of the room I said, ‘That guy’s got the job.’”
Hemsworth had previously appeared in the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek reboot — he played Kirk’s father — and the sadly underseen A Perfect Getaway. But when he auditioned for Goddard, the actor hadn’t worked for a worrying length of time. “I did Star Trek and a couple of other films and thought, ‘Okay, I’m off. This is it, I’m in the game,’” he says. “Then it was just nothing for eight, nine months. Just before that audition, I’d gotten to a place where I thought, ‘You know what? Let it go. Stop trying to control. Get rid of the desperation. Go in there and have fun and who cares?’ It was the first time I’d had an audition where I was a little more at ease with the process. It all sort of felt right. Occasionally it’s like trying on a pair of shoes, this game: ‘Oh yeah, for whatever reason, this one fits.’”
Hemsworth’s future-star status would be confirmed during the Vancouver shoot when he landed the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor. How did it happen? “Drew and Joss said to me, ‘Why the hell aren’t you playing Thor?’” Hemsworth recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I had an audition and it went nowhere.’ Joss [spoke to] Kenneth Branagh and said some great things, and that got me back in the game.’
Whedon confirms that he talked up the actor to Branagh. “I got a call from Kenneth Branagh asking about him and our experience with him,” says the Buffy creator. “I was like, ‘We love him, he’s a movie star.’” Whedon also recalls that when he got the Avengers directing gig a couple of years later he spoke with Branagh again to ask him about his experience working with Hemsworth on Thor. Was he checking to see if the actor had become an a–? “Oh, he already was,” jokes Whedon. “He’s insufferable.”
Next: “The whole studio was filled with blood.”