Casting Call

Five Actors Who Should Play Gordon Freeman in A Half-Life Movie


In this series, we speculate on what actors would be the perfect choice to play an upcoming character, or what type of character a particular actor is best suited for. Feel free to unilaterally agree with all our picks voice your opinion in the comments!

With the barest of rumors that Half-Life 3 might exist someday in the near future (a semi-annual occurrence for those of us still looking for it), I started to wonder why we’ve never seen a Half-Life movie or show. Surely there’s more of a built-in audience and a fountain of narrative material for Valve’s once-flagship franchise than for some of the other gaming properties that have crossed over into Hollywood territory… glaring at you over there, Need For Speed.

I have thought for years that Half-Life might do better as a short-run TV series, perhaps ten episodes per season. The games always felt episodic even before they became so literally, due to the big set-piece moments and distinct environment changes in between chapters. In tone, it would fall somewhere in between “The Walking Dead” and the CW’s slew of DC comics shows, what with the relentless amount of danger and hopelessness mixing with a distinct mythology and iconography being adapted for newcomers.

But the obvious question is who would play that bastion of human survival, Dr. Gordon Freeman? Naturally, he probably couldn’t remain silent through the run of a show or movie. I know that disappoints fans, but it’s just not possible for the lead character to be mute. So Gordon’s personality should be extrapolated from the NPC reactions to the player: Gordon is curious to an almost-hazardous extent. He’s bookish, but deceptively rugged and resourceful. And though he’s probably more at home in a lab coat jotting down figures, he cuts an impressive figure in that orange hazard suit. Oh, and according to in-game exposition he’s supposed to be 27 years old, but I think we can all agree that this should be negotiable.

Here are my personal picks…

Edward Norton 2012

1. Edward Norton

The intelligence of a particle physics professor, the physicality of a crowbar-wielding resistance leader, and perhaps the ability to play a haunted survivor of a massive accidental massacre (if we get past the events of the first game). Norton has all of this. He’s a bit older than the character, but he’s also one of those Hollywood folks who can age up or down to an extent.

As we’ve seen in the 2008 Incredible Hulk as well as American History X, Norton can transform. That’s not a bad joke about Bruce Banner; I’m saying that Norton can play a character through different prisms and show us how a person changes after extraordinary circumstances. Hence, as Freeman we can watch a timid MIT graduate become the most lethal alien-killer since Duke Nukem and it would seem believable.

Realistically, I don’t think Norton would do a video game movie. After his “disagreements” with Marvel Studios and his notable struggle with Paramount over a multi-film contract, it’s likely he’d never sign on for anything involving sequels. But fans of his work like me can certainly dream.

Josh Hartnett SDCC 2014

2. Josh Hartnett

Oh, I know there are haters. And in many cases, they are justified. But Hartnett has been putting in some crackerjack work on Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” and has had a realistic amount of time removed from his heartthrob status of 2001 or so. He’s also of the correct career profile for a big budget action film based on a beloved property. A studio would back that movie for $40 million, provided a name director with a recent hit was involved.

In terms of performance, Hartnett would more than likely succeed at playing up Freeman’s need to study and poke at the unknown. The goofier “don’t touch that button!” moments from the games would work in his hands, and of course he’d be very at home for the action sequences. His days of Black Hawk Down and Hollywood Homicide have prepared him for fight choreography. His character from The Faculty isn’t too far removed from Freeman, either.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt 2013

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Okay, here’s the happy medium between the last two picks. He’s intelligent. He’s got boyish good looks. He can look cool in that crazy costume. And he’s really popular with the kids these days. Moreover, JGL has injected all his characters with at least a modicum of depth. We know from the fantastic Brick that he can convey an ocean of emotion non-verbally. We know from 500 Days of Summer that he can navigate the clunkiest of verbose Kevin Smith-style dialogue, and we know from Looper that he is perfectly believable as a stoic killing machine.

I feel that Gordon-Levitt’s Gordon Freeman would be the most believable as the idealist fighting the Combine and the totalitarian regime found in Half-Life 2. There’s something inherently inspiring and heroic about him. And though the game slides into humor and melodrama and balls-to-the-wall action without missing a beat, I think he could pull it off. Heck, if the Half-Life franchise decided to become a musical midway through, Joseph Gordon-Levitt would succeed in adapting his performance.

Oscar Isaac by Gage Skidmore

4. Oscar Isaac

The newest X-Wing hotshot has some measure of brooding genius persona about him. And that has lots to do with his turn in Ex Machina as an eccentric billionaire inventor, as well as his tormented turn as folk musician Llewyn Davis in that Coen Brothers picture. While I admit I’d be dubious if Josh Hartnett told me he discovered a resonance cascade between dimensions, Isaac could easily get me to buy into that gibberish.

I feel that the stoicism that Freeman is saddled with due to his lack of speech is something that Isaac could still retain in the role, even with dialogue. In Drive he plays a reluctantly relapsed criminal and the brooding conflict between his family and his career as a thug is something that could easily apply to the scientist forced into being an action hero. In a way, that seems to be the theme of Isaac’s career: the compartmentalized, nuanced actor pushed into the sci-fi action role.

Jamie Bell by Gage Skidmore

5. Jamie Bell

I think I’m unconsciously on a crusade to save all the good actors who were wasted in 2015’s Fantastic Four. And if ever that movie squandered a great performer, it did with Bell when he was buried under CGI rock. The Adventures of Tintin and Billy Elliot actor has a Christian Bale-esque determination to physically become his characters, and meanwhile has always maintained a quiet cunning that has served him well on “Turn” and in Snowpiercer. What’s more, he’s actually age-appropriate for the character and could sign on for sequels. Trust me, he’s not going to be needed for another Fantastic Four.

Bell might be the best pick if this project were a high-concept television format. Imagine the slow burn of pale, blade-faced Bell going from office intrigue leading up to the lab accident, then spending several episodes conserving pistol ammo and running for his life. Then, for the last few episodes he comes out swinging and goes full-McClane on those alien jerks.

AMC and HBO are pretty set for genre material. But Starz and FX, you should give me and Bell a call…

Editor’s note: I’d love to see either Hugh Laurie or Adam Savage play Gordon Freeman, but that’s mostly out of a love for the actors and a vague physical resemblance.

Agree? Disagree? More ideas? Let us know in the comments.


About the author

Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.