‘Men in Black’ director says he purposely downplayed the film for Chris O’Donnell so he could cast Will Smith

Will Smith wears sunglasses

Will Smith in ‘Men in Black’.Colombia Photos

  • Barry Sonnenfeld really wanted Will Smith in the role of Agent J.

  • The producers wanted Chris O’Donnell.

  • Sonnenfeld told O’Donnell, “I don’t think I know how to direct this movie,” at a meeting to make him lose interest.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Will Smith didn’t get roles right away.

When the blockbuster “Men in Black” was being developed, the 90s heartthrob Chris O’Donnell was the producers’ first choice for the lead role of Agent J, one of the black-clad agents who track alien activities on Earth. And Clint Eastwood was their choice to have J’s partner, Agent K.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, however, had other ideas.

“I suggested Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith,” Sonnenfeld told Insider during a recent interview to mark the film’s 25th anniversary. “Will was actually my wife’s idea.”

Getting the producers on board for Jones was no problem, but signing Smith was a different story.

Chris O'Donnell in a tuxedo

Chris O’Donnell in 1997.Ron Galella Collection/Getty

At the time, Smith was known more for his hip-hop albums and starring on the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” than for his work in movies (the hit song “Independence Day” wasn’t out yet).

Meanwhile, O’Donnell was a rising star, starring in ‘School Ties’, ‘The Three Musketeers’ and opposite Al Pacino in ‘Scent of a Woman’. Plus, he was about to star opposite George Clooney in “Batman & Robin.”

So more persuasion was needed, and Sonnenfeld helped his case when he met O’Donnell.

“I met Chris and he was concerned about the script and had other movie offerings,” Sonnenfeld recalled. “So I said to him, ‘Yeah, we may never fix this script and I don’t think I know how to direct this movie.’ So he passed on the film the next day.”

Will Smith in a black suit

Will Smith in 1997.Ron Galella Collection/Getty

This opened the door for Sonnenfeld to get Smith before “Men in Black” producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Steven Spielberg.

“I used to live in the Hamptons and Steven Spielberg used the summer there so I could arrange for Will to come over from Philadelphia – he was at a wedding – to meet Steven and myself and Walter and Laurie. And that’s how Will got the part Sonnenfeld said.

Smith became a global star thanks to the box office success of “Independence Day” in 1996 and “Men in Black” the following year.

Reflecting on how he had worked out the casting, Sonnenfeld said of O’Donnell, “I think he’s a good actor, but I had really thought about Will ever since my wife made the suggestion.”

And about sabotaging his meeting with O’Donnell by saying he didn’t know if he was the right director for the project?

“Well, you know what, you always want to underpromise and overdeliver,” he said.

Read the original article Insider

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