Jake Gyllenhaal Was Almost Cast As Napoleon Dynamite. Here Are Two Other Stars Who Also Didn’t Make The Cut

Jon Heder’s career-defining role in Napoleon Dynamite almost wasn’t his. It turns out Nightcrawler star Jake Gyllenhaal could have stolen it. Moreover, Heder wasn’t the only one to almost miss out. A retrospective article on the movie revealed which actors might have ended up on the wrong side of the cult classic. 

Jon Heder was friends with the movie’s director, Jared Hess 

Jake Gyllenhaal, who almost landed in the Napoleon Dynamite cast
Jake Gyllenhaal | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

A 2019 Deseret News retrospective claims that Heder nearly missed out on being the beloved high school nerd at the center of director Jared Hess’s rural Idaho comedy. 

Heder, a BYU film student alongside Hess, played the lead in the short film Peluca. Eventually, the filmmakers decided the short was worth expanding into a low-budget feature. Hess wrote the largely autobiographical screenplay alongside his wife, Jerusha. 

In short, it looked like the same actors would appear in the feature-length version of Peluca. However, a top casting director advised it. 

“When we were getting it together, we wanted to elevate the production every place we could — to really stretch out and try to get top casting directors,” producer Sean Covel told the newspaper. “And we got a few great responses from incredible casting directors. One of them was one of the top casting directors in town. We got on the phone with him, and he’s like, ‘Listen guys, I love your vibe, I love what you guys are doing, the script is fantastic, I love what the director’s got going on — but I’ve got to tell you, this Jon Heder guy in the short film, I don’t think I could watch him for an hour and a half straight.” 

Covel said he suggested The Guilty’s Jake Gyllenhaal. “He said, ‘Jake’s really looking for something indie, off the wall. I’ve got a good relationship with Jake.’” 

Hess nixed Jake Gyllenhaal for the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ cast

Jared Hess called the potential casting move a flat-out “dealbreaker.” 

“​​To me, that was, creatively, a dealbreaker,” he said. “It was a role Jon was born to play — you could just believe that this guy is for real, you know? It didn’t feel like an actor or a parody. There was such an authenticity to how Jon was bringing the character to life.” Efren Ramirez plays Napoleon’s best friend Pedro Sanchez.

Hess added that an unknown actor for the Napoleon Dynamite cast was essential to making it believable. 

“Casting a known actor that already had a history and a relationship with audiences, you wouldn’t buy it as much,” Hess continued. “But Jon being a first-time actor, it’s like you instantly believe that ‘Wow, this Napoleon guy is for real.’ That was really important to me to protect that. And I just knew nobody else would be able to do it in the way Jon was pulling it off.’” 

Audiences agreed. Napoleon Dynamite gained breakout success at the Sundance Film Festival. Furthermore, it was an instant cult classic on its summer 2004 arrival in theaters. 

Jason Lee and Brad Garrett were also up for roles in the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ cast

Heder — who went on to star opposite Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven — wasn’t the only one to nearly miss out on the role of a lifetime. The supporting role of martial arts instructor Rex almost went to an Everybody Loves Raymond actor. 

“We had Brad Garrett read for the role of Rex,” said Covel. “And he said, ‘This is a great movie, it’s a great script, I love it — I don’t know if I love it enough to go live in Idaho for a month.’ But Diedrich Bader couldn’t have been better as Rex.” 

Moreover, co-producer Jeremy Coon said they offered Jason Lee the role of skeevy grifter Uncle Rico. 

“Initially, we were trying to go after a Jack Black kind of star (for Uncle Rico),” Coon explained. “We had an offer out to Jason Lee, I think. And it got to the point where I was like, ‘We can’t give these people enough money to make it matter to them.’” Jon Gries got the role and nailed it. 

And it’s a good thing; because in short, Napoleon Dynamite struck a chord with audiences exactly as it is. 

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