Turns out Brokeback Mountain could have been a very different movie – Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio were among a slew of leading men who refused roles in the acclaimed 2006 gay love story.
The revelation came from director Gus Van Sant, who told IndieWire there was a distinct lack of interest from actors in playing the cowboy roles that saw Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both win Oscar nods.
“Nobody wanted to do it,” said Van Sant, who was approached to direct the film before Ang Lee took it on, steering it to eight Oscar nominations.
“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.”
Brokeback Mountain was groundbreaking for smashing the notion that playing a gay character would ruin a Hollywood career.
“It was certainly a surreal moment the first time I had to kiss Jake,” Ledger, who died in 2008 at the age of 28, told The Guardian in January 2006 of his sex scenes with Gyllenhaal.
“But once that was done, I quickly realised that it didn’t make me want to run out and do it again. And you think, OK, what’s the next shot?
“Those scenes were just a small part of the package.”
If he had his time again, Van Sant would cast the film differently, given the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the casting process.
“What I could have done, and what I probably should have done, was cast more unknowns, not worried about who were the lead actors,” the Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot director 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.”
In an email to IndieWire, Ossana – who produced the film with James Schamus – confirmed Van Sant’s casting admissions.
“Yes, all those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons,” she wrote.
Of the two lead roles, Ledger’s role as conflicted, inarticulate ranch-hand Ennis Del Mar was harder to fill, according to Ossana.
She won an Oscar for adapting the script with Larry McMurtry from a short story by Annie Proulx.
“Casting Ennis in particular was the ultimate hurdle,” she said.
She couldn’t imagine anyone but Ledger in the role, Proulx said.
“Heath Ledger erased the image I had when I wrote it. He was so visceral. How did this actor get inside my head so well? He understood more about the character than I did.
“This isn’t nice for a 70-year-old woman to say, but it was a skullf––k.”