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Actors Almost Cast As Neo In The Matrix

In 1999, the world was introduced to the Wachowski sisters' vision of "The Matrix." It stands as one of the rare watershed Hollywood classics that defined an entire generation, sparking the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers alike. It wasn't Keanu Reeves' first stab at the cyberpunk genre, but it was perhaps his most notable role until his turn as a retired assassin in "John Wick." Upon its release it inspired dozens of copycats — some good, most not — and set a new bar for American action movies. It also popularized a number of tropes, visuals, terms, and phrases that are simply a part of our culture now. Being "Red Pilled," posing in "Bullet Time," and the meme that life is a simulation. How different would our world look today if we had never met Neo, the Chosen One?

But "The Matrix" was almost a very different movie, and Keanu Reeves wasn't even the Wachowskis' first choice for the role of Neo. A number of Hollywood heavyweights were considered for the part, and some major stars were offered the role but turned it down. But which A-Listers did almost get the role? Keep scrolling to find out.

Will Smith

Superstar rapper turned actor Will Smith, fresh off his lead role of "Agent K" in the "Men in Black" movies, was famously offered the starring in the techno-thriller action franchise — but this time as the hero that faced down the Agent clad in black, as Neo. Approached for the role of the futuristic revolutionary super-leader, Smith was intrigued by the film, and met with the Wachowski's to discuss the part. Unfortunately, it didn't go as well as he had hoped, as he revealed in a video interview in 2019 ahead of the release of Disney's "Aladdin."

"As it turns out, [the Wachowskis] are geniuses, but there's a fine line in a pitch meeting between genius and what I experienced in the meeting," he said. According to Smith, the Wachowski sisters didn't exactly sell him on the film's potentially world-shattering, genre defining concept, but instead abstractly described the action scenes and camera tricks they'd use. He was clearly unimpressed, and he would instead sign on to the critical and commercial flop, "Wild Wild West." It was possibly the wrong approach from the filmmakers to appeal to his love of action, but it's all the better, as Smith noted, "If I had done it, because I'm Black, then Morpheus wouldn't have been Black ... So, I probably would have messed 'The Matrix' up, I would have ruined it. I did y'all a favor."

Sandra Bullock

Warner Bros., the studio behind "The Matrix," was taking a big chance with their big budget action franchise starter, handing the reins to a pair of relatively inexperienced filmmakers. For that reason, they understandably wanted the Wachowski's to cast a big name in the lead role. As they ran through their list of stars, one name that popped up was Sandra Bullock, star of "Speed" (alongside Keanu Reeves) and "Demolition Man."  

It may seem like a head scratcher at first glance to cast a woman in the now famous role of Neo, but producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura discussed the possible gender swap, telling TheWrap that "We went out to so many people I don't remember. We were getting desperate. We went to Sandy Bullock and said 'We'll change Neo to a girl.' Joel Silver and I worked with Sandy on 'Demolition Man' and she was and continues to be a very good friend of mine. It was pretty simple. We sent her the script to see if she was interested in it. And if she was interested in it we would try to make the change." Apparently, Bullock passed on the film because it just wasn't right for where she was in her career at the time.

Brad Pitt

The list of names that had been drafted up by the Wachowskis to fill the role of Neo was a long one. In addition to Will Smith and Sandra Bullock, it also included superstar Brad Pitt, as "The Matrix" composer Don Davis revealed in a 2000 interview with WhatIsTheMatrix.com. According to Davis, the studio was dead set on having a big star at the top of the credits. "[Warner Bros.] wanted Brad Pitt ... They told [the Wachowskis] if Brad Pitt would do the picture, they'd green light it right then." Having a major star would obviously give them confidence that the millions of dollars they were investing in a risky picture would pay off, and — fresh off of his starring role in David Fincher's "Se7en" — there were few stars bigger in the late 90s than Brad Pitt. But Pitt declined the role. Whether it was due to lack of interest or a busy schedule, we may never know. He told "Yahoo News" in 2020 that he turned down the part, saying "I really believe it was never mine ... but I did pass on 'The Matrix.' I took the red pill."

In hindsight we now know that it was all for the best. The world was gifted with Keanu Reeves in his career-altering performance, and Pitt would go on to re-team with David Fincher and star in another genre-defining, groundbreaking film — the psychological action thriller "Fight Club."

Leonardo DiCaprio

Of all the names on this list though, Leonardo DiCaprio might seem like the oddest choice once you think deeper than the name. Not because he is or wasn't a true star, but because at the time he was so much younger than the likes of Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and the others who were being considered take on the role. DiCaprio was in his mid-20s when "The Matrix" was casting, and definitely looked on the younger side of eventual star Keanu Reeves, who was in his early-30s when he played the part. Suffice to say, a younger Neo could have very well changed the dynamic of the film.

