10 Actors Cut From Terrence Malick Films & How They Reacted

We’ve all been there. Cast as the lead in a meaty, dialogue-heavy role in a surefire masterpiece from one of the most unassailable geniuses of modern filmmaking, only to be reduced to sifting through the finished film on freeze frame occasionally shouting “Look! That’s my shadow on that fern!” or “Hey! That’s the back of my head near that egret!” The one comfort we can take when this inevitability occurs, is that we’re in fine company on the Malick cutting room floor. The only question is, whose lead will we follow in reacting to our role’s excision or drastic reduction?

Terrence Malick has a storied history with actors, one that can only continue to get more thickety as his output increases, and as the casts for his films expand. But it was really only with 1998’s gorgeous hymnal to the brutalizing effect of war on nature and humanity, “The Thin Red Line,” that his propensity for entirely removing whole roles and performances found real expression, and since then the mythos of the roulette wheel one spins when accepting a role in a Malick film has only grown. It’s a little unfair — “The Thin Red Line” always had an enormous cast (it’s about a war, after all); many of those often referred to as having been cut never actually filmed a scene; and others had roles that were only ever going to be cameos removed. The key factor is that many of the affected actors on that film and since then have been very high profile, but again, Malick seems to attract big names in droves, so in droves they will fall by the wayside.

Malick’s latest, “To the Wonder,” in theaters and on (sacrilegious!) VOD this Friday, has also made headlines for who’s not in it as for who is. So we thought we’d take this chance to run through the list of actors dropped from Malick’s films, or those who had their roles greatly curtailed, and the various ways they dealt with the disappointment. Read, and judge for yourselves who did it best — that way you’ll be prepared when that phone call comes to let you know that “Untitled Malick Project” will not, after all your months of shooting in that cornfield, boast your involvement at all.

Actor: Mickey Rourke
Film: “The Thin Red Line”
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 8/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: On the one hand, it feels like Mickey Rourke has kind of one of the more legitimate beefs. His role wasn’t just whittled down, not a single frame made it into the finished film, and his performance, which he called in a 2005 interview “some of the best work I ever did” really only exists for public consumption in a couple of deleted scene extras on the Criterion release. And like so many other actors on this list, he seems to have felt a little betrayed or badly used by Malick — from that same interview: “I’d gone through a really bad time and Terry knew about it so he incorporated it into the character. It really worked.” 

On the other hand, a lot of his reaction seems out of step with what most observers would assume were Malick’s actual motives behind the edit. While his track record makes it probable that Rourke was nixed for narrative purposes (Malick famously “finding” the film in the edit), Rourke claimed the reasons were much more personal: “There were political reasons why I was out of the movie. That really upset me… just because of the temperature of me and the industry, my scenes were cut.” Even if Malick does not in fact float on a gauzy higher plane above the dirty dealings of Hollywood, it still seems unlikely to us that he’d have gotten rid of Rourke to satisfy someone else’s whims, if he’d really loved his performance and felt it fitted within the film.

Actor: Adrien Brody
Film: “The Thin Red Line”
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Dramatically reduced from lead to support, dialogue down to a couple of spoken lines.
Bitterness Level: 7/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Adrien Brody, of course, is still in “The Thin Red Line,” but his role was not the lead he expected, performed and read in the script and the book on which the script was based. Malick found his attention wandering from Brody’s character in the edit and focusing instead on Jim Caviezel‘s, to the detriment of the former’s screen time. We should remember that, significantly, this was Brody pre-“The Pianist” and it’s clear he expected his role here to be his big break. In fact, he mentioned in a 2001 Independent interview (text here) that: “The pressure on that film was that I had to carry the movie with a cast of stars that I truly admired — Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in particular. You hear horror stories about Sean Penn, that he can be a real bastard if he doesn’t admire your work.” 

But after a grueling 6-month shoot in “a filthy costume which they wouldn’t wash,” only disappointment awaited. Again a sense of betrayal comes through: “I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything…in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I’d already begun the press for a film that I wasn’t really in. Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that…” He went on to suggest that Malick’s own status as a filmmaker may be rather inflated: “You know the expression ‘Don’t believe the hype’? Well, you shouldn’t.”

