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Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

Gus Van Sant wanted Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt for Brokeback Mountain

How different would it have been without Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger?

Brokeback Mountain was (is) one of the most critically and commercially successful LGBTQ films to have ever existed. Ang Lee’s cowboy romance won three Oscars, was nominated for five more, and grossed over $170 million internationally. But its stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, almost weren’t its stars at all. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt were slated to play the leading duo before they turned the roles down, recalls Gus Van Sant (one of the directors originally approached for the film).

“Nobody wanted to do it,” Van Sant told IndieWire this week. “I was working on it, and I felt like we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast. That wasn’t working out.” This might have had something to do with the evidently incorrect assumption, back in 2005 – when the practice was considered more boundary breaking – that playing a leading gay role would irreversibly damage a straight actor’s career.

Now, we’re obviously not complaining that Ledger and Gyllenhaal ended up playing out the clandestine relationship between the film’s leads; they do as good a job as, presumably, DiCaprio and Pitt could have pulled off. But that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to imagine the alternative history. Van Sant himself seems to express some regret, going on to say that he shouldn’t have worried so much about casting famous lead actors. “I was not ready. I’m not sure why,” he says. “There was just sort of a hiccup on my part.”

Van Sant was reportedly offered 2017’s gay romance Call Me By Your Name as well, but praises director Luca Guadagnino’s rendering of the Oscar-winning tale and admits he probably couldn’t have equalled it.