Famous Film Roles That Your Favorite Actors Passed Up
From Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather to Jodie Foster's portrayal of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, certain roles just wouldn't be the same without the stars who defined them. Ironically, many of the film industry's greatest performances came from actors and actresses who weren't initially chosen for the roles.
So, who were the (crazy) stars who passed on playing some of the most famous characters in movie history? Let’s take a look at some of the quintessential film roles and the iconic actors that turned them down.
Joaquin Phoenix: Doctor Strange/Doctor Strange
Joaquin Phoenix shines as the sociopathic lead in the Joker film. Surprisingly, Phoenix — who has earned praise for his intense immersion into his characters — hasn't starred in any previous superhero or villain flicks. However, he did pass on a substantial role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Angelina Jolie: Ryan Stone/Gravity
There aren't many human-centric space films as jarring as Gravity. Sandra Bullock's emotional performance in the sci-fi flick is gripping and authentic. However, Bullock wasn't the actress that filmmakers originally had in mind to play astronaut Ryan Stone.
Al Pacino: Han Solo/Star Wars
Al Pacino was notorious for turning down iconic roles, but he gained international fame for his portrayal of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Star Wars executives took notice and invited him to audition for Han Solo. Pacino declined.
Ian McKellen: Dumbledore/Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
J.K. Rowling's books about a young wizard named "Harry" captivated readers across the globe. When the adaptation process began, the studio cast Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Unfortunately, Harris passed away after the second movie, and Warner Bros. rushed to find a replacement.
Sandra Bullock: Neo/The Matrix
Although The Matrix ended up being tremendously successful, it wasn't always so simple. Many actors were confused by the complex plot. At one point, the executives were so desperate to find their lead that they were willing to switch up Neo's gender.
Christina Applegate: Elle Woods/Legally Blonde
Following her stellar performance as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon's career took off like a rocket. However, she wasn't the first choice for the role. Christina Applegate was originally courted to play the character.
Emma Watson: Mia/La La Land
La La Land breathed new life into the movie-musical genre. The role of struggling actress Mia was claimed by Emma Stone. However, another iconic Emma was approached to play the character. So, what held Emma Watson back?
Michelle Pfeiffer: Clarice Starling/The Silence of the Lambs
Twenty years have passed since The Silence of the Lambs was released. Jodie Foster's stellar performance as Clarice Starling defines the film as much as Anthony Hopkins' disturbing portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. It’s hard to imagine that Michelle Pfeiffer was once favored to play Clarice, but it’s true.
Lindsay Lohan: Jade/The Hangover
The Hangover is one of the funniest films of the entire century — and the script isn't the only thing that shines. The flick features an odd assortment of A-listers. At one point, Lindsay Lohan expressed interest in playing Jade, a sweet and quirky stripper, but she ultimately passed on the role.
John Travolta: Forrest/Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump's heartwarming themes and empathetic central character turned the film into an instant classic from the moment it hit theaters. Tom Hanks excelled as Forrest, bringing immense sweetness to the simple character. However, John Travolta was the original choice for the flick.
Michael Madsen: Vincent Vega/Pulp Fiction
The cult-classic Pulp Fiction stars John Travolta as Vincent Vega. In the documentary QT8: The First Eight, Michael Madsen shared that he was offered the part of Vincent. "I was already committed to Wyatt Earp. And now, here's Quentin, wants me to do Pulp Fiction, and they were both going at the same time."
Gwyneth Paltrow: Rose Dewitt Bukater/Titanic
Kate Winslet gave the performance of a lifetime as socialite Rose Bukater. She brought grace to Titanic that no other actress could have matched. However, Gwyneth Paltrow was in competition with Winslet for Rose — and nearly scored the role.
Jack Nicholson: Michael Corleone/The Godfather
Al Pacino in The Godfather is arguably the most iconic role in cinematic history. How could anyone else ever have been considered for the role? Ask Jack Nicholson, who turned it down. Nicholson told Movieline, "Back then I believed that Indians should play Indians, and Italians should play Italians."
Will Smith: Django/Django Unchained
Django: Unchained's epic narrative captured Will Smith's attention early on, and he intended to play Django. However, Smith didn't agree with Quentin Tarantino's approach to the script. Tarantino’s narrative was revenge-centric, and Smith wanted a romance story.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Rick Flag/Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad may be one of the most eccentric superhero films of all time. The bizarre cast of characters spawned several stand-out performances, including Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. One of Suicide Squad's original members, Rick Flag, represented an iconic role worth nabbing.
