Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most ambitious film projects of all time. Adapting one of the most famous novels in the world is no mean feat and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has the added trouble of being three novels. The entire project took eight years to put together, even before filming started, with a budget between $280 and 330 million, depending on who you ask. Then 18 months filming in New Zealand, shooting all three movies simultaneously. It stands to reason that the casting for such a project would be equally involved. The dozens of main characters, and hundreds of important side characters, all needed to be filled by some of the best talent Hollywood could offer.
But there was another wrinkle: Peter Jackson also didn’t want the fame of his stars overshadowing the characters or the story. He wanted talented actors, but he didn’t want stars like Will Smith or Tom Cruise, who can occasionally overpower their roles. This list covers some of the most famous actors who were considered at one point or another. Some were offered the part but turned it down, others campaigned to be cast but were turned down themselves.
15. LIAM NEESON (BOROMIR)
Hot off the success of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Liam Neeson was a bit of a hot commodity in Hollywood. Not much is known about the choices that led to Neeson being offered the part of Boromir.
He was offered the role, read the script, and turned it down. Perhaps he wasn’t eager to jump into another franchise that would see him die in the first instalment.
Instead, Neeson found his way into Gangs of New York, Love Actually, Kingdom of Heaven, and Batman Begins. Eventually, he would join another famous literary fantasy franchise as the voice of the lion Aslan in Chronicles of Narnia. A bit of a funny happenstance, considering Tolkien and Narnia writer C.S. Lewis’s real-life friendship and friendly rivalry.
14. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (FRODO)
Jake Gyllenhaal was still a relative unknown when he auditioned for the part of Frodo in 1999. At only 18, he had appeared in a few films and television shows as minor parts, but had yet to make his big break.
By his own admission, it was a terrible audition, especially considering he apparently didn’t even bother with an English accent, not knowing one was required.
But his disappointment would not last long, as he would be cast in cult classic Donnie Darko shortly thereafter. A few years after that, he would receive an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain. He would go on to establish himself as a talented actor, in films such as Jarhead, Zodiac, and Nightcrawler. He would even dip his toe into the missed fantasy opportunity with Prince of Persia.
13. ETHAN HAWKE (FARAMIR)
While Ethan Hawke had dabbled in a bit of Shakespeare, he had never taken on a more fantastical role when Peter Jackson put him at the top of the list for Faramir. Recently married to Uma Thurman, who was also in talks to be cast in the trilogy, it would have been their first movie together as a married couple.
While Hawke’s reasons for turning down the part are unknown, it’s likely the large time commitment turned him off, as it did many others.
Appearing in a whopping five movies, including Training Day, in 2001, the year of Fellowship of the Ring‘s release, it’s likely he had a number of other projects he didn’t want to put on hold to live in New Zealand for a year and a half.
12. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS (ARAGORN)
Daniel Day-Lewis is widely regarded as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, so it’s no wonder Peter Jackson and the casting directors of Lord of the Rings were so eager to get him on board. Of course, because he’s so talented, he’s also very in demand, and can therefore afford to be a little picky.
Day-Lewis doesn’t appear in films often, usually one every few years, only choosing roles he feels passionate about.
While Jackson and his team offered the actor several increasingly lucrative offers, Day-Lewis turned them down in turn. This likely indicates he just wasn’t feeling the role of Aragorn. He also tends to avoid big-budget summer blockbusters, choosing instead to appear in more focused character works, which Lord of the Rings decidedly is not.
11. NICOLAS CAGE (ARAGORN)
Nicolas Cage is fairly infamous for rarely turning down roles, and for his often bombastic and scenery chewing performances. And he’s certainly not afraid of fantasy roles, as his later appearances in Ghost Rider and Season of the Witch show. Cage certainly would have been the biggest star in the cast had he chosen to accept the role of Aragorn.
Interestingly, Cage also turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix around the same time and his reasoning for turning down both roles was the same.
As with most of the actors on this list, the time commitment turned him off. He turned down both parts because he wanted to spend more time with his family, something 18 months of shooting in New Zealand would not allow.
10. KATE WINSLET (EOWYN)
Kate Winslet and Peter Jackson had a long relationship well before Lord of the Rings. Jackson cast Winslet in her first film role in his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures. Winslet would go on to continue the strong start to her acting career, scoring roles in Sense and Sensibility and Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet, before accepting her star-making role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 1997’s Titanic.
Winslet wasn’t thrilled with the fame and notoriety that came with starring in such a huge blockbuster. For this reason, she turned down Jackson when he offered to cast her in Lord of the Rings.
9. WARWICK DAVIS (GIMLI)
Warwick Davis is one of the most famous actors you’ve never heard of. Appearing in the original Star Wars trilogy in various roles, he would spend much of the 90s in the schlocky Leprechaun series. 1999’s The Phantom Menace would see a resurgence for Davis that continues today.
After playing three roles in Phantom Menace, he was offered the part of Gimli in Lord of the Rings.
While Gimli would obviously have been a great role, he turned it down to instead appear in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone as Professor Flitwick and a goblin bank teller. He would go on to appear in all eight Harry Potter films, adding a third role along the way, and would return again to Star Wars, appearing in the first four Disney entries.
