Will Smith’s career strategy is not a mystery. He’s spoken in the past about choosing roles because they would be blockbusters, about deliberately deciding not to pursue the kind of interesting and diverse roles like he did back in the Six Degrees of Separation days because he valued A-list success over credibility. And that strategy has served Smith well—he’s one of the biggest, most successful celebrities in the world, so powerful he can foist his children on us as second-gen prototypes and no one blinks an eye.
But still. Will Smith is a f*cking moron.
He has to look no further than his buddy Tom Cruise to see what happens to action stars when there is no safety net, no backup plan. Cruise is not untalented, but his bread and butter has been for so long big explosiony action flicks that he struggles to establish himself in any other genre (see also: Rock of Ages). And even the action genre isn’t being particularly kind—Jack Reacher didn’t deliver like he needed it to. Cruise, once invincible, is looking vulnerable. Some of that is because Cruise is a total nutcase and Smith isn’t (so far), but the rarified environment of the movie star is changing. It’s all about franchises, hyphenates (being “just an actor” is not enough anymore) and versatility. Will Smith, like Tom Cruise, looks a little inflexible, locked into his sci-fi/action blockbuster niche.
But Smith had a chance to take a new tack. He had a plum opportunity put before him, a chance to remind people that there is more than the celebrity persona and action star, that there is a person of talent and substance operating behind the business acumen. He had Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s biggest movie to date, in his hands. And he turned it down.
Why? Because Django, the guy in the title who had the entire third act of the movie to himself, whose narrative arc drives the action of the entire film and who is practically the only character with actual development, wasn’t the lead. Smith didn’t pass on Django for morality reasons. At least that’s not how he’s explaining it. Smith passed on Django because he wanted to be more The Lead than The Lead. It’s probably for the best that he passed because 1) Jamie Foxx was amazing and 2) the combined force of Smith’s ego and Tarantino’s big fat head probably would have been enough to open up a black hole. But, if we’re taking his rationale on face value, it’s an incredibly short-sighted view for Smith to take on his career.
“Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” Smith says that before he left the project, he even pleaded with Tarantino to let Django have a more central role in the story. “I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!’” (Ironically, Waltz was considered a supporting actor during his Oscar-winning award season, while Jamie Foxx was promoted as the movie’s lead.) But no hard feelings: Smith was a big fan of the final product. “I thought it was brilliant,” he says. “Just not for me.”
Smith makes a valid point: “the other guy” (Christoph Waltz) was a major character—shades of category fraud with Waltz’s Oscar win—but so was Django. It was a juicy part, the kind that would have pretty much guaranteed Smith an Oscar. Even in the face of Daniel Day-Lewis, I don’t think the Academy could resist rewarding Smith, who is very popular, for going outside the box with Tarantino like that. But instead he passed and went on to make Men in Black III and After Earth. You’re really setting the world on fire there, Will.
Sometimes you have to play a long game. Sometimes you have to ask what happens when you can no longer convince an audience you can save the world. Sometimes you have to backseat the ego. Even if it means eating Tarantino’s.