The Actors Who Could've Starred In Avatar

How do you follow up an Oscar-winning box office sensation like 1997's "Titanic"? If you're James Cameron, you go and spend the next 12 years working on your passion project — a little movie called "Avatar." Make all the "FernGully" and "Dances with Wolves" jokes you want, but Cameron's $237 million sci-fi epic remains the highest-grossing film of all time. It was also groundbreaking for its use of motion capture and CGI, bringing the bioluminescent wonders of Pandora and its native inhabitants, the Na'vi, to stunningly convincing life. (Or, at least, as convincing as 10-foot tall Smurf-cat aliens can ever look.)

On the human side of things, "Avatar" features a cast led by Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who is torn between carrying out his mission on Pandora and protecting the moon from its other-worldly colonizers. Worthington was a lesser-known actor when Cameron cast him in the film, having mostly worked in the Australian film and TV industry up to that point. For that reason, the filmmaker was pressured into offering the role of Jake to a pair of big-name Hollywood stars prior to hiring Worthington.

From Persia to Pandora?

Cameron wound up approaching both Jake Gyllenhaal and Matt Damon about playing Jake in "Avatar," only for the pair of them to take a pass. Gyllenhaal confirmed as much in an interview with MTV in 2010, shortly before the release of his video game movie, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." As the actor put it:

"There were definitely discussions [about me starring in 'Avatar']. It was what it was, but ultimately it's a great honor that I was even thought of."

Save for "Prince of Persia" and his role as Mysterio in "Spider-Man: Far From Home," Gyllenhaal has mostly avoided big-budget movies as an actor, preferring to hone his craft on indie films and mid-budget features. Still, with intense performances in dramatic thrillers like "Prisoners" and "Nightcrawler" under his belt, Gyllenhaal might've brought an edginess to the role of Jake than Worthington didn't. The character could've been much more eccentric in his hands, too, if not quite to the extreme of Gyllenhaal's off-kilter zoologist from "Okja."

Damon turned down a whole lot of money

As for Matt Damon, he ended up turning down "Avatar" due to his commitment to the Jason Bourne franchise. Speaking at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, Damon said he felt this was the "moral" thing to do, even after Cameron offered to pay him 10% of the movie's profits. "You will never meet an actor who turned down more money," the "Good Will Hunting" star half-joked, noting he would've made as much as $280 million had he accepted Cameron's deal.

Similar to Gyllenhaal, Damon has spent much of his career acting in high-minded, director-led movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "True Grit." At the same time, he knows how to find the beating heart of action-driven projects like the "Bourne" films or the effects-heavy "The Martian," and would've no doubt done the same portraying Jake in "Avatar." Instead, Damon would go on to don a ponytail years later for "The Great Wall," though for a very different reason than he would've had one for in "Avatar."

Cameron, however, has admitted he's actually glad Damon and Gyllenhaal turned down the role, telling the Los Angeles Times:

"I don't think they ever had a problem with the [CGI]. Honestly, did I go out and try to woo them? No. I had my heart set on Sam. Maybe they sensed my lack of 100 percent commitment from me. Maybe it was the subject matter. This was a big Star Wars-type movie. They're both serious actors."

Other near-misses

In the years since "Avatar" hit theaters in 2009, other actors have revealed they tried out for roles in the film. Chris Pratt, who co-stars with "Avatar" alum Zoe Saldana in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, confirmed he auditioned for Jake in 2014. He didn't exactly remember it fondly, either, telling Entertainment Weekly:

"They said they want somebody that has 'that thing,' that 'It factor'... I walked into that room knowing that I did not have that thing, and I walked out thinking I would never have that thing, probably..."

Years before she won an Oscar and signed on to play Captain Marvel, Brie Larson similarly auditioned for a role in "Avatar." She revealed this in an interview posted to her YouTube channel in 2020, but admitted she had forgotten which role she tried out for by that point. Still, it's safe to rule out a few possibilities, not least of which is Jake and the film's human antagonist, Colonel Miles Quaritch.

Speaking of which — before Stephen Lang signed on to play Quaritch, the muscly baddie was set to be portrayed by Michael Biehn. As the "Terminator" actor told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, he spent "nine months" under the impression he would play Jake's nemesis in "Avatar," only for Cameron to change his mind after casting Biehn's "Aliens" co-star Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine. Biehn said he "understood," knowing the director was concerned audiences would associate him and Weaver too much with the "Alien" franchise.

Cameron, on the other hand, said he never planned to cast Biehn as Quaritch specifically, but admitted Weaver's casting "obviated bringing Michael into the cast on the first picture," as he put it. Perhaps Cameron can make it up to Biehn by casting him in one of the many "Avatar" sequels on the way?