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Actors Who Turned Down Huge Paychecks

Plenty of actors turn down big roles for all sorts of reasons. Rachel McAdams refused to do "The Devil Wears Prada" because she wanted to take a break from megawatt roles (via Variety). Denzel Washington passed on both "Seven" and "Michael Clayton," which he came to regret (via IndieWire). Most of these casting issues stay behind the scenes. Occasionally, however, someone will spill the beans on the specifics of a turned-down offer.

When we do hear the nitty-gritty about a thespian turning down a role, it's usually because in doing do, they also turned down a massive paycheck. We are talking millions and millions of dollars here. The measly $500,000 Ja Rule turned down for "2 Fast 2 Furious" (via Billboard) does not enter into this conversation, nor does the one-to-two million Katie Holmes missed out on when she refused to do "The Dark Knight" (via The Wall Street Journal). No, we're talking about stars who passed on truly gargantuan piles of cash. These are the actors who have turned down huge paychecks by opting not to play a certain role — or continue playing one, in a couple of instances.

Matt Damon

In July 2021, Matt Damon gave a Cannes Masterclass in which he discussed his previous roles, his work behind the camera, and his regrets. Chief among his regrets is passing on "Avatar," which he wanted to do, but could not fit into his schedule, due to previous commitments. "I had to turn down 'Avatar,'" he recalled. "James Cameron offered me 10% of 'Avatar' if I did it, but I was working on post-production for 'The Bourne Ultimatum.'"

This wasn't the only time Damon has discussed "Avatar," which would have netted him around $250 million (via GQ). This would have been the highest amount any actor had ever received for a role. Damon definitely understands the magnitude of this: "I've left more money on the table than any actor actually," he told Christian Bale in a 2019 conversation published by British GQ.

Beyond the payday he missed out on, Damon regrets not being able to work with Cameron. "Cameron said to me in the course of that conversation, 'Well, you know, I've only made six movies,'" Damon recounted to Bale. "I didn't realize that ... I realized 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."

Christian Bale

People have very strong feelings about who makes the best Batman, but general consensus holds that Christian Bale is great in the role. In fact, he even won a poll (conducted by RadioTimes.com) regarding the best Batman actor of all time (via Yahoo!). It's not surprising, then, that the studio wanted him to continue as Batman after Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy came to an end. But Bale turned down the opportunity to appear as Batman in the DCEU. Rumors have swirled ever since that he turned down a $50 million payday as a result (via EW), though exact numbers have never been confirmed by Bale or the studio.

Bale told the Toronto Sun in 2019 that he passed on further Batman appearances because they were not in the plan he and Christopher Nolan put together. "Chris had always said to me," Bale recalled, "that if we were fortunate to be able to make three we would stop. 'Let's walk away after that,' he said. Then when they inevitably came to us and said, 'How about a No. 4?' I said, 'No. We have to stick to Chris' dream, which was always to, hopefully, do a trilogy. Let's not stretch too far and become overindulgent and go for a fourth.'" And indeed, Bale stuck to his guns.

Jerry Seinfeld

We usually hear about giant paychecks being passed over in film. But every so often, a TV star turns down an offer so ludicrously large, it warrants media attention. Take Jerry Seinfeld, who refused to do another season of "Seinfeld," despite the opportunity to earn $110 million. The offer would have made history: He stood to make $5 million per episode. But Seinfeld was not interested in continuing.

"The most important word in art is 'proportion,'" he told the New York Times Magazine in 2018, when asked about turning down the offer. "How much? How long is this joke going to be? How many words? How many minutes? And getting that right is what makes it art or what makes it mediocre." "Seinfeld" has become renowned as one of the best sitcoms in TV history. The man himself simply could not risk ruining that success once his heart was no longer in it.

Will Ferrell

2003's "Elf" was a box office smash. Most actors would want to take advantage of this success and film a sequel, but star Will Ferrell is not one of them. In 2006, Ferrell told The Observer that he turned down a $29 million offer to step into Buddy's green tights once again. In 2013, he reaffirmed this stance on "Watch What Happens Live" (via Rolling Stone) when he told Andy Cohen that he would "absolutely not" make an "Elf" sequel. "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights," he said. "Buddy the middle-aged elf."

More recently, it was revealed that his refusal to do "Elf 2" may have been personal as well. According to co-star James Caan, who played Buddy's father, the reason the sequel did not come to fruition was because of friction between Ferrell and director Jon Favreau. "We were going to do it, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I finally have a franchise movie. I can make some money, let my kids do what the hell they want to do,'" he said in a radio interview on the "Bull & Fox" show. But according to Caan, the sequel stalled because "the director and Will didn't get along very well. Will wanted to do it, and he didn't want the director." Unfortunately, Favreau's contract guaranteed him participation in a sequel, and "Elf 2" never happened.

