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Stars You Didn't Know Turned Down Brokeback Mountain

Whether it is Taron Egerton in "Rocketman," or James Corden in "The Prom," it is not uncommon to see big name straight actors take on gay roles in today's world. They most often do so without much hoopla, and some of them — like Bradley Cooper, Colin Firth, and Ewan McGregor — even have multiple gay roles under their belt. Though not everyone is on the same page about whether straight men should take on bisexual or gay roles onscreen, it is clear that the stigma has lessened with time.

Not too long ago, it was considered incredibly taboo for an actor to portray a gay man onscreen. These men were often lauded as "brave" and showered with awards, like Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," or made to regret their choice due to the negative response. Harry Hamlin, for instance, has said that playing a gay man in 1982's "Making Love" effectively halted his movie career. "For years, I'd think was that the reason why I stopped getting calls? And finally realized that was the last time I ever did a movie for a studio," Hamlin told People on the film's 40th anniversary

While "Brokeback Mountain" is an incredible film, and one that perhaps helped to shift the tides in this area, it was difficult to find men willing to attach themselves to the picture back in the early aughts, both behind the camera and especially in front of it. Here are some of the stars you did not know turned down "Brokeback Mountain."

Edward Norton

Edward Norton is an amazing actor with three Academy Award nominations for his work in front of the camera in the films "Primal Fear," "American History X," and "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." Yet, even though he is known primarily as an actor, Norton was not offered a part in "Brokeback Mountain." He was instead offered the chance to direct the film, despite only having one directing credit to his name at the time (the 2000 movie, "Keeping the Faith").

"We sent it to Edward Norton [to direct] and Joel Schumacher and dozens of people and they all came back saying they loved it, but no one would commit," Diana Ossana, one of the "Brokeback Mountain" screenwriters, said in a 2018 Q&A covered by The Hollywood Reporter. "They didn't give us any real excuse why they wouldn't. I guess they saw it as too difficult." 

At the time that "Brokeback Mountain" was released in 2005, it really was revolutionary to envision a studio movie with two queer leads in a romantic entanglement. The film has been recognized for its cultural significance — it is a part of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry (via IndieWire) — and has led to an increase in queer cinema in the last two decades.

Gus Van Sant

Unlike the straight-identified Edward Norton, filmmaker Gus Van Sant is an openly gay man whose work frequently deals with issues of identity, sexuality, and queerness. Van Sant is the director behind gems like "My Own Private Idaho" and "Good Will Hunting," and in 2008, directed "Milk," another important queer film based upon the life of activist and politician Harvey Milk. As such, this is why it is so surprising that Van Sant balked at the chance to direct "Brokeback Mountain," despite being attached to the film for some time. Before he dropped out, Van Sant was excited about the film – screenwriter Diana Ossana told IndieWire that he "arrived at our door five days after we sent the script out into the world."

Van Sant's version of "Brokeback Mountain" would have looked quite different, given the type of men he was courting to star, and it is the lack of interest from big-name celebrities that scared the director off the project. "Nobody wanted to do it," Van Sant told IndieWire in an interview. "I was working on it, and I felt like we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast. That wasn't working out. I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no." In the interview, Van Sant also admitted that he regretted not casting lesser-known actors in the roles and forging ahead.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon is one of the stars that director Gus Van Sant has confirmed passed on a chance to appear in "Brokeback Mountain." While it is unclear whether Damon was offered the role of Ennis, which Heath Ledger would go on to play, or Jack, inhabited by Jake Gyllenhaal, we are sure that any studio would have been happy to have him sign on to the film. 

At the time, Damon was as hot as could be, with hits like "Good Will Hunting," "Ocean's Eleven," and "The Bourne Identity" under his belt. The actor has never spoken about why he passed on "Brokeback Mountain," though Damon has played gay before, most recently in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," opposite Michael Douglas as Liberace. Still, he has found himself in a number of small-scale scandals related to his views on homosexuality and gay actors. It is possible that this impacted how willing he was to take on the role of a gay cowboy in 2005.

