Time-tripping with Will Smith and Josh Brolin
For one of the world’s biggest movie stars, taking a four-year break seems shocking. While nobody forgot Will Smith, it has been three-and-a-half years since his last movie, "Seven Pounds." He has been working behind the scenes, producing movies like his son’s "Karate Kid" remake. And maybe it feels like we still see him all the time since Jay Pharoah started impersonating Smith on "Saturday Night Live."
"Men in Black III" is Smith’s return to the big screen, and return to one of his signature franchises. "I’m producing my kids, my wife’s TV show and all so I’m loving doing that," Smith said. "I think that’s my most natural space in the business. I’d have to say if I just fell in what was most natural for me, it’d be producing or editing. That’s where I just thrive. But for me, it’s been three years off camera, and I just had to get back to work because Jaden really wants to make movies badly.
"We were at the dinner table and he got a little predatory look in his eye. He is so coming for me and I tell him, ’Son, I’ll teach you everything that I know and if you work hard, you can be the second biggest movie star in the world.’"
A chemistry thing
It has been 10 years since "Men in Black II," and 15 since the original in which a New York Cop became MIB Agent J (Smith). The Men in Black investigate alien crimes within the city, and then "neuralize" any witnesses so they don’t remember to avoid any panic.
"That’s the thing that was really important for me to have it be a movie that stands alone, that you can watch it without having seen the others and you can glean some of the ideas," Smith said. "The ending we were a little concerned about, because you really have to have some knowledge about the first movie to truly get why that ending would be special. It’s the difficulty with doing them this far apart but I feel confident that for a good part of the audience, it stands alone. [My daughter] Willow hasn’t seen the first two movies and she saw this one first and was inspired to go see the other two after having seen it."
Agent J’s partner is Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) the veteran MIB agent. In "Men in Black III," J has to travel back in time to 1969 to save a young K (Josh Brolin) from assassination by his alien nemesis. This time J spends most of the movie with his partner’s younger self.
"So actors, there’s a chemistry thing, right?" Smith said. "When you sit down with somebody, there’s a natural interaction that you have. So when I sit with Martin [Lawrence in "Bad Boys"], there’s a certain thing. I go certain directions, he goes certain directions and we create a scene through this natural energy. Tommy Lee Jones and I, our chemistry is very different than me and Martin. So when I sat with Josh, I was trying to find what was the adjustment that I would have to make to be able to deliver our new chemistry on camera."
A modest Brolin
Smith need not have worried. Brolin does such an impeccable Agent K that die hard fans will still feel like they’re watching their favorite alien busting duo. "I was just shocked because [the chemistry is] identical, which is difficult to impossible to do. He studied Tommy and Agent K so thoroughly that even the chemistry is the same. When you watch Josh for five minutes, it’s done. It’s not even young Agent K, you think you’re watching young Tommy Lee Jones. You know what I mean? It just goes away, he’s able to deliver. People thought that the voice was looped by Tommy. People were asking after the first trailer if Tommy looped the voice and Josh, he’s probably not going to get credit for that performance. But it was actually very powerful and difficult, and he risked his whole career. If you mess up Agent K, that could not be funny."
When it was his turn to take credit for his contributions to the film, Brolin was modest. "That all sounds boring when you say how much work you did and all that," Brolin said. "A lot of fear and a lot of work and I know Tommy so that’s like if you have a friend and somebody asks you to do an impersonation of your friend, that’s one thing if you’re drunk at a bar. Then it’s a different thing when they say a billion people are going to see this movie. Do an impression of your friend. It kind of ups the ante. I just studied and studied and made a lot of mistakes, hopefully came out on top."
A huge Tommy fan
Jones has a body of work spanning decades, so there was plenty of material for Brolin to research. "I saw ’Executioner’s Song,’ ’Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ Brolin said. "I saw movies that nobody’s seen that Tommy’s done. ’Rolling Thunder’ is amazing. ’Rolling Thunder’ is one of Tarantino’s favorite films. It wasn’t really helpful. I had known a lot of them, because I’m a huge Tommy fan and I have been for a long time. Where I grew up, Tommy’s considered a saint, in Central Coast California Republican community. Just the whole country bucolic mentality and all that."
Smith may find Brolin’s performance identical to Jones’ but Brolin makes an important distinction. "Everybody says and I even think this way, ’You’re playing a young Tommy, you’re playing a young Tommy.’ But you’re not. You’re playing a young K. K is very different than Tommy. If you look at Tommy in ’JFK,’ it’s very different. You realize that the guy is an amazing actor. So I realized really after going through all those movies and all the desperate research, you realize that the only thing to do is watch ’Men in Black’ over and over and over and over and over. Which is fine with me because I enjoy the movie. If it was a movie that I didn’t like it would’ve been I think much tougher."
An iconic duo
There may only be one Tommy Lee Jones, but now Brolin is the resident Tommy Lee Jones expert. "Tommy is like an instrument that somebody made up, Tommy’s mother. And nobody knows how to play it. It’s a cadence that when I did W. I thought that was difficult until I did Tommy."
Jones himself still appears in the movie as Agent K before and after J travels to the past. He had no comment on Brolin’s performance. "He’s seen the movie," Brolin said. "I don’t think that he would ever give me a kudos for it. Maybe."
Stepping into a franchise would be daunting for any actor. Brolin sees himself stepping into an even bigger legacy than one single film series, that of the entire buddy duo genre.
"There’s not a lot of iconic duos in film," Brolin said. "There’s relationships like husband/wife, Bogey/[Bacall], whatever but the ’Lethal Weapon,’ Mel Gibson/Danny Glover, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. It’s parallel. Then they’re going to try and bring me in and ruin my career by severing one of the great iconic duos which I appreciate that fear. I am looking to end my career. When it doesn’t happen it’s kind of fun. For me selfishly, this is not answering your question, but for me selfishly I love the idea of looking back and knowing that we did this and that we tried this. That’s a lot of fun. This is all like deathbed stuff. I want to look back and say, ’F***, I did Tommy Lee Jones, that’s crazy.’"
"Men in Black III" is in theaters.
Watch the trailer to "Men in Black III":