While Burton had previously worked with cult figures like Pee-Wee Herman, his two “Batman” films were his only experience with an A-list cast. He admitted the idea was appealing:
“I really wanted to try something different. The only time I had ventured into bringing together several high-profile stars was for the Batman movies and here I wanted to repeat this experience on an even bigger scale. There are more than twenty lead roles in ‘Mars Attacks!’ so it was quite a challenge for me to put together this cast.”
First, Burton cast his then-girlfriend, model Lisa Marie, as a Martian assassin. (Marie, who also portrayed Vampira in “Ed Wood,” worked with a movement coach to perform her character’s ethereal, undulating walk.) Then Burton heard back from Nicholson, who definitely wanted to participate. Indeed, Nicholson was so pleased with the script, he couldn’t pick just one part he wanted to play. As Burton recalled:
“I remember that at first Jack wanted to create a multi-role tour de force performance. When I asked him which part he wanted to play, he replied, ‘How ’bout ALL of them?’ This is how we developed the two characters for Jack: the one of the President and the one of this decadent Las Vegas mogul trying to set up a new hotel franchise with a Martian theme. There is no better actor to go up against the Martians than Jack. I was very lucky. I enjoy seeing someone who is really strong at what they do and who just goes for it. Jack is willing to do anything, no matter how crazy it seems. He’s the greatest and to see him in two parts is amazing.”
Eschewing the “inspiring” presidential character played by Bill Pullman in “Independence Day” — released only five months before “Mars Attacks!” — Nicholson played a more sardonic leader who would eventually come to his wits’ end trying to stop the unstoppable Martian menace. (Yeah, he dies.) For balance, Nicholson also played Art Land, a greasy, money-grubbing real estate hustler who is trying to open a space-themed hotel in Las Vegas. This was likely a spoof of The Stratosphere Hotel (now called — eye roll – The Strat), a real Las Vegas hotel that opened in April of 1996.