The Best Movie Casting Rumors That Never Happened

When I was a young trade reporter, I relished the chance to chase down movie casting rumors and sort fact from fiction — a thankless job in a town known for bending the truth. I’ve heard all kinds of rumors over the past dozen-plus years, some of which have been verified, and others that have been lost to the notepads of yore.

In fact, just the other day, a friend and I were recounting some old movie casting rumors that never panned out, which got me thinking that I should turn the whole convo into an article. So, here I am with a list of 21 juicy ones — some you probably know, and others you may not. Together, they form an alternate history of Hollywood, where you don’t always get to choose your own adventure.

Keep in mind that “rumor” is an extremely loose and purposefully vague term that covers a wide swath of situations. Some of the stories below were actually happening at one point, confirmed by multiple sources and published in the trades, while others never quite got “there.” They were just smoke in search of a fire. The beauty of this piece is that nothing can be denied, since it’s all old conjecture anyway!

Of course, some of the projects below are still percolating, which means we must continue to wait and see who will play The Crow and Gambit and maybe even Hillary Clinton one day. Just remember that things change! People sign onto projects they’ve passed on years before, whether due to a new script, a new director, or new circumstances in their own lives and careers. Check out some of the close casting calls Hollywood has seen over the last decade and let me know if you think things worked out for the best, or if you’re left wondering what might’ve been. Let’s start with one you’re likely familiar with already, shall we?

Joaquin Phoenix as Doctor Strange

Image via WB/Disney

Remember when Joaquin Phoenix was spotted buying Doctor Strange comics in Connecticut while filming a Woody Allen movie? That was some hot tea at the time! Phoenix seemed to dig the character, but what he didn’t dig was the multi-movie deal Marvel demands of nearly all of its actors, so he left the Sorcerer’s Supreme’s red cloak to Benedict Cumberbatch and danced his way over to DC, where he won an Oscar for his brilliant performance as the Joker. This proved to be a win-win for everyone, as Cumberbatch did right by the character and is now a lynchpin of the MCU thanks to an upcoming sequel and a key role in Spider-Man 3.

Emma Stone in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (2019)

Image via Lionsgate/Sony

Sony has always considered Emma Stone to be homegrown talent, from Superbad and The House Bunny to Zombieland and Easy A. She even stuck around long enough to play Gwen Stacy in the studio’s Spider-Man franchise. Believe me, when it came time to reboot Charlie’s Angels, Stone was at the top of Sony’s list. A deal never came to fruition, but the studio did end up bringing Stone back for Zombieland: Double Tap, which outperformed Charlie’s Angels with both critics and audiences.

Bryan Cranston and Julianne Moore in ‘Gambit’

Image via Showtime/Sony/Fox

Yup, it’s true. Oscar winner Julianne Moore and Emmy winner Bryan Cranston were being sought to join Channing Tatum in the Gambit movie that never got off the ground. Cranston was being eyed to play the film’s villain, though it’s unclear whether he was actually interested in pursuing the part given his villainous turns in disappointing genre fare such as John Carter, Total Recall and Power Rangers. It proved to be a moot point, as Gambit was passed around from one director to another before Fox was sensible enough to pull the plug, and yes, this was the same studio that brought you Fantastic Four, X-Men: Apocalypse and The New Mutants. If they felt more confident in those films than Gambit, what more really needs to be said? It sounds like everyone sure dodged a bayou-sized bullet here, though Moore did wind up playing the villain in the studio’s subpar Kingsman sequel.

