Way out West with the leftfield blockbusters' stars
Salma Hayek. Kevin Kline. Kenneth Branagh. And, of course, Will Smith.

In this issue, the four stars of the new Barry Sonnenfeld blockbuster Wild Wild West reveal how they’ve reinvented the Western…
TEXT TERRY RICHARDS
From the September 1999
Film Review

Will Smith is on a high. A purely natural high. After working his way through smaller films and getting his break with Bad Boys back in 1996, he’s now one of the top ten Hollywood earners. And yet, he has his feet firmly planted on the ground by his family.

His latest movie, is the ‘revisionist’ Wild Wild West. Taking place at the end of the last century, it shows a world where things have worked out a little differently. Smith is James West, one of the best government agents in the business. He’s called up by the US president to work with the inventor Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline). It’s a reluctant partnership but they have to stop the evil machinations of the wheelchair-bound Dr Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a twisted genius who will lead the two heroes into the strangest perils ever witnessed on the big screen.

Smith was drawn to the movie, firstly by the chance of working with his Men in Black director, Barry Sonnenfeld and “the script was really good. I was familiar with the television show and people used to refer to it as like the James Bond of the west. It had that type of vibe. Between Wild Wild West and Star Trek, those two shows were really the predecessors for modern-day special effects and science fiction films,” he claims. “And there weren’t too many black cowboys that were on film. To show a new look at cowboys felt good to me.

“What we’ve seen of cowboys and of the whole era is, generally, white people. It’s always John Wayne, so I wasn’t a huge Western fan growing up. Looking back and finally having and opportunity to be in a Western, you get more involved and you see more things and you learn more things about Westerns. It’s a great genre. The time was hard. The life was hard [but] there’s something sexy about the wild Wild West.”

And he loves working with Sonnenfeld and the director’s unique take on the world. “Barry makes me funny in a way that I could never be. The sense of humour and the way that the comedy played out in Men in Black and, more seriously, in Wild Wild West is distinctly a Barry Sonnenfeld point of view. In Wild Wild West, the runs that I have with Arliss Loveless, the racial runs, those politically incorrect runs that we have back and forth, is very distinctively Sonnenfeld humour.”

Smith notes that there is a decidely un-PC tone to the movie, with jibes coming from both sides about disability and colour. “I read the script and I called [Barry] back and I said, ‘Barry, have you seen any episodes of the television show?’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah’ and I said, ‘Did you notice any ‘subtle’ differences between myself and Robert Conrad?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes. You’re a lot taller but I don’t think anyone is going to notice.’ ‘Baz, I’m a black dude and Robert Conrad wasn’t.’ ‘Oh, no one knows that you’re black.’ ‘Look, Barry, everybody knows I’m black.’ ‘Just do the movie. Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.’

“Then he sent me copies of the scenes that had the badinage between myself and Kenneth Branagh’s character, Loveless. When I read that first line when Loveless says, ‘Well, well, Mr West. I’d like to thank you so much for adding ‘colour’ to these monochromatic proceedings,’ I just loved that. I loved dealing with the issue of race in that way. We went out on a limb with a couple of these scenes also like with the scene with the noose. I was looking at that one and was, ‘Wow, I sure hope people think this is funny.’ It’s one of those set-ups that can either be hilarious or it can be something that people will hate for the rest of their lives. It had that Blazing Saddles feel to it. I think, to me, it’s hilarious.”

If you think Will Smith appearing in a politically incorrect movie is a bit of a surprise, wait until you see the nude scene. “I had to have a pee-pee pouch on,” says the six-foot actor delicately. “It was a little pouch with duct-tape taped to the inside of my legs. Putting that stuff on was the difficult part, it was the taking it off that was the big problem. I was almost going to leave it on. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to leave it on there for six or seven days. Go play some basketball and try sweat this thing off.' Trying to take it off was the most horrible part of doing this movie.”

Even though he seems to appear on our screens in big-budget movies at least twice a year, Will is at heart, a big soft family man. With two kids to care for, he’s relishing the time he spends with his family. “Some of the best fun we have is right around this time of year, with the kids, sitting out by the pool and playing. I never knew how to swim. I learnt how to swim for Enemy of the State so it’s like at 29 years old, finally learning how to swim. We’re already putting Jaden in the pool, he’s 11 months. I just feel like I’m doing my duty as a Dad!"

Images copyright: Warner Brothers
Read the full Wild Wild West interviews (and our review of the new film)
in this issue of Film Review
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