By 1994, there was no bigger movie star than Kevin Costner. Starting with his starring role in 1987’s The Untouchables, Costner went on a nearly decade-long run that saw him achieve critical and commercial dominance within the film industry. Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK, and The Bodyguard made Costner the unflappable face of integrity and moral righteousness. He was a man who couldn’t be broken and always projected a sense of hope and earnest truth.
So it should come as no surprise that Costner was seen as the ideal actor for Andy Dufresne, the convicted killer and eventual escapee in The Shawshank Redemption. Andy’s key character trait, one that often puts him at philosophical odds with his friend Red and at psychological odds with the strict prison warden, is his embrace of hope among despair. Red believes that hope is the most dangerous thing that a man can have in Shawshank, and The Warden sees it as a dangerous flaw that needs to be stomped out.
If anyone could bring that kind of inexhaustible optimism to the screen, it was Costner. This was the same man who travelled across the country and killed his own farming business to chase an encouraging voice in Field of Dreams, sought the unassailable truth being hidden by the US government in JFK, and put himself on the line to protect Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. Nobody could project sincerity and conviction like Costner.
But there was a problem: Costner had spent the past two years trying to get a different movie made. That movie was called Waterworld. By the time he was approached for the role of Andy Dufresne, Waterworld had seen its budget balloon out of control. Costner was producing and often took matters into his own hands, setting up scenes while working 12 hour days, six days a week. Waterworld had turned from a passion project into a mess, and Costner was carrying most of the burden on his own shoulders.
Even though he was intrigued by the role, Costner couldn’t have pulled himself away from Waterworld to work on The Shawshank Redemption. The latter film had its own somewhat troubled pre-production history at that point, so delaying the film to accommodate Costner was not an option. Despite being the perfect candidate, Costner was ultimately forced to pass on the role of Andy to shepherd Waterworld to completion.
Instead, production company Castle Rock and director Frank Darabont decided to go with another option: Tom Cruise. Cruise was interested in the story and even attended initial table readings with the other actors, but his disagreements with Darabont eventually caused Cruise to walk. The director eventually went with Tim Robbins, Costner’s co-star in Bull Durham.