Imagine if Matt Damon had played Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar. Or what if Jake Gyllenhaal had? Would the movie have gone on to gross over $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office, or would having a major movie star as the lead detracted from your enjoyment? The fact is…it almost happened. According to Cameron, both stars declined playing the part after he reached out to them to placate the studio chiefs at Fox.
“I don’t think they ever had a problem with the CG, ” Cameron said to the LA Times. “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% commitment from me. Maybe it was the subject matter. This was a big ‘Star Wars‘-type movie. They’re both serious actors.”
While it might have helped to have Damon on the poster, I think having a relative unknown (Sam Worthington) play Jake Sully absolutely made Avatar better. As you watched Worthington on screen, you didn’t see any baggage from previous roles…instead, you could project onto him whatever you were feeling as you watched the movie. Looking back, I can see why Fox would be nervous about Worthington, but now that Cameron’s last two films have made over $4 billion at the worldwide box office, I think it’s safe to leave the casting to him.