Hard to believe it’s been over a decade since the first “Men in Black” was released – time flies when you’re making the transition from small-screen success to box-office superstar, I guess!? Particularly if your name starts with W and ends up with L.
Since the time “Men in Black” – based on the comic of the same name, and teaming ‘The Fresh Prince’ with Tommy Lee Jones as a couple of undercover government alien busters – was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences in 1997, Will Smith has gone on to become, quite simply, the biggest movie star in the world. While “Men in Black”, and its sequel, were enormous successes so were “Hancock”, “Bad Boys II”, “Ali”, “I, Robot” and “I am Legend”. Whether it’s because he feels he owes so much to the movie that did so much for his career way back when, or simply because he likes getting to hang with ‘Gruff’ Tommy Lee Jones, Smith jumped at the chance to do a third “Men in Black III” as he tells Moviehole.
Fair to say, “MIB 3″ has its dramatic moments. There’s a nice, serious moment between you and Tommy in it.
Did you see my acting transition?
You know what everybody liked the most? That scene at the end… the surprise at the end of the movie. That was what got everybody excited about wanting to make this movie.
It was a little bit beyond just getting together and having some fun. It was like, ‘wow, that’s an interesting way to tie up the series and get you all the way back to the beginning’. I like that people are surprised like, ‘whoa!”. No one really sees that coming. I mean, some people see it coming, those amongst us that are so far ahead [Laughs].
It was beautiful to come back together after this many years putting that team together and then even the new guy, Josh Brolin kind of coming in to that and the way that he was able to deliver on the same energy that people are used to experiencing in these movies.
Describe the chemistry, the working relationship with Tommy and how you translated it to get that same effect onscreen with Josh?
That’s what’s crazy. That’s 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 Martin [Lawrence, from “Bad Boys”] have very different chemistry than me and Tommy Lee Jones. And what you do as an actor you try to find the lanes and you develop the chemistry. 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 in the scene, you make a move, watch where the other guy goes. It was absolutely stunning. It’s crazy because you don’t even really notice how good his acting is because it’s so good you’re just watching Tommy Lee Jones. You don’t realize, no that’s Josh Brolin. People thought that Tommy did the voice for the Josh Brolin character… no!. That’s how thoroughly Josh is delivering it.
Is it important for you, even with a film like “MIB3″, that you add some depth to the flick? Do you get much say in that?
It was very important. We’re all 10 years older from the second movie and different things are important to us in our lives and we’re growing. We want to have the same kind of dumb fun that the first two movies had, the same kind of silly, because there is an appreciation of the silly that the comedy delivers. But it was really important for us also to have some meat to chew on – and be able to create something. Toy Story 3 did a really great job of advancing that series but then also creating the underlying depth. So if you’re going into the third part of something… we felt like it was really important to deliver more emotionally.
Why did you want to revisit this franchise and what’s the coolest thing about the three?
The idea of a secret government organization that polices and monitors alien activity on and off of planet Earth? That’s what’s cool. These movies are unique. You can look at a lot of other movies and compare them to things, not this one. It’s like Men in Black is a very distinct, very unique thing because it’s difficult to have a fantasy comedy that works on that level. They tend to feel …not smart. There is something in the DNA when you try to splice those two things that it sort of dissipates. For me, I was excited by the degree of difficulty. I was also, you know, I haven’t worked in three years, so I wanted to go back and put something on that I ‘knew’ fit.
You’ve been producing in those three years though…
I’ve been producing with the kids and Jada.
Is it a totally different creative exercise for you when you produce a film that you’re not in?
Yeah. I think it’s where I’m most natural. My most natural lane I think is producing – the wide view of seeing everything that’s going on and helping and pulling people in. But when you stay away from acting for awhile – it’s like a muscle, you get out there and you look stupid. It’s like you got to warm up a little bit. 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. That was an interesting thing where you can see the patterns of why people cheer in a movie theater much more clearly and you get to experiment with your idea. For me that was very formative, and then you know just coming back to Men in Black 3 just felt like home.
Around the time of ”Hancock”, they were saying that you were one of the last true ‘movie stars’ – you were someone that could sell a movie based solely on your face being on a poster?
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. They were opening Planet Hollywood. I was down there. It was just the first year of the Fresh Prince. I’m down and I’m like, this is crazy. They’re sitting around. I just go and I sit there and I’m sitting there with those guys and Arnold says, “Young man I want to know you cannot be a movie star only in the United States. You are only a movie star if they know you around the world.” And then Bruce talked about it for a little…and I was like, alright. 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. The idea is that you create that around the world and that’s how you hold a movie star. It used to be the time where you could just have hit movies in the United States but that’s not the case. As you can see the world of cinema is opening up even more. To me it’s just about taking those laps around the world to maintain that.
Is it surreal for you that these younger generations are now recognizing your early work – like “Fresh Prince”?
You know what’s crazy for me is that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the biggest thing I’ve ever done! It’s like I’m the Fresh Prince everywhere in the world, “El Principe!” It’s just amazing how that television show was really sort of a stroke of luck. What it does is because of the amount of outlets for the show, a 9-year-old kid thinks it’s new. So a 9-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. The Fresh Prince has been a huge gift for me in that sense.
When they’re channel surfing and they come across one your earlier films or ”Fresh Prince”, do your kids come give you grief?
