Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a massive undertaking, with the entire project taking eight years to put together and with a budget that sources put between $280 and $330 million. As the novels have several dozen important characters on top of many more secondary ones, casting the films was a monumental task in and of itself.
These are some of the most well-known and beloved characters in literary history, so casting the right actor to play each part was a delicate balance of them fitting the part and also having a fair amount of star power– though not too much as to be distracting or lose the character to the actor, as Jackson was worried about with using bigger stars. As such, a lot of the cast of the films ended up consisting of people that are certainly famous Hollywood stars, but weren’t huge blockbuster leads in the vein of a Will Smith or Tom Cruise.
It should come as no surprise that a lot of changes were made between the filmmakers’ initial casting wishlists and whom ended up taking on the final roles. Some actors were offered parts and simply turned them down, while others wanted roles but didn’t get them.
Here are 15 Actors Who Almost Starred In Lord Of The Rings.
15. Nicolas Cage (As Aragorn)
Nicolas Cage is the sort of actor that seems to be as good– or as bad– as his material. Guided by Peter Jackson’s dialogue and direction, Cage could’ve delivered one of his stronger performances in Lord of the Rings. However, his Razzie-nominated performance in the similarly-themed Season of the Witch might suggest otherwise.
Nicolas Cage would’ve arguably been the biggest star in the cast at the time of the movie’s release had he accepted the offer to play Aragorn. It was also at a time when the actor still seemed fairly selective with his roles and didn’t just take every movie that came his way. He actually rejected both Lord of the Rings and The Matrix— as Neo!– around this time.
As it turns out, both rejections were due to wanting to spend more time with family. He wouldn’t be the only actor to turn down a role in Jackson’s trilogy due to the lengthy on-location commitment and its effects on having to be away from home, as we’ll soon discover.
14. Kate Winslet (As Eowyn)
Kate Winslet and Peter Jackson had some strong history together prior to LotR, with the director putting the actress in her first movie for his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures at the age of 19. The actress had gone on to have a strong start to her career throughout the ’90s, scoring roles in acclaimed films like Sense and Sensibility and Kenneth Branagh’s highly regarded 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. Of course, Winslet would reach worldwide recognition with her breakout role alongside Leonard DiCaprio in Titanic.
Winslet wasn’t a big fan of the notoriety that came with starring in a huge blockbuster film, as evidenced by the actress actively avoiding AAA Hollywood fare for much of her career. It was for this reason that she decided not to take Jackson up on his offer to re-team for LotR.
Following Titanic, Winslet resisted huge Hollywood films until the 2010s, when she began to take roles in movies like Contagion and Insurgent.
13. Lucy Lawless (As Galadriel)
Peter Jackson tried to get as many fellow New Zealanders onto LotR‘s cast and crew as he could– partly out of national pride, but mostly because he knew it would be easier to convince them to spend multiple years filming movies there. Lucy Lawless was an ideal candidate not only because of her New Zealand roots, but because she already knew her way around medieval fantasy from her years on the hit show Xena: Warrior Princess.
Despite enthusiasm for the project, Lawless was forced to turn down a role in LotR as she had just had a baby in 1998– and would have another in 2002– and couldn’t balance being a mother to a new baby, the lead on a TV show, and having a part in a major movie franchise. However, Lawless eventually returned to genre with a role in the Starz series Spartacus as the conniving Lucretia.
12. Vin Diesel (as Aragorn)
Despite building a career around playing musclebound jock-types, Vin Diesel has often made a case for his nerd cred. The actor is known to be a serious Dungeons and Dragons player, and he was also heavily involved in one of the better movie-based video games of modern times– The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay— co-developed by a game studio he founded himself.
When auditions were being held for LotR, Diesel was armed with a love for the source material and a resumé that mostly just included a small part in Saving Private Ryan— but neither were enough to land him the role. There is no denying that Diesel was more than capable of handling Aragorn’s fight scenes, and he would’ve definitely been a different kind of Aragorn than Viggo Mortensen ended up bringing us.
Diesel didn’t have to lick his wounds for very long, though– he did score a part in The Fast and The Furious, which released the same year as Fellowship of the Ring and set him on a path to become one of the most well-known and highest-earning stars in Hollywood.
11. Ethan Hawke (as Faramir)
While Ethan Hawke had dabbled in Shakespeare, he hadn’t embarked on anything of the medieval fantasy variety prior to being at the top of Peter Jackson’s wishlist for the role of Faramir. But Hawke’s acting chops are seldom in question, and that must’ve been all Jackson needed in order to court him for a coveted spot in the cast. It was also to be his first role with then-wife Uma Thurman since they wed– they met on the set of 1997’s Gattaca— as the actress was also being considered for a part in the series.
