Will Smith Explains Why He Passed on ‘The Matrix’

February 16, 2019

On his popular YouTube channel, Will Smith recently expressed regret for having turned down a pivotal film role in the mid-1990s. Specifically, the megastar passed on the opportunity to portray the computer programmer/hacker Neo in The Matrix; and thus, Keanu Reeves landed the gig. Smith, on the other hand, opted to commit to the role of U.S. Army Captain James T. West in Wild Wild West.

In his Storytime clip above, the Fresh Prince explains why he refused to play Neo. It was 1996, and Smith was just coming off from a steady stream of career successes including Six Degrees of Separation, the big hit Independence Day, and he was making Men in Black. He explains, “[‘The Matrix’ writer-directors] the Wachowskis, they came in, and they’d only done one movie—I think it was called ‘Bound.’ And 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.” Indeed, Smith goes on to recount their rather odd pitch, describing the innovative “bullet time” visual effect they would soon implement in the cyberpunk flick.

Indeed, The Matrix went on to win four Academy Awards, and it was a box-office hit across the globe. And where was Smith in all of this? “So I made ‘Wild Wild West’ … I’m not proud of it,” he says. Unfortunately, the steampunk western action-comedy received disappointing reviews and profits.

Had he taken the part of Neo, The Matrix would have also differed in that Val Kilmer would have portrayed Morpheus, the part that eventually went to Laurence Fishburne. Overall, Smith reflected, “I watched Keanu’s performance—and very rarely do I say this—but I would have messed it up. I would have absolutely messed up ‘The Matrix.’” What’s his reasoning for his belief? “I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be,” he insisted.

But not to worry; Smith went on to star in films like Ali in 2001, and The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006. And his performances in both of these films were honored with Oscar nods.

But Will Smith is hardly the only actor who skipped the chance to take on an iconic role due to confusion. Sean Connery passed on playing the long-bearded Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. “I read the book. I read the scripts. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it,” he admitted. And when Denzel Washington read the script for neo-noir crime thriller Se7en, he couldn’t see himself playing the murder investigator David Mills. “It was so dark and evil. Then, when I saw the movie, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot,’” he said after seeing Brad Pitt in the starring role.

Often times, scheduling conflicts are to blame, but there are many other reasons why actors decide to skip out on roles.  James Caan declined the part of R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but later regretted his decision when he saw Jack Nicholson nail the performance. “I didn’t know that [Director] Milos Forman was as good as he was,” he said. And Kevin Costner wasn’t interested in The Shawshank Redemption’s character Andy Dufresne; he had better things to do—like pursue his work on Waterworld. Unfortunately, his passion project went on to be nominated for four Golden Raspberry Awards. Dufresne was played by Tim Robbins, and the film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards. 

And Richard Gere passed on playing Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street because he wasn’t sold on the part. So Michael Douglas stepped into Gekko’s shoes and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Such is the nature of the business.

Have you ever regretted passing on a role? Please share.


Will Smith Launches His Own YouTube Channel

February 24, 2018

Will Smith is now a YouTube vlogger, and since mid-December, he’s raked in over 700,000 subscribers. The megastar launched the channel so viewers can watch him as he showcases his playful sense of humor, ventures to exotic lands, and gains more hands-on experience with video equipment. Will started the vlog just in time to promote his Netflix urban fantasy film Bright with exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage. Other video topics include his famous motivational speech called “Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Forward” and a personal story about “One Thing Arnold [Schwarzenegger] Told Me That I’ll Never Forget.”

Smith has been in front of a camera for about 30 years; he burst onto the scene with the 1990 NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and with its success, he set out to become “the biggest movie star in the world.” With his trademark confidence, abundance of energy, charisma, and never-say-die work ethic, Will indeed went on to star in several blockbusters like Suicide Squad, Men in Black, and Independence Day in the following years; he received two Oscar nominations for his portrayals of Muhammad Ali in Ali and stockbroker Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness; and he’s been ranked among the most bankable stars in the world. As Will once said, “In my mind, I’ve always been an A-list superstar. Y’all just didn’t know it yet.”

