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South China Morning Post
Cover: Weekend Entertainment
July 18, 1997

THE FRESH PRINCE OF SCI-FI
For the second straight summer, earthling Will Smith is battling extraterrestrials.
By David Cohen

How does Will Smith do it? He boasts a successful rap career, a long-running sitcom and a run of hit films. He is a favorite of fans and critics alike. He has another hit movie in Men In Black, a hit record with the theme song, a gorgeous girlfriend (actress Jada Pinkett) and a healthy son.

What is the secret of his success? His ears. They are very big, you see, and they stick out.

"Women love that," smiles Smith. "Ears... something about ears. If you have big ears, people think you're really nice. Especially in America. Americans have an ear fetish. Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Ross Perot. People with ears. It's like you're trustworthy if you have big ears." As we stop laughing, he turns to an attractive female reporter. "And it's kinda sexy too," he purrs.

It is vintage Smith. Funny, sexy, confident, even cocky, but still able to laugh at himself. In Men In Black, the latest film from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, Smith is Agent J, a former New York top cop who joins a mysterious agency that 'monitors alien activity on the planet Earth.' J quickly discovers that there is a _lot_ of alien activity on the planet Earth, most of it in New York City.

Tommy Lee Jones stars with Smith as Agent K, the universe-weary cop who recruits J. Earth, explains K, is a safe haven for alien political refugees, 'Ever see Casablanca? Same thing, except no Nazis.' Sometimes, though, the aliens get out of line. Then the Men In Black step in.

It is Smith's second straight summer battling aliens. "I hope they don't come," he quips "because they're gonna think I know somethin." Men In Black, though, takes its cue from hard-boiled cop films, not sci-fi or action.

"I remember saying to Steven Spielberg 'I see this as The French Connection, with aliens, as a comedy.'" says director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Get Shorty) "And Steven went 'Yeah, great!'"

"Now, it takes about twenty minutes of really hard thinking to figure out what I'm talking about. So let me tell you what I mean. If you remember The French Connection, you have Gene Hackman playing Popeye Doyle, he's always got perpetrators up against the wall in the bathroom. I thought how funny would it be to have Tommy Lee Jones with a perpetrator, saying "Alright Frank, where's the galaxy?" but he's talking to... an alien. And what's going to be funny is if we never acknowledge that shaking down aliens is not something we're supposed to be doing."

That deadpan style gives Men In Black much of its humor and hip attitude, but the film mainly relies on the chemistry between J and K — Smith and Jones.

"You notice I'm doing all the talking in the movie," observes Smith, dressed in a turtleneck (black, of course). "Tommy Lee just looks at me for big chunks of the movie. It just works. It works for those characters, it works for the energy of the interaction, you know? That contrast, that comedic contrast."

"Barry Sonnenfeld very specifically works on those things, finding those character moments. I think that's the thing that will separate MEN IN BLACK from the other movies that are out this summer, because we really paid attention to who these people were. And moment by moment you feel the characters, you're not just waiting for the next explosion."

"(J) knows everything. He's smarter than everybody in the world, and if everybody would just shut up and let him do his job then everything would be okay," says Smith about his character, New York's best cop. "In comes Tommy Lee Jones, K, and J realizes he doesn't know _anything_. You know? It's like, everything he's always assumed means nothing. The whole world is new. Which is really great for a character like that. It hurts for a minute to realize you're not as smart as you think, but then be able to attack the world from a whole new angle. To be a Man In Black is a whole new life for this guy, and maybe he can be the smartest guy, like he was fifteen minutes ago."

Smith's world, too, became new again just one year ago. After rap albums, starring in the long-running Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the hit film Bad Boys, he thought he understood fame - until a July weekend in 1996. "That Monday, after Independence Day came out, it's as if somebody told everybody in the world something that they didn't tell me. Because that Friday, we were on the set and this guy rolls by, 'Will! Hey, how ya doin'!? What's goin' on!?' Then that Monday, everybody starts talking softly. 'Mr. Smith, can you sign this for me?'"

"There's something about a successful film that makes people act weird. I mean, I'm in the Virgin Megastore and this girl just pulls her shirt up and asks me to sign her breast. People act crazy. It's definitely a different energy."

For a Hollywood star, this kind of fame brings great expectations. Stars are expected to 'open' the film — draw a big opening-weekend audience. Smith insists he is feeling no pressure, though. "Actually, that's part of the beauty of making a special effects movie. Because it's like you put padding around yourself. I'm working with Steven Spielberg, Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Sonnenfeld, ILM is doing the digital special effects, and Rick Baker is doing the makeup special effects. If we lose with that team, then we have no business playing, you know? That's a movie dream team right there. You can't lose."

Smith is more naked as he returns to his first career, in music. "I just signed a deal with Columbia records and I'm about six songs into my album. I've been out for about four years now, from the music industry. It just feels good."

"There's no feeling like being on stage in front of 25, 30 thousand people. There's no experience like that. That's the ultimate feeling. With the music, though, it's such a fast burn, in and out, that it's difficult to sustain a career. Sustaining a music career is the most difficult of all the fields."

"With a movie career, one hit movie and you'll work for the next ten years. But you flop an album and that's it. You've got to beg and cry to get another shot. So creatively it's both good and bad, because when you succeed in music, it's a real ego boost, but when you flop, whoo, that hurts."

So far, Smith has never experienced a movie flop. "No. And I never will," he deadpans. As we stop laughing, he gets more philosophical. "I know it's coming one day, that I'm going to be sitting here with all you guys, and it's going to be like 'So Will, did you think the wig was a good choice?' He answers his own question in a defensive whine. 'Well, creatively, I kinda thought I wanted to try something different, I wanted to be something different, I didn't want to play the same character I played in Independence Day, I didn't want to play the same character I played in Men In Black,' and you'll go 'You probably should have.'"