Why Natalie Portman Was Fired As Lead in ‘Romeo + Juliet’

Natalie Portman has had an impressive career that includes both blockbuster hits (here’s looking at you Thor) and more indie flicks (think Brothers). She has demonstrated an impressive range that weaves its way through action flicks and romantic comedies, casting her in complex roles alongside impressive co-stars.

Portman rose to fame in the mid-to-late 1990s as a young star amidst a sea of up-and-coming leading ladies vying for A-list status, and that put her in the running for some of the biggest hits of the day. One of those was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. Portman even almost landed the coveted position of Juliet, but she lost the job to another rising star. 

Natalie Portman stunned as a very young star in mature roles

Natalie Portman smiling in front of a white background
Natalie Portman | Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

One of the things that defined Portman’s career early on was her ability to take on mature parts at a very young age. She was discovered in a pizza parlor when she was just 11 years old, and her first role was certainly not the family-friendly fare typical for such a young actor. She starred alongside Jean Reno in the rated R drama The Professional, a film in which she played an orphaned child befriended by a hitman. As the young star learns the deadly craft, Portman showed off a range of acting abilities far beyond her age. 

The tone of that film set Portman’s early career on a decidedly dramatic path. She followed up The Professional with smaller roles in Heat (1995) and Beautiful Girls (1996). These experiences left the star brushing elbows with the likes of Al Pacino, Matt Dillon, and Val Kilmer — something most 12- and 13-year-olds can’t claim! 

As The New York Times reports, Portman’s mature performance made some people uncomfortable — including her own mother: “Seeing the little sexual twists and turns, which are different from what you read in the script, I have to say I squirmed a little bit.”

Natalie Portman lost the role of Juliet 

Just as Portman’s career was really taking off, Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet was in the works. With all the hype around her performance in The Professional, it’s no wonder that Portman was able to capture attention for the starring part of Juliet. As Hello Giggles reports, Portman was in the lead to land the part. 

At the time, she was only 13 years old, and she would be starring alongside the then 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, a definite heartthrob of the day. Ultimately, the studio was afraid of how audiences would respond to such a huge age gap between the romantic leads. As Portman explained, “It was a complicated situation and […] at the time I was 13 and Leonardo was 21 and it wasn’t appropriate in the eyes of the film company or the director, Baz. It was kind of a mutual decision too that it just wasn’t going to be right at the time.”

Claire Danes ended up playing Juliet

Once it was decided that Portman would not take on the part of the star-crossed lover, there was a search across the globe for the right Juliet. Luhrmann ended up seeing “hundreds of people” in an attempt to find the right fit. Ultimately, he landed on Claire Danes, another up-and-coming star. 

While still younger than DiCaprio (Danes was 17 at the time), their age gap was considered less risqué by the studio. Reportedly, the pair didn’t get along on the set of the film, and — ironically — it was because the older DiCaprio didn’t take the work as seriously as his younger co-star. 

The part of Juliet would be an iconic role for Danes who would go on to films like The Rainmaker (1997), Brokedown Palace (1999), and The Hours (2002). More recently, Danes has been making waves as the star of Homeland and will play the lead in the upcoming miniseries The Essex Serpent

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