Carey Mulligan as Hillary Clinton

Image via Focus/Hulu

It’s the biopic that Washington’s power brokers didn’t want you to see! Young Il Kim‘s Rodham script nearly topped the 2012 Black List and the project seemed like it was on the fast-track at Lionsgate… until, of course, it wasn’t. The studio dropped the project and I haven’t heard a peep about it in years, but when it was active, rumor had it that promising young woman Carey Mulligan was being eyed to star. The ingenue was coming off impressive turns in An Education and Drive, and she had already been cast opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Mulligan is said to have passed on the part, though it could always come back to her should someone have the guts to greenlight that script… especially now that Hillary has retired from public service.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ant-Man and The Sandman

Image via Marvel/Fox Searclight/Vertigo

I’m a big Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan, and I wish we saw more of him on the big screen. We probably would have, too, if he’d managed to beat out Paul Rudd for the role of Ant-Man, who may have the biggest heart in the MCU despite being its smallest hero. Alas, Rudd charmed his way into the plum part, while Gordon-Levitt planned to continue directing following his well-received debut Don Jon. At one point, Gordon-Levitt was developing a Sandman movie in which he would’ve also starred, though the New Line project fell apart and was ultimately re-conceived as an upcoming Netflix series.

Josh Brolin as Owen in ‘Jurassic World’

Image via Fox/Universal

I don’t know about you, but I can definitely see Josh Brolin training velociraptors. So could Universal, as the studio had its eye on Brolin early on before opting to go a bit younger with Chris Pratt, who was also in peak eye candy form back then as he worked his way into shape for Guardians of the Galaxy. Brolin wound up playing Thanos in the Avengers sequels and Cable in Deadpool 2, so once again, things worked out for everyone, but this is a fun one to imagine what could’ve been.

Viggo Mortensen as General Zod in ‘Man of Steel’

Image via Disney/Warner Bros.

I thought Michael Shannon was quite good as General Zod, but it sure would’ve been interesting to see Viggo Mortensen play a villain in a major blockbuster. Then again, Mortensen is a rather restrained presence on the big screen, and Man of Steel called for a tough-talking bad guy, which I’m not sure is Mortensen’s thing. To be honest, the actor has largely eschewed big-budget fare since the Lord of the Rings movies, so as much as I’d love to see him in something like Green Lantern or Captain Marvel 2, those days may just be behind him, especially if he continues to focus on directing.

Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Welcome to Marwen’

Image via Paramount/Universal

Most of the entries on this list involve successful blockbusters, but I think it’s important to show how A-listers only stay on the A-list by avoiding major landmines, as Leonardo DiCaprio did when he passed on this weird remake of the acclaimed documentary Marwencol. Would this Robert Zemeckis movie have flopped like it did had it starred DiCaprio or another comparable star. Don’t get me wrong, I think Steve Carell did the best he could with this ill-conceived remake, but does DiCaprio possess the power to turn this melodramatic mediocrity into an Oscar contender? Leo clearly didn’t think he was up to the task, and it proved to be a smart choice for the actor, as the film topped out at just $13 million worldwide and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 34 percent fresh.

Will Poulter and Ben Mendelsohn as Pennywise in ‘It’

Image via A24/New Line/Disney

In development for years at New Line, the It movie saw several actors (and directors) come and go over the years before Bill Skarsgard put his stamp on the character. Will Poulter nearly played the dancing clown, with his relatively young age considered an asset by fans. Ben Mendelsohn, who has carved out quite a niche for himself as a villain (Ready Player One, Rogue One), would’ve brought something even more sinister to the role. I don’t think anyone can argue with what Bill Skarsgard brought to the role, as he had some big shoes to fill (literally) and did an admirable job. Having said that, I’ll always wonder what those It movies would’ve looked like — and if I would’ve liked them more — had Poulter or Mendelsohn been waiting down in that sewer.

The Alternate Career of Tom Cruise

Image via MGM/WB/Sony/MTV

In Hollywood, an actor’s career is just a series of decisions. Some are more important than others, but at the end of the day, people are just a collection of their choices. Tom Cruise is box office gold who is offered a ton of scripts every year, though he can only say ‘yes’ to a small few. Of course, even if you manage to attach Cruise to star in your movie, there’s no guarantee that movie will actually happen. Such was the case with this quintet of projects. Yes, Rock of Ages star Cruise was going to star in the remake of A Star Is Born that ultimately went to Bradley Cooper, who also directed. Cruise was also set to star in Salt before the studio decided to gender-flip the lead and cast Angelina Jolie. Cruise also nearly starred in The Magnificent Seven remake that was ultimately led by Denzel Washington, and he was also poised to team up with Ben Stiller on The Hardy Men, which reimagined the Hardy Boys as adults. The two wound up working together on Tropic Thunder.

