The tale of Matt Damon turning down the leading role in James Cameron's "Avatar" has been told before. But if you're familiar with the financial details of that decision, you're probably not surprised that he still tends to bring it up, from time to time. You would too.
At a recent "masterclass" seminar at the Cannes Film Festival, Damon revealed that he "turned down more money than any actor in history."
As the story goes, Cameron was so interested in getting Damon to anchor his unorthodox project that he offered him a generous ten percent stake in the film's box office. As you probably already know, the film went on, without Damon, to become the highest grossing film of all time, taking in (counting multiple re-releases over the years) $2.8 billion worldwide.
As Matt tells it:
"Jim Cameron offered me Avatar. 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…[the profits]."
After the movie earned billions, when you add up all the potential lost royalties, Matt Damon essentially gave up…
Damon said that his decision not to do "Avatar" had to do with his commitment to the then-ongoing "Bourne" franchise, a choice that he described as being "moral" rather than financial in nature, not wanting to abandon the "Bourne" series mid-stream.
Cameron ended up going in a completely different direction in casting the lead of "Avatar", enlisting Sam Worthington to play the role instead. A relative unknown, it's safe to say that Worthington wasn't offered or received a ten percent cut of "Avatar"'s formidable box office gross.
Also of interest might be what Damon says his friend John Krasinski had to say about his $200 million mistake:
"Nothing would be different in your life if you had done 'Avatar,' except you and me would be having this conversation in space."
Damon's doing quite well financially of course, with a net worth of $170 million, by our latest count. But one can't help but to think of the anguish that would be created by missing out on $250 million would cause anyone to lose some sleep. And with multiple "Avatar" sequels said to be on the way, you shouldn't expect Damon to forget about his fateful choice anytime soon.
Of course, even though Damon knows the sting of missed opportunity, he acknowledges that he's still doing pretty well in his chosen field, even without Avatar:
"So, yeah. I've left more money on the table than any actor actually… So that sucked and that's still brutal. But my kids are all eating. I'm doing OK."
What are the Largest Acting Paydays Ever?
As of this writing, the record for the largest acting payday ever from a single movie belongs to Bruce Willis. In order to appear in movie about dead people by an unknown director, Bruce negotiated a $14 million salary PLUS 17% of the gross revenue generated by a little movie called "The Sixth Sense." Willis also wracked up a $450 thousand dollar private jet tab and had a $400 thousand dollar "allowance" while working on the film. His co-star Haley Joel Osment, who turned in an Oscar-nominated performance, was paid a total of $150,000 for the role.
When it was all said and done, Bruce earned $120 million for his efforts.
There have been other actors who have earned more money from single roles across multiple movies. For example, Keanu Reeves earned $260 million from the first three "Matrix" movies and Tom Cruise has earned at least $300 million for his work in the "Mission Impossible" franchise so far.