Men in Black: David Schwimmer on Turning Down the Lead Role

Will Smith’s role in Men in Black was first offered to David Schwimmer, but he turned it down to support his friends...

One of the many curious footnotes in Hollywood history is that Will Smith’s leading role in Men in Black was first offered to David Schwimmer. The 1997 film that catapulted the Fresh Prince star to global super stardom was Schwimmer’s for the taking, and it lined up perfectly with a between-seasons production break on Friends

So why did Schwimmer turn it down? He’s now explained the decision in detail in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. Here’s the story, as Schwimmer regaled it…

The deal with that was: so I had shot The Pallbearer [a romantic comedy co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow]  for Miramax, and they had very high hopes for it. And while we were shooting it, they wanted to lock me into a three-picture deal. And as we all know now the movie [The Pallbearer] did not do well. I did not end up doing that three-picture deal with Miramax. But at the time I had a little leverage.

And I had always wanted to direct. So I had said, “okay, look; I’ll sign for a three-picture deal if you let me direct my first film, and cast my entire theatre company in Chicago” [the long-time friends who Schwimmer had been working with for years, long before Friends and stardom came along].

So, that was my goal, to give… to bring everyone up with me, to give everyone a shot. And I did it. We negotiated a deal. We did it. And the next year it was set to go into production in Chicago. And it was called Dog Water, now it’s called Since You’ve Been Gone. But I shot my first film and the entire theatre company is in it. And some crazy cameos, like John Stewart, Liev Schreiber.

I told everyone in the theatre company, “you’re all cast, here are your roles, don’t take any other jobs for this six-week period.” So everyone turned down all these opportunities. These teaching jobs. Other plays. You know, everyone was banking on doing this first film with me. 

And then about a month before… so we’re in pre-production… about a month before production, I get the call about Men In Black. Which is was a direct conflict with directing that film. I just said, “I can’t. These are my closest friends in the world, this is their first shot at a movie, my first shot at directing. I can’t push [the timeline of the film back] because I’ve gotta go back to work on Friends in the fall.” That’s what ended up happening.

To finish off the anecdote, Schwimmer added, “It wasn’t even like a choice, really. It was, ‘I just can’t.’” Friendship, rather fittingly, is obviously very important to the man.

Schwimmer was talking to THR to promote The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which is available now on download and disc. You can listen to the full interview – which covers Schwimmer’s whole career – by clicking here.

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