Actors: Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas
Film: “The Thin Red Line”
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Excised Completely
Bitterness Level: 0/10 lemons

What Happened & How They Reacted: Along with Rourke, only Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas definitely had filmed roles cut from the movie — photos of both of them on set exist. However it doesn’t seem like their parts were ever huge, and as supporting players in a cast so stacked with A-listers, perhaps they weren’t wholly surprised not to make the final cut. Either way, neither has gone on record in any major way about their disgruntlement, a sign of either class or resignation.

Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
Film: “The Thin Red Line”
How Badly Was His Role Affected: His voiceover narration track went unused
Bitterness Level: 0/10 auditory lemons

What Happened & How He Reacted: Billy Bob Thornton hasn’t made a big deal out of his involvement, or lack thereof, in the finished film. However it is known that he recorded a 3-hour-long narration for the entire film under Malick’s supervision. Of course the final film has the poetic, overlapping narration spoken by many actors, sometimes unidentifiably, and so it becomes a much more choral piece than a single voice could have achieved, adding to Malick’s throughline about the universality of human experience. Whatever happened, nothing of Thornton’s voice remains, and this is one case where we’d hazard that the reason was simply an artistic choice, and the decision was probably the right one.

Actors: Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric
Film: “The Thin Red Line”
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Never got to the shooting stage
Bitterness Level: 0/10 imaginary lemons
What Happened & How They Reacted: Gary Oldman never filmed a scene for Malick — he never even got on a plane to Australia. According to this EW article, a role was written specifically for him, and sent to him. But before photography began, Malick realized he already had too many characters and the shoot was becoming unwieldy (and how right he was — read all about it here), and Oldman’s role was removed at script stage. Similarly, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Jason Patric were all mooted at some point, with Patric apparently largely a studio suggestion. The former two definitely participated in readthroughs, and received thank you credits for their pains, but there’s nothing to suggest that their involvement or commitment went much further than that, and certainly they themselves aren’t anywhere, that we could find, on record as complaining. And in Sheen’s case at least, the experience seems not to have tarnished his admiration and gratitude toward Malick for providing him with his breakout role in “Badlands” — in a 2004 interview he called Malick “a deeply spiritual, bright, articulate man who had a profound influence on me…”

Actor: Christopher Plummer
Film: “The New World
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Reduced
Bitterness Level: 7/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Christopher Plummer waited a good few years before letting rip, in amusing and quite public fashion, on Malick. Believing his role as Captain Newport to have been decimated by Malick’s editing process, he said to New York Magazine in 2011: “[Malick is] fascinated by nature, and just cuts to birds.” He also claims he wasn’t alone in being disgruntled on that set: “Colin Farrell kept saying, ‘My character, he’s a fuckin’ osprey. That’s how he sees me.’ You’d be playing a passionate scene, and he’d say in that strange southern voice of his, mixed with Harvard and Oxford, ‘Ah, jes’ stop a minute, Chris. I think there’s an osprey flying over there. Do you mind if I just take a few shots?’ I wrote him an infuriated letter because I saw the film and I was hardly in it—he cut my part to shit.” 

Plummer even compared himself with Adrien Brody, then-poster boy for the Let Down By Malick brigade: “…it recalled the story of Adrien Brody, the lead in ‘The Thin Red Line.’ He went to the premiere, and he wasn’t in it!… I was awful to [Malick], but I did say I admired him. He’s an individual—also mad as a hatter.” As much as he seem to soften a touch at the end, in 2012 at a Newsweek awards season roundtable, Plummer went even further, ranting (much to ‘Thin Red Line’ actor George Clooney‘s amusement, it seems): “I love some of his movies very much, but the problem with Terry is he needs a writer, desperately. He insists on overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious… and he edits his films in such a way that he cuts everyone out of them… I was put in all sorts of different spots and suddenly my character was not in the scene that I thought I was in, in the editing room. It was very strange. It completely unbalances everything. And a very emotional scene that I had suddenly became background noise.” Again he brings up the letter. “I gave him shit. I’ll never work with him again.” You can read more about the shooting of “The New World” in our comprehensive breakdown of the movie.

