Why Matt Damon Walked Away From ‘Avatar’–and 10% of the Highest-Grossing Movie of All Time

Stella Artois’ Let’s Do Dinner campaign is encouraging imbibers to enter for a chance to win dinner in New York City with some of the world’s most fascinating guests. From entry to afterparty, the experience is set to focus on meaningful connection, bringing guests together with engaging conversations. Among the star-studded names on the guest list are Zoe Saldaña and Matt Damon. And speaking of compelling dinner conversation, the two should have plenty to talk about, given that Damon was originally offered the role of Jake Sully in director James Cameron’s now multi-billion dollar Avatar franchise.

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It may be hard to imagine Damon in Sam Worthington’s Na’vi blue skin, but back in 2009, James Cameron not only offered Damon the role–but 10% of whatever the film should happen to make. Which, as it turns out, was a hell of a lot. The highest-grossing film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation) would have given Damon an extra payday in the ballpark of $250 million. Yeah, we’re cringing too. 

Damon discussed it in a conversation with British GQ in 2019 and back in 2021 during the 74th Annual Cannes Film Festival’s Rendez-Vous with Matt Damon conversation, the actor said, “Another time I made a moral decision was when I was offered a little movie called Avatar.”

At gasps from the crowd he explained, “Jim Cameron called me and he offered me 10 per cent of Avatar. You will never meet an actor who turned down more money than me. But I was in the middle of shooting The Bourne Ultimatum and he wanted to shoot during our post-production. We always needed more work in our post-production and I needed to be around. I needed to be available to do more work in our post-production.”

Matt Damon │ Image: Stella Artois
Matt Damon │ Image: Stella Artois

According to Damon, Cameron wasn’t particularly perturbed by Damon’s unwillingness to take the part. In fact, the Academy Award winning director was so confident in the film that his figured he didn’t need a star at all.

“He said to me–he was really lovely–and he said, ‘You know, this movie doesn’t need you. It doesn’t need a movie star at all. The movie’s the star. The idea is the star. And it’s gonna work,'” Damon said. “‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to discover some new guy and put him in. But if you do it, I’ll give you 10 per cent of the movie.’ For moral reasons, again, I told him I couldn’t walk away from this thing that I’d spent all these years doing. He was really great about it and he really celebrated that decision. So at least I got a pat on the back from Jim Cameron.”

Matt Damon in 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (2007) | Image: Universal Pictures
Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007) | Image: Universal Pictures

It’s a surprising story that Damon is unlikely to live down any time soon. And with Damon and Saldaña sharing the spotlight for Stella Artois and Damon’s charity Water.org, the story is once again making headlines. In an episode of CNN’s Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace a few weeks back, Wallace asked, “Honestly Matt, if you had known Avatar was going to be the biggest grossing movie of all time, and you were going to have 10 per cent of the after, could we have maybe put off the Bourne series first?”

Damon answered, “My favourite reaction to this was, I told John Krasinski. He launches himself out of the chair and he starts pacing the kitchen. He goes, ‘Okay, okay, okay, okay. Nothing in your life would be different today if you had done that movie, except you and I would be having this conversation in space.’” 

Zoe Saldaña, Ludacris, and Matt Damon │ Image: Stella Artois
Zoe Saldaña, Ludacris, and Matt Damon │ Image: Stella Artois

Stella Artois and Water.org have partnered for the last eight years to raise awareness and funds for the charity co-founded by Damon, which brings clean water to those who need it. Through the partnership, Water.org has supplied four-and-a-half million people with clean water in the developing world.

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In a recent conversation on the campaign with Entertainment Tonight, Damon and Saldaña chatted about the franchise and Damon’s decision to turn down the role. “It’s the dumbest thing an actor ever did in the history of acting,” Damon told ET. Saldaña quipped, “I don’t think your career suffered because of it, trust me.”

Damon went on to say about the Let’s Do Dinner campaign, “You couldn’t do dinner without safe, clean water. So it’s just kind of a reminder that some of these things that I think we take for granted, some of the things that are so important for all of us. So if you can engage with an issue like this, you’re hopefully helping to provide somebody in a different part of the world with the opportunity to have to take a break and focus on the important things in life rather than trying to find clean, safe water for their family.”

Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of Avatar: The Way of Water │ Image: 20th Century Studios
Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of Avatar: The Way of Water │ Image: 20th Century Studios

Damon seems to be in good spirits about it all and director James Cameron was true to his word. When Cameron cast Aussie Sam Worthington in the role, it took the actor out of living in his car and thrust him into the global spotlight.

Back in that Cannes conversation, Damon further shared, “Ultimately it didn’t matter. Mostly it’s going to sound like, ‘because it was so much money’, but I missed out on the chance to work with him and I hope that comes around, because I would do that for free.” When the interviewer reminded Matt that he probably wouldn’t have been sitting in the room, given that Avatar: The Way of Water was currently filming in New Zealand, Damon lamented, “Oh, there are sequels. Oh God.”


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Chad Kennerk
Contributor

Chad Kennerk

Chad Kennerk is a storyteller, entertainment writer, and self-proclaimed cinephile. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from The Actors Studio in New York City, a Bachelor of Arts from Purdue University, and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He serves as the Digital Editor of Film Review, and as an Analyst/Staff Writer for Boxoffice Pro.