It is unknown exactly why Hawke ultimately passed on the role of Faramir, though it likely has something to do with the intense time commitment that LotR would’ve required and how difficult it would’ve made it for the actor to work on other projects in the meantime. The highly prolific actor appeared in five different movies in 2001– including his landmark role in Training Day— the year that Fellowship of the Ring was released, so it’s obvious that he just had a lot in the pipeline that he wasn’t willing to sacrifice for Middle-Earth.
10. Sean Connery (as Gandalf)
The total amount of money that Sean Connery ultimately walked away from when he passed on the role of Gandalf is estimated at $450 million. While most of us would probably have trouble coming up with things we wouldn’t do for half a billion bucks, Connery has since explained why he turned down what would’ve been the most money he ever made playing one role– and yes, that includes his legendary stint as James Bond. Basically, he says he just didn’t get it.
Connery said that even after reading the books and Jackson’s script, he just didn’t understand the role or the story itself. He says that he still doesn’t really understand it, even after seeing the films. Perhaps the more likely explanation was that Connery was aiming to begin winding his career down anyway, appearing in only two major movies in this millennium. He likely just wasn’t interested in taking on such a massive project as he entered his 70s.
9. Warwick Davis (as Gimli)
After spending much of the ’90s having to settle for the shlocky horror series Leprechaun being his most notable role, Warwick Davis’ career had started a serious resurgence at the end of the decade. First playing three different roles in The Phantom Menace, Davis then suddenly found himself quite in demand again, entering a very prolific phase that continues to this day.
While passing on Gimli seems like a huge mistake, the actor instead embarked on yet another massive blockbuster franchise when he joined the cast of the Harry Potter films, again ultimately playing three different parts. Filming LotR would’ve also interfered with the actor’s appearance in the landmark TV miniseries The 10th Kingdom, where he got to work with film legend Ann-Margret.
If you have to pass on LotR, it certainly helps when your reasoning is that you’re too busy being in Star Wars, Harry Potter, and starring alongside classic Hollywood sex symbols. It’s safe to say he got over it pretty quickly.
8. Sam Neill (as Gandalf)
Another attempt by Peter Jackson to get a New Zealand actor onto the LotR cast was when he pursued Sam Neill for the role of Gandalf– common internet rumors say he was actually offered the role of Elrond, but the actor has since denied that. This was another New Zealand cast member who wasn’t meant to be, as Neill was too busy with Jurassic Park III to take on the role. It’s probably safe to say that the actor feels he chose poorly between the two films, but commitments are commitments.
Neill, who has worked with the New Zealand National Film Unit, would later go to bat for Jackson and Middle-earth-based cinema in 2010 when he took his home country’s politicians to task over their involvement in a dispute between Jackson and local unions over pay on the Hobbit films.
7. Uma Thurman (as Arwen)
In the space between her two big Quentin Tarantino roles in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Uma Thurman almost filled that gap with a major part in the LotR trilogy. However, as she had recently given birth to her first child– and with her husband and the child’s father, Ethan Hawke, seeming to have already agreed to appear in the movies– Thurman decided that she would rather spend that time with her new baby and not have to relocate the family to New Zealand for several years.
It’s unknown the exact order of when each spouse left the project, but presumably Thurman did so first while assuming Hawke was already going to have to be away from home for an extended period.
While the actress has since expressed regret for passing up on the role, she maintains that it was the right choice for her and her family at the time. And Tarantino, who already delayed the start of filming Kill Bill when Thurman became pregnant with her second child, would’ve likely had to wait even longer to start that movie if Thurman was busy with LotR— and we all had already waited long enough for Kill Bill as it is!
6. Jake Gyllenhaal (as Frodo)
Yet to have his breakthrough roles in October Sky and Donnie Darko, a then-18-year old Jake Gyllenhaal decided to take a stab at auditioning for LotR to play Frodo. By the actor’s own admission, it was a terrible audition, not helped by the fact that he didn’t even bother trying an English accent, not knowing he needed one.
Gyllenhaal’s disappointment was surely short-lived as his title role in Darko followed shortly after, one of the most beloved cult hits of all time. In a few short years, Gyllenhaal would be nominated for an Academy Award for his daring and acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain, and has since been nominated for various acting awards for Love and Other Drugs, Nightcrawler, and Nocturnal Animals. It’s safe to say that his acting skills have sharpened considerably since his ill-fated Frodo audition.