Actor: Sean Penn

Film: “The Tree of Life
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Role reduced, and substantially changed from script stage.
Bitterness Level: 5/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Sean Penn, one of the actors who survived the Great ‘Thin Red Line‘ Cull, obviously had developed some sort of relationship with Malick on the set of that film. “It took me a little bit of time to adjust to it, it took me a couple of weeks and some heart to heart conversations with Terry about what contribution I could make because I had never been involved in something [so big],” he said about it, in the 2002 documentary “Rosy-Fingered Dawn.” So his disappointment and befuddlement at his role’s alterations in “The Tree of Life” may have been all the greater. As he said to Le Figaro: “I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” 

That last bit especially seems damning, but in fact his next sentence in that Figaro interview, less frequently quoted, roughly translates as: “But this is a film that I would recommend, if you can go in without preconceived ideas. Everyone can find there a personal, emotional or spiritual connection. Those who do generally emerge very moved.” So it seems he himself may be admitting that it’s his preconceived ideas of what the film might have been that find him less than in love with the finished product.

Actor: Rachel Weisz
Film: “To the Wonder”
How Badly Was Her Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 2/10 lemons
What Happened & How She Reacted: Well if A-list Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz can be cut out of a Malick movie, no one’s safe. But Weisz, who was to have played Dinah, a close friend of Ben Affleck‘s character Neil, seemed to go into the film with her eyes open, and so to be quite stoic in her reaction to being cut. “I did it for the experience of working with him, but one never knows with Terrence Malick. You can shoot for three months and end up not being in the movie,” she told SFGate. And since she was only on set for a few days, she probably felt closer to to the guillotine than others. In interview with Italian magazine La Stampa she says much the same thing but a little note of disappointment creeps in — possibly in translation? “It seems that my part has been cut, so I had the experience of working with him but I will not have the pleasure of seeing my work.” So what was her storyline exactly? Well the bare bones in the early plot description were that Dinah advises Neil’s new flame Jane (Rachel McAdams) to leave when his wife Marina (Olga Kurylenko) comes back on the scene…and is surprised to learn that her brother has now fallen in love with Marina. So, yeah we can see how she might not exactly be crucial.

Actor: Michael Sheen

Film: “To the Wonder”
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 1/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Having let slip that he was excited to be working with Malick while on the press tour for Woody Allen‘s “Midnight in Paris” few further details emerged about Michael Sheen‘s role until after it was cut. But Sheen’s involvement seemed casual enough from the beginning, “I played Ben [Affleck]’s boss, but that side of the film got cut down so much,” he said in interview. “I just went to visit my girlfriend Rachel [McAdams] on the set, and then Terry asked if I would do a day’s filming on it, so I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ It was just that I was around, and at the end of the day, you know, it was only two scenes.” And, showing similar equanimity to fellow Brit Rachel Weisz, he said of hearing the news he was cut: “The producer sent me a nice email just saying, ‘This is what’s happening…’ But it wasn”t like I had gone through the whole thing of auditioning for a Terry Malick film and then saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got the part!’ That’s happened to me before — I’ve done films where a lot of it gets cut and then it’s kind of really disappointing.”

Actor: Amanda Peet
Film: “To the Wonder”
How Badly Was Her Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 1/10 lemons
What Happened & How She Reacted: Well the lemon rating is a guess, because we don’t have any news of Amanda Peet‘s reaction to her role being cut, and indeed we sort of suggested this might be the way things go in an eerily prescient post from 2011. However she also seemed to have subscribed up front to the Weisz school of “wanting to work with Malick, not necessarily expecting the earth.” “I wasn’t there for very long, and we worked really long hours, so I didn’t really get a huge taste of it,” Peet explained to LA Story “but it was really beautiful. [Malick] couldn’t have been lovelier.” In fact she likened his shooting practice to jazz: “He has a very, very particular way of shooting. He calls things out to you while you’re shooting, and it’s very, very different than other work that I’ve done… He’s like a jazz musician. There’s a lot of variety, and he doesn’t do the same thing twice. He improvises and he lets you riff, and then he’ll shout something out to you that he wants you to say in the middle of the scene. It’s a very mysterious and wonderful, magical process.” Well they do say jazz is as much about the notes you leave out as those you leave in…

