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Back in Black

Will Smith returns for more close encounters

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Stop the presses!Will Smith is a crackhead!!

OK, now that we have your attention, allow us to explain. It wasn't too long ago -- just back in December, actually, when he was promoting his soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated turn in Ali -- that Smith was referring to movies like Independence Day and Men In Black as so much "entertainment crack," even though they helped him build his reputation as a viable box-office star.

As he put it, "People are always making such a big deal of those opening-weekend grosses, so when I took a lot of flak for Wild Wild West, it was sort of liberating in a way, to discover that not every movie needs to be the biggest one ever, that your movie isn't a total failure just because it doesn't open in the number-one slot. That definitely made me more comfortable about trying things like The Legend of Bagger Vance or Ali, you know? I think I needed a break from all of that other stuff, and I think my audience did, too."

Break's over. Smith, 33, reunites with director Barry Sonnenfeld, executive producer Steven Spielberg and costar Tommy Lee Jones for Men In Black II (opening Wednesday, July 3), an obligatory sequel to their 1997 smash hit about a pair of attitudinal alien-busting secret agents. Inasmuch as it would likely disappoint a lot of studio execs were it not to open "number one," the movie seems to fit Smith's aforementioned definition of the quick "crack" fix. And if you ever doubted that old habits die hard, consider he starts work this fall on Bad Boys 2, an obligatory sequel to his 1995 buddy comedy with Martin Lawrence.

Smith talks about some of his creative addictions during a recent interview in New York.

Creative Loafing: Was there a specific moment during the making of this sequel where everything seemed to click for you in the sense of rekindling the spirit of the first Men In Black?

Will Smith: It's interesting you should put it that way, because I have to say a huge part of my wanting to come back for Men In Black II was being able to have the original team back in action -- Barry and Steven and Tommy -- because I felt like, what would be the point if we didn't try recapturing some of the same spirit and energy? (A pause.) For me, it was probably Tommy's first day on the set. He'd been detained on another film, so for the first couple of weeks we were shooting without him. It was already a bit of a struggle for me, because I'd literally flown directly from Ghana, where I wrapped Ali, to New York to start work on this, and I was having a hard time getting Ali out of my head and finding that old Agent Jay groove. From the moment Tommy showed up, though, from the time I'd found my Agent Kay, everything seemed to fall into place.

What's the secret of your success as a comedy team?

It's just your basic comedy construct, which goes back as far as Aristotle -- contrast creates conflict creates comedy. We're just two very different types of people and there's something about throwing us together on screen that seems to work.

Has enough time passed to allow you to look back on the whole Ali experience and put it into perspective in terms of how it changed your career?

Well, I know it did change my career, at least. Absolutely. In terms of expanding my range as an actor, and in terms of creating more challenging acting opportunities for myself, I think Ali put me on the map in Hollywood once and for all. (He laughs.) I figure, even if I make 10 or 12 bad movies in a row now, I can always fall back on Ali, right? I think the Oscar nomination might've bought me a bunch of flops. People will say, "Well, it must be the direction or the script or the marketing or something. It can't be Will's fault, because he was nominated for an Oscar!"

What was Oscar night like for you?

It was a huge, incredible, emotional experience. Those 30 days between the nominations and the ceremony are unreal. It's the only award I can think of where the nomination really is a win. For those 30 days, at least, all of us were winners, you know? A couple of weeks prior to the show, Jada [Pinkett Smith, Will's wife] and I got to talking one night, and we agreed that Denzel [Washington] really needed to win. I won't say it was easy, but it was definitely interesting, pulling my own ego out of the equation like that and stepping back and looking at the big picture.

Do you think it's significant to the African-American acting community at large that both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars this year, or was the media just making too big of a deal about some silly little award?

You know, only time will tell. If their Oscars lead to a movement where we're seeing more studio films with more interesting and challenging roles for actors and actresses of color, then, yes, I think their Oscars definitely have the potential to be groundbreaking and make a big difference. If not, then maybe it is only that they both did a good job and happened to win awards for it. (A pause.) How's that for hedging my bets? (He laughs.)

Now that you're an Oscar-nominated actor yourself, are you under any pressure to lean in favor of doing more serious or important projects?

You mean, why am I doing a movie like Men In Black II, when I should be looking down my nose at escapist movies like that?

Well, to be honest, I was thinking more about Bad Boys 2. I mean, isn't it bad enough that Halle Berry is following up her Oscar with a James Bond movie? Or that Jennifer Connelly's next one is The Hulk? But Bad Boys 2?

(He laughs.) There's certainly that pressure, that call to be serious. I mean, it's like a narcotic. Now that I've been through the whole Oscar thing for myself, hell, yes, I'd love to experience that each and every time I made a movie. But the bottom line is that's just about having your ego stroked, and when you start listening to your ego in making your creative decisions, that can only be a mistake. That's why I'd rather go in a completely opposite direction, even if it means Bad Boys 2. (A pause.) I feel like I've been able to make a connection with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and with my music, and with movies like Men In Black and Bad Boys. It isn't necessarily a high-brow or cerebral connection, but it still has a place.

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