For those of us who work normal, nine-to-five jobs in our unimpressive offices, it’s easy to imagine the job of an actor or actress as, well… easy. But on top of difficult tasks like gaining 15 lbs. for a movie role or deciding which eye drops to use to help the believability of a forced cry, actors have to deal with the immense pressure of choosing (or passing on) the right roles. And they don’t always get those choices right: We’ve seen some terrific talents reduced to forgettable characters by misguided directors or underwhelming screenplays (Both Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones fell victim in Hope Springs). What we don’t get to see are the good choices that aren’t made, the opportunities that actors pass up. Though it’d be impossible to list every major part passed up by a notable name, we’ve compiled a list of 20 of the biggest roles turned down by big-name stars.
11. Will Smith (The Matrix)
Can you imagine what it would have looked like if Will Smith had brought his oversized acting technique to The Chosen One? Thankfully we had the near expressionless Keanu Reeves to make Neo the dark, complex character that he needed to be.
12. Edward Norton, Leonardo Dicaprio, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Ewan McGregor (American Psycho)
This film takes the cake for big-name drop-outs. Depp was the first A-lister tapped to play Patrick Bateman followed by Pitt and Norton. Lions Gate Films actually publicly announced Dicaprio as the lead before he was urged to back out on account of his Titanic fanbase that might not have responded too fondly to the heartthrob slicing women with a chainsaw. Ewan McGregor then got the offer but passed after personal lobbying from Christian Bale, who eventually brought his brilliance to the killer (did he actually kill anybody?).
13. Johnny Depp (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Another interesting possibility. Depp was originally offered the lead role in the 1986 coming of age comedy, but he had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Though Matthew Broderick’s portrayal helped cement the film’s significance in pop-culture history, we can’t deny we’re just a bit curious to know how the weirdness Depp might have added to Bueller’s character would have played out.
14. Brad Pitt (Almost Famous)
This is one of the strangest reasons for leaving a movie that I’ve ever heard. Brad Pitt was well into the established years of his career when he was attached to play the rock star Russell Hammond in the critically acclaimed film, but Pitt dropped out saying that he didn’t fully understand his character. What? The life of a famous, partying rock star was too far away from his life as a famous, partying movie star?
15. Denzel Washington (Se7en, Michael Clayton)
Now both of these I can see. Denzel has gone on record to say that he regrets turning down both the role of Detective David Mills, which went to Pitt, and George Clooney’s Michael Clayton. Washington said he passed on Se7en because he judged the subject matter as being too dark, but with Michael Clayton he knew there was potential. “With ‘Clayton,’ it was the best material I had read in a long time, but I was nervous about a first-time director, and I was wrong. It happens,” Washington told GQ.
16. Leonardo Dicaprio (Boogie Nights)
Dicaprio admits that the biggest regret in his career is passing on porn star Dirk Diggler in the 1997 film that chronicles The Golden Age of Porn. “I’m a huge fan of (director) Paul Thomas Anderson but the first time I met him for that role I hadn’t really seen much of his previous work,” Dicaprio told GQ. “Now I love that movie.” The role eventually went to Dicaprio’s friend Mark Wahlberg.
17. Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal (Avatar)
has admitted that the only reason he went after Damon and Gyllenhaal for the role of Jake Sully in the film that would become the highest grossing film of all time was just to pacify studio producers. “Honestly, did I go out and try to woo them? No. I had my heart set on Sam Worthington. Maybe they sensed my lack of 100% commitment from me. Maybe it was the subject matter,” Cameron told the LA Times. “This was a big Star Wars-type movie. They’re both serious actors.”
18. Mark Wahlberg (Brokeback Mountain)
At one point in production, Wahlberg was being eyed (along with Joaquin Phoenix) for a role as one of the cowboys who fall for each other while herding sheep in Wyoming. And he’s not afraid to let people know why he passed. “I met with Ang Lee on that movie, I read 15 pages of the script and got a little creeped out,” said Wahlberg, according to SF Gate. “It was very graphic, descriptive—the spitting on the hand, getting ready to do the thing. I told Ang Lee, ‘I like you, you’re a talented guy, if you want to talk about it more…’ Thankfully, he didn’t.”
19. Sean Connery (The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix)
The former Bond star turned down the roles of Gandalf and Morpheus in LOTR and the Matrix, respectively, but he learned from both of his mistakes. According to The League of Extraordinary Gentleman producer Don Murphy, Connery told him, “I got offered The Lord of the Rings, and I turned it down because I didn’t understand it. I was offered The Matrix twice, and I turned it down because I didn’t understand it. I don’t understand this movie (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn it down.”
20. Hugh Jackman (James Bond)
Speaking of James Bond, Jackman has said that he was offered the role as the British secret service agent, but he turned it down out of fear that it would limit his opportunities in the future. “I thought it would box me in too much,’ Jackman told The Hollywood Reporter. “My natural instinct is to keep as many doors open as possible.”