Will Smith is revealing how Steven Spielberg convinced him to take on a lead role in Men in Black.
During the latest episode of Kevin Hart’s Hart to Heart show, the actor said he was close to turning down several roles throughout his career if it wasn’t for James Lassiter, his former manager and longtime business partner.
Smith said Lassiter was “the arbiter of taste” and is actually the reason he even signed on to some of his most notable projects and roles. “In the heyday, the 10 movies I made at the top of my career, JL was choosing the films,” he said. “He just, he just had an eye, I didn’t want to make Pursuit of Happyness. I didn’t want to make Ali. … And JL picked Men in Black. I kind of understood Men in Black a little bit but I didn’t want to make Men in Black.”
The actor explained that the reason he was initially against accepting the role for the 1997 movie was because he had just finished filming 1996’s Independence Day and “didn’t want to make two alien movies back to back.”
But Spielberg, who served as executive producer on Men in Black, wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so he personally contacted Smith to try and convince him to do the film.
“Steven Spielberg sent a helicopter for me,” Smith recalled. “I was in New York. To talk to me. … It landed at his house. And he had me at hello. … And it was the first time I ever had lemonade with carbonated water. You can’t say no to that.”
“He said the coldest shit,” the actor quipped. “He said, ‘Tell me, tell me why you don’t want to make my movie. And he was the producer. … And he put the ellipsis at the end, it was the dot, dot, dot. … If he had continued, he would have said, ‘Joker, you know I made Jaws, right? You know I made E.T.’”
Smith went on to star as Agent J in three Men in Black films.
Later during his conversation with Hart, the Oscar-winning actor also opened up about 2022’s Emancipation and how he felt like he went too far for the role. Smith played Peter in the film that was based on the real-life story of a runaway slave who escaped plantation owners that nearly killed him. Peter was also the subject of the 1863 photograph called “Whipped Peter.”
Smith said he became too immersed in the role while filming and lost himself throughout the process.
“Just bringing it up, I start to get teary,” he said. “I wanted to feel the degradation of slavery and I just went too far in. It’s like, the level of human brutality, what we will do to each other.”
The actor even recalled a terrifying moment on set when he started to panic because crew members couldn’t remove chains that were around his neck for a scene.
“I was like, ‘I want the real weight, put the real weight of them. I want the real chains,’” Smith explained. “So they got old chains and they put it on my neck and they were fitting it for size and I’m standing there and the prop master went to put the key in and the key didn’t work. And I was like, ‘Oh no. Will, relax.’ And I’m standing there and they’re running around and they couldn’t get me out of it. I’m standing there in those chains, right on that hyperventilating edge.”
He was eventually freed, but Smith noted that although playing the character took a big toll on him personally, he wouldn’t change the experience he had.
“I wouldn’t give it back,” he added. “It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as an actor. Peter introduced me to God. My faith got solid after working on that movie.”