Actors who turned down iconic roles

Will Smith as Neo? Leonardo DiCaprio as Spider-Man? Such casting possibilities almost happened once upon a time

So much can change with a simple yes or no. The most famous actors in Hollywood have enjoyed long careers simply because they played the right part at the right time. But just as often, actors have turned down huge roles that went on to be iconic – because they are played by somebody else entirely.

The reasons why actors turn down life-changing gigs vary. Sometimes it’s just a matter of scheduling. Other times the reasons are more personal. Maybe the material doesn’t excite them, maybe they don’t think they’re the right fit, or maybe there’s just that inner voice telling something better is around the corner. Whatever the case, Hollywood is an industry full of what-ifs and what-could-have-been. With that in mind, here are actors who turned down iconic movie roles.

Toshiro Mifune did not feel the Force in Star Wars

Before Alec Guinness donned the robes of Obi-Wan, George Lucas first approached Japanese movie star Toshiro Mifune.

In 2015, Mifune's daughter Mika Mifune told an audience at the Tokyo Comic-Con that her father declined Lucas' offer to play Luke Skywalker's mentor on the basis that the movie might have cheapened Japanese cinema. “I heard from my father that he was offered the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, but he was concerned about how the film would look and that it would cheapen the image of samurai, on which George Lucas had based a lot of the character and fighting style,” said Mika Mifune (via THR).

Mika Mifune elaborated that sci-fi movies did not look as polished nor was it a respected genre. She added that her father, who starred in pictures like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and The Hidden Fortress (which inspired Lucas' vision for Star Wars) also turned down an arguably even more iconic part: Darth Vader. 

“At the time, sci-fi movies still looked quite cheap as the effects were not advanced and he had a lot of samurai pride," Mika Mifune said, "So then, there was talk about him taking the Darth Vader role as his face would be covered, but in the end he turned that down too."

Emma Watson chose Disneyland over La La Land

A very different Emma almost starred in Damien Chazelle’s 2016 movie musical La La Land. While the film ultimately co-starred Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (who won an Oscar for her performance), it was Harry Potter alum Emma Watson who almost tap-danced atop L.A.’s Griffith Park. 

In a 2017 appearance on SiriusXM’s Town Hall, Watson said her commitment to the Disney blockbuster Beauty and the Beast kept her from doing both movies. “It’s one of these frustrating things where 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,” Watson said.

She elaborated that the part of bookish beauty Belle required its own arduous prep that would have left her no time for La La Land simultaneously. “I knew I had horse training, I knew I had dancing, I knew I had three months of singing ahead of me and I knew I had to be in London to really do that,” she said. “This wasn’t a movie I could just kind of parachute into. I knew I had to do the work, and I had to be where I had to be. So, you know, scheduling conflict-wise, it didn’t work out.”

Eddie Murphy chose catching criminals instead of ghosts in Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters went through countless iterations before cameras started rolling in 1983. Not only was it originally a high-concept sci-fi, but movie star Eddie Murphy was meant to have a meaty part alongside John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. (The movie was basically meant for SNL guys to have some laughs catching ghosts.) 

Murphy passed on the gig, deciding to do another generational classic in Beverly Hills Cop. The script went through more changes before the movie’s final roster was made up of Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and Aykroyd. Though Murphy was left out of a franchise, Murphy found his own stardom, and arguably an even cooler movie theme song.

Drew Barrymore switched places on Scream

In 1996, Drew Barrymore was a former child actress maturing into a real movie star when she appeared in Wes Craven’s inventive teen slasher Scream. On the 25th anniversary of its release, Barrymore said on her daytime talk show that she was an uncredited producer on the project and was going to star as lead protagonist Sidney (ultimately played by Neve Campbell). But Barrymore said she wanted to surprise audiences and allow herself to be the movie’s first victim.

Recalled Barrymore: “You kind of always have this tension, but you kind of know that your hero is going to make it. And I thought 'What if I die?', and then it'll be like all bets are off, anybody could get killed in this movie and would take away that cliché safety net of 'the girl always gets away'."

Joaquin Phoenix has strange reasons for leaving Doctor Strange

Before he won an Oscar for playing Batman’s most famous villain, Joaquin Phoenix almost played Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme. 

In a 2018 interview with Little White Lies, Phoenix revealed he was briefly in talks with Marvel Studios to star in Doctor Strange. (The lead role went to Benedict Cumberbatch.) Phoenix didn’t say much about what went down, only that “everybody was really happy with how things turned out.”

(Marvel Studios)
Brian Cox almost dropped F-bombs on Game of Thrones

Brian Cox has been an accomplished actor since even before he made the F-word a signature catchphrase on HBO’s Succession. But in his memoir Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, Cox humorously notes that he was offered the role of Robert Baratheon on another HBO epic about dynasties, Game of Thrones.

