Timothée as Spider-Man?: 15 actors who just avoided career-destroying roles

The near-stars of ‘Cats’, ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Anne Hathaway, Timothée Chalamet and Margot Robbie (Getty Images)
The near-stars of ‘Cats’, ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Anne Hathaway, Timothée Chalamet and Margot Robbie (Getty Images)

Hollywood is a town built on flukes. Get hired for a role and you can become an overnight sensation. Get it wrong and your career can end in an instant.

But some of the most interesting Hollywood tales are the “what-might-have-beens” – the stories of when one minor twist of fate might have entirely changed the trajectory of somebody’s stardom.

Many of today’s A-list names – among them Margot Robbie, Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya – ended up at the top of Hollywood based on talent and perseverance. But they also benefited from sheer good fortune, with busted auditions or scheduling conflicts just some of the reasons they didn’t end up starring in potentially career-derailing parts.

Saoirse Ronan in Josh Trank’s disastrous 2015 Fantastic Four reboot? It could have happened!

We’ve already explored the roles that ruined careers, here are 15 roles that could have ruined careers if not for the guiding hand of Lady Luck…

Timothée Chalamet in Spider-Man: Homecoming

In 2022, the Dune actor revealed that Leonardo DiCaprio once offered him two pieces of advice: “No hard drugs and no superhero movies.” While we can’t possibly comment on whether Chalamet has abided by the first bit of wisdom, he’s successfully avoided the shackles of comic book films. That said, pre-DiCaprio chat, he did get close to the role of Peter Parker in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, screen-testing for a part that eventually went to Tom Holland. While Holland has by no means had a bad career outside of the MCU, the volume of Spider-Man and Avengers movies he’s made has meant he’s been contractually locked in to a franchise for much of his twenties. Chalamet, meanwhile, has had the freedom to bounce from auteur to auteur, cementing himself – as many have predicted – as the heir to Leo.

Margot Robbie in Ghost in the Shell

Based on the fact that she produced lucrative, inescapable conversation-starters including Barbie and Saltburn – and has gravitated towards filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson – Margot Robbie is undoubtedly very, very smart when it comes to navigating Hollywood. But she also had luck on her side from the beginning of her career. In the wake of her breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, she turned down the April O’Neil role in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot (eventually filled by Megan Fox), the Invisible Woman role in the doomed 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, and was aggressively pursued for the English-language take on the Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell. In the end, Robbie chose to play Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad instead, while Ghost in the Shell bombed and trapped its eventual star Scarlett Johansson in a whitewashing controversy over the choice to cast a non-Asian actor in the leading role. What a lucky break!

Zendaya at a ‘Challengers’ premiere in early 2024 (Getty Images)
Zendaya at a ‘Challengers’ premiere in early 2024 (Getty Images)

Zendaya in Alita: Battle Angel

It remains surprising that, despite her outsized fame, Zendaya has only starred in eight live-action feature films – all of which, perhaps bar the pandemic-era curio Malcolm & Marie, have been smart choices at least on the business end. Whatever the creative failings of her Spider-Man movies or 2017’s The Greatest Showman, Zendaya is laughing her way to the bank. Plus it could have all gone wrong. In 2016, it was reported that the actor – then a buzzy up-and-comer famous for the Disney sitcom Shake It Up! – was “the frontrunner” for the starring role in Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi extravaganza Alita: Battle Angel, and that the only hiccup to her involvement may be scheduling conflicts with that aforementioned Disney show. Whatever happened behind the scenes, Zendaya dropped out of contention and Rosa Salazar was hired to play Alita. The film made money and has – hi, Alita stans! – a very, very passionate fanbase to this day, but it is questionable whether it would have done anything positive for Zendaya’s career.

Charlize Theron in Showgirls

Paul Verhoeven’s trashy epic Showgirls was meant to turn its leading lady into a star – but as Elizabeth Berkley learned, the abysmal response to its initial release was planted firmly (if unfairly) at her feet. What luck, then, that the part of erratic, pocket-knife-wielding exotic dancer Nomi Malone didn’t go to a young, unknown actor named Charlize Theron. In 2015, Verhoeven revealed that the future Oscar winner had auditioned. “I don’t recall her having any problem with the nudity at all,” he said. “She was good and wanted the part, but basically she was not well known enough at the time and just did not fit the part, so we said no.” In reference to the jeers Berkley received, Verhoeven added that Theron should be grateful for not getting Nomi: “It would have been a miserable 20 years for her!”

