'The Matrix' at 20: The actors who turned down the role of Neo

Stefan Pape
Contributor
Keanu Reeves plays Neo in The Matrix - but it's a role that could've gone elsewhere ((WarnerBros)

20 years on from the release of The Matrix, and this iconic, seminal classic from the Wachowski siblings has left a cinematic imprint that has transcended generations – a luminary cinematic event that has left its mark on pop culture, and on the genre it sits within.

Naturally, when dealing with a film of this nature it's impossible to imagine anybody else playing the leading role, which of course eventually fell into the lap of everybody's current favourite actor Keanu Reeves. Though we weren't far away from having to imagine a different Neo, as the list of actors – and actresses - who almost signed up to this project is quite remarkable.

Firstly, and most famously, Neo was turned down by Will Smith. The actor, who also rejected the chance to work with Quentin Tarantino and take on the eponymous lead role in Django Unchained, has admitted this decision may have been ill-judged, particularly as he instead went on to star in Wild Wild West, one of the biggest flops of his career.

During a video the actor posted online, he explained why he made the call that he did. “The Wachowskis came in and they had only done one movie,” Smith said. “They came in and made a pitch for The Matrix. As it turns out, they're geniuses. But there's a fine line in a pitch meeting between genius, and what I experienced in the meeting.”

Part of what makes The Matrix so memorable is the bullet time effect, which Smith jokingly admits sounded like a strange idea when pitched to him at the time.

Read More: The Wachowskis are working on a fourth Matrix film

“This is the actual pitch they made. 'We're thinking like, imagine you're in a fight. You jump, but imagine if you could stop jumping in the middle of the jump. But then people could see around you 360 while you stop jumping. We're going to invent these cameras and then people can see the whole jump when you stop in the middle of the jump.' So I made Wild Wild West. I'm not proud of it.”

Keanu Reeves is Neo, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role (WarnerBros)

He did, however, see a bright side in his decision. “If I had done it, because I'm black then Morpheus wouldn't have been black 'cause they were looking at Val Kilmer. So I probably would've messed The Matrix up, I would have ruined it. I did you a favour.”

So, when the Wachowskis missed out on their man it wasn't an instant decision to then pursue Reeves. No, the role was turned down by Nicolas Cage too. His reasons were more logistical.

“There was a couple of movies that I was offered, but I had good reasons so couldn't do it,” Cage told MTV. “One was The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings. Both are great movies, but they were shot in New Zealand for great quantities of time, I mean years. Well, Australia was The Matrix. But I had family obligations, so I'm glad I stayed and I had those experiences with my family,” he finished.

It could've been Cage. (Photo by IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)

It was at this point esteemed producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was an exec at Warner Bros. at the time, admitted things were getting desperate. Which led them to consider changing the gender of Neo, as they offered the role to Sandra Bullock, the co-lead in the Reeves starring thriller Speed.

“We went to so many people I don't remember, we were getting desperate,” di Bonaventura told The Wrap. “We went to Sandy Bullock and said we'll change Neo to a girl. Joel Silver and I worked with her on Demolition Man and she continues to be a very good friend of mine. We sent her the script to see if she was interested in it and if she was we would try to make the change. It just wasn't something for her at the time, so it didn't go anywhere.”

In this same interview, di Bonaventura admitted that there were other high-profile names he wanted to take on this seemingly unpopular role, but once again, they turned their nose up at the production.

“The first movie star who says is Brad Pitt, he's doing Seven Years in Tibet and then he's coming out of it and he's way too exhausted to take this on, so he's gone,” he said.

“Then we go to Leonardo [DiCaprio]. He says yes, we have meetings with him and then he goes, 'you know, I can't go do another visual effects movie having just finished Titanic', and he drops out.”

Read More: Keanu Reeves in talks to join Marvel’s The Eternals

This is some list of names, and we haven't even entered into the rumour mill yet. Though when doing so, another incredible collection of actors who supposedly rejected the role, or at least were considered, takes shape. Firstly there is Johnny Depp, who apparently passed on the role, just like he did with Speed. Keanu Reeves accidentally owes a lot to this man.

Another contender: Sandra Bullock speaks onstage during The 2019 ESPYs (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin CostnerTom Cruise, David Duchovny and Brandon Lee were supposedly all in the mix too, which makes you wonder just how low down on the pecking order Reeves was. But he's had the last laugh. Don't worry Keanu, we all think you're excellent.

This is just Neo we’re analysing too, how about the fact that Gary OldmanSamuel L. Jackson, Val Kilmer and Russell Crowe were all said to have been approached for the part of Morpheus – which of course went to Laurence Fishburne, while Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith was initially offered to Jean Reno (who turned down the part because he said he couldn't leave France for such a long period of time to shoot the movie).

Another role that could've gone elsewhere - but Morpheus is Laurence Fishburne

Then there's Sean Connery, who was said to have turned down the role of the Architect who appears in the film sequels (apparently because he found it all too confusing), while Janet Jackson was approached to play Trinity, which of course went to Carrie-Anne Moss. There was also another potential gender reversal on the cards when Michelle Yeoh was asked to play Seraph, but she too said no – as did Jet Li. The role eventually went to Collin Chou. Finally the role of Zee – played by Nona Gaye, is one that once belonged to Aaliyah, before the musician tragically died in a plane crash.

So while we've focused on the ever-changing face of Neo, there's a whole other feature for a whole other day that could be written on the talented bunch who rejected the key supporting roles too. Maybe we'll save that one for the 30th anniversary.

The Matrix has been re-released in 4K and is back in cinemas now. Cineworld is also showing the film in the immersive 4DX format for the first time ever.