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Why Matt Damon Turned Down So Many Huge Roles

Hollywood's A-list nice guy Matt Damon isn't exactly hurting for big film roles. With huge hits like the Bourne franchise, the Ocean's movies, Good Will Hunting, and The Martian, he's got his pick of the silver screen litter. But for all his blockbusters, Damon has probably turned down just as many career-changing roles as he's taken—and we've rounded up some of the biggest hits he could've starred in right here.

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's big blue blockbuster may have been a spacebound reboot of Pocahontas, but there's no denying the numbers Avatar pulled in theaters...or the impact it had on modern filmmaking. With one of the biggest budgets in history, you might have thought it'd have the biggest stars in history, too. Instead, Avatar plugged Sam Worthington, a relatively unknown Australian actor, into the lead role. By all accounts, Worthington was Cameron's first pick for the film, but the producers balked at the idea of blowing billions on a film with a "who's that guy?" in the lead. They initially pushed for bigger names.

Cameron played along and approached Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal about the part, but both agreed it wouldn't work. Damon was gearing up to film Green Zone, a gritty Iraq political thriller, with Bourne director Paul Greengrass. Gyllenhaal similarly declined. And Cameron? Well, Cameron really just wanted Sam Worthington the whole time. He told the Los Angeles Times, "Honestly, did I go out and try to woo them? No, I had my heart set on Sam."

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Before Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger signed on to play the leads in Ang Lee's groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain, the movie almost went in a completely different direction. A Damon direction. At the time, Damon was shopping around for roles and got into talks to do a little $14 million adaptation of a short story about two sheep herders who fall in love, which his friend and longtime collaborator Gus Van Sant was interested in directing. Damon would play the role of Ennis del Mar (which went to Heath Ledger), with Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Twist.

In an interview with Playboy, Damon said he liked the idea, but he just couldn't swing that way at the time. He remembers telling Van Sant, "I just did a gay movie and a cowboy movie. I can't do a gay cowboy movie right now." He went on to say it was one role he didn't regret turning down: "The right actor got the part," he told Playboy. "Heath Ledger was magnificent."

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

After The Bourne Ultimatum, things were pretty much wrapped up for our amnesiac super-agent. Bourne knew who he was, Operation Blackbriar's treachery was exposed to the world, and all the bad guys were either dead or in cuffs. Roll credits, franchise over, let's do that thing with the Japanese goldfish. But a horse isn't dead until it stops kicking, and deep in the bowels of Hollywood, the furious scribbling of pens was already giving birth to another Bourne film: The Bourne Legacy, a.k.a. The One With Jeffrey Dahmer.

What could have been is hard to say, but from the start, the movie was turned down by director Paul Greengrass—and with Greengrass out, Damon was soon to follow, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I wouldn't do it without [Paul Greengrass] but I don't feel like he's done with it totally. I think he'd change his mind if a good script came along. If there was a great Bourne idea, he would love to do it."

Damon later expanded on his reasons for turning down the role in an interview with Playboy, saying, "The thing that drove Bourne, the deepest source of his angst and anguish, what made him interesting, was the fact that he didn't have his memory. By the end of the last one we did, he has his memory back. When he knows who he is and where he's going, there's not much left for me to play." Well, either Bourne got another clunk on the head or the money was ultimately too good to pass up, because both Damon and Greengrass were back in the Bourne business with 2016's Jason Bourne.

Star Trek (2009)

Long before 2009's Star Trek reboot hit theaters, the online rumor mill was already spinning with whispers that Matt Damon was attached to headline the film. Both Damon and director J.J. Abrams were quick to deny the rumors, and as we all know, the role of Captain James Kirk went to Chris Pine. But Damon was offered the part of another Kirk—James's father, George Kirk, who dies in the opening scene during James's birth.

In an interview with MTV, Abrams said, "I went to [Matt] Damon for the role of Kirk's father, but he declined in the most gracious and understandable and logical of reasons," which is probably Hollywood talk for "he was too busy to do my epic space movie." After all, 2009 and 2010 saw Damon in the back-to-back Oscar-nominees Invictus and True Grit. Who has time for one of the most profitable film franchises in history, right? It's like what you say when someone asks if you want tacos or steak:


The Dark Knight (2008)

Speaking of profitable franchises, there was a brief period of time when Matt Damon nearly starred in The Dark Knight. Not as Batman—although there's a laundry list of actors who nearly nabbed the role of the Caped Crusader—but as Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. Ultimately, it came down to a scheduling conflict—Damon simply didn't have the time to do it, according to an interview he gave to MTV. And while he said he's a big fan of Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, he also doesn't have any misgivings about losing out on the role to Aaron Eckhart. As he put it, "Look, Aaron is a great actor, so the movie didn't suffer for it. Every now and then you get one and you can't do it."