Haley Lu Richardson in Batgirl

The White Lotus star has been on the cusp of a major breakout for several years now, and fought hard to play Batgirl in a major DC Comics movie alongside Brendan Fraser and Michael Keaton. “I really tried, let me tell you,” she said in 2022. “But I’m not Batgirl at the end of the day.” Instead, In the Heights star Leslie Grace was cast in the role. That wasn’t the end of the story, however. The $100m (£88.7m) Batgirl movie finished filming but was then abruptly shelved, locked away in a vault as part of a tax-savings effort. It’s likely never to be seen. Later, Richardson spoke to The Independent about her lucky escape: “I felt really bad for all those people that made that movie. I know what it’s like to put your heart into something, and something that’s that big and that much money and that much energy and that big of a crew, like, that’s so crazy that you can just scrap that. That’s so extreme.”

Kim Basinger in 2019 (Getty Images)
Kim Basinger in 2019 (Getty Images)

Kim Basinger in Boxing Helena

While Basinger did have to pay film studio Main Line Pictures $3.8m (£2.9m) for pulling out of a verbal agreement to star in the 1993 erotic thriller Boxing Helena, it’s arguable that making the movie would have been a far worse business move. An odd romance from David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer, Boxing Helena revolves around a surgeon who begins to amputate his lover to prevent her from leaving him. Basinger at first loved the script, but then became anxious about its eccentric themes. After she dropped out of the film, a high-profile lawsuit ensued, one that became one of the biggest Hollywood stories of 1993. While the actor had to eventually pay up, she would go on to star in 1997’s LA Confidential and win an Oscar. Meanwhile, the Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn, who ultimately starred in Boxing Helena, would become the face of a film that lost enormous amounts of money and earned terrible reviews from critics.

Marlon Brando in The Conqueror

The role of Genghis Khan in Dick Powell’s historical epic The Conqueror was written for Brando, but he had misgivings about the project and dropped out. Replacing him was John Wayne, who (shock!) had no issue with the inherent racism of his casting, nor the dismal script. The Conqueror ended up derailing Wayne’s career, and is widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. There are also other reasons why Brando may have had a lucky escape: The Conqueror was filmed downwind of a nuclear weapon testing facility, and production was plagued by high levels of radiation. By 1980, 91 of the 220 people who had worked on the film had been diagnosed with cancer, and 46 of those people had died from it – Wayne included, in 1979. While there is no concrete evidence that radiation on the set of the film directly impacted the health of its cast and crew, the speculation only added to the legend of The Conqueror being a terrible, tragic mistake.

Natalie Portman in Lolita

When she was 14, Portman was offered the role of teenager Dolores Haze – the object of a neighbourhood paedophile’s fixation – in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel. The film was a bit of a disaster, losing its production company more than $60m and struggling to find distribution because of its subject matter. Portman turned down the part, which eventually went to Dominique Swain, saying in 1996: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do nudity in film, and certainly not when I’m 14. I just hope for the girl who’s in it that they keep it as a look into this man’s head, and don’t make it a sexy thing. Because when you’re offered your first movie, of course you’re going to take it.” In 2020, Portman obliquely referenced the path not taken when she discussed being treated as a “lolita” in the press as a child. She said: “I was definitely aware of the fact that I was being portrayed as this ‘Lolita’ figure. Being sexualised as a child, I think took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid, and it made me [feel] like the way I could be safe was to be like, ‘I’m conservative,’ and ‘I’m serious and you should respect me,’ and ‘I’m smart,’ and ‘don’t look at me that way’.”

Joaquin Phoenix at the London ‘Napoleon’ premiere in 2023 (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Joaquin Phoenix at the London ‘Napoleon’ premiere in 2023 (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Joaquin Phoenix in Doctor Strange

OK, so starring in Doctor Strange wouldn’t have exactly killed Joaquin Phoenix’s career – Benedict Cumberbatch is doing just fine! – but what a vastly different path he would have taken if he’d actually joined the MCU. Throughout 2014 it was reported that Marvel desperately wanted Phoenix for the role of the MCU’s universe-hopping mystic, and that there were extensive conversations between the studio and Phoenix’s team. Three months of back-and-forth, in fact. Ultimately, and for reasons unknown, both sides couldn’t come to a deal. But if Phoenix had joined Marvel, he likely wouldn’t have starred in Todd Phillips’ Joker in 2019, which would mean he wouldn’t have won his Oscar in 2020.

