Men In Black Director Talks ‘Underpromising’ The Movie To A Rising Star So He Could Hire Will Smith Instead

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men In Black
(Image credit: Sony )

1997’s Men In Black features what is arguably Will Smith’s best role of his career to date, but like many Hollywood stories, there was another big name actor who almost got the part in the action movie instead of him. That person was Chris O’Donnell, who at a time had a number of hit movies like Scent of a Woman, The Three Musketeers and as Robin in Batman Forever. As Men In Black hits its 25th anniversary, the movie’s director recalls “underpromising” the ‘90s classic to O'Donnell so that he could get Will Smith on board. 

Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld recently shared that Hollywood producers' first choice for the sci-fi comedy ahead of production was Chris O’Donnell for Agent J opposite Clint Eastwood as Tommy Lee Jones’ role of Agent K. However, Sonnenfield was dead set on Smith. Here’s how he steered O’Donnell away in his words while recently discussing the film with Insider:

I met with Chris [O'Donnell] and he had concerns about the script and had another movie offer. So I told him, 'Yeah, we might never fix this script and I don't think I know how to direct this movie.' So he passed on the movie the next day.

While speaking about Men In Black a quarter of a century after its original release (on July 2, 1997), Barry Sonnenfield shared that Will Smith was his top choice for one of the movie’s leads because his wife thought he would be the right fit for the part. In order to give Smith a chance, he downplayed the movie to Chris O’Donnell. He continued to share the story behind Smith nabbing the role, saying,

I used to live in the Hamptons and Steven Spielberg used to summer there so I was able to arrange for Will to come up from Philly — he was at a wedding — to come and meet Steven and myself and [producers] Walter [F. Parkes] and Laurie [MacDonald]. And that's how Will [Smith] got the part.

Barry Sonnenfield also shared that he thinks O’Donnell – who more recently has become famous for his role in NCIS – is a “good actor.” However, once his wife gave him the idea to cast The Prince of Bel-Air star he had a one track mind about it. At the time of the casting, another Will Smith classic, Independence Day had yet to come out, which ended up becoming the top grossing movie of 1996, preceding the release of Men In Black the following year. Those producers who preferred O’Donnell had no idea that Smith was about to become the biggest Hollywood star, but they surely must have been happy to see it happen. 

When sharing the Men In Black story, Barry Sonnenfield shared that it is his belief that “you always want to underpromise and overdeliver.” Alongside Men In Black, the filmmaker is behind the Addams Family movies, Wild Wild West (also with Will Smith) and most recently has directed multiple A Series of Unfortunate Events and Schmigadoon! episodes. 

Men In Black became the highest grossing movie of 1997, continuing a two-year blockbuster streak for Will Smith at the time. Twenty-five years later, Men In Black is still a classic and very much holds up among ‘90s films and there’s a lot of love for the sequels too. Happy 25th to Men in Black

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.