Will Smith might just be the biggest movie star there is. His TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, made him a household name, and before his three-year hiatus he made a decade’s worth of blockbusters. Now, he’s back as Agent J in Men In Black 3. We recently got the chance to talk to Mr. Smith. He told us what he learned during his time away, why he chose to revisit the MIB franchise, and shared details about some of his future projects.
Check out our interview with Will Smith…
Your act got to be a little more serious this time around. How was that?
Did you see my acting transition? Look, I think that the surprise at the end of the movie was the thing that got everybody excited to want to make this movie. It was a little bit beyond just getting together and having some fun. It was an interesting way to tie up the series and get you all the way back to the beginning. I like that people are surprised. No one really sees that coming. Well, some people see it coming, those amongst us that are so far ahead, but it was beautiful to come back together after so many years. And even the new guy, Josh Brolin, was able to deliver on the same energy that people are used to experiencing in these movies.
Describe your chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones and how you translated it to get that same effect with Josh Brolin?
That’s what was crazy because that was all Josh Brolin. As actors, when you’re in a scene, it’s like a tennis match. You’re going back and forth. Me and Josh have very different chemistry than me and Tommy Lee Jones. And what you do as an actor is you try to find the lanes and develop the chemistry. So I was expecting to make an adjustment from Tommy Lee Jones to Josh Brolin, but Josh studied Tommy so thoroughly that it was almost identical, like just the way that the interactions were. It was absolutely stunning and it’s crazy because you don’t even notice how good his acting is because it’s so good. It feels like you’re watching Tommy Lee Jones. You don’t know that’s Josh Brolin. People thought that Tommy did the voice for the Josh Brolin character. That’s how thoroughly Josh delivered it.
Were you surprised that the story was slightly more serious this time?
Look, we’re all ten years older from the second movie and different things are important to us in our lives. We’re growing and you want to have the same kind of dumb, the same kind of silly that the first two movies had. There’s an appreciation of the silly that the comedy delivers, but it was really important for us to also have some meat to chew on and create something. Toy Story 3 did a really great job of advancing it, but also creating the underlying depth. So if you’re going into the third part of something, it was really important to deliver emotionally.
Why did you want to revisit this franchise?
The idea of a secret government organization that polices alien activity on and off planet Earth, is so unique. You don’t say that this movie is just like Men In Black. There’s nothing that’s just like Men In Black. You can look at other movies and compare them to things, but Men In Black is a very distinct, very unique thing. It’s difficult to have a fantasy comedy that works on that level. They tend to feel not smart or there is something in the DNA when it’s those two things that sort of dissipates. So for me, I was excited about the degree of difficulty. Also, I haven’t worked in three years, so I wanted to put on some shoes that I knew fit. [Laughs]
You’ve been producing though. Is it a totally different creative exercise when you produce a film that you’re not in?
I’ve been producing with the kids and with [wife] Jada [Pinkett-Smith]. I think it’s where I’m most natural, at my most natural lane. I think that the wide view of seeing everything that’s going on, and helping, and pulling people in comes very natural to me. But when you stay away from acting for a while, it’s like a muscle. You get out there and you look stupid, so it’s like you got to warm up a little bit and I’ve been away from it. The time was well-spent. There is a little bit of a blend.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons on The Karate Kid. Working on a remake is interesting in that you start with hindsight, right, so that was an interesting thing. You can spell out and see the patterns of why people cheer in a movie theater much more clearly and you get to experiment with your idea. So for me, that was very informative. And just coming back to Men In Black 3 felt like home.
Can you talk about coming back? What’s changed in the last few years?
Well, it’s a thing that I’ve been paying attention to for a lot of years. I was in Australia in 1990 with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis and they were opening Planet Hollywood. So I was out there while I was just in my first year of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. I’m down there, I’m like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ So they’re sitting around and I go in there and I’m sitting there with those guys and Arnold sits there and he says to me, ‘Young man, I want you to know, you cannot be a movie star only in the United States. You’re only a movie star if they know you around the world.’ Right? And then, Bruce talked about it for a little and I was like, ‘All right.’
So they put that idea into my mind very clearly and then, from that point, that’s when I started making it a point to open new markets. We went into Russia with I, Robot, we went into Brazil, and the idea is that you create that around the world and that’s when you hold a movie star. There used to be a time where you could just have hit movies in the United States, but that’s not the case anymore. And as you can see, the world of cinema is opening up even more, so to me, it’s just about taking those laps around the world to maintain that.
Is it surreal that some of the younger generations are recognizing your early work?
You know what’s crazy for me is that The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Like when I go around, I’m the Fresh Prince everywhere in the world. People scream, ‘El Principe!’ It’s just amazing how that television show, and it was really sort of a stroke of luck, it’s because of the amount of outlets for the show that a nine-year old kid thinks it’s new. A nine year-old kid in Moscow watching the Fresh Prince thinks it’s brand new, so when I show up, it’s as if it’s brand new. So The Fresh Prince has been a huge gift for me in that sense.
Do your kids ever give you grief for some of your earlier work?
Jaden can’t figure out how people thought it was OK for me to wear the clothes I was wearing on Fresh Prince. That’s his thing. He was like, ‘Dude, that shouldn’t even be on TV.’ Willow gets it and understands. But with the kids in the house, it’s really great for me because they help me stay aware. They help me stay current, and follow trends and things like that. Even the idea of something as simple as Instagram is an entirely new outlet. It’s like the fans are consuming entertainment differently and if you miss on that, you turn into a dinosaur really quickly.