Actor: Barry Pepper
Film: “To the Wonder”
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Excised completely

Bitterness Level: ?/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: We really have no clue at all how Barry Pepper took the news of being dropped from the film, but in interview with Collider from 2010, he certainly claimed to have loved the experience of shooting as Father Barry, a priest seen in a few set photos walking alongside Javier Bardem‘s Father Quintana, even if he never got a script. “I’m being absolutely honest with you in saying that I don’t know what the story is about. All I know is my involvement, which is a small chapter within the film, which to me was absolute joy to work with him on that level because it was so free and so unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” he explained. “Never been involved in a project where you’re not handed a concrete screenplay, but to me it was just like floating down a river. You know, you really just had to go with it, or else…You just really had to float because it was such a free process that if you fought it, you’d just start drowning.”

Actor: Jessica Chastain

Film: “To the Wonder”
How Badly Was Her Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 0/10 lemons
What Happened & How She Reacted: It would be pretty churlish of Jessica Chastain to complain too loudly about Malick’s treatment of her, since it was “The Tree of Life” that proved her career breakthrough. And Chastain is anything but churlish, so we’ve not heard a peep from her about her “To the Wonder” role’s disappearance after the fact. In any case, rather like Michael Sheen‘s experience, her involvement was very casual from the beginning, “What happened was I was working on ‘The Help‘ with Sissy Spacek,” Chastain said, when we spoke to her in December 2011 “and her husband is Jack Fisk who does all of [Malick’s] production design. And so they were over there in Oklahoma and we were in Mississippi, and I called him one time I was in my trailer… he just said ‘Hey, why don’t you come visit?’, because I love that whole crew, they’re like family to me. So I said okay, we planned this trip, I was going to come visit, and then, right before, I started getting calls from the producers that they were organising my airfare, and I was like ‘Well, why are you guys paying?’ And then two days before I got there, I got another call from a producer who was like ‘Would you mind playing a part in the film?’ and of course I would do anything on any of [Malick]’s films, I would work on the crew of his films, I love working with him.” But already then she had her doubts as to whether she’s made the final cut. “Because it happened like that I don’t think I’m going to end up in the movie. I really just think I was there, three days, acting with Ben Affleck, and I don’t know what the movie is about, I don’t know what my part is and you know, my guess is I’m probably not in the film.”

In fact, even those who remain the leads in the film have their niggles. Olga Kurylenko, while breathless and effusive in her admiration for Malick, lamented recently “My favorite scene is cut! And it’s not one, there were like 10 of them. I did a lot of confession scenes with Javier [Bardem]. That was dialogue! Terry didn’t mind me speaking then! I loved those scenes. And there were more fights with Ben, horrible, terrifying fight scenes.” And the changes have apparently altered her character’s portrayal significantly. “From what we shot, it was clear to me that Marina was meant to be quite hysterical; if he’d kept [all those shots] in, it would have been a very different view on this woman.”

And her co-star Ben Affleck, while undoubtedly remaining central to the film remarked: “The experience of it seemed half-crazy in that we didn’t really have dialogue, so I didn’t really know what was happening. Then I realized that he was accumulating colors that he would use to paint with later in the editing room… It was kind of a wash for me in terms of learning something as an actor, because Terry uses actors in a different way — he’ll [have the camera] on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, ‘Who’s more important in this — me or the tree?’ But you don’t ask him, because you don’t want to know the answer.”

Malick is of course already in production on two future films, and next up after “To the Wonder” will be “Knight of Cups.” With Malick himself reportedly saying to Affleck that “Just more and more I’m more interested in silences,” will we be back here, furiously updating this post prior to that film’s release? Nah, we’re sure the svelte, low-rent, minimal cast, which includes Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Joel Kinnaman, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Wes Bentley, Joe Manganiello, Nick Offerman, Freida Pinto, Nicky Whelan, Shea Whigham, Michael Wincott, Thomas Lennon, Ryan O’Neal and Katia Winter have nothing to worry about.

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