Actors Who Turned Down Major Movie Roles
John Travolta as Forrest Gump? It could've happened!
How would you feel about “Edward Scissorhands” without Johnny Depp? Or “Legally Blonde” without Reese Witherspoon? Well, it could have happened.
A huge buzz usually follows the official announcement about a movie’s cast. What’s not often talked about is the actors who turn roles down — often roles that end up being career-makers.
Here are some of the actors who’ve turned down major movie roles.
Leonardo DiCaprio — ‘Brokeback Mountain’
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s hit romantic drama “Brokeback Mountain,” but when the project was in its early stages, then-director Gus Van Sant approached several big stars to take the lead roles.
“Nobody wanted to do it,” Van Sant told IndieWire. “I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no.”
Heath Ledger eventually signed up to play farmer Ennis Del Mar — and received an Oscar for his performance — while his love interest Jack Twist was played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
John Lithgow — ‘Batman’
Jack Nicholson has John Lithgow to thank for his role as The Joker — and the $100 million it earned him in profit participation. Lithgow was actually in the frame to play Batman’s nemesis twice, first in a Joe Dante film that never saw the light of day, then again in Tim Burton’s 1989 box-office hit.
“My worst audition was for Tim Burton for ‘Batman,'” Lithgow revealed in 2017. “I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded.”
Emma Watson — ‘La La Land’
Emma Stone won an Oscar — and made it onto the highest-paid actresses list — for “La La Land,” but it was another Emma who was originally lined up to play Mia in the musical extravaganza. The director Damien Chazelle revealed that at one point, Emma Watson was attached to the role. But she turned it down to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” saying in an interview on British TV, “With a movie like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ it’s like three months prep, it’s like three or four months shooting, it’s in the U.K. I had to be there to do that and, as I was saying before, it’s like you can’t half-arse a project like this, you know, you’re in or you’re out.”
Watson to Stone wasn’t the only cast change — Miles Teller of “Whiplash” was eventually replaced by Ryan Gosling in the role of Sebastian.
Sean Connery — ‘Lord of the Rings’
Can you imagine Tolkien’s leader of the Fellowship of the Rings with a Scottish accent? That may well have been the case if Sean Connery had taken the role for the first “Lord of the Rings” movie. Reportedly, Connery turned down the role because he just couldn’t get his head around it.
“I never understood it,” he said. “I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it.” Ian McKellen ended up playing the bearded wizard, earning an Oscar nomination for his efforts.
Tom Cruise — ‘Edward Scissorhands’
Actors have various reasons for turning down movie roles. For Tim Burton’s 1990 dark fantasy “Edward Scissorhands,” Tom Cruise couldn’t play the titular role because the director couldn’t answer certain questions about the role.
“[He] wanted to know how Edward went to the bathroom,” the film’s screenwriter Caroline Thompson told Dazed. “He was asking the kind of questions about the character that can’t be asked for this character! Tom Cruise was certainly unwilling to be in the movie without those questions being answered.”
In the end, it all worked out for the best: Johnny Depp played the boy with scissors for hands opposite his off-screen love Winona Ryder, and a cult classic was made.
Christina Applegate — ‘Legally Blonde’
Before Reese Witherspoon signed up to play Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” various other actresses were considered for the part, including Christina Applegate. Applegate turned down the movie role because she was scared of getting pigeonholed as a scattered blonde after also playing one in “Married with Children.” The actress later jokingly acknowledged that passing on the role that earned Witherspoon a Golden Globe nomination may not have been her best decision.
“I don’t regret it because Reese Witherspoon did a much better job than I ever could … and she has now way more money than I do and way more success. And so why would I even regret that?” she deadpanned on “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.”
John Travolta — ‘Forrest Gump’
Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump is Tom Hanks. But another actor was offered the title role in the 1994 hit movie — John Travolta. Travolta turned it down to make “Pulp Fiction” instead, and in a bizarre twist, both movies ended up competing for Best Picture at the 1995 Oscars, while Hanks and Travolta were both nominated for Best Actor. In both cases, Hanks and “Forrest Gump” came out on top.
Matt Damon — ‘Avatar’
Damon was approached about playing the role of Jake Sully in Avatar, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, but he had to reject the offer since he had other commitments. The actor says that he’s still upset about turning down the role, which later went to Sam Worthington.