Wrote Cox: “I'm often asked if I was offered a role in Game of Thrones — reason being that every other bugger was — and the answer is, yes, I was supposed to be a king called Robert Baratheon, who apparently died when he was gored by a boar in the first season," Cox wrote. "I know very little about Game of Thrones, so I can't tell you whether or not he was an important character, and I'm not going to google it just in case he was, because I turned it down." 

While Cox didn’t want to be gored by a boar, he has no problem making others the boar on his floor.

Rachel McAdams retreated from Hollywood during The Devil Wears Prada

Rachel McAdams almost wore red on Wednesdays.

After her breakthrough success in movies like Mean Girls and The Notebook, McAdams had offers come in for major projects, ranging from the James Bond reboot Casino Royale to the picture that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man. Instead, McAdams took a brief hiatus and moved back to her birth country of Canada for her mental health. 

Meanwhile, The Devil Wears Prada was ramping up pre-production, and the studio had McAdams in mind for the lead role. (It went to Anne Hathaway.) In a 2021 interview with Entertainment Weekly, director David Frankel said the studio offered McAdams the job three separate times. 

In a 2023 profile on Bustle, McAdams commented on her brief time away from the business, saying: “I felt guilty for not capitalizing on the opportunity that I was being given, because I knew I was in such a lucky spot … But I also knew it wasn’t quite jiving with my personality and what I needed to stay sane. There were definitely some anxious moments of wondering if I was just throwing it all away, and why was I doing that? It’s taken years to understand what I intuitively was doing.”

(20th Century Studios)
Henry Golding didn’t see gold in Crazy Rich Asians, at least at first

Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians was a big hit in 2018, with Constance Wu in the role of a Chinese-American woman who dates a wildly affluent Singaporean bachelor. Her co-star was newcomer Henry Golding, who prior to becoming an actor was a television host. When the role of a lifetime came Golding’s way, however, he actually passed on it. Not once, but several times.

Thinking back on it in an appearance on The View, Golding said: “It’s for someone else who is going to bring the A-game, who is a legitimate actor.” It was only after insistence by Chu that Golding decided to partake in the studio’s gamble on an unknown like him. In the end, casting Golding was like winning the lottery.

(Warner Bros.)
Liam Neeson passed on James Bond to save his marriage

Throughout his prolific career, Liam Neeson’s roles include mentors to Jedi Knights and angry fathers who sound terrifying on the phone. But one role that eluded Liam Neeson was James Bond. The Irish actor passed on starring in GoldenEye not because it disinterested him, but because his would-be wife, the late Natasha Richardson, would refuse to marry him.

“I think I was on their radar for five minutes,” Neeson quipped in a 2023 appearance on Conan O’Brien’s podcast Conan Needs a Friend. “When I first started getting a couple calls from [Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli, [she said] ‘Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I would.’ Natasha and I weren’t married at the time. She said, ‘If you are offered James Bond, we are not getting married.’”

Neeson joked with O’Brien by playing out a theoretical scenario that underscores Richardson’s problem with the job: Her husband coming home after closely working with beautiful co-stars all day. “These boring, horribly beautiful women! I can’t take it anymore!” 

The license to kill was instead taken over by Pierce Brosnan, who starred as James Bond throughout the mid to late ‘90s until 2002’s Die Another Day. 

Harrison Ford fossilized himself out of Jurassic Park

Even without Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford is a respected institution in Hollywood through movies like The Fugitive and Air Force One. But one mega-blockbuster Ford declined to dig into was Steven Spielberg’s revolutionary Jurassic Park.

While his reasons for refusing the part of archaeologist Dr. Alan Grant aren’t clear, Spielberg revealed as much in 2011 at a 30th anniversary screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

With both Spielberg and Ford in attendance for a Q&A, Ford jokingly complained that Spielberg only hires him to play Indiana Jones. Spielberg fired back, saying: “Do you know who I offered Jurassic Park to? This guy. Alan Grant, I first offered to this guy.”

Halle Berry let Speed pass her by

Speed kept Keanu Reeves’ box office hot streak going and made Sandra Bullock a movie star. But the movie’s leading female role of Annie Porter, who finds herself helping Reeves’ character drive a rigged-to-explode Los Angeles bus, was first offered to Halle Berry. 

In a 1995 edition of Movieline (via Far Out), Berry revealed she wasn’t interested in the part because it wasn’t dialogue-heavy. “I turned down Speed because I thought, ‘I don’t want to drive that bus.’”