In 2015, he told The Guardian that he felt actors should remain mum about their sexuality, a statement that many interpreted to be a warning that gay actors should remain in the closet. "Whether you're straight or gay, people shouldn't know anything about your sexuality because that's one of the mysteries that you should be able to play," said Damon, who is not especially quiet about his wife and their four children. In August 2021, Damon was again charged with homophobic views when he claimed that he had only recently stopped using gay slurs, at the urging of his daughter (he later denied this, per Variety).

Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio played a gay character very early on in his film career, appearing as French poet Arthur Rimbaud in the 1995 drama, "Total Eclipse." The role required him to engage in rather substantial sex scenes with actor David Thewlis, so we can assume that it was not the idea of kissing a man or portraying same-sex sexual activity that swayed DiCaprio away from "Brokeback Mountain." It was perhaps the pressure of being a mega-celebrity at the height of his fame that gave the actor pause about how the role might affect his future career prospects. We do know that he was offered the film, according to Gus Van Sant's 2018 IndieWire interview.

DiCaprio was, at the time, one of the most in-demand actors of his generation (he still is, actually). The monumental success of "Titanic" had catapulted him to a level of fame that few ever achieve, and it is probable that many of his advisors warned him against playing Ennis or Jack in "Brokeback Mountain." Since the actor has never spoken about the film, we may never know his true reasoning for passing or if he regrets the decision in hindsight. 

DiCaprio would later portray another (possibly) gay character when he took on the role of J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar," which earned him both Golden Globe Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations in 2012.

Josh Hartnett

Josh Hartnett is one of the few actors who has spoken publicly about passing on "Brokeback Mountain," which he was offered when he was at his career's peak. The actor had already appeared in big budget films such as "Black Hawk Down" and "Pearl Harbor," but "Brokeback Mountain" would have allowed him to stretch his acting chops in a way that he had not yet done. Hartnett was judicious about his choices at the time — notoriously passing on both "Superman" and "Batman" films, (via People) – so many may assume he declined "Brokeback Mountain," as well. After all, plenty of young actors were scared away by the subject material, as the movie's star Jake Gyllenhaal explained in an interview with The Times. "There was a stigma about playing a part like that, you know, why would you do that?," he said.

For Hartnett, it actually was not about the stigma — unlike most of the other men on our list, Hartnett was also very interested in taking on a role in the film, and it was scheduling issues that stopped him from being able to participate. In December 2021, he told News.com.au that he was going to do "Brokeback Mountain," but had to pull out because of "Black Dahlia," a film to which he was already contracted. "It was a different film altogether, it was me and Joaquin Phoenix," he said, quipping, "I've always wanted to kiss Joaquin, so that's my biggest regret." Quick, someone write a romantic comedy for Josh Hartnett and Joaquin Phoenix.

Joaquin Phoenix

As detailed by Josh Hartnett, "Brokeback Mountain" was at one point set to star Hartnett and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Though he was not quite as famous as some of the other names on our list — his Oscar-winning role in "Walk the Line" was still to come — Phoenix was a big enough star that he was likely cautioned against taking the role. Still, Phoenix has never seemed like the type to actually listen to these types of warnings and, because he has never discussed "Brokeback Mountain," we have no way of knowing why his participation never materialized.

Phoenix's casting does not surprise us in the slightest, given the actor's left-leaning politics and activist streak (via The New York Times). He even publicly supported LGBTQ equality when he brought up queer rights in his speech after winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Joker" in 2020. Another reason why Phoenix's casting would not have surprised us is because the actor has a connection to Gus Van Sant, the director who was originally attached to "Brokeback Mountain" around the time of his rumored casting. Phoenix has appeared in numerous Van Sant films (including "To Die For" in 1995) and his brother, River, even played a queer character in a Van Sant movie, 1991's "My Own Private Idaho."

