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Men in Sync

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith present a collection of contrasts that make for a sharp ensemble in person and on screen as sci-fi cops in 'Men in Black.'

May 11, 1997|Carla Hall | Carla Hall is a member of The Times' Metro staff

Will Smith, 28, and Tommy Lee Jones, 50, are the latest team of movie cop partners--though the landscape for their adventures is the dark sci-fi comedy "Men in Black." The movie, which opens July 2, is based on a novel taken from the Lowell Cunningham comic book series. Barry Sonnenfeld ("The Addams Family," "Get Shorty") directed the movie and Steven Spielberg served as executive producer. Jones and Smith star as two elite agents who police alien activity on Earth for a clandestine organization known as the Men in Black. (The so-called "men in black" were supposedly the shadowy officials who arrived at the site of an alien abduction to clean up the evidence.)

The site for this conversation, appropriately enough, is a telescope dome in the Griffith Observatory.

Smith, divorced and the father of a 4-year-old boy, lives in Ventura County. Jones, twice divorced, has a 14-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter and lives in Texas between two ranches. The two actors are a study in contrasts. Jones, the consummate character actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the obsessed marshal in "The Fugitive," has a large head, a thatch of hair and huge dark eyes. He listens soberly, checking his watch frequently. Smith, the rap star turned TV star ("The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") turned movie star ("Independence Day"), with his delicate facial features and close-cropped hair, smiles and laughs often. The two have a rapport that seems to come from the shared experience of numerous months locked into a filmmaking adventure together--or they're just really good at making it look that way. After all, they're actors.

Question: Well, this movie couldn't be coming out at a better time. "The X-Files" is a cult hit. Thirty-nine people tragically thought they were waiting for a spaceship and killed themselves. Droves of people on the Internet believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. Your movie is obviously satirical, but where does it fit with this incredible interest?

Tommy Lee Jones: I don't know where it fits. We just tried to make a movie that was funny and then scary then funny again then scary again. I don't think Will and I are much into marketing analysis.

Will Smith: I took it because it was cool!

Jones: Yeah, there you go! We just thought it was cool as hell.

Q: This is your second go-round with aliens. "Men in Black" isn't exactly "Independence Day" but why do another movie with aliens?

Smith: When Steven Spielberg calls you at home, it's real hard to say no. But I thought about that--two alien movies back to back, but, hey, you've got to take the good work when it comes.

Q: Barry Sonnenfeld said in the production notes that Tommy Lee Jones was "a wonderful anchor for the film as an actor who isn't known for comedy roles but plays them masterfully."

Jones: That's very sweet of Barry to say. We had a lot of fun.

Q: Well, you may not be a comic actor, but even with your dark characters, there's usually some dry humor to them as well, don't you think?

Jones: Yeah.

Smith (laughing): People don't know that Tommy Lee Jones is hilarious. Not a funny guy. Not a glib joker. Hilarious. We were at the Oscars and they did this whole big piece about Shakespeare and there was this thing about how wonderful it was that people use the stories in modern times. And Tommy Lee looks over at me and says, "Holy [expletive], is Shakespeare gonna be here?"

(Guffaws all around.)

Q: What kind of relationship did the two of you forge on the set?

Jones: Kind of like being in a ball club together.

Smith: We don't hang at the same clubs, but we managed to taste a little of one another's worlds. Where did we go in New York? The restaurant and club?

Jones: Oh, the Players club. We went there one day. (Deadpan) We're going to be working cattle soon. And Will's going to come and flank calves and take care of the branding.

Smith: And I'm going to try to get Tommy to make an appearance on a rap record.

(They crack up.)

Q: How would you two compare your acting styles?

Smith: Uh, Tommy Lee is, like, actually good . . .

Jones: We wound up having the same style. That's actually what you have to do these days in the movie business. People come to the movie business from all walks of life--some from music, some from the theater, some from sports. Some have read a lot of books, some have read none. The idea of there being an acting method is an old idea, but it's rather academic. The main qualification you need is adaptability. And that took place very quickly. So we were doing the same thing in pretty much the same way after a day or two.

Q: What kind of technique did you use for this movie?

Jones: You find out what the director wants and you arrange for him to see it. That's about it.

Q: Will, you were quoted summing up your acting skills at the beginning of your career like this: "I sucked badly." When did you stop sucking?

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