5. Stuart Townsend (as Aragorn)
Most of the stories of would-be LotR performers involve people who were either offered a role and turned it down, or unsuccessfully auditioned for a part in the films. In the case of Irish actor Stuart Townsend, he not only accepted the offer to play Aragorn, but spent two months preparing and training for the role. Then, literally the very day before filming officially began, Townsend was fired and Viggo Mortensen was on the next plane to New Zealand as his replacement.
Speculation abounds as to why Townsend was let go, but the most common– and plausible– explanation is that he was simply deemed too young for the part, as evidenced by the filmmakers ultimately picking an actor nearly 15 years his senior. There was also bad blood following Townsend’s firing, both because of the actor’s wasted time and because he was told he hadn’t worked the minimum amount of time to even get paid.
In 2003, Townsend starred alongside fellow almost-LotR-star Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
4. David Bowie (as Gandalf/Elrond)
One of the most popular rumors about unrealized LotR casting is that David Bowie was considered for the film, with some speculation leaning towards him being wanted for Gandalf and others suggesting he was up for Elrond. The buzz was reignited in 2013 when Merry actor Dominic Monaghan confirmed in an interview that he did indeed see Bowie walk into the studio where the auditioning was being held. However, casting director Amy Hubbard later clarified by saying that he was there just to chat with the filmmakers, not to audition.
So what’s the real story? Peter Jackson has confirmed that he had entertained the idea of Bowie playing Gandalf. But while Bowie was interested in being in the movie, he wanted to play Elrond instead– at least partially due to it being a much smaller part and working better with his busy schedule. Ultimately, Jackson wanted the casting to skew away from hugely famous actors and felt a big celebrity would be too distracting to the story.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis (as Aragorn)
One of the reasons that Daniel Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park with every role he plays is that he is very selective about what parts he takes, with the actor managing to have a storied career despite only being the lead in about a dozen films. Especially beginning in the late-90s and into the 2000s, Lewis has been in no rush to expand his resumé, averaging a movie only every 3-4 years. If he doesn’t feel passion for a part, he’s not going to take it on, plain and simple.
That’s exactly what Peter Jackson and the rest of the LotR crew found out when they tried to get Lewis to play Aragorn. They approached the actor several times, making increasingly lucrative offers, only to have Lewis turn them down each time. The actor has also tended to avoid big budget Hollywood blockbusters, coming closest with 2002’s Gangs of New York, but that was a Martin Scorsese movie, and– no offense, to Jackson– actors tend to make exceptions for him.
2. Liam Neeson (as Boromir)
With Liam Neeson’s entry into the Star Wars canon as Qui-Gon Jinn already finished following that character’s death in The Phantom Menace, the actor was free to jump into another major movie franchise– one he would’ve at least lasted into the sequel of. All that’s really known about Neeson’s possible involvement in LotR is that he was offered the part of Boromir, read the script, and then decided to pass. Whether he wasn’t happy with its quality or just didn’t feel like he was a good fit is left up to speculation as that is all the actor has ever really said on the matter.
Perhaps he could see the future and didn’t want his face to be plastered across a million “One does not simply…” memes for the next 20 years.
Neeson would go on to voice the character of Aslan the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia film series, which is interesting as the original book series The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were often seen as counterparts to each other, with authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien being close friends and friendly rivals.
1. Patrick Stewart (as Gandalf)
It’s fun to imagine the kinds of fascinating conversations real-life BFFs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan must have, but what’s almost as interesting as hoping they rib each other about their Professor X/Magneto rivalry is imagining them discussing how they were both considered for the part of Gandalf.
Stewart was on Peter Jackson’s initial short list of actors he wanted for the part, but Stewart turned it down, instead wanting a different role– though he declines to say which one– that he obviously didn’t get. Not unlike David Bowie, it’s easy to assume that Stewart just didn’t want to commit himself to such a massive multi-year undertaking by taking a large role in the series, as in addition to his X-Men role (which demanded a bit more time from him than it did from McKellan) he was still playing Captain Picard in a then-active stretch of Next Generation films and video games.
Having already played two of the most beloved fictional characters in geek culture history, it was only fair that Stewart let his pal McKellan have this one– and knowing that a close friend got the role likely made it easier not to regret passing on it.
Do you think Lord of the Rings has perfect casting? Or would some of these actors have been better in the roles? Let us know in the comments!