Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and other Hollywood stars turned down Brokeback Mountain, Gus Van Sant reveals

Award-winning director Gus Van Sant revealed the difficulties in casting the lead roles for the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain,” a project the filmmaker was initially attached to before it landed in Ang Lee’s hands.

Van Sant wanted to cast “big names” for the film, but none of the Hollywood stars approached accepted the offer. “Nobody wanted to do it,” Van Sant told IndieWire in a recent 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.”

Producer and screenwriter Diana Ossana, who adapted the original short story by Annie Proulx for the big screen along with Larry McMurtry, backed Van Sant in an email to IndieWire. “Yes, all those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons,” she said, without elaborating on what those reasons were.

Actress Anne Hathaway, director Ang Lee, actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal pose for photocall for at the 62nd edition of Venice International Film Festival in September 2005 (Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty)

Ossana had previously discussed the difficulties encountered in the making of the film, which would end up winning over both critics and mainstream audiences with its portrayal of a troubled love story between two gay sheep herders in the rural West, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger—who would both be nominated for an Oscar as supporting actor and actor respectively.

Speaking at a Q&A in Hollywood earlier this year, Ossana said it took eight years it to make the film, and name-dropped Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon as two of the actors who turned down a role. “They didn’t give us any real excuse why they wouldn’t. I guess they saw it as too difficult,” she told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. Ossana also said few supported the decision to cast Ledger in the role. “Nobody wanted Heath but me and Larry. The studio felt he wasn’t macho enough,” she said.

Van Sant, an openly-gay director who wrote and directed the 1991 cult drama “My Own Private Idaho” about a gay hustler looking for his estranged mother, said he eventually dropped out of the project because his vision conflicted with that of Ossana and McMurtry, which he nonetheless appreciated. “I kind of wanted to go back to the simplest view of the short story, which I couldn’t do … I didn’t really want to go and talk Larry and Diana out of what they had created, because it was great,” he said.

Actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger share a joke at the premiere for the in-competition film “Brokeback Mountain” at the Palazzo del Cinema on the third day of the 62nd Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2005 in Venice, Italy (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty)

The difficulties in casting the lead roles also played a role in affecting his enthusiasm for the film. What I could have done, and what I probably should have done, was cast more unknowns, not worried about who were the lead actors,” he said. “I was not ready. I’m not sure why. There was just sort of a hiccup on my part. There was something off with myself, I guess, whatever was going on.”