'Men in Black' director says he purposely downplayed the movie to Chris O'Donnell so he could cast Will Smith instead

Will Smith wearing sunglasses
Will Smith wearing sunglasses  
  • 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," during a meeting to make him lose interest.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Will Smith wasn't instantly handed roles.

Back when the blockbuster "Men in Black" was being developed, 1990s heartthrob Chris O'Donnell was the producers' first choice for the lead role of Agent J, one of the black-suited agents who monitor alien activities on Earth. And Clint Eastwood was their choice to play J's partner, Agent K.

However, director Barry Sonnenfeld had other ideas.

"I had suggested Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith," Sonnenfeld told Insider during a recent interview celebrating the movie's 25th anniversary. "Will was actually my wife's idea."

Getting the producers on board for Jones wasn't a problem, but getting Smith signed on was a different story.

Chris O
Chris O'Donnell in a tuxedo  

At the time, Smith was known more for his hip-hop albums and playing the lead on the TV show "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" than his work in movies (the hit "Independence Day" hadn't come out yet).

Meanwhile, O'Donnell was a raising star having starred 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 there was more convincing that was needed, and Sonnenfeld helped out his cause when he had a meeting with O'Donnell.

"I met with Chris and he had concerns about the script and had another movie offer," Sonnenfeld recalled. "So I told him, 'Yeah, we might never fix this script and I don't think I know how to direct this movie.' So he passed on the movie the next day."

Will Smith in a black suit
Will Smith in a black suit  

This opened the door for Sonnenfeld to get Smith in front of "Men in Black" producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, and Steven Spielberg.

"I used to live in the Hamptons and Steven Spielberg used to summer there so I was able to arrange for Will to come up from Philly - he was at a wedding - to come and meet Steven and myself and Walter and Laurie. And that's how Will got the part," Sonnenfeld said.

Thanks to the box-office success of "Independence Day" in 1996 and "Men in Black" the following year, Smith became a global star.

Looking back on how he worked out the casting, Sonnenfeld said about O'Donnell: "I think he's a good actor, but I had really been thinking about Will since my wife made the suggestion."

And about basically 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.


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