A quarter of a billion dollars – that’s how much Matt Damon revealed to GQ that he missed out on by turning down the leading role in James Cameron’s sci-fi 2009 smash Avatar.
According to Damon, Cameron had told him that he didn’t need “a named actor” for the part, but that if Damon took the role he would give him ten per cent of the movie’s profits as payment.
Avatar would go on to make an incredible $2.79 billion at the box office, making it the highest-grossing movie ever at the time, before Avengers: Endgame topped it earlier this year.
Even taking into account the movie’s large $237 million budget, it would have likely meant a pay-out for Damon in the region of $250m – or a quarter of a billion dollars, comfortably the largest single fee for an actor in cinema history.
Damon was forced to turn down the role as it clashed with filming of the third Bourne movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. The little-known Australian actor Sam Worthington was eventually cast in the lead role.
As Damon put it to GQ: “I’ve left more money on the table than any actor actually”.
As part of a wide-ranging interview for GQ’s November cover story, Damon was speaking alongside Christian Bale to promote their new racing movie, Le Man’s ’66.
GQ’s Associate Editor Stuart McGurk had asked both actors if they had ever been tempted to take a part purely for the money. Bale answered first, saying he’d been tempted – but never had.
“I’m human,” said Bale. “Because you’ve seen how much money affects life. There’s been times where you’ve watched your parents struggling like crazy.”
But it was Damon’s answer that stood out – and seemingly caused Bale to lose all control of his facial muscles.
After saying that he would also never do a film just for the money – “You’re just taking money up front that you could get working over a course of years, for less, on things you really like” – Damon told a “related story” about turning down a large payday.
“Jim Cameron offered me Avatar,” said Damon. “And when he offered it to me, he goes, ‘Now, listen. I don’t need anybody. I don’t need a name for this, a named actor. If you don’t take this, I’m going to find an unknown actor and give it to him, because the movie doesn't really need you. But if you take the part, I'll give you ten per cent of...’ So on the subject of money...”
“Of the Avatar profits?” asked McGurk.
At this point, Bale made the cartoon sound of someone shaking their head with their lips warbling, like Wile E Coyote trying to shake off an anvil to the head.
“It would be ‘Matt Damon saves the world’ had you said yes there,” Bale added.
Damon then described the time he told A Quiet Place star John Krasinski the same story, when the pair were writing fracking drama Promised Land together.
“We’re writing in the kitchen and we’re on a break,” said Damon. “And I tell him [Krasinski] the story and he goes, ‘What?’ And he stands up and he starts pacing in the kitchen. He goes, ‘OK. OK. OK. OK. OK.’ He goes, ‘If you had done that movie, nothing in your life would be different. Nothing in your life would be different at all. Except that, right now, we would be having this conversation in space.’ So, yeah. I've left more money on the table than any actor actually.”
He added: “But my kids are all eating. I’m doing OK.”
Stars being offered part of a movie’s “back-end” – industry speak for a percentage of the profits – rather than an up-front fee is nothing new.
Tom Hanks is said to regularly forego upfront fees for a cut of the box office, notably walking away with a sum in the region of $60m after the success of Forrest Gump.
In order to fast-track the budget process for The War Of The Worlds, meanwhile, Tom Cruise instead settled for 20 per cent of the movie’s profits, pocketing an estimated $100m as a result.
And Robert Downey Jr cut a famously sweet deal with the Marvel films, in which he didn’t just receive a percentage of the profits of the Iron Man franchise, but the ensemble Avengers movies too, revealing to US GQ that the first Avengers movie earned him $50m alone.
Yet they all pale into comparison compared to how much Damon could have earned if he’d agreed to star in Avatar.
And with two Avatar sequels already shot and another two planned, Damon likely turned down the chance to be the first actor in history to have made over a billion dollars from the same role.