Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars in the world but his Hollywood career has had its fair share of ups and downs.
Not that the actor has been shy about pointing out some of these lows: Smith has frequently expressed disappointments about doing M Night Shyamalan’s After Earth and even more so about the 1999 comedy Western Wild Wild West.
The latter film, a critical and commercial flop, is what he chose to do instead of The Matrix, and this week he once again spoke of the regret of turning down the role of Neo in the now-classic sci-fi film.
“I’d go back to the Wild Wild West and I would say, ‘Asshole, why didn’t you do The Matrix?” he told ReelBlend on the red carpet for his latest film, Gemini Man, when asked what advice he’d give to his younger self.
When Smith made that monumental career decision he was on a career-high, having established himself as a household name both through the comedy TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and through the success of blockbuster movies Independence Day and Men In Black, the latter of which he was persuaded to do by Steven Spielberg.
“That was a crazy time in my life,” Smith said in a YouTube video. “It was like, however I threw the ball it was going in.” In 1998, he was approached by directors The Wachowskis about playing the role of Neo in The Matrix.
He was sceptical as the relatively untested pair had only made one movie before, a 1996 American neo-noir crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon called Bound. Though the film earned critical acclaim and accolades from various film festivals, it wasn’t a massive box office hit, earning $7m against a $6m production budget and at the time, Smith had his money-making hat on and was looking for films to maintain his international appeal.
“I had so much success that I started to taste global blood and my focus shifted from my artistry to winning,” Smith said at Cannes Lions in 2016.
“I wanted to win and be the biggest movie star, and what happened was there was a lag – around Wild Wild West time – I found myself promoting something because I wanted to win versus promoting something because I believed in it.”
The film pitch that The Wachowskis delivered was certainly not something he believed in.
“They're geniuses but there is a fine line in a pitch meeting between genius and what I'd experienced in the meeting,” Smith recalled in a video dedicated to the subject on his YouTube channel.
“So this is the actual pitch that they made for The Matrix: ‘Dude, we're thinking like, imagine you're in a fight and then you jump, imagine if you could stop in the middle of the jump.’ Say that again?” the actor said, before continuing in character. “‘But then people could see around you, 360, while you're stop-jumping. Then we're going to invent these cameras and then people can see the whole jump while you're in the middle of the jump.’”
Smith couldn’t see their vision, but to be fair, neither could a lot of people in Hollywood, and it took years for The Matrix to get made. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura fought hard to get Warner Bros to back it but studio executives struggled with the complex sci-fi concept, causing it to go through at least 11 rewrites.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio had both signed on and dropped out before Smith was approached. After he turned it down, the producers turned to Sandra Bullock, because Warner Bros was desperate to get a big name even if it meant gender-swapping the lead. She declined the role and Keanu Reeves was cast as Neo, but even then, Di Bonaventura admits the studio was worried about giving the go-ahead.
“Along the way, we realised how hard it was what we were doing,” the producer told The Wrap. “Here were these young guys who had done one movie, and they were going to direct this very hard-to-understand script. The good news was, Keanu said yes and he was awesome.”
Smith has admitted that Reeves was the best person for the job, saying it was a blessing in disguise for the movie that he turned it down. “Keanu was perfect, Laurence Fishburne was perfect,” the actor said. “If I had done it, because I'm black than Morpheus wouldn't have been black... I was going to be Neo and Val Kilmer was gonna be Morpheus so I probably would have messed The Matrix up.
“I would have ruined it, so I did y'all a favour.”
Val Kilmer wasn’t the only person approached to play Morpheus before Fishburne was finally chosen; di Bonaventura says both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas were considered for the role. However, once Reeves was hired the filmmakers had the “momentum” to secure the rest of the cast and Fishburne made the character iconic.
The Matrix was released in 1999, the same year as Wild Wild West, deepening the injury for Smith. The Wachowskis’ film made $463.5m against a production budget of $63m, while Smith's steampunk Western made $222.1m against a $170m budget.
Still, as much as Smith says he would have ruined the film – which expanded into a franchise with two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions – he would like to turn back the clocks and see himself as Neo. Luckily, the internet was able to deliver that possibility thanks to a Deep Fake video created by YouTuber Sham00K, which the actor proudly shared to his personal social media channels.
And now the actor might be able to make up for lost time, and credibility, by becoming the second person in his family to appear in The Matrix universe after his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, played Niobe in the second and third films.
Lana Wachowski is set to write and direct the fourth film with Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their characters as Neo and Trinity, which means there will be new roles to fill.
“We could not be more excited to be re-entering The Matrix with Lana,” said Warner Bros chairman Toby Emmerich. “Lana is a true visionary – a singular and original creative filmmaker – and we are thrilled that she is writing, directing and producing this new chapter in The Matrix universe.”
Let’s just hope that if Will Smith is offered a role in the new Matrix movie, he takes the red pill this time.
Gemini Man comes to UK cinemas on 11 October.