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Julia Roberts Was Originally Cast in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and Ended Up Costing the Studio $6 Million

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credits: NDZ/ Star Max / GC Images / Getty Images / Cropped, and Bane /  Miramax Films and Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB / Cropped
Photo Credits: NDZ/ Star Max / GC Images / Getty Images / Cropped, and Bane / Miramax Films and Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB / Cropped

Many movie fans enjoy a period piece that’s full of romance, elegant costumes, and society drama. That’s exactly what Shakespeare in Love was, except that it took two tries for the film to be made. So what was the cause for the delay when it’s exactly the type of Hollywood production that people love? The answer: Julia Roberts. She was once supposed to play the lead role, but quit the project because she had no chemistry with the potential male leads.

Shakespeare in Love

With a truly incredible cast – Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Judi Dench, and Ben Affleck – Shakespeare in Love was one of the top hit movies of 1998. The plot centered on William Shakespeare and his entirely fictitious love affair with Viola de Lesseps while he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Although the romance wasn’t real, the plot featured many characters who were, including Queen Elizabeth I. It also contained many lines or events that allude to Shakespeare’s real works.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps in a yellow gown, and Joseph Fiennes as Will Shakespeare in a blue jacket.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps, and Joseph Fiennes as Will Shakespeare in a promotional shot for Shakespeare in Love. (Photo Credit: murraymomo / Miramax Films and Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

Given that the cast was so impressive, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare in Love was a huge hit at the box office. It made $289 million across the world and ended the year as the ninth highest-grossing film. It’s shocking to think that a film with this kind of success had the lead role played by a second-choice actress.

Julia as Viola de Lesseps

While Shakespeare in Love ended up being a hit without her, Julia Roberts was initially supposed to take on the lead role of Viola. The original script was picked up by director Edward Zwick, who recently published an article talking about this disastrous experience. Roberts joined the project shortly before the movie went into production with Universal Studios in 1991. The catch was that they only agreed to fund the project because she was attached to it.

Young Julia Roberts in a maroon top.
Julia Roberts attends the British Academy Film Awards in 1998, the same year that Shakespeare in Love came out. (Photo Credit: Antony Jones/ UK Press/ Getty Images)

With a lead actress and a production company, everything was well underway to start filming, but the male lead still wasn’t cast. Roberts insisted from the beginning that she would only act across from Daniel Day-Lewis as Shakespeare. This turned into quite a big problem as he was completely uninterested in taking on the role, wanting to focus on his existing project In the Name of the Father.

A costly resignation

According to Zwick, Roberts even went so far as having her assistant send him two dozen roses and a note that read, “Be my Romeo,” but she was unsuccessful. Evidently, things couldn’t move forward unless the title character was cast, so Roberts was forced to do a variety of chemistry reads with different male actors to see who might be a good fit. She was put with Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, and Sean Bean, and she had complaints about all of them.

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth wearing an extravagant gown.
Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth in a publicity still for Shakespeare in Love. (Photo Credit: fragilidad/ Miramax Films and Universal Studios/ MovieStillsDB)

Things all fell apart during her read with Paul McGann as it became clear that she hadn’t been working on her accent. Whether Zwick actually complained about this, or just alluded to her needing to do some work, it was the end of the line for Roberts. She quit the project the next day, and the film was ultimately canceled. By that point, Universal had already spent six million dollars on costumes, set, and production.

More from us: Danny DeVito Was a Beautician Before He Became an Actor

Eventually, the film was picked up by Miramax and Paltrow was cast as Viola. The film’s success didn’t bring back the money that had already been spent on the failed Julia Roberts version.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.