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10 Actors Who Almost Didn’t Take Career-Defining Roles

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

It’s easy to take for granted that the incredible actors who delivered enthralling performances in some of our favorite movies and television shows were meant to have the roles the entire time. But behind the scenes, they had to audition for the roles before being picked. And in some cases, they weren’t even the first choice of producers to play that character. If one little change had been made here or there, and fate had intervened differently, the actor you love might never have been cast in that part.

But what happens when it’s the actors themselves who stumbles and balks at taking a role? In this list, we’ll tell the crazy stories of ten actors who almost didn’t accept what wound up being career-defining roles. They paused before taking the character on and nearly refused the part. In the end, the productions changed their lives. But it’s pretty crazy to think back about what might have happened had they turned down these roles like they’d initially wanted!

Related: Ten Actors Who Didn’t Get to Use Their Own Voice

10 Jet Li

Mulan: Jet Li explains why he made the movie for his daughter | Extra Butter Interview

Jet Li wasn’t planning on playing the Chinese emperor in Mulan. He didn’t want to return to the big screen at all, in fact. He was content to hang out as a family man, being a dad to his kids and living a much quieter life after his Hollywood turn had faded. But his daughter Jada was the one who eventually convinced him to take the role! It wasn’t about the money or anything else like that. It was about Jada wanting her dad to promote some of the positive aspects of Chinese culture to the world!

Recalling how Jada convinced him to take on the role despite his initial refusal to join the cast, the iconic action star said she convinced him like this: “She said, ‘Can you make the movie for me?’ That’s how I decided to make this film.” It’s easy to turn down a producer or director, depending on the project; it’s a whole lot tougher to turn down your own daughter![1]

9 Amanda Seyfried

The Dropout | Trailer | Hulu

Kate McKinnon was supposed to play Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout, but she ended up, well, dropping out. So producers scrambled and offered the role to Amanda Seyfried. But initially, Amanda turned it down! At the time, she was already working on a movie far away from her New York home, and the thought of spending even more time away from home didn’t really sit right with her. Even if it meant passing up a great role! Along with her husband, she decided that The Dropout wasn’t going to be right for her, so she told producers to drop her from the project, too.

Recalling how that happened in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Seyfriend explained: “Listen, I was having a f**king moment, okay? I had COVID. I was isolating in the basement of a gross townhouse in Savannah, Georgia because my husband was working on a movie there. And now an LA shoot? Pass!” We can commiserate. But the next morning, the “moment” Seyfriend had been having fully passed. She called back producers and told them that she’d had a change of heart and would accept the role![2]

8 Ralph Fiennes

Top 10 – Voldemort Moments

Ralph Fiennes was ready to say no to the offer of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He didn’t think much of the books because he hadn’t read them, so he didn’t understand what people (and mostly children) loved about them. In turn, he had no clue how big the movies were going to be. Instead, he thought, hey, why bother? He would rather do more adult fare. But it took a very influential casting director sitting him down and pretty much forcing him to accept the role for Ralph to realize how much of a big deal it was to join the Harry Potter universe.

“In my stupid ignorance, I hadn’t read the books,” he recalled years later during an interview on Watch What Happens Live with host Andy Cohen. “I hadn’t seen the first movies, and I was, I have to say, a little snobby about it until the casting director—great lady, English Lady, Mary Selway sat me down. I’ve known Mary for many years. She could be tough and very insistent, and she just said, ‘You have to do this movie. Just do it, Ralph.’ And she said it with such emphasis. My sister, Martha, who has children, said, ‘You’re not gonna do Voldemort? You’re thinking of saying no?’” Good thing he didn’t say no![3]

7 Alan Rickman

Die Hard – How Alan Rickman Created the Perfect Antagonist

Alan Rickman initially didn’t think much of the movie Die Hard. When he read the script and realized it was completely and entirely an action film, he lost interest right away. He didn’t want to do any action films and felt they demeaned him as a more serious actor. Eventually, though, he was worn down by the producer Joel Silver to actually take on a role in the iconic flick. Rickman had just a few requests, though—he wanted to make some key changes to his character. Amazed that they could get an actor the quality of Rickman on board at all, Silver quickly agreed to let him change some things.

During a BAFTA Life in Pictures event years after Die Hard came out and became such a massive success, Rickman recalled his reticence. “I read [the script], and I said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.’ Agents and people said: ‘Alan, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. You’ve only been in L.A. two days, and you’ve been asked to do this film.’” As it turns out, he made the wise choice to take on the role. Even if he felt like action movies were mostly beneath him![4]

6 Emma Stone

‘A Lovely Night’ Scene | La La Land

Emma Stone almost decided not to star in La La Land because she had just wrapped up working on another musical, and she was exhausted. The actress had gotten “very sick” after doing Cabaret on Broadway, as she recalled years later to the Hollywood Reporter. In turn, when she was offered the role in La La Land, she almost couldn’t believe it.

“The idea of doing another musical was, like, ‘you’ve got to be out of your mind,’” she told THR about her reactions when she was first offered a chance to star. “My voice was gone, and I was struggling to get through the shows because I was still doing Cabaret. After Cabaret, I wasn’t sure I would ever sing or dance again.”

