Baz Luhrmann Says Heath Ledger & Jake Gyllenhaal Auditioned For 'Moulin Rouge'

Baz Luhrmann‘s latest movie, the dazzling and operatic rock ‘n roll biopic “Elvis,” is in theaters now. And it’s wow-ing critics and audiences alike.  Austin Butler‘s lead performance as Elvis Presley is the highlight, but Luhrmann’s inimitable penchant for spectacle is a close second. The movie knocked the blockbuster juggernaut “Top Gun: Maverick” out of the top box office slot its opening weekend, taking in $68.3 million worldwide. So, Luhrmann’s new movie has audiences all shook up, as it were.

READ MORE: Baz Luhrmann Says A 4-Hour ‘Elvis’ Cut Exists & Describes What Had To Be Cut

But bad puns aside, Luhrmann’s career has been successful for decades now, and Butler is just the most recent young star whose career the director helped catapult into the Hollywood stratosphere. And on the “Happy, Sad, Confused” podcast with Josh Horowitz, Luhrmann revealed a couple of the industry’s most iconic stars who almost made it into earlier films of his like “Moulin Rouge!” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” “I form relationships with the actors, and they go on further,” said Luhrmann, “The young actors who auditioned for “Romeo + Juliet,” at least two-thirds of them are icons now. That’s how long ago it was. Actors came in and showed me they could thing.”

When Horowitz alluded that those audition tapes for “Moulin Rouge” are amazing, Luhrmann said, “Yeah, honestly. When I think about Jake Gyllenhaal, for example, who was very close, very young for the role, but he can really sing. He’s a really great musical artist.” Gyllenhaal would have just entered his twenties when auditioned for “Moulin Rouge!,” and he’s certainly an A-List star now. And Luhrmann had another, more tragic example, too. “I mean, very, very sadly, Heath [Ledger], of course.” Ledger passed away in January 2008 after an accidental overdose of medications. He was 28 when he died, so roughly the same age as Gyllenhall when they would have auditioned for the 2001 musical, too.  

Does Luhrmann still have all of that footage of the young stars? “I have that footage, you know, [but] I don’t think I’ll ever release it,” the director said, “But I do, yeah: fly on the wall stuff.” After Horowitz mentioned that footage from before actors made it big and were still figuring out their persona, Luhrmann agreed. “You know, it’s vulnerable times, but spectacular and beautiful times. I mean, there’s footage where you go, like, ‘wow.'” It makes one imagine Gyllenhaal or Ledger in Ewan McGregor‘s lead role in “Moulin Rouge!,” and if the movie would be better or worse with one of them instead.

Of course, both actors went on to have outstanding careers despite not getting that part. And unfortunately, Ledger’s was caught far too short, just after his riveting performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s “The Dark Knight.” But Luhrmann’s comments make one wonder what other rising stars auditioned for Austin Butler’s role as Elvis Presley and where they will be in twenty years. And will Butler’s performance as Presley make him the Jake Gyllenhaal of the next generation of Hollywood? It’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“Elvis” is in theaters everywhere now.  Read our review of the movie here.