Why Tom Cruise Didn’t Star in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Tom Cruise almost starred in Quentin Tarantino movie.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might have missed out on most of its 10 Academy Award nominations. However, it did get Brad Pitt his first acting Oscar for his hilarious, layered performance of Cliff Booth. Cliff is the stuntman and best friend of fading screen icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). But he also has a tense run-in with the Manson family.

Much of the pre-release reporting on Tarantino’s film focused on the Charles Manson connection. But in the end, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is far more concerned with the central friendship of Rick and Cliff. DiCaprio and Pitt are so good together that it’s hard to believe Tom Cruise was briefly in talks to play Pitt’s role. Here’s why it didn’t happen.

Tom Cruise at Comic-Con International in San Diego
Tom Cruise at Comic-Con International in San Diego | Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Quentin Tarantino approached casting the film in a unique way

Whenever you cast a movie, you have to keep in mind the chemistry of your leads. But in the case of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this compatibility had to go even deeper. After all, Cliff is Rick’s stuntman, which means there’s a physicality that also has to fit. When the film was released, Tarantino appeared on the HappySadConfused podcast and gave fans a glimpse behind his casting process.

The reality is, was it always these two guys? It’s the casting coup of the decade. You can’t count on that. They both have to respond to it, they both have to want to play those roles, they both have to be available. There’s a whole lot of stuff there. And if you’re casting an actor, casting a team, where the one guy is a double of another guy then they have to match up in the right kind of way.

From a casting perspective, the film was probably among the greatest challenges the director has faced. Besides, these are two of Hollywood’s most popular leading men we’re talking about. Thankfully, Tarantino had already worked with DiCaprio and Pitt in Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, respectively. So he had a connection there as well, one which could help Tarantino win over his dream cast.

But he also discussed the Cliff Booth role with none other than Tom Cruise

Before he secured his two leading men, Tarantino briefly discussed the project with Tom Cruise. The pair have never worked together, and though the director doesn’t reveal a clear reason why it didn’t work out, we can deduce it’s partly because the DiCaprio-Pitt pairing worked out.

“[Tom Cruise and I] talked about it,” Tarantino told HappySadConfused. “He’s a great guy and we really hit it off. [A collaboration] could happen on something else.”

With presumably only one more movie left on his filmography, Tarantino is running out of chances to work with Cruise. Let the fancasting for the director’s 10th (and final?) theatrical release begin! As for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has no regrets. He found the pair he wanted to bring his story to life. Finding two leads as perfectly in sync would have been rough. But it’s a possibility Tarantino was prepared for.

“I had maybe eight different pairings of actors that could go together in a realistic way in this kind of situation. Now the ones that I got were definitely my number 1, but I could never just be confident about that. I had to have a few different backups and a few different exploratory ways to go.”

How would the film had been different with Tom Cruise starring?

We can only imagine what a vastly different movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be with Cruise starring instead of Pitt. For one thing, DiCaprio probably wouldn’t be in the lead. Per his own words, Tarantino would have had to find another middle-aged star to play opposite Cruise. Here’s hoping Tarantino eventually spills on who the other half would have been in a Cruise-led version of Rick and Cliff’s story.

Although Pitt and Cruise share the screen in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, that film accentuates the very different energies the two actors possess. Pitt is more poised and collected, while Cruise is more reactive or even manic at times. Swapping the two actors in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood creates such a different image of the film. For starters, it’s hard to envision Cruise winning an Academy Award for his work.