She added, “I admit, I just don’t get it when I read action stuff like, ‘The bus flies 100 miles per hour over an overpass’ … One of the script versions they sent me, the bus never got out of Dodger Stadium, it just kept driving around and around the parking lot!”

Berry said she appreciated the movie’s color-blind casting, a rarity at the time. But she also acknowledged that being a Black woman might not have netted her the same success Speed did for Bullock. 

“Had it been me driving that bus, that wouldn’t be my reality, and that’s a fact,” she said. “It’s not my reality after being in The Flintstones, one of the biggest movies of the year, so why would I think it should be my reality after Speed? As a Black woman, I know better. My reality is very different. My struggle is very different.”

(20th Century Studios)
Emily Blunt missed her mark over Marvel’s Black Widow

Emily Blunt became recognized as an onscreen heroine in the 2014 sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow. But that stardom nearly came sooner, when the actress was up for the part of Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, beginning with Iron Man 2. But Blunt’s commitments to another movie she didn’t actually want to do kept her from suiting up as the first female Avenger.

“I was contracted to do Gulliver's Travels. I didn't want to do Gulliver's Travels," Blunt told Howard Stern in a 2021 interview. Though she clarified that the job allowed her to work with "a lot of really lovely people,” she still felt heartbroken that joining the biggest movie franchise in the world wasn’t in the cards. "It was a bit of a heartbreaker for me. I take such pride in the decisions that I make, and they mean so much to me, the films that I do.”

(Marvel Studios)
Claire Danes was so over Leo to do Titanic

Titanic was unsinkable when it opened in 1997, its all-time tragic love story forever imprinting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the perfect onscreen pair for a generation. But the role of high-society gal Rose was almost played by Claire Danes. 

In a 2020 interview with Dax Shepherd on his podcast Armchair Expert, Danes recalls she was offered the part, though she doesn’t remember the details clearly. All she knew was that there was a major pull for her to take the job. But at the time, Danes was 17 and had just finished Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet with DiCaprio. Titanic happens to be yet another star-crossed young love story, only on a boat, so it makes sense why Danes felt seasick telling that story again. “I had just made this romantic epic with Leo [DiCaprio] in Mexico City, which is where they were going to shoot Titanic and I just didn't have it in me.'”

In hindsight, Danes expressed no regrets. “I was feeling eager to have different creative experiences and that felt like a repeat and it was going to propel me towards something that I knew I didn't have the resources to cope with.”

Matt Damon regrets sleeping on Avatar

Will Hunter almost hunted on Pandora.

In a 2023 interview with Entertainment Tonight, A-lister Matt Damon expressed regret passing on James Cameron’s 2009 epic Avatar. Sitting beside Avatar star Zoe Saldana to promote a Stella Artois advertising campaign, Damon said he still feels the sting of passing on playing Jake Sully (Sam Worthington’s role), calling it “the dumbest thing an actor ever did in the history of acting.”

“I’ve probably done, like, 50 movies. I’ve never been in a movie that made one billion.” 

It’s true that Matt Damon doesn’t have a billion dollar picture in his resume — his highest-grossing movie was 2015’s The Martian — but being Jason Bourne, working with directors like Martin Scorsese, and making a totally sick retort out of “How do you like them apples?” is its own reward. 

(20th Century Studios)
Jack Nicholson refused an offer for The Godfather

Jack Nicholson was already on his way to movie stardom when the script for The Godfather came his way. In a 2004 interview with Movieline, Nicholson revealed he was up for the part of Michael Corleone — made famous by Al Pacino — but turned it down, even when he knew it would be a hit. 

His reason was simply, “Italians should play Italians.” Turns out, there are offers you can refuse.

Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman all left Superman’s cape to dry

Superman’s might over popular culture means that any time a new movie version of the comic book icon enters development, the biggest names in Hollywood are always considered for the Man of Steel. 

Richard Donner’s 1978 film took a chance on an unknown Christopher Reeve, whose acclaimed performance is now synonymous with the character. But other actors said to have been approached include the biggest names of the ‘70s, including Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman (who, let’s be real, exudes more Lex Luthor energy). 

While their reasons for passing on the cape of Superman aren’t known, it’s just too much fun to imagine an alternate universe where the leader of the Justice League had a different face.

(Warner Bros.)
Will Smith couldn’t “hack” into The Matrix

After 20-plus years as a leading man in Hollywood, the Men in Black and I Am Legend star embraced YouTube, and in his own unique way. In one video from 2019, Smith reveals how and why he said no to starring in a hit like The Matrix. Because there’s no one else better to hear the story from, you can watch him explain it himself.

But you know who else was almost Neo? You would never guess…

(Warner Bros.)
Sandra Bullock also turned down Neo in The Matrix

While Keanu Reeves sat on the offer to star in The Matrix, other actors were courted in case Reeves backed out. One actor happens to be close friend and Speed co-star Sandra Bullock.