What, personally, did you learn from your time off?
It was just that, I was a child of Dallas, so I’ve dreamed about this life my entire life, right? So on Dallas, they had South Fork, the property had a name. And Sue Ellen would come to breakfast and J.R. was there and it was like the whole family and everybody worked the family business. That was my vision of my family. But I’m actually surprised that other people got their own vision. Like Willow made a huge hit record, “Whip My Hair”, then she cut her hair off. It’s like, ‘Hey! What are you doing?’ So it was like, for me, the last three years of seeing just how much everybody has their own opinion and everybody has their own ideas and everybody has their own lives that may or may not fit in my Sue Ellen vision.
What’s your favorite gadget from Men In Black III?
It has to be the time dial. Somebody needs to come up with a Time Jump app. That idea, I’ve always loved time travel. And I started, because of this movie, to actually dive into it and thinking about it and talking about it. I realized, for black people, you don’t want to do too much jumping into the past. Right now is the best it’s ever been. It was like, yeah, maybe the time dial, if can go forward with it, that would be a great thing. [Laughs]
This is your first 3D movie. How was your experience with this new technology and what did you think of the final product?
Well, my first concern with being in 3D was my ears, because I could see these things pretty much taking over the whole of the screen. But when I first saw and they were cool and it was like “Alright.” They didn’t have me looking like satellite dishes. But then, with special effects now you can see anything. There’s no limitations with special effects. In the last five or six years, there’s no limitation of what you can see on screen anymore.
It’s funny, because the same thing happened with the music business. When the music business went to digital, when you can do anything, when you can record anything, a number of tracks, as soon as it exploded, it has a weird opposite effect where it gets worse for a while, which is really strange. It’s like as soon as you get all the tools to do anything, all of a sudden, now the movies aren’t as good, and it’s like “how the hell does that happen?”
So I think we’re about to turn that corner with the 3D specifically and Men In Black. I think what [director] Barry [Sonnenfeld] did was he found the balance of not throwing things at the audience. The 3D is the screen and back, which he went for depth, which makes it more pleasing to the eye. He decided to go with the conversion. We tried to work with the actual 3D cameras, but he went with the conversion and I think it just gives you a greater opportunity to dial it in and make it more pleasurable.
How was it filming in New York?
Anytime you shoot in New York, it’s always hectic because New York actually becomes a character in the movie. But that’s an important part of the Men In Black series. We were back there, I think we shot four months in New York and then the rest was on the streets and some of the stuff was on stage.
Can you tell us anything about Uptown Saturday Night?
Uptown. Well, me and Denzel [Washington], we’re working on it, trying to get it together. That would be a great thing, considering the material has to be right to deserve all that manpower. We would try to figure it out as we got into it and see who’s more comfortable doing what. Because when I first asked Denzel, he was like, ‘I’m not funny, man.’ And I’m saying like, ‘That was funny, that you said that.’ So he was a little concerned about the comedy and I’m like, ‘Man, come on. It’s going to be fantastic.’
If you could go back in time and change the success of anything, what would it be?
The thing that I have learned in my extensive study of time travel is that if you change one thing, you change everything. So I am absolutely ecstatic about where my life is right now. I wouldn’t mess with anything. Everything I’ve experienced, everything that’s gone right or wrong in my mind has turned out to be alright. So I feel like that’s the nature of energy. I get to decide whether it’s right or wrong or good or bad. My life, as I sit here today, is absolutely perfect, so I’m messing with nothing.
Is another Bad Boys a possibility?
I love making those movies. It’s Miami, it’s the tight T-shirt, and fast cars and it’s just at this point in my career though, the material has to be right. Just because it’s a popcorn movie doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say. And that to me, that’s hugely important. I’m 43 and I’m probably looking at seven more years where I can run and jump a little bit and then I’m going butt and gut for the rest of my career.
Do you think you’ll do SNL anytime soon? What do you think of Jay Pharoah’s impression of you?
I met him a few months ago. He’s got Denzel down. He doesn’t exactly have me perfect. I should spend some time with him so he can get me just perfect. I’ve never done SNL, we have to figure that out. The timing’s never been perfect for that. I’ll go on there and I hear everybody say it’s great and it’s a tough week that’s fantastic. But I’ve never done it. Maybe, we’ll see, next flick.
Do you ever think that there’s a generation of kids who know you best as Willow and Jaden’s dad?
In Philly, the kids were like, ‘Mr. Willow! Mr. Willow!’ [Laughs]
Do you think it’s important to attract a younger generation?
It was very important for me, having been away that long to come back in a way that was comfortable for me, and to come back with a project that was kid-friendly. And that was something that Eddie Murphy had said to me a few years ago. He said, ‘Man, if you’re lucky enough to be in this business, every 20 years, you got to go back and get the kids. Go get the kids every 20 years.” With Dr. Dolittle and The Klumps and everything and the idea of maturing and then you go back and drop something.
And what’s great for me is that target audience is in my house, so I get the scene-by-scene, screenplay-by-screenplay, run it by the judges. Jaden is probably the one of my kids who looks at me like I’m meat, like, ‘I’m coming for you. You just have no idea. He’s looking across the dinner table at me. Jaden is extremely competitive. I tell him all the time, ‘You know what, son, listen, I’m going to teach you everything I know and you’re going to work hard and you’ll be the second biggest movie star in the world.’ [Laughs]
Men In Black III opens Friday, May 25th.