Now 49 years old, Smith will soon start filming for his upcoming movie, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. He has the lead role playing a senior NSA official being hunted by a young clone of himself in the sci-fi action film. But even with a big project like that, Will still sees the value of keeping up a YouTube channel. “YouTube has really given me an opportunity to flow a lot of the creative ideas that were dying on my creative interior vine. So I’m being able to come alive creatively in a way that I thought was behind me,” he says. So there’s really no telling what will come next from Smith. Mix his seemingly endless fountain of creativity along with his belief that he can “create whatever [he] wants to create,” and there’s likely to be longevity to his vlogs.

Smith is all set up with a crew to support him in his vlog aspirations. This includes his personal trainer who often films him and experiments with a drone camera–and taking some breathtaking shots, by the way. And clearly, Will has an impressive editor as well. They travel to Australia, Miami, and Mexico documenting their adventures. In addition, Smith recently created an Instagram account which has already accumulated over ten million followers. “I do want to aggressively go forward and do new things and create and hopefully be able to stumble upon a new heyday,” Will says.

Smith joins the list of other actors who regularly share content on YouTube channels such as Doug Benson, Russell Brand, The Rock, and Ashley Tisdale. As far as what draws people to stay interested and engaged in him, Will says, “I love living. I think that’s infectious.”

Regret You Turned Down a Role? Or Glad You Did?

September 7, 2015

Ouch! Sometimes it’s gotta hurt when in retrospect you realize you’ve made a potentially career-impacting mistake by turning down a role. But it’s virtually impossible to sidestep mistakes when it comes to accepting or declining roles. Taking a part because it pays well may prove to be costly in the long run if the project dramatically tanks; type casting might be a blessing in your career, but in some cases accepting an ongoing series of type-cast roles could threaten to pigeon-hole your job path; and turning down a low-paying job could be the one that paves your acting competitor’s prolific career. In other words, you just never know what is the best career decision until time passes, and it becomes clear one way or another. If it’s any comfort at all, you are not alone in this challenge. Indeed, many actors regret passing on iconic roles. And then there are the actors who are grateful they didn’t grab everything that came their way. Here are some examples of actors who either regret or celebrate the decisions they’ve made.

Actors who regret passing on roles

Well, this list is quite long, if not endless. But let’s just mention a few.

Christina Applegate regrets her decision to pass on the desirable role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She said, “The script came along my way, and it was right after I just finished ‘Married [with Children]’ and it was, you know, a blonde who…ends up going to Harvard. And…I got scared. I got scared of kind of repeating myself.” After playing the infamous Kelly Bundy, she hesitated in getting type cast as a ditzy blonde. Reese Witherspoon went on to land the part which is considered her breakthrough role.

Will Smith had mixed feelings after he’d passed on the role of Neo in The Matrix. Although he was the director’s first choice, eventually the part went to Keanu Reeves. Smith admits he “didn’t understand” the pitch of the film, insisting he would have “absolutely messed up ‘The Matrix.'” But the megastar was minimally hurt by his decision overall as he went on to star in several blockbuster films, and has been ranked as the most bankable star worldwide by Forbes magazine.

Tom Selleck passed on the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark because he signed a contract to star in Magnum P.I. and he wasn’t ready to do a Hollywood movie at that time. Sadly, after choosing to stick with Magnum,  Selleck admits he was “haunted” by his decision because the writers’ strike delayed the production of the popular TV show for several months which, in hindsight, would have provided Selleck time to finish filming the action-adventure film. The part, however, went to Harrison Ford and is ranked among the greatest films of all time in its genre. (You can see Selleck’s screen test below.)

Denzel Washington turned down the part of David Mills in Se7en which later went to Brad Pitt. When offered the role, Washington explains he thought, “Ah, this is so dark. Then, I saw the movie, and cried.”

Burt Reynolds considers passing on the role of Hans Solo in Star Wars as the biggest mistake in his career. In his case, he blames it on his agent. That being said, years later he went on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Boogie Nights–a role that Warren Beatty passed on. Beatty likewise passed on lead roles in Misery, Wall Street, and The Sting.

Actors who are glad they passed on roles

Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke was considered a fan favorite to play the controversial Anastasia Steele in the highly anticipated film Fifty Shades of Grey. But when offered the part, Clarke declined. She stands by her decision, asserting, “I’d done nudity before, and was concerned with being labeled for doing it again.” Taking her chances on Games of Thrones proved to be a good move; the HBO series went on to be network’s most successful show in its history.