Matthew McConaughey

In his memoir "Greenlights," Matthew McConaughey discusses turning down a $14.5 million offer to star in an unnamed 2010 romantic comedy. "The romantic comedies remained my only consistent box office hits, which made them my only consistent incoming offers," he recalls (per IndieWire). "For me personally, I enjoyed being able to give people a nitty-minute breezy romantic getaway from the stress of their lives ... I had taken the baton from Hugh Grant, and I ran with it." Indeed, the actor was coming off of a string of rom-com successes including "Failure to Launch" and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" when 2010 rolled around. But he was looking for a change by then, and so he turned down the mystery romcom and the $14.5 million payday it promised him.

This is not the only time McConaughey has turned down big bucks. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that the star rejected a $15 million offer to star in "Magnum, P.I." a handful of years prior. A source close to him was quoted as saying, "He was bored. He didn't want to be seen as the shirtless guy anymore." It was around this time that McConaughey started starring in smaller, character-driven movies like "Killer Joe," "The Paperboy," "Mud," and "Dallas Buyers Club," which earned him an Oscar.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Coming off the success of 1996's "Romeo + Juliet," Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly turned down a $20 million offer to star in "American Psycho" (per The Guardian). Rumors as to why DiCaprio did this have simmered ever since, but the most credible ones involve feminist icon Gloria Steinem. In Vice's oral history of the film, co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner said, "My friend, who had just spoken to Gloria Steinem, said that Gloria Steinem took Leonardo DiCaprio to a Yankees game, I believe, and said, 'Please don't do this movie ... there is an entire planet full of 13-year-old girls waiting to see what you do next, and this is going to be a movie that has horrible violence toward women.'"

DiCaprio has never been one to be swayed solely by money. In a 2014 Variety interview, he discussed turning down a leading role in the Halloween classic "Hocus Pocus." While he did not discuss numbers, he admitted that the offer was "more money than I ever dreamed of," and that he turned it down in order to do "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" "I don't know where the hell I got the nerve," he told Variety. "You live in an environment where you're influenced by people telling you to make a lot of money and strike while the iron's hot. But if there's one thing I'm very proud of, it's being a young man who was sticking to my guns."

Dave Chappelle

"Chappelle's Show" is widely regarded as a top-tier series – Entertainment Weekly even included it on a 2016 list of "new classics." Despite the fact that the program was a hit, it lasted for a mere three seasons, with Season 3 consisting of only three episodes. When Chappelle quit the show, he took off for South Africa, reportedly to avoid the press.

Beyond the fact that "Chappelle's Show" is beloved, the story became a hot one due to the mysterious nature of Chappelle's exit, as well as the big money he left on the table: $50 million for two more seasons. In 2006, he told Oprah Winfrey that he quit due to stress and interference with his creative control. "I felt in a lot of instances I was deliberately being put through stress because when you're a guy who generates money, people have a vested interested in controlling you," he said. In 2014, Chappelle again discussed leaving with David Letterman, joking, "Technically, I never quit. I'm seven years late for work."

Sean Connery

Sean Connery was an acting legend, but even legends make errors in judgment from time to time. For Connery, that error may have been turning down the role of Gandalf in the iconic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. Connery reportedly did not understand the part: The New Zealand Herald quoted him as saying, "I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don't understand it. Ian McKellen, I believe, is marvelous in it."

Connery may not have "gotten" the story, but audiences sure did. The films were a massive box office success, and Connery's refusal cost him a whopping payday. Connery was reportedly offered $30 million upfront, as well as 15% of the box office proceeds (per The Independent). Given that the third movie alone made more than a billion dollars worldwide, Connery could have cleaned up –  a 2012 report estimated that he missed out on $450 million.

Michael Keaton

Christian Bale isn't the only Batman who's refused to continue with the franchise past a certain point — Michael Keaton did this more than a decade prior to Bale, in fact. Keaton starred in both 1989's "Batman" and 1992's "Batman Returns." But he declined an offer to appear in 1995's "Batman Forever," which ultimately put Val Kilmer in the famed superhero's pointy-eared cowl. In passing on this film, Keaton left a $15 million offer on the table (via IndieWire).

Keaton had solid reasons for turning down "Batman Forever." As he explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2017, the screenplay was not, in his opinion, where it needed to be. "It sucked," Keaton told the magazine. "The script never was great. I didn't understand why [Schumacher] wanted to do what he wanted to do ... I knew it was in trouble when he said, 'Why does everything have to be so dark?'" If Schumacher thought Burton's Batman films were dark, we have to wonder what he thought about Christopher Nolan's take.

Keanu Reeves

"Speed 2: Cruise Control" is pretty terrible, so we can't really fault Keanu Reeves for turning it down. The actor reportedly passed on a $12 million offer from 20th Century Fox to reprise his role in the sequel, though the studio has publicly insisted that Jason Patric, who ended up as the lead, was their first choice (via Entertainment Weekly). As Reeves followed up his role in the first "Speed" by playing Hamlet in a regional theatre production in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it's probably safe to say that he's not really about the money.

