Will Smith on How Steven Spielberg Got Him to Star in ‘Men in Black’

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In a recent installment of Kevin Hart’s engaging talk show, ‘Hart to Heart,’ renowned actor Will Smith delved into some behind-the-scenes stories, shedding light on pivotal moments in his illustrious career.

The actor revealed how his former manager and trusted business partner, James Lassiter, played a pivotal role in steering his path towards iconic film projects.

Smith fondly referred to Lassiter as the “arbiter of taste,” crediting him for his involvement in some of the most significant films that shaped his career. He reminisced, “During the peak of my career, those ten defining movies were handpicked by JL. I wasn’t initially inclined towards projects like ‘Pursuit of Happyness’ or ‘Ali.’ Even ‘Men in Black’ wasn’t an immediate yes from me.”

The actor confessed his initial hesitation to take on the lead role in the 1997 science-fiction hit, citing his recent involvement in 1996’s ‘Independence Day’ as a factor. “After ‘Independence Day,’ I was reluctant to sign up for another alien-themed movie,” Smith admitted.

However, the legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, serving as the executive producer of ‘Men in Black,’ wasn’t one to accept rejection easily. Smith shared an intriguing anecdote that showcased Spielberg’s determination.

“I was in New York when Steven Spielberg sent a helicopter for me, landing at his residence. The moment we conversed, I was captivated. And he introduced me to the intriguing blend of lemonade and carbonated water, sealing the deal. When Spielberg talks, you simply can’t refuse.”

Smith further recounted Spielberg’s cunning tactic during their conversation. “He posed a question that resonated deeply,” Smith mused. “He challenged me, saying, ‘Tell me why you’d decline my movie…’ The implication hung in the air, and I realized the weight of his cinematic legacy—’Jaws’ and ‘E.T.’—that I’d be aligning with.”

This persuasive encounter led Smith to embrace the role of Agent J in ‘Men in Black,’ marking the beginning of a successful franchise that saw him reprising the character in three subsequent films.

During the candid conversation with Hart, the Academy Award-winning actor also delved into his emotionally charged role in 2022’s ‘Emancipation.’ Portraying Peter, a runaway slave whose harrowing escape from plantation owners was immortalized in the 1863 photograph “Whipped Peter,” Smith shared the intense immersion he experienced while filming.

Reflecting on the role, Smith admitted, “The emotional weight of the character overwhelmed me at times. I aimed to grasp the depth of the degradation of slavery, and I might have gone too far. The brutality that humans inflict upon each other is profoundly unsettling.”

Smith recounted a distressing incident on set when his commitment to authenticity led to a harrowing situation. “I insisted on real chains for a scene, wanting to feel the weight of history. But when the key wouldn’t unlock the chains, panic set in. I was trapped, on the verge of hyperventilation.”

While the role exacted a toll on him, Smith emphasized the profound impact it had on his spirituality. “Despite the challenges, I wouldn’t trade the experience. Playing Peter connected me with a higher sense of purpose. It deepened my faith and forged an unbreakable bond.”

In sharing these poignant anecdotes, Will Smith offered a glimpse into the intricate tapestry of his career, marked by unexpected persuasions and transformative roles that continue to shape his artistic journey.

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