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‘Independence Day’ Team Reveals Studio Reaction to Will Smith: ‘Cast Black Guy, Kill Foreign Box Office’

Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin went to war against Fox over casting Will Smith.

Will Smith, "Independence Day"

Will Smith, “Independence Day”

20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection

Independence Day” director Roland Emmerich and producer-writer Dean Devlin celebrated the film’s 25th anniversary this week by participating in The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of the alien invasion blockbuster. While discussing the film’s casting, the duo recalled studio executives at 20th Century Fox refusing their pitch to cast Will Smith in the lead role due to the racist Hollywood ideology that audiences in foreign markets don’t show up to movies led by Black actors. Once Emmerich and Devlin locked in Jeff Goldblum, they were adamant Will Smith be his co-star.

“Ethan Hawke was on our list too, but I thought at that time he was too young,” Emmerich said. “It was pretty clear it had to be Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. That was the combo we thought. The studio said, ‘No, we don’t like Will Smith. He’s unproven. He doesn’t work in international [markets].’

Devlin added, “They said, ‘You cast a Black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign [box office].’ Our argument was, ‘Well, the movie is about space aliens. It’s going to do fine foreign.’ It was a big war, and Roland really stood up for [Smith] — and we ultimately won that war.”

“It was pretty shortly before the shoot and we still hadn’t locked in Will and Jeff,” Emmerich concluded. “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 [to actually move studios], but it was a great threat.”

Anyone familiar with “Independence Day” knows just how wrong the studio was to think the movie would not play around the world with Will Smith in the lead role. The film grossed $817 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing movie of 1996 and the second highest grossing movie in film history worldwide at the time behind only Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”

“Spielberg invited us to the ‘Jurassic Park 2’ set,” Emmerich recalled, “and the first line he says to Dean and me is, ‘You guys reinvented the blockbuster. After this movie, nobody can do a normal blockbuster anymore.'”

Head over to The Hollywood Reporter to read the 25th anniversary “Independence Day” oral history in its entirety.

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