Will Smith was the Wachowski’s first choice to play Neo in ‘The Matrix’. That’s long been one of the internet hive mind’s go-to “Didja know…?” movie factoids. Of course, Smith ultimately didn’t take that part when the offer was made. Instead, it went to Keanu Reeves and movie history was made. But why did Smith pass? Well, in a recent upload to his YouTube channel, Smith finally related his ‘Matrix’ story.
Smith begins the video by recounting his initial meeting with the Wachowskis, which came at the peak of his mid-nineties boom period:
“So after we made ‘Men in Black’, the Wachowskis, they came in and… they had done [one] movie, I think it was called ‘Bound’. And they came in and they made a pitch for ‘The Matrix’. And as it turns out, they’re geniuses! But there’s a fine line in a pitch meeting, between genius and what I experienced in the meeting.”
Here, Smith begins to relate what he remembers as ” the actual pitch that they made for ‘The Matrix’.” In the video, Smith tells the story in his own inimitable style. We won’t pretend to do his delivery justice, but we can quote him! And as he tells it, their pitch went something like this:
“So dude, we’re thinking like, imagine you’re in a fight and then you jump. Imagine if you could stop jumping in the middle of the jump. And then, people could see around you, 360, while you’re jumping, while you stopped jumping. And then we’re gonna invent these cameras and then people can see the whole jump while you’re stopped in the middle of the jump.”
Now, if you’ve seen ‘The Matrix’, you know exactly what they’re talking about. That bullet time shot (in which Trinity jumps, freezes in midair as the camera circles around her, and then continues the fight) is one of the movie’s most iconic. But think about how bizarre that must’ve sounded in 1997, especially if you didn’t have the particular cultural reference points – namely anime, cyberpunk, comics, and video games – that the Wachowskis did. And that’s saying nothing of the fact that they apparently pitched a visual effect rather than a story. It probably also wouldn’t have helped if the pitch’s delivery was anywhere near as stoner-y sounding as Smith portrays it here. If you were Will Smith, what would you have done?
Presented with that choice, Smith made ‘Wild Wild West’ instead, though he admits that he’s not proud of it. But that’s not the end of it. After singing the praises of Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne (both of whom he says were perfect for their respective roles), he recounts another bit of the Wachowski’s planned casting that didn’t come to fruition. And like Smith’s, this likely would have meant a drastically different approach to the character in question:
“If I had done it, because I’m black, then Morpheus wouldn’t have been black. Because they were looking at Val Kilmer. I was gonna be Neo and Val Kilmer was gonna be Morpheus. So I probably would have messed ‘The Matrix’ up. I would’ve ruined it. So I did y’all a favor.”
Whether or not ‘The Matrix’ would have worked with Will Smith and Val Kilmer is, of course, anyone’s guess. I imagine it would feel a bit more “nineties,” but that’s neither here nor there. But regardless of how ‘The Matrix’ would have fared in this alternate timeline, Smith is right to point out the fine line separating a great pitch from an underwhelming one. Most of us probably don’t sit in on many pitch meetings, but we do see a lot of trailers. And I’m sure everyone reading this has had the experience of being talked into watching a movie that they thought sounded terrible only to find it was actually pretty good time.
And it can be easy to forget, twenty (!!) years on, just how big of a deal ‘The Matrix’ was. It wasn’t just a hit movie, it was a cultural phenomenon. This tends to be overshadowed somewhat by the more mixed reaction to the sequels, but in addition to raising the bar for action movies, the first film’s influence permeated the culture. Think of the countless video games and movies from the early 2000s that incorporated their own take on bullet time, to name but one example. To this day I can’t wear a black duster without people making ‘Matrix’ references!
That’s the sort of thing you have to keep in mind when discussing the “what ifs” of ‘The Matrix’. Because to put it simply, a hit movie is one thing. We get several of those each and every year. But a movie that’s not only a hit but that has the sort of enduring popularity and influence that ‘The Matrix’ does? That’s lightning in a bottle, and that’s a very hard thing to capture. For another example of that sort of thing, look at ‘Ghostbusters’. That first movie was likewise lightning in a bottle, a case of the right cast coming together with the right director and the right script at exactly the right time. But ‘Ghostbusters 2’? Well, that movie proved two things, namely that the first one captured (say it with me now) lightning in a bottle and that even the people who caught that lightning couldn’t be counted on do it a second time. That’s not meant as a knock on ‘Ghostbusters 2’, to be clear. I actually like the movie, but it is a testament to how unlikely that sort of success is even when you do have all the right talent on board.
That’s not to say that a Smith-fronted version of ‘The Matrix’ wouldn’t have been a good movie. It very well may have been. But would it have been ‘The Matrix’? The alchemy that made that movie what it was would have been completely different if you changed one of the lead actors, let alone two of them. Who can say whether or not it would have worked as well?
But what do you think? Is it for the best that Will Smith passed on ‘The Matrix’, or do you wish we could have seen the Will Smith/Val Kilmer version that the Wachowskis originally envisioned? Let us know in the comments!