It’s difficult to imagine anyone except for Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger playing the lead roles in Brokeback Mountain, but it might have been very different. Before Ang Lee took over, Gus Van Sant was developing the film. However, he’s recently told Indiewire that one of the reasons he didn’t make the movie was how difficult it was to find someone to star.
He says “Nobody wanted to do it. 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.”
It could have been a very different film with them, but before we cry ‘homophobia’ for their decision not to make the movie, Van Sant adds that he was angling to make a movie very different to what others involved were hoping for. He comments, “The original story, which was in The New Yorker, was so beautiful and simple, and Larry [McMurtry, screenwriter] had turned it into something that resembled ‘The Last Picture Show’. Which was really good if you were thinking along certain lines … I was thinking more like ‘Gerry,’ ‘Elephant,’ ‘Last Days.’ 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 [Ossana, producer] out of what they had created, because it was great.”
Ossana confirmed to Indiewire that those actors were approached, but was very diplomatic about why they might have turned it down, just saying, “Yes, all those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons.”
It’s also known that Mark Wahlberg was approached and turned the movie down. At the time Gyllenhaal and Ledger were up and comers, although it was still almost unheard of for a mainstream American film to cast two well-known heterosexual actors to play gay romantic leads in a movie. Indeed, it hasn’t happened that many times since.