8. VIN DIESEL (ARAGORN)
Before Vin Diesel was a reasonably famous actor, he was a big dumb nerd. Famous for playing Dungeons & Dragons with his castmates while filming Chronicles of Riddick, it’s no surprise that he auditioned for Lord of the Rings.
Armed only with his love of the series and a small part in Saving Private Ryan, he was turned down.
He landed on his feet, however, first starting the tumultuous Riddick series with Pitch Black, then landing his star-making role as Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. Released the same year as Lord of the Rings, Fast and the Furious would end up one of the most successful franchises of all time, providing Diesel with a bit of comfort for losing out on a pretty big chunk of nerd cred.
7. LUCY LAWLESS (GALADRIEL)
Lucy Lawless was at the top of her game when fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson called her up to appear as the queen of the Lorien elves. Starring in Xena: Warrior Princess had made Lawless one of the more desired television actresses in Hollywood, but more important was her native country.
As you may have noticed, most actors weren’t willing to live halfway across the world for a year and a half. Fortunately for Jackson, Lawless was also a New Zealand native, which would make the transition a lot easier. Unfortunately for Jackson, Lawless had just had a baby in 1998. Unable to balance filming a movie, filming a television show (Xena was still going strong), and parenting a child, Lawless was forced to turn the role down.
6. PATRICK MCGOOHAN (GANDALF)
Most readers will likely remember Patrick McGoohan for his chilling role as Edward the Longshanks in Braveheart. Before that, though, McGoohan had an acting career spanning more than 40 years. And in those years, he turned down several of some of the biggest roles in Hollywood. The biggest was likely turning down James Bond twice, first for the original Dr. No and again when offered to replace Sean Connery in Live and Let Die.
He would also turn down the role of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.
While he was Jackson’s first choice to play Gandalf, there was no real getting around his advancing age and failing health.
5. RUSSELL CROWE (ARAGORN)
Another native New Zealander, Russell Crowe was second on the list after Daniel Day-Lewis repeatedly turned down Jackson’s offers. While still a rising star (Gladiator was still a year away), Crowe was eager to take part in such a high-profile project filming in his native land.
Despite this, scheduling conflicts with A Beautiful Mind forced him to turn down the role.
Interestingly, there was a financial factor in his decision, as well. As the trilogy’s budget continued to balloon, Crowe was offered 10% of the profits rather than an up-front salary. While in hindsight ($2.9 billion box office!) this seems like a great deal, Crowe was still relatively unknown at the time and needed the money more quickly than waiting two years for a potential payout.
4. UMA THURMAN (ARWEN)
Between her two most famous roles in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Uma Thurman almost filled the gap with Lord of the Rings. However, just like Lucy Lawless, she had just given birth to her first child, with then-husband Ethan Hawke.
With Hawke also in talks to appear in the films, Thurman didn’t want to relocate her entire family to New Zealand so soon after the birth.
The exact timing of the two actors dropping out of the project is unknown, but it is known that Thurman dropped out before Hawke, assuming he would already be away from home for an extended period of time. Fortunately for audiences, though, it meant that Kill Bill, already delayed by Thurman’s second pregnancy, came out a little bit sooner.
3. PATRICK STEWART (GANDALF)
Patrick Stewart and actual Gandalf Ian McKellen have a well-documented and long lasting friendship.
Stewart was initially on the shortlist for Gandalf, but turned the role down after reading the script. In addition, he requested another unknown part, but was denied.
As with most of the actors listed here, it mostly came down to the massive time commitment the trilogy required. His time commitments to both X-Men (more involved than co-star McKellen), and a continuing series of Star Trek: The Next Generation films and video games made it difficult for him to relocate. Turning down the part was likely much easier knowing that his friend had taken the role, although there are probably more than a few good natured jokes at his expense for turning down such a successful part.
2. DAVID BOWIE (GANDALF/ELROND)
While David Bowie is most famous for his music, he also had a number of beloved film roles. His turn as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth remains a cult favorite. When casting for Lord of the Rings began, Jackson was considering Bowie for Gandalf.
Bowie wasn’t eager to take such a large part with a large time commitment, instead pushing to be cast as lord of Rivendell Elrond.
Ultimately, Jackson, worried that more famous faces might distract from the narrative, decided against casting Bowie. In the meantime, Bowie would start work on ultimately unreleased album Toy and the album Heathen. His acting career wouldn’t fall by the wayside either, making a memorable cameo in Zoolander the year of Fellowship‘s release and appearing in The Prestige a few years later.
1. SEAN CONNERY (GANDALF)
Perhaps the most famous instance of “guy what was almost in Lord of the Rings,” Connery walked away from a massive paycheck offered to play the iconic wizard. His reasoning? He just didn’t get it.
After reading the books and the script, he said he didn’t understand the story or the role itself.
He cited similar reasoning for turning down the role of Dumbledore in Harry Potter. Eventually, he would take a role he didn’t understand in the ill-fated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but by that point his career was largely winding down. It’s likely that his age was also a factor in his decision to turn down Gandalf, as he was nearly 70 by the time filming would begin. Ian McKellen, for comparison, is nearly a decade younger, still in his late 50s when filming began.
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