Denzel in Se7en?: 13 actors who regretted turning down film roles

·11-min read
Leonardo DiCaprio, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Madonna are just some of the stars who have regretted turning down roles (Christopher Jue/Leon Bennett/Jim Spellman/Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Madonna are just some of the stars who have regretted turning down roles (Christopher Jue/Leon Bennett/Jim Spellman/Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

Brad Pitt as Neo? Josh Hartnett as Batman? Halle Berry as the lady that drives the bus in Speed? Believe it or not, all of the above would have happened if those actors had said “yes”. Dive into the history of Hollywood and most incredibly famous characters were nearly played by someone else. Those early and ultimately aborted casting decisions just don’t tend to get talked about.

Sometimes, though, actors are very open about the high-profile parts they turned down, and the pangs of regret left behind once those films are actually made.

Imagine a world in which Leonardo DiCaprio was the star of a beloved drama about the porn industry and not Titanic, or Reese Witherspoon didn’t play Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods. Shudder. Here are 13 actors who turned their nose up at iconic movies, only to feel very silly about it later on.

Denzel Washington in Se7en

Asked in 2012 if there were roles he turned down that he should have taken, Washington answered quickly: “Se7en and Michael Clayton”. The Oscar winner said that Tony Gilroy’s corporate thriller Michael Clayton “was the best material I had read in a long time … I was nervous about a first-time director, and I was wrong”. George Clooney ended up playing the role instead.

While Washington didn’t offer an explanation as to why he turned down Se7en (it is unclear if he would have played the veteran detective or the cocky rookie, embodied in the end by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, respectively), it may have been for a similar reason: director David Fincher had only directed one film before Se7en, and that was the disastrous Alien 3.

Oddly, Washington ended up starring in a number of Se7en-esque serial killer thrillers made in the aftermath, including 1999’s The Bone Collector and 2021’s The Little Things.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Boogie Nights

Leonardo DiCaprio as prolific porn star Dirk Diggler? It could have happened. In 2008, DiCaprio confirmed that he turned down the starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights – which ultimately made Mark Wahlberg a star – in order to do Titanic instead. He had a meeting with Anderson about the role, but got spooked by the filmmaker’s relative lack of experience at the time. Boogie Nights was Anderson’s second film after 1996’s little-seen Hard Eight.

Boogie Nights is a movie I loved and I wish I would’ve done,” DiCaprio told GQ. Asked whether he’d reject Titanic instead if he could go back in time, DiCaprio was stumped. “I’m not saying I would have. But it would have been a different direction, career wise. I think they’re both great and wish I could have done them both … The truth is, if I’d not done Titanic, I wouldn’t be able to do the types of movies or have the career I have now, for sure. But it would have been interesting to see if I had gone the other way.”

Madonna in The Matrix

Madonna has never been one for regrets, instead admirably sticking by creative decisions even if they get her jeered at, laughed at or criticised. But she did fess up to one movie role she shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss. “I turned down the role in The Matrix,” she told Jimmy Fallon during a TV appearance this year. “Can you believe that? I wanna kill myself. That’s, like, one of the best movies ever made. A teeny-tiny part of me regrets just that one moment in my life.”

Madonna didn’t confirm which role she turned down in the 1999 film, but presumably it was the female lead Trinity, who was ultimately played by Carrie-Anne Moss. During the same interview, Madonna also confirmed rumours that she turned down the role of Catwoman in Batman Returns, and Nomi Malone in the notorious Showgirls. “I saw them both, and I regret that I turned down Catwoman, that was pretty fierce. Showgirls? No.”

Brad Pitt in The Matrix

Speaking of The Matrix, Brad Pitt has also expressed regret about turning down the role of Neo. “I took the red pill,” he joked in 2020, referencing the choice in the film between having total clarity or remaining in blissful ignorance. “I come from a place, maybe it’s my upbringing, [where] if I didn’t get it, then it wasn’t mine. I really believe [the role] was never mine. It was someone else’s.”

Keanu Reeves ended up playing Neo, of course, while Pitt suggested during the same interview that The Matrix is just one of the massive movies he said “no” to. “If we were doing a show on the great movies I’ve passed on, we would need two nights,” he joked.

Will Smith and Brad Pitt both waved goodbye to the role of Neo in ‘The Matrix' (Philippe Desmazes/Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Will Smith and Brad Pitt both waved goodbye to the role of Neo in ‘The Matrix' (Philippe Desmazes/Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Will Smith in The Matrix

And just to drive home the fact that very few actors seemed to any faith in The Matrix, Will Smith also turned down the starring role. In 2019, Smith confirmed a long-standing rumour that he rejected the Neo part in favour of a far less adored movie.

On his YouTube channel, Smith recalled meeting directors Lana and Lily Wachowski but struggling to understand their ideas for bullet-time, or the slow-motion effect that Neo masters in the movie.

“So I made Wild Wild West [instead],” Smith confessed, referencing the notorious 1999 flop that he has spent more than 20 years regretting. “I’m not proud of it.”

He did, however, argue that he wouldn’t have been as good in the role as Reeves. “Keanu was perfect, Laurence Fishburne was perfect, so I probably would have messed The Matrix up. I would have ruined it, so I did y’all a favour.”

