Tobey Maguire went from making Spider-Man to the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit – but that film nearly knocked him out of the Spider-Man sequel.

Small articles in old film magazines have a habit of sending me off down rabbit holes. Digging back through an old copy of Film Review earlier this week, a small news snippet did just that.

The snippet in question is in the long-lost magazine’s June 2003 issue, and it noted that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 was set to start filming on April 12th of that year – but just three and a half weeks beforehand, there was still some doubt over casting.

Nothing unusual there: Hollywood has no shortage of stories where actors join productions very late in the day. But what was different here was there was real doubt that Tobey Maguire would reprise the title role of the webslinger. Notwithstanding the fact that the first movie had been a massive box office hit and the biggest commercial success of his career, there was serious doubt as to whether Maguire would be back for more.

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Unthinkable in the modem day climate of actors being signed up to long term contracts and cinematic universes, but in truth unthinkable then as well: Maguire was understood to have a three-film deal to play Spidey after all.

Spider-Man 2 was already running behind schedule by this stage, having been set to commence filming in January of 2003. The schedule was tight  and getting tighter, with the film due in cinemas in May 2004. There wasn’t an awful time for any delay.

The problem though was that Tobey Maguire had been making another film between his Spidery outings, and a physically very taxing one. The project in question was Gary Ross’ 2003 horse racing-set drama Seabiscuit, a film that would go on to be a commercial success, and in fact land a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Maguire had been shooting the movie for several months, having jumped onto it after filming the original Spider-Man. He played the jockey Red Pollard in the picture, and the plan was that once he was done, he was set to get back into his Spidey outfit.

It’d make for three very taxing, physical films in a row, and Seabiscuit had apparently taken its toll. As per that Film Review news report, Maguire was “said to be exhausted and suffering with back pains”.

It got to the point where the discussion was the physicality of Seabiscuit was causing real concerns over whether he could play Spider-Man again. Would his injury stop him doing so? Sony was seriously considering recasting the part, such was the level of concern. And this was leaking out, being played out to a degree in the pages of the Hollywood trade press.

Yet there was a suspicion that there was more to it. Believe the stories, and behind the scenes, it seems some level of hardball was being played. In fact, a story began gathering momentum that Maguire was looking for a way out of the Spider-Man role.

I found in another back issue of a magazine – Entertainment Weekly – a piece from around the same time that seemed to lend some credence to the theory that all was not well.

The aforementioned Film Review’s report was dated March 19th 2003, and then EW magazine led with a cover feature on Seabiscuit in its July 25th 2003 issue. The opening spread of its article focused on rumours about the actor.

In that piece, we learned that he’d apparently fired his longtime agent, and then there’s a bit of a chitter-chatter from an anonymous source suggesting ‘I hear Sony isn’t giving him his $17m for Spider-Man 2 until he’s done filming … he’s getting scale until the last day. And everything over budget is on his head’.

The rumour of him not getting that salary, the same article would continue, was false. But as it noted, Maguire was nonetheless the topic of a lot of Hollywood conversation at the time.

Plus, he’d faced a challenge. For Seabiscuit, he’d had to lose around 20 pounds, and then he’d gone straight into training for Spider-Man, for which he’d had to bulk up again in pretty quick time. This, goes the report, was causing problems too. That whilst making Seabiscuit, the aforementioned old back injury was said to be playing up. EW wrote that Maguire asked the studio to rearrange the shooting schedule for Spider-Man 2 to allow him to recover.

But Sony, it seems, wasn’t very happy.

This bit of the story has been widely chatted about since. That Sony had a backup plan for the casting of Spider-Man and was reportedly playing tough when Maguire was looking doubtful for a return. As it happened, Jake Gyllenhaal was high on the list for who it’d recruit in his place. Warner Bros had arguably set a precedent in the 1990s by having three different Batmans in its four Dark Knight adventures that decade. Why couldn’t Sony do that same?

In fact, as the tale goes, Gyllenhaal was sounded out about the possibility of taking on the Spider role, with a feeling that Maguire was going to be replaced. Variety would report that Maguire was told the film would be moving on without him, and that an offer went out to Gyllenhaal. That negotiations had begun.

In the end, a deal was hammered out that put this particular fire out, but not before further rumours suggested Maguire had been fired.

This bubbled up at the junket for Seabiscuit, when he denied he’d been given his cards. “I had some concerns, as did the studio, because the level of stunts are so much greater on the second picture than the first. We both wanted to make sure I could do it. So, we went through some tests in terms of me getting into harnesses and performing some of the stunts. We were pretty close to production, so I think things got blown out of proportion. We were three weeks out and we were making sure, or you could say questioning, whether I was able to do it. After I did the tests, we all felt good about it and off we went”, he said.

You can read that interview here.

In the end, Maguire would go on to make two more Spider-Man films, with rumours suggesting he may yet step into the suit again. But more recently, this whole story bubbled up again when Jake Gyllenhaal ended up being cast in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Whilst doing interviews for that, Gyllenhaal hardly batted away that there was something going on. “I heard the same thing”, he said of the chatter that he was to replace Maguire back in 2004 (although he was adamant that Maguire was Spider-Man). “There was talk, he hurt himself and there was talk. There was a slew of actors [possibly up for the part], and I was one of them”, Gyllenhaal confirmed to Yahoo.

Still, the story had something akin to a happy ending. Maguire’s three Spider-Man films were all big hits (even the less well-received Spider-Man 3), and Seabiscuit would strike gold too. Plus, Gyllenhaal would get his moment in Spider-Man’s world as well.

But it seems that it really did get to the wire on this one. That Spider-Man 2 – arguably one of the best comic book movies of all time – nearly found itself with a major piece of recasting, just weeks before cameras were due to roll.

And all, it seems, because of a bad back.

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