“Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money. Do plays. It’s not worth it if you are just in it for the money. You have to love it.” – Phillip Seymour Hoffman
In an industry packed with hundreds of budding actors and veteran performers, a bit of healthy competition should be expected. Still, of course, it’s the winners you remember in history and not those who ‘nearly made the cut’.
The cut-throat nature of securing a role ahead of your rivals becomes easier later in a career as the actor becomes a more established name, and if you’re lucky, studios and filmmakers will often reach out to you first.
Though even Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars lose out on massive roles, and despite their industry savviness, they often make mistakes and misjudge the next big film on the horizon.
With that in mind, let’s explore ten of the most iconic roles turned down by Hollywood stars, looking into the ‘what could’ve been’, for better, for worse or for downright peculiar.
10 iconic roles turned down by Hollywood stars:
Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
Starring Tom Hanks in possibly his most famous ever role, Forrest Gump follows the extraordinary life of an American man living through some of the most significant moments in the 20th century.
John Travolta turned down the lead role, however, to instead star in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction which ended up going head-to-head with Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, with the latter taking home a majority of the prizes, including Best Picture. Though, we can say that Travolta certainly made the right choice, with Pulp Fiction winning out in the test of time.
The Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
One of cinema’s greatest ever thrillers, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster in a career-best performance as Clarice Starling, a trainee cop taking on one of the most sadistic serial killers alive.
As stated in a 2021 interview, however, the role was turned down however by Michelle Pfeiffer who revealed that she was uncomfortable with the film’s “evil” message and ending. She stated in the interview, “With Silence of the Lambs, I was trepidatious…There was such evil in that film. It was that evil won in the end, that at the end of that film evil ruled out. I was uncomfortable with that ending. I didn’t want to put that out into the world”.
The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
Perhaps the most influential action film ever made, The Matrix revolutionised the way that fight sequences were filmed and conceived, with Keanu Reeves as Neo taking on many of the famous fight scenes.
Reeves is excellent as Neo, so it’s a relief that Will Smith didn’t take on the mantle of Neo, as, at one point, he was the number one choice. Smith later admitted that he thinks he would have “messed it up”, telling Wired: “The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch”.
Continuing, Smith admits, “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”.
Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)
The third highest-grossing film of all time, James Cameron’s epic love story set on the doomed cruise ship stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack, a young artist who falls for the aristocrat, Rose DeWitt Bukater played by Kate Winslet.
Gwyneth Paltrow was the actress who turned down the role here, revealing in an interview that her mother had said it was “not ladylike” to talk about turning down roles, though added that she “couldn’t change the past”. The chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet is a saving grace of the otherwise dull film, so it’s a relief that at least the iconic duo stayed together.
Shakespeare In Love (John Madden, 1998)
From a missed opportunity for Gwyneth Paltrow to a role well seized, as John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love saw the actress pick up a major award for Best Actress at the 1999 Academy Awards.
This one’s a double-whammy, as whilst Julia Roberts turned down Paltrow’s role as Viola De Lesseps, Daniel Day-Lewis also turned down the role of William Shakespeare, eventually played by Joseph Fiennes. As cast member Simon Callow revealed in a 2014 interview: “Daniel wasn’t interested, so Julia withdrew and the whole thing fell through just six weeks before filming was due to begin”.
Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Capturing success out of the most unlikely source, George Lucas’ Star Wars initially seemed like a cheap, B-movie heading nowhere but to the bargain bins of video stores worldwide.
Its legacy, of course, says otherwise with the series becoming one of pop culture’s strongest ever properties, starring Harrison Ford as Han Solo, one of the franchises most adored characters. Both Al Pachino and the late Burt Reynolds turned down the chance to play the iconic role, however, with the latter commenting to Business Insider in 2018 that he “just didn’t want to play that kind of role at the time”.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Oscar-winner and all-around Hollywood darling, La La Land was an ode to the all-singing, all-dancing industry of old, with Emma Stone turning on the charm as Mia Dolan, one half of the acting duo alongside Ryan Gosling.
The female lead was nearly taken by Harry Potter star Emma Watson, however, with the actress reporting in 2017: “It’s one of these frustrating things where sort of names get attached to projects very early on as a way to kind of build anticipation or excitement for something that’s coming before anything is really actually agreed or set in stone”.
Though, years later the tide would turn when Emma Watson would appear in Greta Gerwig’s highly successful Little Women ahead of Emma Stone.
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
An iconic LGBTQ film set in the heart of the American Midwest, Ang Lee is one of the 21st century’s most important films, starring the late Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, the two male leads.
They were roles that were turned down by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, with the production struggling to find any lead actors who would stick. Even the director changed, with Gus Van Sant originally assigned to the project before he was replaced by Ang Lee, with Vant Sant telling IndieWire “nobody wanted to do it. They all said no”.
Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator ranks among the iconic filmmakers most acclaimed pieces of cinema, starring Russell Crowe as Maximus, a Roman general turned desperate slave forced to fight for entertainment.
Winning Best Actor for his role as the titular gladiator, it’s a relief that Mel Gibson turned the role down, with the actor originally attached to the project before turning it down for the physical demands required for the lead role in the epic action film. It certainly would’ve been a far less rousing film without Crowe in the lead role.
Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001)
One of Reese Witherspoon’s most celebrated roles, and a favourite of fans worldwide, Legally Blonde became a cultural phenomenon, led almost solely by the incredible performance of Witherspoon as Elle Woods.
The role was almost given to Christina Applegate, however, with the actress regretting turning down the role, saying in hindsight that it was a “stupid move” in an interview in 2015. It’s a relief that she turned the role down, as, though we love Christina Applegate, Reese Witherspoon is simply the perfect fit.