Based on a 2013 novel of the same name by retired CIA operative Jason Matthews. Before the novel was even finished, Matthews sold the film rights for a seven figure sum. The novel is the first book in a trilogy, with the others being Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate.
To prepare for the role, Jennifer Lawrence did ballet and practiced a Russian accent for four months, spending three hours a day working with the Hollywood ballet instructor Kurt Froman. She said it was difficult because she had never wanted to dance ballet.
When the project was announced in 2013, Darren Aronofsky was in talks to direct it. Aronofsky dropped out in 2014, and in the same year, David Fincher and Rooney Mara were in talks to direct and star in the film, respectively. In July 2015, it was reported that Francis Lawrence was in talks to direct the film. In September 2015, Jennifer Lawrence was announced in the lead role with Francis Lawrence as the director.
The Russian characters are played by American, British, Belgian, Dutch, German, Ukrainian and Polish actors. The main American character in the movie (Nate Nash), is played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton.
Director Francis Lawrence shared his feelings on the comparisons between Red Sparrow and Black Widow from the Marvel comic books, played in the MCU by Scarlett Johansson: "There's people who think it's very similar to the Black Widow story. This is not pulled from Black Widow, this is pulled from Red Sparrow, you know, it's written by a guy who was in the CIA. It's like, his references are coming from a very, very different place from that. But there'll always be that. People like to put things in boxes, and I think it's a really unique film. This is a thriller, it's not action, again it's not gadgetry. It's a hard-R. There's violence, it's a bit perverse, it's suspenseful, a lot of intrigue. It's a different kind of spy film."
Critics and the audience have noted that Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts bears a striking resemblance to Russian president Vladimir Putin in the movie. But according to director Francis Lawrence, Schoenaerts was not intentionally cast due to his resemblance to Putin, and the director only realized the similarity between them on set. Schoenaerts' resemblance to Putin had been noted previously when he acted on films like Suite Française (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015).
The plot-line is similar to the TV movie Secret Weapons (1985), made during the Cold War era. Linda Hamilton played the 'Dominika Egorova' character and Sally Kellerman played the 'Matron' character. Several scenes at the school are very similar.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is a key figure in the book in which the movie is based on. However, Fox decided to cut him out of the film adaptation. When Fox exec Emma Watts optioned the book in 2013, she shifted the story from modern-day Russia to 1970s Budapest, nominally to give it a more "timeless" feel - and though Putin has a key role in the book, he was dropped. Then, after Frances Lawrence came aboard as director, Watts shifted the story back to the present day. Despite the explosion of interest in the Kremlin following the (2016) U.S. election, Putin's character was not restored. Insiders describe the moves as "creative choices," but by avoiding Putin, Fox also is steering clear of any Russian hackers who might protest.