Director James Cameron may be one of the greatest action directors to ever sit behind the camera, helming some of the biggest blockbusters of all time. His eye for story, character, and spectacle is nearly unmatched in the medium, and yet across more than 40 years of filmmaking, he’s directed less than 10 features. That may be because of his meticulous eye for detail, or it may be an obsession with perfection that has led to every one of his films meeting with a blockbuster, critically acclaimed status.
Because of his phenomenal track record and sparse output, it’s fair to think that nearly every actor in Hollywood is clamoring for a chance to star in a James Cameron film. But it may come as a surprise to learn that quite a few big names have turned away offers to star in one of his many massive hits. For some, it’s understandable; maybe it was because of an unavoidable scheduling conflict or it was on one of Cameron’s earlier films when he was less proven as a director.
Still, there is more than one who has turned down a major role that will make you scratch your head and wonder why. If you want to know who these stars are who’ve said no to James Cameron, then read on, because they may not be who you’d expect.
Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, director James Cameron was known as the master of sci-fi action films. He had produced landmark movies in the genre including “The Terminator” in 1984, its sequel in 1991, and “Aliens” in between. But in 1997, Cameron veered away from action and science fiction with “Titanic,” the biggest box office smash in history at the time. While star Kate Winslet has become synonymous with its success, actress Claire Danes almost played the leading role of Rose opposite her “Romeo + Juliet” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Appearing on the podcast “Armchair Expert” (via Vanity Fair), Danes opened up about turning down an offer from Cameron to star in the eventual $2 billion blockbuster. “Honestly, I’d just made this romantic epic with Leo in Mexico City, which is where they were going to shoot ‘Titanic,'” Danes said. At the time, Danes was one of Hollywood’s rising stars, having come to fame off the back of her hit MTV teen drama “My So-Called Life.” But she clearly wasn’t ready to jump into back-to-back movie productions. “I just didn’t have it in me,” she told podcast host Dax Shepard.
Interestingly, Danes was in touch with DiCaprio about his own reluctance to star in the film, as both actors shared a manager. “I could see he wasn’t sure,” Danes revealed. “And I looked down on him, going, ‘I totally understand why you are doing it. And I’m not ready for that.’ And I think I really wasn’t ready for it.”
In what might be the most famous case of an actor turning down what would have been a massive payday, Matt Damon refused a role in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Damon, who was knee-deep in his “Jason Bourne” and “Ocean’s 11” franchises at the time, was handed a big offer that included a sizable cut of the film’s final gross. Considering the film wound up setting the all-time box office record, it could have netted him quite the windfall, and the actor has been more than frank about his regret for passing on the part.
“I was offered a little movie called ‘Avatar,’ James Cameron offered me 10% of it,” he told Deadline in 2021. “I will go down in history… you will never meet an actor who turned down more money.” According to Variety, his total payout could have been in excess of $250 million. But while Damon has repeatedly talked about his big career mistake, he’s taken it all in stride. Director James Cameron meanwhile later revealed that Damon’s rejection was unavoidable due to the actor’s competing projects.
“He’s beating himself up over this,” Cameron told BBC Radio 1 in 2022 (via Yahoo). “I really think … you know, ‘Matt you’re kind of like one of the biggest movie stars in the world, get over it.’ But he had to do another ‘Bourne’ film which was on his runway and there was nothing we could do about that. So he had to regretfully decline.”
“Titanic” is known today as the film that turned Leonardo DiCaprio from a dubious teen star (and member of a social scene with an NSFW nickname) into a genuine A-lister. In fact, the cast of “Titanic” lacked a big superstar name, with lesser-known British actress Kate Winslet co-starring, and veterans like Kathy Bates and Bill Paxton playing only minor roles. Believe it or not, the film nearly snagged a Hollywood legend, with none other than “Goodfellas” star and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro offered a supporting role.