Luckily for her and us, La La Land writer and director Damien Chazelle finally wore her down. He convinced her to look at the script and dive into it. Then, after she slowly started to get more interested, he turned the screws and assured her that it would be a next-level production and truly alter her career. And it did! In 2016, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie. Bet she’s glad she didn’t cut musicals out entirely for that![5]

5 Jenna Ortega

How Jenna Ortega Became Wednesday Addams | Teen Vogue

Jenna Ortega was an up-and-coming star hoping to be Hollywood’s next “it” girl when Netflix approached her about starring in their production Wednesday. Ortega didn’t really want to do the project, though. She was concerned at the time that doing yet another television show, even for a high-profile streamer, would typecast her and limit her career. She wanted to break into movies and bigger, more high-profile productions. So she dragged her feet even as Netflix dangled a nice check and begged her to reconsider her position. But eventually, they wore her down.

Recalling that dynamic to the Times in an interview about her initial hesitation to join up with the production of Wednesday, Jenna said that it was actually Tim Burton who was the one who managed to convince her to take on the role! “I was scared that signing on to another television show could prevent me from doing other jobs I really wanted and cared about,” Jenna explained to that outlet. “Tim [Burton] is such a legend, and we just happened to get along very well. But even then, I said, ‘Ah, no, I think I’m okay,’ a couple [more] times.” Eventually, though, Burton’s persuasion won out![6]

4 Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio Almost Passed On ‘Titanic’

It seems incredibly difficult to imagine it now, but Leonardo DiCaprio actually didn’t want anything to do with Titanic when the movie was in pre-production. Kate Winslet was, of course, signed on. Director James Cameron had a massive budget, very high standards, and an incredible vision of how the movie would turn out. He just needed a leading man to really seal the deal. So, he turned to Leo. And Leo… turned him down! Yes, really!

Years later, Cameron revealed that the young DiCaprio felt like being a leading man in a movie like that wasn’t enough of a challenge for the acting roles he wanted to pursue in his future. He initially denied the role for himself, only for James to badger Leo until the director had “convinced him that it was actually a difficult challenge.”

Speaking to People Magazine about it years later, Cameron revealed: “He didn’t want to do a leading man [role]. I had to really twist his arm to be in the movie. He didn’t want to do it. He thought it was boring.” Amazing. Could you even imagine that movie with anybody but DiCaprio in the leading role?![7]

3 Rachel Zegler

How Rachel Zegler Became Lucy Gray Baird in ‘The Hunger Games’ 🕊🐍 | Teen Vogue

Rachel Zegler was offered the role of a lifetime when the producers of The Hunger Games gave her a chance to play Lucy Gray Baird in those films. But she wasn’t into it! The issue wasn’t the movie itself nor the role she was tasked with playing. The problem was that director Francis Lawrence had informed Rachel that the production would take months and be done entirely in Germany and Poland. Zegler simply didn’t want to be away from home for that long, so she turned it down! But then, when another movie she was working on suffered its own production delay, she suddenly had an open period in her schedule.

“I was away from everybody that I knew and loved, and I said ‘no,’ and I regretted it the second I said it,” Rachel recalled years later on the Happy Sad Confused podcast. “I had another project lined up that fell through that got pushed into 2023, and I just kind of put my name back into the mix and got it, and I feel really bad for any of the girls…. because I put my name back in, and they were like, ‘Yup, okay, cool, we’ll do it.’” That’s how Hollywood works sometimes![8]

2 Chris Evans

“Best decision of my life!” Chris Evans on becoming Captain America.

In 2010, Chris Evans was invited to take a screen test for Captain America: The First Avenger. He was hesitant about doing the role, though. Superhero movies back then weren’t anywhere near as big as they are now. And he was dealing with major personal issues, too: namely, he had been having “mini panic attacks” while dealing with debilitating anxiety during his time working on other film sets. So he turned down the Marvel audition. He felt like he wasn’t in the best place to succeed on screen and wasn’t worthy of a massive production like that, even if the screen test had gone well.

Amazingly, Marvel wanted him so badly that they offered him the part anyway. However, Chris had to circle the proverbial wagons with family members, friends, co-stars, and even therapists before accepting it. Eventually, he shed his fears and anxieties and stepped into stardom—reluctantly. Recalling that turbulent time years later, he said: “It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I really owe that to [Marvel president] Kevin Feige for being persistent and helping me avoid making a giant mistake.” No kidding! Talk about a life-changing role![9]

1 Ewan McGregor

Star Wars Episode III: Becoming Obi-Wan Webisode

When Ewan McGregor was first offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, he didn’t really want to do it. The Star Wars franchise was a big one, no doubt. But he was very reluctant to accept the now-iconic role for a few reasons. For one, he didn’t see himself as the right fit for the role. A sci-fi/fantasy-type movie wasn’t exactly what he wanted to be doing. And even though he knew it had the potential to be the role of a lifetime as far as fame and publicity were concerned, he was worried that it might hamper his other acting pursuits.

“It wasn’t a done deal for me,” McGregor told Variety in early 2024 about looking back on his major hesitance in accepting the role of Obi-Wan. “I didn’t think it was at all who I was. I believed, at that point, I was a Danny Boyle actor. [The film] The Beach was more important, and I meant it, it wasn’t flippant. I did ask a lot of people for advice.”

Oh, and that wasn’t the only issue with McGregor’s turn in Star Wars! The other problem was that the first film wasn’t exactly critically or culturally well-received when it came out! Recalling how difficult it was to knock out future projects in that same vein after the first flick got mostly panned, Ewan added: “When these films came out, they were so disliked. That was hard. The first one was panned, and we still had to make another two! It was weird to be in a film that was hammered.” Ouch! Still, we bet that he’s glad he stuck it out now![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen