Will Smith Explains Why He Turned Down The Lead Role In The Matrix

In the closing days of 1999, much of the globe was weary about the potential hazards of Y2K. The technological scare was real, as valid experts, computer experts, and programmers clamored with the fear that all computerized machines would stop working at the end of December 31, 1999.

This widespread panic of potentially catastrophic events was the perfect storm for two talented writer/filmmakers, The Wachowskis, Lana and Lilly. On March 31, 1999, their Sci-Fi/Action film, The Matrix, was released to theaters. At a time when machines were thought to be potentially responsible for a crumbling society, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne about a futuristic simulated reality was full of symbolism.

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The Matrix, which morphed into a trilogy of movies followed by, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, would go on to gross over $460 million worldwide and win four Oscar awards. The franchise put plot points and language into the global lexicon. It also introduced legions of viewers to some of the best filmmaking in the Sci-Fi canon. For an actor who had already starred in several major films, it offered a benchmark role for Keanu Reeves, who played “Neo.” However, part of the reason that the actor from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, and Point Break may have gotten the role, is because Will Smith turned down some very serious interest.

For his “Storytime” video series, Will Smith explains his reasoning for declining. Smith was on a career winning streak in ’96. Smith’s name found its way onto many people’s tongues in both TV and film for his role in NBC’s The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, and smash movies like Bad Boys and Independence Day. Smith explains, “That was a crazy time in my life. It was like however I threw the ball, it was going in.”

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His fame accrued Smith a lot of attention, and as a result, he was turning down future blockbusters left and right. “I had done Independence Day the year before. So I was like I don’t want to do another alien movie. I don’t want to be the alien movie guy. So, I turned down Men In Black.” But not everyone in his circle agreed with his decisions. Smith digresses, “And Steven Spielberg called me. He was producing. He said, ‘Why you turning down the movie?” I was like, ‘You know, I don’t wanna be the alien guy.’ He said, ‘Um, do me a favor. Don’t use your brain for this one. Use my brain.’ He was so serious, that I was like, ‘Aight, he did do Jaws.’

For those who feel like such an incredibly popular, big-budget film like The Matrix would be difficult to turn down, Smith explains his reasoning. But, he’s not exactly happy about it. Will continues, “[You know] when you get that universal energy and nothing can go wrong. Then the other side comes, and you can’t do nothin’ right.”

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After reluctantly making Men In Black, which became a nearly $600 million hit in its own right, the Wachowski brothers came to Smith in 1998 to pitch him for the role of Neo. Smith expounds, “They came in, and they made a pitch for The Matrix, and as it turns out, they’re geniuses. But, there’s a fine line in a pitch meeting between ‘genius’ and what I experienced in the meeting.”

Will then goes on to explain the Wachowski’s stereotypical “surfer dude”-stylized speech. Acting as if he were one of the [Wachowski’s], Smith delivers in jest, “‘So dude, we’re thinking, like, like imagine you’re in a fight and then you, like, jump. Imagine if you could stop jumping, in the middle of the jump… But then, people could see around you, 360 [degrees], while you’re stopped jumping. Right? And then, we’re going to invent these cameras. And then, people can see the whole jump while you’re stopped in the middle of the jump.'”

Smith finishes his story with precision comedic timing, “So I made Wild Wild West; I’m not proud of it.” Despite its #1 theme song with Kool Moe Dee and Dru Hill, that film did not have nearly the impact of The Matrix.

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The Fresh Prince keeps up the comedy, later revealing who else was going to star beside him in the film before he turned it down. “Keanu was perfect. Laurence Fishburne was perfect. If I had done it, because I’m Black, then ‘Morpheus’ wouldn’t have been Black, ’cause they was [also] looking at Val Kilmer. Val Kilmer was gonna be ‘Morpheus.’ So, I probably would’ve messed The Matrix up. I would’ve ruined it. So, I did y’all a favor.”

Will Smith is coming up on a big year in 2019. This year, he will be featured in three films, including Disney’s reboot of Aladdin, the animated spy comedy, Spies In Disguise, and yet another Sci-Fi film with Ang Lee’s, Gemini Man. Smith is also in production for Bad Boys for Life, the third film in the buddy-cop comedy series alongside castmate Martin Lawrence.