Finally, one of the most intriguing Tom Cruise projects that never got made was called Men, and it was going to be directed by Todd Phillips. I’d love to see those two work together, if only because I think the result would be really interesting. Unfortunately, none of these projects were meant to be, and even though he’s pushing 60, Cruise remains focused on his Mission: Impossible franchise, a Top Gun sequel that looks awesome, and a Universal movie that will actually take him where no actor has gone before — to outer space.

Alternate Casting for Matt Reeves’ ‘The Batman’

Image via HBO Max/Netflix/Sony

Paul Dano is such perfect casting as the Riddler that it’s actually kind of frightening, but two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was originally eyed for the part, even though many assumed he’d be a better fit as the Penguin. Speaking of Oswald Cobblepot, director Matt Reeves wanted Seth Rogen to play the Penguin before Colin Farrell stepped in and literally disappeared into the role. Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali was courted to play DC’s Jim Gordon, though Ali ultimately signed on to star in a new Blade movie being mounted by Marvel after playing Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. It seems he has chosen his side in this eternal war between the two comics giants. But again, based on the first trailer for The Batman, I’d say Reeves chose wisely, and Jeffrey Wright looks like a great Gordon.

Christian Bale as Steve Jobs

Image via Lionsgate/Universal

Yeah, we all know that Leonardo DiCaprio was originally offered this role, but to be honest, I think that was a status thing more than anything. Like, you kind of have to go to Leo first with that project, just to check off the box and say you did. When the rumor dropped that Leo had passed and Christian Bale was now being sought to play the Apple genius, that felt more right to me. Bale was known to have a temper at that time, and Steve Jobs wasn’t known for being warm and cuddly either. In the end, things didn’t work out, and Michael Fassbender wound up being amazing as Jobs, but I would’ve loved to have seen Bale’s interpretation of the man and how he would’ve approached that performance.

Tatiana Maslany or Rooney Mara in ‘Rogue One’

Image via BBC America/Disney/Sony

Felicity Jones faced stiff competition for the coveted role of Jyn Erso in this Star Wars spinoff, as many rising young starlets vied for the plum part. Rooney Mara, who proved herself up for a good fight in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was up for the role, as was Orphan Black sensation Tatiana Maslany. In the end, Jones had just the right mix of what the producers were looking for following her breakout turn in Like Crazy and a well-received performance in The Theory of Everything. There’s a reason that Jones went on to played Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it’s because she exudes a certain strength as an actress, something that served her well here. Mara and Maslany do the same, of course, but I’m not sure either were the right fit for this four-quadrant blockbuster. Sometimes, Hollywood really does pick the best person for the job.

Luke Evans and Jason Momoa as The Crow

Image via Relativity/Miramax/Warner Bros.

Oh, my beloved Crow! No project has had such an up-and-down rollercoaster ride like The Crow reboot, which is still supposedly in the works even though there’s no talent attached at the moment. Luke Evans was poised to star at one point when Corin Hardy was directing, followed by Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa, but neither attachment got the project off the ground — almost as if it were cursed. Clearly, it was as if the producers were going for the antithesis of Brandon Lee so as to not to invite no-win comparisons. I don’t think Evans or Momoa were truly right for the part, which could be special in the right hands, just as it was in Lee’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt take a stab at it now that Robert Pattinson is off playing Batman, but a female Crow could be cool too…

Hailee Steinfeld as Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games’

Image via Paramount/Lionsgate

This was one of the hottest casting searches in movie history, and even though Lionsgate hit a grand slam with the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, who’s to say that Hailee Steinfeld wouldn’t have also worked as Katniss Everdeen? Sure, she’s a bit younger than Lawrence, but she is nearly as formidable an actress, as evidenced by her work in True Grit, The Edge of Seventeen and Apple’s Dickinson. Then again, putting a huge franchise like The Hunger Games on Steinfeld’s young shoulders may have stunted her growth as a performer. She waited a bit before wading into big-budget fare like Bumblebee and the upcoming Hawkeye show, and that early setback may have served her well in the long run.

