Today, Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars in the world whose mere presence in a film nearly ensures its success at the box office. Sir Ian McKellen may not have the same effect on a film’s profits, but he is a tremendously respected star of both stage and screen with decades of great performances under his belt.
Before the two were the monolithic stars they’ve become today, they actually appeared in a film together in the early 90s. One story about their interaction shows just how far Smith has come in terms of maturity as an actor. Let’s take a look back at Smith’s career, the film they worked on together, and how it changed Smith for the better.
Will Smith’s successful career
In the late 80s and early 90s, Smith was hardly the star he’d later become. He had plenty of success as a rapper and as a sitcom star, but it’s at the movies where he’d make his biggest mark.
First, Smith starred in NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a hit sitcom that appeared on the network for six seasons. Later, he’d move to film where he really became box office gold.
Smith has appeared in blockbusters like Bad Boys, Men in Black, Independence Day, and Enemy of the State. As he moved into the next decade his star only grew with hits like Ali, Hitch, I, Robot, and I Am Legend. Smith has had plenty of hits in recent years as well, appearing in Suicide Squad as well as Focus, Concussion, and Aladdin.
Smith made the decision to appear in a drama early in his career that showed off his acting skills a bit more than some later hits he’d appear in, however. That’s where he’d work with McKellen.
The film Ian McKellen and Will Smith appeared in together
In 1993, Smith filmed a movie called Six Degrees of Separation. It was a comedy-drama in which he played a gay hustler/con-man.
Entertainment Weekly did a piece on Smith in advance of the film, talking about his career up until that point. The film also starred Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and McKellen.
There was one scene in the film in which the script called for Smith to kiss fellow actor Anthony Michael Hall. Smith refused to do so, later regretting it:
“It was very immature on my part…I was thinking, ‘How are my friends in Philly going to think about this?’ I wasn’t emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film. In a movie with actors and a director and writer of this caliber, for me to be the one bringing something cheesy to it…This was a valuable lesson for me…Either you do it or you don’t.”
To Smith’s credit, he understood the mistake he made in not going through with what the role called for. He was called out by McKellen in a rather embarrassing, public way.
Sir Ian McKellen’s Will Smith kiss
In an interview with Timeout London, McKellen recalled the experience of working with Smith and how he tried to teach him a lesson for his immature decision to forego the kiss in the film:
“He arrived for the read-through with a huge entourage — his family, his agent, his publicity person, his acting coach, his nanny! He was a charmer, and a good actor. But he did one silly thing: he refused to kiss another boy on-screen, even though it was there in the script. Which was why, at an early preview, I met him in public outside the cinema and gave him a great big kiss on the lips.”
That’s certainly one way to call Smith on his decision. There’s no doubt Smith’s matured considerably since then, and likely now understands the dramatic choices associated with that kind of action in a script.
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