According to a published report in The Mirror from 2017, it was revealed that Cameron had picked De Niro to play the role of the ship’s captain, Edward John Smith. Unfortunately, due to a bad gastrointestinal infection, De Niro was forced to reject the offer. Though it was a relatively small role, it was an important one, and Cameron needed someone with gravitas and screen presence to play the man who’d stand firm as the ship met its doom. Ultimately, he’d go with English actor Bernard Hill, famous today for his role as King Theoden in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — though seeing famous film gangster De Niro as the Titanic commander who went down with the ship would surely have been a delight.
In the early 1980s, director James Cameron was coming off his directorial debut on “Piranha II: The Spawning” — a film that saw him booted from the director’s chair after just a few days of filming — and was looking at his next feature, “The Terminator.” The story of a deadly cyborg that travels back in time to murder the mother of its greatest enemy, “The Terminator” needed a star to play the icy, futuristic killer. The studio famously suggested football player O.J. Simpson, but Cameron wasn’t biting. He already had a few names in mind, and one of them was an up-and-coming action hero, Aussie actor Mel Gibson.
At the time, Gibson had just appeared in “Mad Max 2,” released in the U.S. as “Road Warrior,” and a low-budget success story that wound up raking in millions. Playing a silent, deadly lawman in a post-apocalyptic future, he must have seemed like the perfect man to step into the role of the T-800: a cold, emotionless, and remorseless death machine. For whatever reason, Gibson turned down the offer to star (per The Metro), and Cameron was forced to go down his list of potential stars, which rumors say even included the likes of Sylvester Stallone.
Eventually, after producers set up a meeting between Cameron and body builder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger — who they actually suggested for the human hero Kyle Reese — the director knew he’d found his man.
Today, actor Billy Crudup might be best known for playing the big blue superhero called Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen.” But he’s also made memorable appearances in movies like “Alien: Covenant” and “Mission: Impossible III.” Back in the ’90s, though, Crudup’s biggest film saw him starring alongside Liv Tyler, Jennifer Connelly, and Joaquin Phoenix in 1997’s “Inventing the Abbots.” And were it not for eliminating himself from contention for the leading role of Jack Dawson, Crudup may have instead starred in “Titanic” that same year, and his career might have been entirely different.
The role of Jack that ultimately went to Leonardo DiCaprio could have gone to Crudup, but it seems the young budding star had no interest in the fame he knew the role could bring. “It wasn’t really up my alley,” Crudup told US Weekly in 1999 (via MaryEllenMark.com). “Because if I’d done it, this right here,” he said, tapping his kitchen table in reference to his ordinary life, “would be impossible. And I like this.” But Crudup also acknowledged, in an interview with Yahoo in 2000, that perhaps a key to the massive success of “Titanic” was in fact Leonardo DiCaprio. “If I had done ‘Titanic,’ it would have made, probably, $200,000 — worldwide.”
When James Cameron was considering who would take on the role of the T-800 cyborg killer for his seminal 1984 masterpiece “The Terminator,” he knew he needed somebody with a specific look. “The character was supposed to be an infiltrator, physically nondescript and not memorable, though somewhat sinister because of his emotionally blank affect,” Cameron said in a 2021 interview with BFI. “I was visualizing my actor friend Lance Henriksen for the role.” While Henriksen eventually nabbed the part of LAPD officer Vulkovich, one of Cameron’s first choices for the title character was musician Sting, who at the time had never played a villain.
“I was fascinated by his look. He seemed slightly otherworldly — or at least not of this time,” Cameron told BFI. Despite a reported $350,000 offer to take on the role, “he wasn’t interested.” According to Cameron, Sting was ironically hesitant to be involved in a film from an inexperienced filmmaker. “I was too much of an unknown as a director at the time,” Cameron acknowledged. “I remember riding down in the elevator with him after our meeting and him sneering ‘So, Piranha 2, huh?'”