Jaden can’t figure out how people thought it was okay for me to wear the clothes I was wearing on Fresh Prince [Laughs]. That’s his thing. He’s like, “Dude, that shouldn’t be on TV.” Willow more gets it. Willow understands. 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. The idea of even something as simple as Instagram is an entirely new outlet. It’s like the fans are consuming entertainment differently. If you miss on that you turn into a dinosaur really quickly.
A question for kids; favorite ride, favorite gadget, or favorite weapon from “MIB 3″?
It has to be the time dial. Somebody needs to come up with a time jump app. I’ve always loved time travel. I started for this movie to actually dive into it and start thinking about it and talking about it. I realized that for black people you don’t really want to do too much jumping into the past. It’s pretty like, right now is like the best it’s ever been. I was like maybe the time dial if I could go forward with it that would be a great thing.
Speaking of the past, is there anything you can tell us about ”Uptown Saturday Night?”
We’re working on it trying to get it together, me and Denzel [Washington]. That would be a great thing considering it. Again, the material has to be right to deserve all that manpower.
Would you be the Cosby role?
I don’t know. We would figure it out as we got into it and see who is more comfortable. When I first asked Denzel he’s like, “I’m not funny man.” I said, “That was funny that you said that.” It’s like he was a little concerned about the comedy. I’m like, “Man, come on. It’s going to be fantastic.”
Aside from building your producing resume and seeing the kids launch their careers, in that three years you were away from the camera, what personally did you take from that time? What was cool and interesting for you during that time?
I was a child of Dallas. I’ve dreamed about this life my entire life. On Dallas, they had South Fork, the property had a name and Sue Ellen would come to breakfast and J.R. was there. It was like the whole family was there and everybody worked the family business. That was my vision of my family. For me it was…now coming into that space, I’m actually surprised that other people got their own vision. Willow made a huge hit record Whip My Hair and then she cut her hair off. I was like, “Hey! What are you doing?” It was like for me the last three years seeing just how much like everybody has their own opinion, everybody has their own ideas and everybody has their own lives that may or may not fit in my Sue Ellen vision.
Let’s talk 3D, which on “MIB 3″ was all done in post. I’ll say it actually looks good..
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. When I first saw it and they were cool, I was like, ‘alright we didn’t have me looking like satellite dishes’. But then the idea of special effects now, you can see anything. There are no limitations with special effects. Probably the last five-six years there is absolutely no limitation of what you can see on screen anymore. It’s funny because it’s the same thing with what happened with the music business when the music business went to digital when you could do anything. You could record any number of tracks. As soon as it exploded, it has a weird opposite effect where it gets worse for awhile which is really strange. It’s like as soon as you get all the tools to do anything it’s like all of a sudden now like the movies aren’t as good and it’s like, how the hell did that happen?
I think that we’re about to turn that corner and with the 3D specifically in Men in Black that I think what Barry did is 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. 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?
Any time 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 probably did four months in New York and then the rest in the streets and then some of the stuff was on stage.
What about filming something back in Miami, like for instance… “Bad Boys III”?
I love making those movies. It’s Miami. It’s the tight t-shirt and the fast cars. At this point in my career, like the material has to be right. Just because it’s a popcorn movie it doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say. To me that’s hugely important. I’m 43 and I’ve got probably – I’m looking to maybe 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.
What do you think of Jay Pharaoh’s impersonation on SNL?
I met him a few months ago. It was great. He got Denzel. He don’t have me exactly perfect. I’m going to have to spend some time with him. He could get me just perfect. I’ve never done SNL. I would have to figure it out. The timing has never been perfect for that. I just want to go on there. I hear it’s great and people say that it’s a tough week…it’s fantastic. I’ve never done it. Maybe. We’ll see. Next flick.
Years ago when I talked to you, I think it was ”Hancock”, you said you have a fighter’s response to movies, you get really nervous, you lose sleep…how are you feeling with this? If you could go back in time and change…
It’s diarrhea now. It’s just all diarrhea. It’s expanded.
So would you go back and alter or change anything?
The thing that I’ve learned in my extensive study of time travel is that if you change one thing, you change everything. I am absolutely ecstatic about where my life is right now so I wouldn’t mess with anything. Everything that I’ve experienced, everything that has gone right or wrong in my mind has turned out to be alright. I feel like that’s the nature of energy – that I get to decide whether it was right or wrong or good or bad. My life, as I sit here today, is absolutely perfect. So I’m not messing with nothing.
You mentioned younger generations and you also mentioned sort of the time you had away from the big screen. There is a younger generation that knows you best now as Willow and Jaden’s dad.
I know yeah. In Philly, the kids were like, “Mr. Willow. Mr. Willow.”
Do you think it’s important to do something like ”Men in Black 3” now and then, just for the sake of continuing to snag that youth market? To remain current?
That’s what I tell Jaden. Jaden is probably the one of my kids who like, he looks at me like I’m meat. He’s like, “I’m coming for you. You just have no idea.” He’s looking across the dinner table at me. It was very important for me having been away that long for me to come back in a way that I was comfortable and to come back with a project that was kid friendly. 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.” I was looking at Dr. Doolittle and The Klumps and everything, the idea of maturing and then you back and drop something. What’s great for me is that that target audience is in my house. I get the scene-by-scene, screenplay-by-screenplay run-in by the judges.
Jaden is extremely competitive. He wants me bad. I tell him all the time,
“You know 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.”