Matt Damon in Avatar

“I still can’t watch Thelma & Louise… it still kills me”

Michelle Pfeiffer

While Damon hasn’t explicitly said that he regrets turning down James Cameron’s Avatar, he references the decision enough to suggest it still stings. In 2007, Damon was wooed by Cameron with the promise of not only starring in the film but also pocketing 10 per cent of the film’s gross. Avatar, which eventually starred Sam Worthington, ended up becoming the highest-grossing film in history. Meaning – drumroll, please – Damon lost out on an estimated $200m (£148m).

“I’ve left more money on the table than any actor,” he told GQ in 2019. He added that his biggest regret is that it may have been his only opportunity to work with Cameron. “He works so infrequently … I realised in having to say no that I was probably passing on the chance to ever work with him. So that sucked and that’s still brutal. But my kids are all eating. I’m doing OK.”

Christina Applegate in Legally Blonde

It’s hard to imagine Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods as anyone other than Reese Witherspoon, but it was actually Christina Applegate who was first approached to play her. Applegate revealed in 2015 that she turned down the part as she thought it was too similar to the character she played on the long-running sitcom Married… with Children.

“I got scared of repeating myself,” she said. “What a stupid move that was, right? [But] Reese deserved that. She did a much better job than I ever could, and so that’s her life, that’s her path.”

In a strange twist of fate, both Witherspoon and Applegate ended up playing sisters to Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel on Friends.

Michael Keaton in Groundhog Day

Like a Legally Blonde without Reese Witherspoon, it’s also difficult to imagine Groundhog Day without Bill Murray. But he wasn’t the studio’s first choice for the part of an acerbic weatherman stuck in a time loop. Rather, Michael Keaton was approached.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2014, Keaton admitted that he had read the script in the early Nineties but “didn’t get it”. Of the character, Keaton said: “This guy sounds like the kind of wry, sardonic, glib young man I’ve played – and it ended up being so great. But you can’t do it better than Bill Murray did it.”

Josh Hartnett in Batman Begins

Josh Hartnett has been open about turning down a role that would have transformed his life and career. In 2015, he admitted that Christopher Nolan had sought him out to play Batman, but that fear got the better of him. “I was so focused on not being pigeonholed and so scared of being considered only one thing as an actor,” he told Playboy Magazine.

He realised he’d made a mistake when Nolan cast his eventual Batman, Christian Bale, in his Batman Begins follow-up The Prestige. “I decided [Batman] wasn’t for me. Then he didn’t want to put me in The Prestige. They not only hired their Batman for it, they also hired my girlfriend [Scarlett Johansson] at the time. That’s when I realised relationships were formed in the fire of that first Batman film, and I should have been part of the relationship with this guy Nolan, who I felt was incredibly cool and very talented.”

Josh Hartnett in 2006, not at the premiere of ‘The Prestige' (David Livingston/Getty Images)
Josh Hartnett in 2006, not at the premiere of ‘The Prestige' (David Livingston/Getty Images)

Michelle Pfeiffer in The Silence of the Lambs

In the early Nineties, Michelle Pfeiffer reportedly turned down a long list of massive roles, from Thelma & Louise and Pretty Woman to Basic Instinct and Sleepless in Seattle. While she said in 2017 that she had to turn down Thelma & Louise due to a scheduling conflict (“I still can’t watch it … it still kills me”), she’s admitted to regretting turning down The Silence of the Lambs, as it meant she didn’t get to work with the late filmmaker Jonathan Demme more than once.

Demme directed Pfeiffer in 1988’s Married to the Mob, and always envisioned her for the role of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling. But Pfeiffer got cold feet. “I was trepidatious,” she told The New Yorker earlier this year. “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.”

Jodie Foster ended up winning an Oscar for the role.

Halle Berry in Speed

Sandra Bullock has Halle Berry to thank for inadvertently making her a star. While promoting the 2019 sequel John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Berry admitted that she could have starred alongside Keanu Reeves decades earlier, as she was nearly cast in the runaway bus thriller Speed.

“I was offered Speed before Sandra Bullock,” Berry told Entertainment Tonight. “I stupidly said no. But in my defence, when I read the script the bus didn’t leave the parking lot.”

Bullock ended up playing Annie, who is tasked with driving a bus rigged with explosives. Berry said that she came to regret turning down the part. “I see the movie and I’m like, arrrghhh.”

Bruce Willis in Ghost

Willis and Demi Moore were a couple at the time they were both sent the script for the romantic drama Ghost in 1989 – but only one of them ended up doing it. While Moore starred alongside Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg in the film, which became the highest-grossing film of 1990, Willis found the whole concept confusing. A dead man attempting to help his grieving girlfriend move on while simultaneously solving his own murder? Pfft.

“I just didn’t get it,” Willis told The New York Times in 1996. “I said, ‘Hey, the guy’s dead. How are you gonna have a romance?’ Famous last words.” Just to punctuate his regrets, the Die Hard star dubbed himself a “knucklehead” for passing up the role.

Eddie Murphy in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The number of famous roles Eddie Murphy has played is almost as long as the number he turned down. He thought Ghostbusters sounded like “a crock” when he was offered it in the early Eighties, rejected Rush Hour in favour of the forgotten comedy Holy Man, and – probably wisely – said “no” to Driving Miss Daisy.

One film that he had second thoughts about, though, was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which originally wanted him for the role eventually played by Bob Hoskins. The film – a high-concept detective comedy that fused together live-action and animation – was a bold risk for 1987, and Murphy wasn’t convinced by it.

“I was like, ‘What?’,” he said in 2003. “Animation and people sounded like bulls*** to me. Now every time I see it, I feel like an idiot.”

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