Almost Famous was the cult-classic no one saw coming. The 2000 film starred Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, and Philip Seymour-Hoffman as part of a cast that was absolutely stacked. The A-list factor would have been much higher if director Cameron Crowe had his way with his original pick for the lead. It turns out Brad Pitt was first linked to the role of Russell Hammond and was set to be the star for months before stepping away from the project.
Crowe dished on the Origins with James Andrew Miller podcast (available via Apple) about his hopes for the character of Russell, who he admitted was written with Pitt in mind.
“Brad Pitt was on my mind because I had a really good meeting with him around the time of Say Anything, and he was just starting out, and he just really had something. So I called him with this to play Russell Hammond, and we spent about four months working on it. He read with Natalie Portman,” the director recounted.
It looks like Portman was in line for Penny Lane, which eventually went to Hudson. The actress would have been 19 at the time, with projects like Anywhere But Here and Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace under her belt.
Pitt was already a big timer, starring in 12 Monkeys, Se7en, and Fight Club just ahead of Almost Famous. After those four months, the actor walked away from the project. Crowe remembered being absolutely devastated.
“I wept. I knew that [Pitt] had never fully fallen in love with the character. He had fallen in love with the idea of the character. But maybe there just wasn’t enough on the page.”
The Jerry Maguire director also suggested it was possible Pitt didn’t want to continue on with the movie because of the large age gap between the guitarist and the “band-aid”. There’s a 17-year age difference between Pitt and Portman, and there will forever be an ongoing debate about Penny’s age in the film, which is speculated to be 16. If true, that means there was some unacceptable behavior between the teenager and the band which could have rubbed Pitt the wrong way.
Another major celebrity who almost found their name on the cast list was none other than Meryl Streep. The Big Little Lies star was up for the role of Elaine Miller, which ended up going to McDormand. While the final cast made the film the cult classic it is today, should things have gone a little differently in the casting process, it would have looked like an entirely different movie.