Jada Pinkett Smith in Beverly Hills Cop III

In 2018, the actor and Red Table Talk guru revealed that she only got her part as Eddie Murphy’s love interest in the 1996 comedy blockbuster The Nutty Professor after turning down other opportunities to work with the star. “Eddie had wanted me to play in a couple of other flicks that I wasn’t so open to,” she said. “I knew to wait.” Based on the roles Pinkett Smith could have played in Murphy’s early Nineties movies, and her stature as an up-and-coming actor at the time, it’s likely she was offered the part of Murphy’s love interest in the doomed 1994 film Beverly Hills Cop III, which ended up casting Bad Boys and Space Jam star Theresa Randle as a theme park employee romanced by Murphy’s Axel Foley. That movie was a notorious disaster, while The Nutty Professor became a box office smash and cemented Pinkett Smith as one of the most bankable Black stars of the era. “I’m not gonna waste my Eddie Murphy card,” she joked in 2018. “I’ve gotta wait for that right project!”

Rachel McAdams in Fantastic Four

What a momentum-derailing gig this would have been! In early 2004, it was reported that McAdams was this close to being cast as Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four, and had been duking it out with both Elizabeth Banks and Jessica Alba for the part. Back then, McAdams had no real idea how big she was about to become: Mean Girls had been a hit, and The Notebook had only just been released. If she’d been cast in Fantastic Four, it would have meant being trapped in a widely despised Marvel franchise rather than becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Alba got the part instead.

Saoirse Ronan at the Berlin premiere of her film ‘The Outrun’ in 2024 (Getty Images)
Saoirse Ronan at the Berlin premiere of her film ‘The Outrun’ in 2024 (Getty Images)

Saoirse Ronan in Fantastic Four

Oddly, this cycle repeated itself nearly a decade later. In 2013, Saoirse Ronan was still flirting with a kind of fame that never really suited her: she’d just led the Twilight wannabe The Host, and had yet to cement herself as an auteur-friendly movie star drawn to crowd-pleasing Oscar vehicles, such as Brooklyn, Lady Bird or Little Women. So she auditioned to play Invisible Woman, in what would become an infamously disastrous reboot of Fantastic Four. Reports claimed that Margot Robbie didn’t bother screen-testing (smart!), but that Ronan did – only for Kate Mara to beat her to the role in the end. Mara did end up meeting her future husband Jamie Bell on the project, so everything does work out for the best, I suppose.

Bradley Cooper in Green Lantern

In 2009, when he was still a regular ol’ jobbing actor on the cusp of A-list stardom, Bradley Cooper screen-tested for Green Lantern, the doomed superhero movie that nearly sunk the career of its eventual star, Ryan Reynolds. Appearing on Conan O’Brien’s US talk show, Cooper explained that he understood why he didn’t get the part, having put on a gravelly, Christian-Bale-in-Batman voice during his screentest. “At one point, I actually walked back and saw it, because they have it on the monitor while you’re auditioning,” Cooper said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, that can’t be.’ It looked like a Saturday Night Live sketch!” But Cooper’s bad audition also helped him avoid an early black mark on his CV. Reynolds should probably thank him, too – it was on the set of Green Lantern that he met his future wife, actor Blake Lively.

Bradley Cooper at the ‘IF’ premiere in 2024 (Getty Images)
Bradley Cooper at the ‘IF’ premiere in 2024 (Getty Images)

Anne Hathaway in Cats

Anne Hathaway won an Oscar in 2013 for Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, so it’s understandable if she felt she owed him one – namely starring in his big-screen version of Cats, too. But presumably, somewhere along the line, she had a premonition of the future and told herself “OH HELL NO!” and dropped out. It’s unclear which cat she would have played in the infamous kitty litter parade, but she was so involved in its pre-production process that she worked with Hooper on test videos for the film’s hair and make-up effects.

Matthew McConaughey in Speed 2

When Keanu Reeves wisely turned down a sequel to Speed, all eyes were on Hollywood’s young crop of up-and-coming leading men to find his replacement. The frontrunner for the part of Alex, a police officer stuck on a slightly-faster-than-usual cruise ship with Sandra Bullock, was Matthew McConaughey, who was riding high off his star-making role in 1996’s A Time to Kill – which also starred Bullock. She lobbied for him to join her on the high seas, but McConaughey wasn’t convinced. He decided to take a smaller role in the acclaimed Jodie Foster sci-fi movie Contact instead, and the Alex role was filled by, um, Jason Patric. Speed 2 became an infamous flop – and one that Bullock has made fun of to this day – while McConaughey continued to flourish professionally.