Denzel Washington as Cipher in ‘The Fate of the Furious’

Image via Universal Pictures

Back in 2013, it was reported that Denzel Washington had passed on a small role in Furious 7, which I just assumed was Kurt Russell‘s role as Mr. Nobody. The producers desperately wanted to find a place for Denzel in the Fast franchise, but I think he was looking for a more substantial part. That’s when Universal offered him the role of the villain in The Fate of the Furious. Yes, the role that was ultimately played by fellow Oscar winner Charlize Theron. I’m sure Theron’s casting as Cipher necessitated certain changes to the character beyond mere gender, so the role might’ve looked a bit different had Denzel signed on, but regardless, I think Denzel likes to be the star of the show when he’s on set — and we all know that can be an issue when it comes to this star-studded franchise. Could Universal pull off the unthinkable and sign Denzel for the final installment? Anything is possible… but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Benicio del Toro and Edgar Ramirez as Khan in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

Image via Lionsgate/Paramount/HBO

Ah, yes. John Harrison. Who could forget Benedict Cumberbatch‘s villainous turn aboard the USS Enterprise? I suppose if J.J. Abrams had just cast Benicio del Toro or Edgar Ramirez as originally rumored, he wouldn’t have been able to maintain the element of surprise. Of course, if the mystery box is more interesting than the movie its in, you’re already doomed, and such was the fate of this toothless sequel. Would things have been different had Oscar winner del Toro played the part? Probably not. But at least we would’ve been spared a predictable mystery that could’ve only ended one way — in disappointment.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Blofeld in ‘Spectre’

Image via Fox Searchlight/Sony

Now this was a fun rumor! Hot off his excellent turn in 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor was reportedly the frontrunner to play the new Bond villain in Spectre. I don’t know what happened, but somewhere along the way, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz swooped in to nab the iconic role of Blofeld. Keep in mind that Javier Bardem‘s turn as Raoul Silva in Skyfall set a high bar for franchise villains, so whoever tackled this important character would have their work cut out for them on multiple fronts. Spectre wasn’t great, so perhaps Ejiofor’s absence was for the best. There’s still plenty of time for him to play a Bond villain, after all.

Brad Pitt in ‘Focus’

Image via Sony/Warner Bros.

Years before they co-starred in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie nearly shared the screen in WB’s con man movie Focus, which ultimately starred Will Smith. However, there was a time when Pitt was poised to play smooth-talking swindler Nicky Spurgeon, who takes an inexperienced grifter (Robbie) under his wing. Pitt could’ve pulled off that real in his sleep, and though he never signed on the dotted line, he and Robbie did wind up sharing a 2015 credit, as they both went on to appear in The Big Short.

Tom Hanks in ‘Triple Frontier’

Image via DreamWorks/Netflix

Can you imagine if this Netflix movie had actually starred Tom Hanks and Will Smith, as originally planned when Kathryn Bigelow was slated to direct? Or Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp? Or Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum, with a side of Mahershala Ali? Triple Frontier obviously cycled through numerous leading men before landing on Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac, but Hanks was always the juiciest possibility, as this men-on-a-mission movie  harkened back to his Saving Private Ryan days. I believe Hanks would’ve played Affleck’s role, though I have a tough time picturing it. He’d go on to make his streaming debut the following year with the submarine movie Greyhound, which premiered on Apple TV+.

Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami
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