It has been 20 years since we all took “the red pill” and dove headfirst into The Matrix, but one of Hollywood’s biggest stars opted for “the blue pill” and passed up the opportunity to star in the movie that changed Hollywood forever. That star is Will Smith, and here is the story in his own words.
“This is one of those stories that I’m not proud of, but it’s the truth.”
Will Smith Explains Why He Passed on Playing Neo in ‘The Matrix’
As the star of one of the 1990s most iconic TV shows and a string of blockbuster movies, Will Smith seemed like a man who could do no wrong … until he passed on playing Neo in The Matrix.
“That was a crazy time in my life. It was like however I threw the ball it was going in.”
After starring in Independence Day in 1996, Smith was offered Men in Black, but initially turned it down.
“I was like eh … I don’t wanna do another alien movie. I don’t wanna be the alien movie guy.”
Fortunately for Smith (and all of us), the movie’s producer, Steven Spielberg, made a fateful call that changed his mind.
“He said, ‘Do me a favor. Don’t use your brain for this one. Use my brain.'”
Anyone who lived through the 1990s can attest to the fact that Smith made the right decision on Men in Black. It launched, not just a hit franchise, but successive Billboard hits for the first two movies’ songs which were performed and memorialized by Smith in unforgettable music videos.
Enter ‘The Matrix’
After Men in Black, sibling directing duo the Wachowskis called Smith to pitch The Matrix. Prior to The Matrix, the pair had only been known for one movie, so their talent was not yet a foregone conclusion.
“As it turns out, they’re geniuses, but there’s a fine line between genius and what I experienced in the meeting.”
To set the stage, Smith turned his hat backwards, and did his best Wachowski impression to deliver the pitch as he recalls it.
“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 … three-sixty while you’re jumping, but while you’re stopped jumping … right?”
They went on to explain how they would invent a camera system to achieve this feat of filmmaking. In a post-Matrix world, we all recognize this as “Bullet Time” — a technique that shook up cinematography and left an indelible mark on every action-blockbuster to follow.
Naturally, having never seen this awesome technique in action, it was hard for Smith to grasp just how significant it would be, so he passed on The Matrix and opted to star in Wild Wild West.
Wildly, Wildly Wrong
For a man on a winning streak like Smith’s, the big budget remake of a once-popular Western television show seemed like a good idea, but it would go down in infamy as the actor’s first misstep.
“I’m not proud of it. Like, you know you see people that Monday, and I was like ‘I’m sorry. Hey listen, I’m working on Bad Boys 2, don’t worry about it. I’m sorry.'”
While the movie itself is forgettable, its lasting impact is three-fold. It taught Will Smith that nobody is perfect, it left us with an incredible song that hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and it gave Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne the opportunities of a lifetime to star in The Matrix.
“Keanu was perfect. Laurence Fishburne was perfect. If I had done it, because I’m black, then Morpheus wouldn’t have been black.”
Smith explained that, while he was being eyed for the lead role, Val Kilmer was in contention to play Morpheus, the role that was ultimately immortalized by Fishburne.
Will Smith Has No Apologies for Turning Down ‘The Matrix’
Despite acknowledging his misstep, Smith is gracious enough in defeat to admit that the way The Matrix turned out could not have been better had he accepted the part.
“I probably would have messed The Matrix up. I would have ruined it. I did ya’ll a favor.”
While he refuses to apologize to fans for sitting out the film, it remains to be revealed whether Smith ever apologized to Val Kilmer. Clearly, he is the person who lost the most from Smith’s decision to pass on The Matrix.
This story was originally published for Essential TV.