Milk (2008)

Another film Damon had to pass on due to scheduling conflicts was the 2008 Oscar-winning drama Milk (and the Oscar-nominated role of Dan White that went to Josh Brolin). A historical portrait of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected by the state of California, Milk was one movie Damon was dead set on making. But when production started earlier than predicted, Damon found himself in the painful position of wrapping up Green Zone while the Milk crew scouted for a more available actor. Damon's response? "S***, no. That was my part." However, he warmed up to the casting decision after seeing the movie, telling Playboy, "When I saw Milk, Josh Brolin was so f***ing good that I knew [Steven] Soderbergh was right," in reference to one of the director's comments that "the right actor gets the part."

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Werner Herzog's 2006 war drama Rescue Dawn stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn as two American soldiers imprisoned in a Vietcong POW camp. Several years before its release, Herzog got to talking with Damon about playing the lead, U.S. pilot Dieter Dengler. It was right up Damon's alley—a gritty war flick helmed by an acclaimed director—and he was on the verge of taking the role...right up until he spoke with his mom.

When asked about the movie during a press conference for 2011's The Adjustment Bureau, Damon said he and Herzog had several conversations about the project, but when he mentioned it to his mother, she told him, "You don't always have to go into the jungle and lose a bunch of weight, you're allowed to have fun." That bit of motherly advice was enough to change Damon's mind, and he dropped out to do the lighthearted Farrelly Brothers comedy Stuck on You with Greg Kinnear. Considering that Christian Bale went on to eat live maggots and tangle with wild snakes—and yes, lose a bunch of weight in the jungle—to film Rescue Dawn, it was probably the smart choice.

Paycheck (2003)

If there's one thing audiences took away from Paycheck, it's that sometimes we all wish we could forget the past. Directed by action veteran John Woo and based on a story by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report), the movie seemed like a sure thing. The reality was a vanilla sundae of cardboard acting and a storyline so watered down it ended up drowning. Like Open Water, if Open Water had more water.

But before Ben Affleck landed the starring role, Woo personally tried to bring Damon on board to star. Damon, then right in the middle of the first two Bourne movies, declined, saying that the premises—oth films feature a man fighting to remember his past—were too similar. As Affleck related to the San Francisco Chronicle, Damon and Woo met to discuss the part, and Damon told Woo, "I can't do two amnesia pictures or else people are going to say why are you doing so many amnesia pictures?" So Damon threw the part to his buddy Ben. Years later, now that the dust has settled, it looks like everybody involved ended up coming out ahead. Hooray for a happy ending.

Daredevil (2003)

Paycheck wasn't the only film that saddled Affleck with Damon's sloppy seconds. The same year, Damon turned down a starring role in Daredevil, albeit for different reasons. A self-professed comic book geek as a kid, Damon claims to have held a special love for Daredevil. "For us it was always Daredevil," he told the Daily News. "That's the comic we read when we were kids." Obviously he was interested when the part in Marvel's 2003 big-screen adaptation came his way. But as anyone in a leaky submarine eventually learns, sometimes there's just too much pressure. When push came to shove, he couldn't do it: "When that one came along I chickened out, because I couldn't tell. I hadn't seen the director's work and I didn't know. So I just said, 'No.'" Eh, maybe it was for the best.

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

In 1995, Matt Damon was just another unknown actor trying to make it in Hollywood. All but broke and still a few years shy of Good Will Hunting, he was approached by TriStar Studios about a role in a western called The Quick and the Dead. Their pitch? A cool $250,000. Before that, Damon was only pulling in a mere $20,000 per film, but he got cold feet, worrying that the role would be career suicide. The Quick and the Dead is a cult classic these days, but if you drop to one knee and squint, it's easy to see it from Damon's perspective: a supporting role in a quirky Sam Raimi western two decades after the genre hit its heyday? Not exactly Oscar gold.

In the end, the young actor declined the lucrative offer, saying, "I want the kind of career Robert Duvall has. I don't feel [that] chasing movies like this is going to lead to a 40-year career. I'd rather be broke." An equally unknown Leonardo DiCaprio eventually accepted the part, and he's probably one of the two or three actors even bigger than Matt Damon right now. Go figure.

The Bourne Conspiracy (2008)

The 2008 game The Bourne Conspiracy is a soul brother to the films in every way possible. It follows the plot of the first movie, it uses the theatrical score from the films, and even the game's cover art is nearly identical to the DVD cover of The Bourne Identity. Only one problem: That guy ain't Matt Damon. Odd choice, it seems, for a game based on a movie franchise that centers around one identifiable face to drop that face for a generic, practically featureless visage.

The reason for that is simple, if perplexing: Damon thought the game was too violent, so he declined to do any voicework for the game or lend the character his likeness. Taking a cue from his mother, who authored a book about violence in today's media, Damon dropped out of the project, telling the Boston Globe, "I accept and agree with what she says—that [violence] desensitizes kids, that there could be blowback from it." He added that he was initially interested in doing a Bourne game, but wanted it to be a puzzle game like Myst rather than a bone-cracking, blood-gushing third-person shooter. "They weren't interested," Damon said. "They made the video anyway, without my likeness." God forbid anyone tries to make a game based on The Departed.