In a 2019 interview with TheWrap, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said major A-listers were contacted at the insistence of Warner Bros., who wanted reassurance that the Wachowskis’ seemingly experimental high-concept sci-if would attract an audience. The team spread far and wide, and di Bonaventura specifically remembers the possibility of Bullock starring in The Matrix.

“We went out to so many people I don’t remember. We were getting desperate,” di Bonaventura said. “We went to Sandy Bullock and said ‘We’ll change Neo to a girl.’ [Producer] Joel Silver and I worked with Sandy on Demolition Man and she was and continues to be a very good friend of mine. It was pretty simple. We sent her the script to see if she was interested in it. And if she was interested in it we would try to make the change.”

In an interview a decade earlier on NBC’s Today, Bullock also confirmed she was approached for the role of Trinity, which went to Carrie-Ann Moss.

(Warner Bros.)
Laurence Fishburne took the blue pill on Pulp Fiction

It’s impossible to imagine anyone but Samuel L. Jackson as Bible-quoting mob hit man Jules Vincent in Pulp Fiction. But Quentin Tarantino actually had Laurence Fishburne in mind, and in fact wrote the character around his voice. But Fishburne chose not to wear the suit of Jules.

Christina Applegate couldn’t pass the bar for Legally Blonde

Reese Witherspoon never shined brighter than as sorority girl turned Harvard law student Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. But before Witherspoon was approached, sitcom queen Christina Applegate was considered first.

In a 2023 interview with Vanity Fair, Applegate passed on starring in the 2001 comedy because it felt too similar to her sitcom work. “I wouldn’t toy with the idea of Legally Blonde because it felt too fresh getting out of Married… With Children. It was very similar on paper,” Applegate said.

Humbly, she acknowledged Witherspoon’s dominance in the role, and believed she would have “completely screwed it up.”

Clint Eastwood didn’t want to Americanize James Bond

In a 2010 interview with the L.A. Times (via Collider), screen icon Clint Eastwood confirmed what had only been whispered about for years: He passed on James Bond.

When the role of James Bond was changing hands between Sean Connery, who had grown tired of the character, and Australian model George Lazenby (who played the role just once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), actor Clint Eastwood was invited to accept the 007 title. His first movie would have been Live and Let Die in 1973.

Some 50 years later, Eastwood reflected on the opportunity, and believed he wasn’t a good fit and turned down “pretty good money.”

Said Eastwood in a 2009 interview with Indie London (via The Clint Eastwood Archive): “I thought James Bond should be British. I am of British, but by that same token, I thought that it should be more of the culture there, and also, it was not my thing.”

Montgomery Clift was almost a “contendah” for On the Waterfront and other movies

Alongside Marlon Brando and James Dean, Montgomery Clift was among the biggest movie stars of the 1950s to practice method acting (though Clift himself was not big on the term). Throughout his relatively short career, he memorably starred in pictures like The Search, A Place in the Sun, and From Here to Eternity. But Clift is almost more famous for the movies he turned down, which include seismic films like Rope, Sunset Boulevard, High Noon, and War and Peace.

Arguably the biggest movie Clift skipped on? On the Waterfront. Clift was at one point offered the role of longshoreman Terry Malloy. For unknown reasons, Clift passed, which gave Marlon Brando to forever imprint on audiences the tragedy of being dealt losing cards in life.

Al Pacino shot first in Star Wars

It’s hard to imagine Al Pacino in a family franchise like Star Wars. But after turning heads in The Godfather, Pacino was offered literally everything in Hollywood. This included the part of Han Solo in 1977’s Star Wars.

He recalled to MTV in 2014: “It was at that time in my career where I was offered everything. I was in The Godfather. They didn’t care if I was right or wrong for the role, if I could act or not act.”

Leonardo DiCaprio: Not the star of American Psycho, or Spider-Man, or Star Wars, or Batman Forever

Leonardo DiCaprio has been Hollywood’s golden child for as long as he’s been in Hollywood. While he is no stranger to blockbuster productions, he’s famously choosy about roles and isn’t up to doing just anything. Which is why DiCaprio’s list of parts he’s passed on looks like a parade of Comic-Con cosplayers.

DiCaprio hasn’t just passed on playing Spider-Man (for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) and Batman’s sidekick Robin (for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever), he also didn’t sign on to play Anakin Skywalker in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Nor did he sign on for American Psycho, a part that is too juicy not to consider the what-if possibilities. 

(Warner Bros.)

Will Smith as Neo? Leonardo DiCaprio as Spider-Man? Such casting possibilities almost happened once upon a time