Yesterday marked 25 years to the day since Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day exploded into theaters, changing the landscape of blockbusters forever and ending its run as the second highest-grossing movie in the history of cinema. It also cemented Will Smith as a bona fide superstar, but the director had to fight hard in order to convince Fox he was the right man for the job.
It sounds insane to think now, given that Smith is one of the most popular actors of the modern era with a track record of box office success that few can match, but that wasn’t the case back in the mid-1990s. He was arguably still best known in some Hollywood circles as the Fresh Prince, even after his turn in Bad Boys the previous year set him firmly on the path to securing action hero status.
In a new interview to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Independence Day, Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin revealed that the studio didn’t want Smith as Captain Steven Hiller, and as shocking as it is to hear today, Devlin confirmed that part of the decision was fueled by the actor’s skin color, by admitting he was told that if “you cast a black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign box office.”
Emmerich was much more diplomatic in his recollections, but he still confirmed that he had to threaten the studio with taking Independence Day elsewhere before he could guarantee Smith for the project, as well as co-star Jeff Goldblum for that matter.
“The studio said, ‘No, we don’t like Will Smith. He’s unproven. He doesn’t work in international markets’… It was pretty shortly before the shoot and we still hadn’t locked in Will and Jeff. I put my foot down. ‘Universal people are calling every day, so give me these two actors or I move over there’. I don’t think it would have been a possibility, but it was a great threat.”
Suffice to say, it all worked out spectacularly well for everyone involved, with Independence Day now a classic sci-fi epic that always gets revisited right around this time of year.