Brokeback Mountain is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever made and it’s impossible to imagine anybody but Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger bringing the gay love story to life. But well, let’s just imagine for a second that – say – Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio played the main characters. Because that very nearly happened.
The Academy Award winning film opened to major acclaim, however there were a few hiccoughs along the way according to director Gus Van Sant who was first attached to helm the project. (He later dropped out and Ang Lee took over, becoming the first Asian to ever win a Oscar for best director.)
Apparently, casting the movie’s tragic cowboys Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist – one of the best movie couples of all time – was an absolute logistical nightmare.
Gus told Indiewire, ‘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 Philippe. They all said no.’
Diana Ossana, who co-produced the film and adapted the story from the Annie Proulx short story of the same name, elaborated, ‘All those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons.’
Gus acknowledged that maybe he’d been a little too hopeful in gunning for an A-list cast and acknowledged that he should have ‘cast more unknowns, not worried about who were the lead actors’.
Heath Ledger, who wound up with numerous wins and nominations for his depiction of gruff cowboy Ennis Del Mar, was absolutely spot on in the role – however finding him wasn’t a walk in the park.
Diana said, ‘Casting Ennis in particular was the ultimate hurdle.’
In an interview with About Film, Jake Gyllenhaal said he believed Heath’s role was ‘the most critical role in a lot of ways….to really push you through to the end and show that this relationship is really something meaningful’.
The pair became incredible close friends and Jake said of their working relationship, ‘The best metaphor that I can give is that it felt like we were both like, ‘Are you ready? Yeah. Let’s go,’ and we dove off the boat into the deep end…We knew that it was going to have to do that and we were going to have to commit to it. There was a high five and jump in.’
After Heath Ledger passed away, the movie’s eventual director Ang Lee released a beautiful tribute – encapsulating exactly why Heath was the perfect choice for Ennis over the Brads and Leos of the world.
He wrote, ‘Working with Heath was one of the purest joys of my life. He brought to the role of Ennis more than any of us could have imagined – a thirst for life, for love, and for truth, and a vulnerability that made everyone who knew him love him.’