Before Keanu Reeves landed the lead in “The Matrix,” the producers had such a hard time finding the right man for the role that they briefly considered a woman — and that woman was Sandra Bullock.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who fought to get “The Matrix” made at Warner Bros., said the studio insisted on a big name for the Wachowskis’ epic, especially since they had only one prior directing credit prior to their dense, philosophical masterpiece.
He said Bullock, who starred alongside Reeves just a few years earlier in 1994’s “Speed,” was one of several A-listers considered for the part, including Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.
“We went out to so many people I don’t remember. We were getting desperate,” di Bonaventura said. “We went to Sandy Bullock and said ‘We’ll change Neo to a girl.’ [Producer] Joel Silver and I worked with Sandy on ‘Demolition Man’ and she was and continues to be a very good friend of mine. It was pretty simple. We sent her the script to see if she was interested in it. And if she was interested in it we would try to make the change.”
He added: “It just wasn’t something for her at the time. So really it didn’t go anywhere.”
Bullock said through a representative that she didn’t recall the specifics of the pitch for “The Matrix,” but that di Bonaventura was always supportive of her career. She added, however, that ultimately the right person was cast.
In 2009, she told NBC’s “Today” that she was also considered for the part of Trinity and regretted not taking it. The role famously went to Carrie-Anne Moss, and Bullock told “Today”: “It was sexy and great because of Carrie-Anne and Keanu.”
“The Matrix” took years to get off the ground. Studio executives couldn’t visualize the movie from the script, which di Bonaventura went through at least 11 rewrites. But the deeply complex film became a hit, grossing $463.5 million worldwide; spawning two sequels and influencing countless other science fiction films.
Things worked out just fine for Reeves, and for Bullock. A year after “The Matrix” was released, Bullock starred in the Warner Bros. comedy “Miss Congeniality,” which grossed $212.7 million worldwide and earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy.
“The casting process more often than not leads you to the right place,” Di Bonaventura said.
But the process was long.
“The first movie star who says yes is Brad Pitt, he’s doing ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and then he’s coming out of it and he’s like ‘I’m way too exhausted to take this on,’ so he’s gone,” di Bonaventura said. “Then we go to Leonardo [DiCaprio]. He says yes, we have meetings with him and then he goes, ‘You know, I can’t go do another visual effects movie having just finished ‘Titanic,” and he drops out. Then Will Smith joins it and he drops out.”
Will Smith addressed his short-lived involvement with “The Matrix” on his YouTube channel back in February.
“They came in and they made a pitch for ‘The Matrix’ and, as it turns out, they’re geniuses,” Smith said of his meeting with the Wachowskis. “But there’s a fine line in a pitch meeting between genius and what I experienced in the meeting.”
He said he was confused by the pitch, but agreed that Reeves was the right star for the role.
“Keanu [Reeves] was perfect. Laurence Fishburne was perfect,” Smith said. “If I had done it then Morpheus wouldn’t have been black, because they were looking at Val Kilmer.”
Di Bonaventura said the producers not only looked to Kilmer, but several others: “We went to Arnold Scwarzeneger hoping he’d say yes for Morpheus. We to Michael Douglas for Morpheus.”
“Along the way we realized how hard it was what we were doing. Here were these young guys who had done one movie, and they were going to direct this very hard-to-understand script,” he continued. “The good news was, Keanu said yes and he was awesome.”
But even then, Di Bonaventura told TheWrap, his bosses at Warner Bros. were uncomfortable green-lighting the film with Reeves as Neo.
That began to change, Di Bonaventura said, when he landed additional financing to ease the studio’s risk and the film added Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity.
“I don’t think I would change anything. The bigger the star, the more likely the studio was to say yes. So we started with the very biggest and got to Keanu and he gave us the momentum,” di Bonaventura said. “The truth is, that movie rises or falls on those four.”