Mark Wahlberg

Mark Wahlberg appeared in 2020's "Joe Bell," a film where he appears as the macho father of a bullied gay son who takes his own life. While this is certainly an evolution for Wahlberg, many have contrasted his participation in the film with his previous actions and comments the actor has made about the LGBTQ community. For example, according to Vice, Wahlberg was once involved in a hate-fueled fight with members of Madonna's entourage that involved the use of gay slurs. Though it is certainly possible Wahlberg has progressed in his comfort with queer people, his comments on "Brokeback Mountain" have been seen by many as being rooted in toxic masculinity and homophobia.

"I met with Ang Lee on that movie, I read 15 pages of the script and got a little creeped out," Wahlberg detailed in a 2007 interview with WENN (via The Advocate). "It was very graphic, descriptive — the spitting on the hand, getting ready to do the thing." Given that he had no problem playing a porn star in "Boogie Nights," nor a rapist-killer in "Fear," it is clearly the homosexuality piece that gave Wahlberg pause. 

In the same interview, he admitted that he would not even watch "Brokeback Mountain," saying, "it's just not my deal." Wahlberg's decision to turn down "Brokeback Mountain" was reportedly influenced by his priest, so it is not a shocker that the actor — who appears as clergy in the 2022 film "Father Stu" — has recently committed to more faith-driven content (via The Patriot Ledger).

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Ryan Phillippe

In an interview with IndieWire, director Gus Van Sant listed Ryan Phillippe amongst the hot young actors who turned down a role in "Brokeback Mountain." Phillippe — who was at the time married to Reese Witherspoon — was transitioning from teen heartthrob to serious actor, going from "Cruel Intentions" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to harder-hitting fare like "Gosford Park" and "Crash." We do not know exactly why Phillippe passed on "Brokeback Mountain," but it perhaps has to do with how his earlier gay roles were received by those closest to him.

Interestingly, Phillippe got his start by playing a gay teenager on the soap opera "One Life to Live," and he has said that this role caused a rift between him and his parents. "I'd grown up going to Baptist school, Christian school, and stuff," Phillippe said in an interview with "KFC Radio." "My first role ever, though, coming out of the Christian school when I was a senior in high school, I played the first gay character on a soap opera, the first gay teenager ever. So, I was shunned at that point, so they were already out of the picture." 

He later appeared as a bisexual character in "54," and in a main role in the sexually charged, queer-inclusive "Cruel Intentions." His parents were similarly displeased by "Cruel Intentions," per the interview, so perhaps Phillippe opted out of "Brokeback Mountain" to keep this peace.

Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt has been one of the most in-demand male actors in Hollywood for just about three decades, and has played a wide variety of roles in nearly every genre imaginable. When "Brokeback Mountain" was in the production stages, Pitt was fresh off roles in films such as "Fight Club," "Snatch," and "Ocean's Eleven," so "Brokeback" would have been a welcomed change from these more quick-paced films. 

While director Gus Van Sant has confirmed that Pitt passed on the role, Pitt himself has never directly spoken out about it. Therefore, we can only hypothesize about why the popular actor declined the movie. It should be noted that Pitt is a long-time public supporter of gay rights, once donating $100,000 to gay marriage causes in California (via The New York Times).

Despite his incredibly varied resume, Pitt has never taken on an explicitly gay role. We are not quite sure why because, as far back as 2006, there were rumors that he had been searching for a vehicle that would allow him to explore homosexuality. "Brad knows it would be seen as shocking to take on a gay role because he's seen as such a heart-throb. But he has never shied away from taking on controversial films, and he has often chosen to do smaller, more challenging movies," an anonymous source told Cinemablend in 2006. Of course, "Brokeback Mountain" came out in 2005, so it is possible that the film's success was the catalyst for Pitt's desire to play queer.