It’s been 15 years since Will Smith first donned those shades and started chasing aliens in Men In Black. As the third instalment hits cinemas, the actor tells Kate Whiting why it was a huge risk to revisit the films.
TWO things are immediately clear when Will Smith bounds into view and enthusiastically starts pumping hands: first, he’s a true showman and, second, appears to be ageless.
While the square afro that he first stepped into the limelight with as The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air may be long gone, there’s no sign of greying on this 43-year-old, who seems to have the energy levels of his just-teenage children Jaden and Willow.
And they’re needed, because he’s been busy protecting the earth from the “scum of the universe” again in Men In Black 3.
It’s fair to say the sequel to the 1997 sci-fi comedy didn’t do as well, and there has been a 10-year hiatus since Smith and his co-star Tommy Lee Jones last donned their black suits as Agent J and Agent K.
So why come back now?
“That’s a good question,” says Smith, letting rip his familiar deep belly laugh.
According to Barry Sonnenfeld, who’s directed all three, they were half-way through filming the sequel, when Smith piped up with an idea for a third. “He said, ‘You know Baz, I think I should go back in the past and do something that has to save Agent K and by doing that, J learns secrets we didn’t know and it would be great to do a time travel version’,” Sonnenfeld reveals.
“And I said, ‘Let’s get through 2’.”
But the idea stuck and eventually came to fruition. In this new instalment, Agent J has to time leap back to 1969 to stop criminal alien Boris (Flight Of The Conchords’ Jermaine Clement) from killing K and changing the course of the planet. We learn why K became so grumpy and why he’s never willing to open up to J.
Early on in the film’s development, Smith and Sonnenfeld had decided it was only worth making Men In Black 3 if they were going to be “aggressive” and take risks.
“That was one of the things we talked about, we can’t be safe. If you’re going to do another one, you have to do it for a reason other than, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if?’” says Smith.
“So you want to reveal something about the characters, and I loved that there was this idea of how detrimental secrets are in relationships. I loved being risky and aggressive with the franchise.”
To play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones, Sonnenfeld approached lookalikey Josh Brolin, who had already done a pretty good impression of former President George Bush in W. It’s almost unnerving how much Brolin apes a younger Jones and after a few minutes, you forget you’re not actually watching him. Having bonded so much with Jones on the first two films, Smith admits he was “terrified” by the prospect of playing against Brolin as K.
“What was exciting to me about doing this is how dangerous and almost foolish it was to try to make Men In Black and introduce a new actor (to play K).
“There’s a certain rhythm and chemistry that you develop after you’ve worked with someone a certain amount of times, you know?” he says.
“But what was interesting was, it was almost identical. The rhythm, the intonation, the chemistry was just identical. I was amazed at how on the first day, first scene (with Brolin), there was nothing I had to do differently. It was almost the exact interaction as with Tommy Lee Jones.”
The pairing worked so well in fact, that Sonnenfeld was reduced to tears of joy.
“In all fairness though, he cries when he gets hungry,” Smith quips of his long-time director.
He credits Sonnenfeld with bringing the “strangeness and slightly twisted sense of humour” to Men In Black – and reveals that their off-screen relationship has been just as mad-cap.
“Every time we work together Barry ends up in the hospital. When Jada was pregnant with Jaden, he broke his fist on me,” says Smith, laughing.
Another time, Smith knocked the director unconscious with an inflatable boxing glove.
“I’d just done Ali and we were playing with these huge inflatable boxing gloves. I punched him and the glove popped.”
He’s now almost as well known for his Oscar-nominated serious roles in Ali (2001) and The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006), in which his 13-year-old Jaden played his on-screen son.
Smith believes his career could have been very different if it weren’t for the comic breakthrough he had with the first Men In Black film, which came just a year after he finished working on long-running sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
“It was right after Independence Day, so Independence Day was the fluke and then Men In Black was like, ‘Oh, well wait a minute, maybe he’ll hang out with us for a little while’.
“It was the first opportunity to play comedy on that level. It’s a really strange world in Men In Black. You don’t see a lot of fantasy comedies, right? It’s a difficult mark to hit. So it was a really wonderful lesson in comedy and in performance.
“With Men In Black 3, we sort of went slightly more – not dramatic, but it’s like the story is more emotionally centred than the other two. We didn’t shy away from the maturity of the ideas, but didn’t lose the fun and the comedy.”
One look at his upcoming film slate and it seems Smith is now wedded to franchises: with Hancock 2, I, Robot 2 and Bad Boys 3 all in the pipeline. But for his next project, he’s teaming up with his son Jaden again and revisiting alien territory in After Earth, about a father and son who crash land on another planet.
“Jaden is like Johnny Depp,” Smith has said previously. “He just wants to do good work. He doesn’t care what money he gets, he doesn’t care what people see or don’t see. He loves acting and wants to make good movies.”