But after being turned away by Brad Pitt, producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura revealed to TheWrap that it was indeed Leonardo DiCaprio who was the next big star approached for the role of Neo. "We go to Leonardo [DiCaprio]. He says yes, we have meetings with him and then he goes, 'You know, I can't go do another visual effects movie having just finished 'Titanic.'" It must have been frustrating for producers, but that was at least the third big name to pass on the part, and DiCaprio wouldn't be the last to be considered, nor the last to pass up the opportunity, making the search a lengthy one.

Johnny Depp

With superstar actors like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and even Sandra Bullock on the producers' wishlist, it seems like every major late '90s Hollywood leading name was up for the role of Neo. And while it might not surprise too much you to learn that Johnny Depp was also considered for the part by the Wachowskis, it might be just raise an eyebrow if we tell you that Warner Bros. didn't agree, and didn't like him for the movie. 

In a 2000 interview with "Matrix" composer Don Davis on WhatIsTheMatrix.com, he talked about the early days of working on the groundbreaking film — particularly the casting of the lead part of Neo. "As far as casting goes, Keanu Reeves wasn't [Lana and Lilly Wachoskis'] first choice, Johnny Depp was their first choice for Neo. Warner Bros. was going for this thing where they didn't want Johnny Depp." Unfortunately for the sibling directors, the studio pushed hard for a bigger name, intent on the likes of Brad Pitt for the main role. 

It's hard to remember now, but in the years before his turn as Jack Sparrow in 2003's "Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl," Depp had appeared a string of small but acclaimed dramas and wasn't primarily known as an action star. Keanu Reeves, by contrast, had already starred in a number of popular action movies like "Speed," and "Point Break," so it makes sense that the studio would prefer him over Depp.

Val Kilmer

As Warner Bros. and the Wachowskis began moving further down their list of Hollywood names, they finally arrived at "Batman Forever" star Val Kilmer. Though he wasn't quite as big a draw as Brad Pitt or Will Smith, Val Kilmer was still a known commodity and recognizable face, and an actor with a strong track record in the action genre. And we've got to admit that of all of the names on this list, he could perhaps have been the best fit for the character of Neo. Kilmer is similar to Reeves in many ways, possessing the same kind of stoic resolve, solid acting chops, and action hero moves to fill the role capably and still be the recognizable hero. He would have surely have fit right in with Carrie Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, and Hugo Weaving. 

But as composer Don Davis lamented in his 2000 interview, Kilmer was yet another person on the list after Brad Pitt who had said no — and after Johnny Depp was eliminated from contention. As he told WhatIsTheMatrix.com, Kilmer would turn down the part just as Pitt had, which forced them to turn to "Speed" star Keanu Reeves. Of course, it was no big loss, as Reeves nailed the part.

Nicolas Cage

No list of actors up for one of the '90s greatest roles would be complete without Nicolas Cage, a man who was considered for almost every major movie part of the last 30 years. From Superman to Iron Man to Shrek, Cage has seemingly been "nearly-that-guy" every time. Well you can add "Neo from the Matrix" to that list as well ... and why wouldn't you? Having established himself as a legit action hero in movies like "The Rock" and "Face/Off", Cage was the rare leading man who was as much a fan as he was a bona fide action hero movie star. He was known for lobbying for fun roles, particularly any number of the superheroes brought to the screen over the years.

How close did we come to having Cage star as Neo in "The Matrix"? It's impossible to say just how close, but the talks happened, and the news comes straight from the source. Cage spoke with Larry Carroll and MTV in 2007, and talked about movies he had turned down, recalling that "there was a couple of movies that I was offered, but I had good reasons, so I couldn't do it. One was 'The Matrix.'" said Cage, though he doesn't lament his decision to pass on the part, saying the film shoot in Australia was expected to be for "great quantities of time." He was clearly interested in the role, but said "I had family obligations, so I'm glad I stayed and I had those experiences with my family."


When it comes to what might have been, many names have been thrown around over the last 20+ years. Many have been little more than fan theorizing and wild rumors. But one new name entered the mix in 2021 that nobody had ever heard about before: Madonna. 

During an appearance on "The Tonight Show" the legendary singer/starlet talked about past movie roles that she regretted not taking, including "Catwoman" in "Batman Returns." But she also mentioned rejecting a part in "The Matrix," telling Jimmy Fallon "I also turned down a role in 'The Matrix' can you believe that?" The host was flabbergasted, and she admitted, "That's like one of the best movies ever made. A teeny-tiny part of me regrets just that one moment in my life." 

We're sure many will assume that Madonna was referring to the role of Trinity. It would certainly make sense, given that she looks similar to Carrie-Anne Moss, would eventually land the role. But given the studio's apparent willingness to gender swap the lead part to get a bona fide star in Sandra Bullock, it's entirely possible that she was referring to the lead role of Neo. The studio wanted a big name, and there are few bigger international stars than Madonna.