If Aaron Eckhart had known 34 actors had passed on the role of the monster of I, Frankenstein, maybe he’d have passed on the part as well. The action-horror film took $65 million to make, but brought in a measly $8.6 million in the first weekend’s box office. The 34 actors who listened to their instincts and passed on the part are surely happy with their decisions. Whereas Eckhart, who was falsely assured that he was production’s first and only choice to play Frankenstein in their film, confessed to “never feeling this depressed.” He stated, “I should have suspected the producers were lying, since they also told me Frankenstein’s monster helping gargoyles fight demons was a good idea.” Among the actors who passed on playing the iconic monster are Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Day Lewis, and Chris Hemsworth.

Mark Wahlberg was reportedly “creeped out” by the sexual content in Brokeback Mountain, and thus turned down the role that Heath Ledger went on to play. But does he regret it? Apparently not; he once told Larry King, “I don’t really have the one role [that got away.] Actually, I have dodged more bullets. I passed on things that were tempting–especially for the money.”

An actor who came ever so close to turning down a role, but now is celebrating that he took it

Chris Evans was very hesitant to sign on the line of his Marvel contract. When the Marvel studio was being formed, the idea that the company was going to produce its own movies triggered skepticism. It goes without saying that the company succeeded brilliantly with record-setting box office returns. Now reflecting how close he came to turning down the lead role of Captain America, Evans says, “Listen, if Marvel wants me, they got me….I’ve never had such a relationship where you have such–I mean look at my resume, I’m used to being on set being like, ‘Ah, is this movie gonna be terrible?’ Marvel just can’t stop making great movies….It’s like a playground as an actor.”

Actors are celebrated for not just their talent, but for their overall body of work. Part of the actor’s job is to choose roles wisely–not always such an easy task. This is where strong intuition and good, old-fashioned luck come into play. Of course, when you’re starting out pretty much any job is worth grabbing. But there comes a time when refining your decisions and strategy come into play. Should you take or pass on that part in a particular student film, theater piece, soap opera, or commercial? Are you always being cast as the same type? That may or may not be working for you. And are you comfortable with the roles being offered to you? Only you can answer these questions along your acting journey.

Here is a list of actors ranked by their body of work in the entertainment industry.

Talent vs. Skill in Casting Calls

January 11, 2012

Some actors are auditioning for TV shows and commercials because they’ve been told they’re a “natural.” Being a natural is something to behold, it’s great fun, and it stokes the creative fires. As a natural you’ll receive a bounty of praise and often, tremendous encouragement. Being a natural is also a great foundation for anyone aspiring to a career in the arts. But relying too heavily on the nature, and not enough on the nurture aspect of your abilities is not wise. If you find yourself excelling in the acting game, it’s convenient to believe it’s easy. But the game is long, and the game changes as you play. Some of the best actors in the history of cinema were also the most gifted. But the truly great ones worked the craft like a top athlete works in the gym. Laurence Olivier, one of the most revered actors of the 20th century, was known to speak William Shakespeare’s lines “as naturally as if he were actually thinking them,” said English playwright Charles Bennett. But even after he’d experienced many years of extraordinary recognition, he was still taking vocal lessons to keep his skills sharp–even the skills he already had in the bag.

Amy Adams says of her Fighter costar Mark Wahlberg, “He has a work ethic that is incomparable. He is where he is because of his hard work, his sheer force of will.” Wahlberg trained for his role as “Irish” Micky Ward two years before The Fighter was greenlit. One day, the men who write the checks saw Mark tearing it up in the ring; it wasn’t hard to sign on the line which is dotted.

Will Smith is keen on the notion of hard work, and indeed, credits persistence for his success. Will claims to work on his career while other guys are eating and sleeping. He swears by a “ridiculous, sickening work ethic,” and states:

“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, for people who have dreams. Talent is what you have naturally; skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

Who can argue with this philosophy? Dedicating yourself to being better each new day can be achieved by Smith’s philosophy:

“You don’t set out to build a wall…you say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ And you do that every single day, and soon you have a wall.” 

Sounds like a great way to land more casting calls and TV auditions!