Still, Cameron’s hunch that The Police frontman would make a perfectly vicious villain proved correct. “I felt vindicated when Sting played a major role in David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ as the malevolent Feyd-Rautha.” But Sting still managed to have an influence on the franchise, with the director revealing that his song “Russians” helped inspire elements of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (per Entertainment Weekly).
Today, actor Johnny Deep is best known for playing Jack Sparrow, the eccentric, dashing rogue in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise for Walt Disney. But back in the 1990s, he was one of Hollywood’s hottest young stars and a bonafide teen heartthrob, having appeared in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” and teen dramas like “Benny & Joon” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Incredibly, however, Depp rejected the part of Jack in “Titanic,” and according to the actor, it was because he hated the script.
In 2001, Depp called into the Howard Stern Show, and talked about times when he turned down major blockbusters, saying that when it happens it just “doesn’t seem like the right thing.” When pressed, Depp finally admitted his biggest pass. “I labored through about 15 pages of ‘Titanic,'” he told Stern and co-host Robin Quivers. “It was horrible, I mean I couldn’t get through it.” Despite Cameron’s pedigree, his difficulty with the story had him outright reject the very possibility of starring. But while he couldn’t tolerate the script, that didn’t mean he thought the movie would be a failure.
“I knew ‘Titanic’ would be massive,” Depp admitted before Quivers cut him off to remind him that while he refused the acclaimed James Cameron film, he starred in “The Astronaut’s Wife” two years later, which received a critical drubbing. “Hey, you know… it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
In 1991, James Cameron came back with a sequel to “The Terminator,” using revolutionary new CGI technology to craft as groundbreaking a sequel as there has ever been. He also added a few new names to the cast, most notably Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, and Joe Morton as Miles Dyson, the inventor of the technology that would one day lead to the Terminator. But Morton wasn’t the first choice for the role of Dyson. In fact, Cameron first had his eye on future Hollywood heavyweight Denzel Washington.
Perhaps surprisingly, Washington — who was then just two movies into his career — turned down an offer from Cameron himself. According to Washington, he just wasn’t interested in what the role had to offer him as an actor. “No offense to Jim Cameron, but when I read the script, I thought, ‘All he does is look scared and sweat.’ I had to pass.” Admittedly, the role of Dyson is a relatively small one. While Morton impressed in the part — including a memorable death scene — its understandable that a star like Denzel Washington, who had already won an Academy Award, would be looking for something juicier.
Washington has no regrets. In fact, his next project was 1993’s “Malcolm X,” the Spike Lee biopic of the controversial Muslim revolutionary that got him a third Oscar nomination.
One of the strengths of 1997’s “Titanic” is its broad ensemble cast of supporting characters. Filled with talented actors in small roles, they helped enrich and flesh out the period setting and even included a few real-life figures. Among those historical characters was ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown, played by “Misery” star Kathy Bates. Brown was a noted socialite and philanthropist who famously fought to ensure Lifeboat No. 6 returned to the site of the Titanic sinking to search for survivors of the wreck. But Bates was actually a replacement for Cameron’s first choice, country music star Reba McEntire.
As noted by Taste of Country, McEntire was offered the part but was sadly unable to accept the role. Scheduling conflicts with both other film projects and tour dates to support her upcoming 1996 album “What If It’s You” forced her to refuse the part. Oddly enough, years later McEntire would team with her replacement, Kathy Bates, when they voiced a pair of sparring sister cows, Bitsy and Betsy, in the live-action adaptation of the children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web.”
We’ve already seen that James Cameron went through a veritable laundry list of stars that included Mel Gibson and Sting before he settled on Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the T-800 in “The Terminator.” While those weren’t the only two actors to be considered for the highly sought-after role, Christopher Reeve wasn’t one of them and was in fact offered a different part in the film.