In a 2019 GQ interview, Reeves discussed passing on "Speed 2: Cruise Control," which he feels landed him in "movie jail" with the studio. "I didn't work with [Fox] again until 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,'" he said. Reeves seems to have warmed to sequels in the years since he turned down "Speed 2," as he's become the face of multiple franchises including "The Matrix" and "John Wick." Perhaps "Speed" just wasn't his bag — or he just really wanted to play Hamlet that badly.

Josh Hartnett

"At the time it didn't seem like the sort of decision I would be talking about 15 years later," Josh Hartnett told Metro in 2020, in reference to turning down the roles of Batman and Superman. "There were a lot of powers that be that wanted me to pursue those films, but ... I didn't want to be boxed into that superhero type."

In a 2020 Variety interview, Hartnett clarified that he wasn't offered the role of Batman — he just had a conversation with director Christopher Nolan. In other interviews, Hartnett implied he suffered consequences for eschewing Batman's cape. "I learned my lesson when Christopher Nolan and I talked about Batman. I decided it wasn't for me. Then he didn't want to put me in 'The Prestige,'" he told Playboy back in 2015.

Hartnett did receive a firm offer for "Superman Returns," but he doesn't have any regrets about refusing what could have been a $100 million payday (via Deadline). "At the time, it was so obvious to me to turn it down," he said in a 2021 interview with Mr. Porter. "I was being offered movies by the very top directors. And Superman was a risk. Yes, there was a lot of money involved, but I didn't think that was the be-all and end-all." Today, he feels that prioritizing his loved ones over his career was the right more. "I decided to have a life," he said. "To put that first. That was always my goal."

Jodie Foster

Two-time Oscar winning actress and acclaimed director Jodie Foster has been in the public eye since she was a child, but her turn as FBI agent Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" remains one of her most iconic roles. Shockingly, she almost missed out on the part due to reservations from the director, Jonathan Demme, who wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, or Laura Dern instead. Demme recounted his reservations in a conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson at the 2015 Austin Film Festival, and also talked about how he eventually "fell madly in love" with Foster's performance.

Despite fighting so hard for the role in the original film, Foster had no desire to appear in the sequel a decade later. The actress passed up an offer of $20 million to reprise the role of Clarice Starling in 2001's "Hannibal." Julianne Moore ended up taking the part for a comparatively paltry $2 million (per ABC News). According to The Guardian, Demme also passed on the sequel, as did screenwriter Ted Tally, as they both felt the content was too dark — which is really saying something, given the terrifying original film.

Russell Crowe

Sean Connery wasn't the only actor who turned down a role in "The Lord of the Rings" films. As Russell Crowe revealed in an interview with Howard Stern, he passed on an offer of 10% of the backend grosses of the beloved trilogy. This would have amounted to about $100 million, according to Stern, though Crowe said he never thinks about it unless someone else brings it up.

Crowe was offered the role of Aragorn in the fantasy adventure franchise, which eventually went to Viggo Mortensen. But an awkward phone call with the director dissuaded him from taking the part. "I didn't think Peter Jackson actually wanted me on that film, because I think he was forced into talking to me, because there was a moment in time when everybody wanted me in everything," Crowe told Stern. This was immediately apparent to Crowe: "I am talking to him on the phone, and it's like, I don't think he even knows what I have done," he recalled. "I just knew that my instinct was that he had somebody else in mind, which turned out to be Viggo, and he should be allowed to hire the actor that he wants."

Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons shot to fame as Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory." He earned many awards and made millions of dollars in this role — but that paycheck could have ended up being even bigger if he'd signed on for a 13th and 14th season. Parsons wasn't interested in further seasons, however, and since Sheldon is the heart of the show, his refusal to soldier on meant the end of "The Big Bang Theory" as a whole. It also meant that Parsons passed up $50 million, which would have come via his nearly $1 million-an-episode salary and other back-end profits, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Parsons — who has expressed nothing but joy for his time on the series — claims to have turned down the big paycheck for a number of personal reasons, including an ailing dog, a broken foot, and plain old exhaustion. He discussed these factors in further depth on David Tennant's podcast, and also said that he left due to his age and a desire to do other things.

Bruce Willis

Most people would give up nearly anything to be offered $3 million for four days of work. But Bruce Willis is not most people. After appearing as Mr. Church in 2010's "The Expendables" and 2012's "The Expendables 2," it was widely expected that Willis would continue on in the role in the third installment of the popular franchise. However, Willis refused to do it for $3 million, demanding a fourth million that would bring his fee up to $1 million per day (per The Hollywood Reporter).

It turns out that Willis grossly overestimated his hand, and the powers-that-be were none too impressed. Sylvester Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay for each "Expendables" film and directed the first one, did not hold back on social media. In 2013, he tweeted, "WILLIS OUT ... HARRISON FORD IN !!!! GREAT NEWS !!!!! Been waiting years for this!!!!" He followed this up with another tweet: "GREEDY AND LAZY ...... A SURE FORMULA FOR CAREER FAILURE." In a 2013 Hollywood Reporter article, an insider was quoted as saying Ford was not only a "better actor" than Willis, but also a "much nicer person." That's got to sting.