“It wasn’t anything against ‘Avatar,'” Damon said in a press conference. “I really wanted to do ‘Avatar’ and watch Jim Cameron direct. I felt like I really was gonna learn a lot. It’s just that we were finishing ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ and I couldn’t leave. It was a scheduling issue. I joke that I bailed on ‘Avatar,’ but in truth it was a scheduling issue.”
Warren Beatty — ‘Kill Bill’
It was family that prevented Warren Beatty from taking the title role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” He was concerned about how long he would have to spend shooting in China, and ultimately withdrew from the project, leaving the part open for David Carradine.
“Warren was a good choice and would have been wonderful in the movie,” said Tarantino in 2004, revealing that there were no hard feelings over Beatty’s decision to withdraw.
Will Smith — ‘The Matrix’
Will Smith has taken some pretty big leading roles, but one he said no to was Neo in “The Matrix,” which went to Keanu Reeves. Smith remains philosophical about his decision, admitting that he wouldn’t have been right for the part.
“The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch,” Smith told Wired magazine in 2004. “In the pitch, I just didn’t see it. “I watched Keanu’s performance — and very rarely do I say this — but I would have messed it up. At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be.”
The Matrix trilogy became a big part of Smith’s life, anyway. His wife, Jade Pinkett Smith, starred alongside Reeves in the second and third installments.
Julia Roberts — ‘Shakespeare in Love’
Viola De Lesseps was the role that made Gwyneth Paltrow a global megastar — and won her an Oscar — but she wasn’t the first choice for “Shakespeare in Love.” Julia Roberts was on board, but when Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the part of Will Shakespeare, she walked away, too.
“Daniel wasn’t interested, so Julia withdrew and the whole thing fell through just six weeks before filming was due to begin,” revealed cast member Simon Callow in 2014. Paltrow starred opposite Joseph Fiennes, and the film won a total of seven Oscars, including best picture.
Nicholas Cage — ‘The Wrestler’
For his 2008 film “The Wrestler,” director Darren Aronofsky initially had his sights set on Mickey Rourke to play Randy “The Ram” Robinson. But the movie backers had doubts about Rourke, so Nicolas Cage was offered the role instead. However, Cage soon had second thoughts.
“I resigned from the movie because I didn’t think I had enough time to achieve the look of the wrestler who was on steroids, which I would never do,” he explained in 2009. Eventually, Aronofsky did get Rourke to sign up — and his first instincts were right. Rourke received Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for his performance.
Michelle Pfeiffer — ‘The Silence of the Lambs’
In 2015, “The Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme admitted he didn’t want to cast Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. He offered the role to various other actors, including Michelle Pfeiffer. But Pfeiffer couldn’t get on board with the violence in the film and turned it down. Meanwhile, Foster was really keen on the part, and Demme was convinced by the producers to offer it to her. Not only did it win Foster her second best-actress Oscar; Demme was so blown away her that he named his production company Strong Heart Productions “after Jodie’s sense of character.”
Albert Brooks — ‘When Harry Met Sally’
Albert Brooks is no stranger to turning down hit roles. He said no to “Big” and “Pretty Woman,” and he also passed on playing Harry Burns in the 1989 rom-com “When Harry Met Sally,” because he thought it was too similar to Woody Allen’s work.
“It read to me like a Woody Allen movie, verbatim,” Brooks said. “And I thought that was not something I should be in.”
Angela Bassett — ‘Monster’s Ball’
The role of Leticia Musgrove in “Monster’s Ball” made Halle Berry the first African American woman to win an Oscar, but history would have been different if first-choice Angela Bassett had taken the part.
“It’s about character, darling,” she told Newsweek. “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film. I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality.”
Anne Hathaway — ‘Knocked Up’
The explicit birth scene in “Knocked Up” was enough for Anne Hathaway to turn down the part of Alison Scott in Judd Apatow’s 2007 rom-com.
“My issue with it was that having not experienced motherhood myself, I didn’t know how I was gonna feel on the other side about giving birth,” Hathaway told Allure. The role went to Katherine Heigl, who got herself into a sticky situation when she told Vanity Fair the movie was “a little sexist.”