As most readers likely know, Reeve was a pretty big star in the early ’80s, having made a name for himself playing the Man of Steel in “Superman: The Motion Picture” and its pair of sequels. Casting Reeve would have been a pretty big get for the young director Cameron, who envisioned Reeve not as a steely-eyed Terminator, but as the human warrior from the future, Kyle Reese. Strange as it may sound, the studio actually wanted Arnold for the part, but Cameron gave Reeve his shot at the role, who would have brought some serious star power to the film.
According to ET Online, Reeve had a $1 million dollar price tag thanks to his clout as the Big Blue Boy Scout, but despite the offer, he just wasn’t interested. Considering his demands for a story centered on nuclear disarmament for the fourth Superman film a few years later, it’s possible that the grim, violent tone of “The Terminator” simply didn’t appeal to him.
Though Kate Winslet fought hard for the role of Rose in “Titanic” (who legend holds once demanded James Cameron tell her why he was even auditioning anyone else), the director had other actors in mind before handing her the part. In addition to Claire Danes, Gwyneth Paltrow was close to nabbing the role, who was then fresh off her supporting role in the David Fincher thriller “Seven” and the Nick Nolte starring period drama “Jefferson in Paris.” But even Paltrow has wondered why she walked away from the part of Rose.
In her appearance on “The Howard Stern Show” in 2015 (reported by US Weekly), the shock jock pressed Paltrow on her passing up the opportunity to star in the 1997 film. “When you’re offered ‘Titanic’ — James Cameron — one of the biggest movies of all time, I don’t know psychologically… I would throw a fit that I turned that down!” Paltrow laughed off suggestions that she actually refused an offer, simply saying playfully that she was one of the final two in contention. But the actress didn’t push back when Stern insisted that she’d rebuffed an offer to take the role of Rose.
“I look back at the choices I’ve made and think, ‘Why the hell did I say yes to that? And no to that?'” Paltrow responded. “And you know, you look at the big picture and think: There’s a universal lesson here. What good is it to hold onto roles?”
There are actors who refuse offers, and there are actors who take themselves out of the running before an offer is made. But one completely left-field choice for the role of the Terminator fits firmly into the latter, according to Entertainment Tonight. It seems the New Jersey rocker and leader of the E-Street Band was indeed seriously considered for the role of the T-800 that eventually went to Arnold Schwarzenegger. While it may seem odd that the man known as “The Boss” would be up for the same part as that of “Conan” actor and mountain of muscle Arnold, remember that director James Cameron’s original vision for the character was to be less an outsized human tank and more of an ordinary looking man that could blend in with a crowd.
Thinking in those terms, Bruce Springsteen makes just as much sense as anyone else and considering the role would require very few lines, casting a musician with no acting experience wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, it seems Springsteen’s management seemed to be concerned that appearing in a major Hollywood film like “The Terminator” — no matter how promising it might be to kickstarting a movie career — would likely cause problems for touring and recording schedules. Thus, when asked, they responded with a firm “negative.”
As James Cameron worked on putting the finishing touches on the script for the first follow-up, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” he started putting out offers to actors to add to the cast. Considering how successful the first film was, it might be hard to imagine anyone saying no, but one big-name star did just that: Edward Norton of “Fight Club” fame.
In 2019, Norton spoke with Total Film (via Games Radar) for an interview to promote “Alita: Battle Angel,” a Cameron-produced film he had a cameo in. “I am friends with Jim [Cameron], and actually enormously admire and kind of adore him,” Norton revealed. According to the actor, Cameron came to him hat in hand to ask him to join the “Avatar” sequel. In the director’s proposal, Norton would join the franchise in the role of a human villain who arrives on Pandora with sinister plans that would shatter the Na’vi.
Sadly, that’s not the kind of role Norton had in mind. “He wanted me to do something in ‘Avatar 2,’ [but] I basically told him, ‘If I’m not a Na’vi, I’m not doing it. I’m not being part of the industrial world, coming in to destroy Pandora. I’m either a Na’vi or nothing.'”