David Schwimmer: Agent J/Men in Black
Evidently, the Friends’ star wasn’t looking to pivot in a new direction in the late 1990s. When offered the part of Agent J in Men in Black (1997), Schwimmer turned it down. Instead, the film went on to make a sci-fi action hero of Will Smith and grossed roughly $1.6 billion over three installments.
Reese Witherspoon: Sidney Prescott/Scream
After Scream hit theaters, people across the world were terrified to answer their landlines. The OG slasher film launched the career of Neve Campbell, who "killed it" as Sidney Prescott. Drew Barrymore was originally slated to play Sidney, but she wanted to star in the iconic opening scene instead.
Josh Hartnett: Superman/Superman Returns
Characters like Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman have altered the paths of many actors' careers. That is what Josh Harnett was worried about when he was offered the leading role in Superman Returns, along with several other hero roles.
Matt Damon: Harvey Dent/The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight was one of the greatest films to come out of the DC Cinematic Universe. It owes most of its success to the incredible performances of Christian Bale (Batman), Heath Ledger (Joker) and Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent).
Charlie Hunnam: Christian Grey/Fifty Shades of Grey
Jamie Dornan may rock the steamy role of Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, but he was a fallback for the flick. Charlie Hunnam was originally set to play the role of Grey. However, as filming for the flick grew closer, Hunnam couldn't find a way to work it into his schedule.
Emily Blunt: Black Widow/Iron Man 2
Black Widow is a defining figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She may not have any actual superpowers, but her martial arts skills are off the charts. The role has been played by Scarlett Johansson throughout the Avengers series, but Emily Blunt almost claimed the character in Iron Man 2 before Johansson had a chance.
Tiffany Haddish: Unknown Role/Get Out
In Get Out, Jordan Peele brought modernity to the horror genre. The flick helped elevate the careers of actors Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, who gave unsettling performances as an interracial couple fractured by a terrifying family secret.
Matthew McConaughey: Ego/Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It's hard not to love Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy films. Between the film's bizarre action sequences, the comic interactions of the characters and the stellar throwback soundtracks, the flicks are immensely enjoyable. The final cast crushed the production both times, but Matthew McConaughey was originally asked to play Ego (played by Kurt Russell) in Volume 2.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Patrick Bateman/American Psycho
When Leonardo DiCaprio was announced to play misogynistic murderer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, writer/director Mary Harron was stunned — she had already promised the role to Christian Bale. "Leonardo wasn't remotely right...There's something very boyish about him," she told The Guardian.
Mark Wahlberg: Jack Twist/Brokeback Mountain
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger's performances as gay lovers in Brokeback Mountain were tender and captivating. Obviously, not every actor would be comfortable taking on such an intimate role, including Mark Wahlberg.
Tilda Swinton: Professor Sybill Trelawney/Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Emma Thompson's magical transformation into psychic Professor Sybill Trelawney brought the personality of the twitchy witch to life. Still, Tilda Swinton was actually the first choice. However, Swinton told The Scots Magazine that her childhood boarding school, West Heath in London, was "a very lonely and isolating environment."
Leonardo DiCaprio: Anakin Skywalker/Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
When George Lucas created the Star Wars franchise, he wanted to provide "young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in" (NYT). He pulled it off. Star Wars includes a variety of incredible lightsaber-wielding heroes, villains and heroes-turned-villains.
Christopher Plummer: Gandalf/The Lord of the Rings
Ian McKellen played Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. However, Christopher Plummer was offered the role first. Plummer said, "I don't know why I turned it down. I thought three or four years in New Zealand...I thought there were other countries I would like to visit before I croak."
Matt Damon: Jake Sully/Avatar
Avatar became the most financially successful film of the century (at the time). Matt Damon was up for the role of Jake Sully — a paralyzed Marine who finds mobility in a land of blue aliens. He was promised 10% of the film's profits if he took the role, but he turned it down.
Marilyn Monroe: Holly Golightly/Breakfast at Tiffany's
If there's one film that Audrey Hepburn is recognized for, it's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Hepburn sparkles as Holly Golightly in the New York classic. It's hard to imagine anyone but Hepburn as Holly, but a more seasoned actress was originally considered for the role.