Al Pacino — ‘Star Wars’
A failure to grasp the “Star Wars” script stopped Al Pacino from taking the role of Han Solo, a decision he later described as a “missed opportunity.” Harrison Ford ended up in the role, and the rest is history. Talking to The Independent about all the roles he’d turned down — he was also offered Ted Kramer in “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Edward Lewis in “Pretty Woman,” amongst others — Pacino commented, “There is a museum of mistakes, all the movies I rejected.”
Charlie Hunnam — ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
Hunnam famously pulled out of the much-hyped “Fifty Shades” adaptation, with the part eventually going to Jamie Dornan. Scheduling conflicts between the movie, his show “Sons of Anarchy” and the Guillermo del Toro film “Crimson Peak” became too much to handle, and Hunnam called “Fifty Shades” director Sam Taylor-Johnson with the bad news.
“We both cried our eyes out on the phone for 20 minutes,” he told V Man, Variety reported. “There was a lot of personal stuff going on in my life that left me on real emotional shaky ground and mentally weak. I just got myself so f***ing overwhelmed, and I was sort of having panic attacks about the whole thing.”
Gwyneth Paltrow — ‘Titanic’
It’s common knowledge that Gwyneth Paltrow passed on the iconic role of Rose Dewitt Bukater in “Titanic,” but the actress has never made her reason public.
“My mother will kill me that I’m talking about turning down movie roles,” Paltrow told Howard Stern in 2015. “She says it’s not ladylike.” She added that she “couldn’t change the past” — and who would want her to? As great as Paltrow is, “Titanic” wouldn’t be “Titanic” without Kate and Leo.
Jack Nicholson — ‘The Godfather’
Although Jack Nicholson considered playing Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” he ultimately passed on the role because he thought it should be played by an Italian actor.
He told Movieline in 2004, “Back then I believed Indians should play Indians and Italians should play Italians … There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included, but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay him.”
Other big names who said no to the role were Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Martin Sheen.
Jennifer Hudson — ‘Precious’
In her 2012 autobiography “I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down,” Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson revealed that she turned down the offer to audition for “Precious” because she “wanted to try a role that had nothing to do whatsoever with [her] weight.”
However, she later backtracked, telling the Huffington Post, “I just felt the character was doing things, at least in my script that I got, that were places I did not want to go and not where I needed to go.” The film’s title role went to the lesser-known actor Gabourey Sidibe, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the overweight, pregnant teenager.
Reese Witherspoon — ‘Scream’
When Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher film “Scream” was in its early stages, Drew Barrymore was lined up to play the lead Sidney Prescott, but she decided she’d rather play Casey, who is famously killed off in the first few minutes of the movie. Reese Witherspoon was then offered Sidney, but she passed — good news for “Party of Five” star Neve Campbell, who went on to star in all four installments in the “Scream” franchise.
Hugh Jackman — ‘Casino Royale’
If there’s one movie role that always generates major buzz and no end of speculation, it’s James Bond. When it was time for Pierce Brosnan to hand over the reins, Hugh Jackman was asked if he was interested in “Casino Royale.” But he felt that the franchise wasn’t taking a direction he could get on board with.
“I just felt at the time that the scripts had become so unbelievable and crazy, and I felt like they needed to become grittier and real,” he told Variety. “And the response was: ‘Oh, you don’t get a say. You just have to sign on.’ I was also worried that between Bond and X-Men, I’d never have time to do different things.”
Mel Gibson — ‘Gladiator’
Back when Mel Gibson’s acting skills still outshone his off-screen antics, he was offered a role in Ridley Scott’s big-budget epic “Gladiator.” Rumor has it, Gibson turned it down because he felt that he was too old to play Roman gladiator Maximus (he was only 43). The part went to Russell Crowe, who won an Oscar for Best Actor and became a household name thanks to his sword-wielding action.
Tom Hanks — ‘Jerry Maguire’
The 1996 sports drama “Jerry Maguire” was written with Tom Hanks in mind for the titular role, but Hanks had to say no to director Cameron Crowe due to his own directing commitments on “That Thing You Do.” Hanks later said that Tom Cruise was the best choice for “Jerry Maguire.”
“I think you look at it now and it couldn’t be anybody other than Tom Cruise,” he told Access Hollywood. “It’s the way the movie’s operated. I don’t think anybody would look at that now and say, ‘That movie was not perfect.’”