Fifteen years into their relationship, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are like an old married couple, intimately familiar with each other’s habits and quirks.
When this Hollywood odd couple sits down together in an interview for Men in Black 3, opening Friday, the affable Smith plays it like couples counseling, launching into whiny-wife mode about Jones, his sometimes curmudgeonly castmate.
“He doesn’t compliment me when I get dressed,” Smith whimpers on a sofa alongside Jones. “He’ll just look at my clothes, and he doesn’t say anything, and when we go out, he’s always on his cell phone. And I just want him to think about me and my feelings.”
What does his partner think about Smith’s grievances?
“That’s bull----,” says the plainspoken Jones.
With a huge laugh, the two get down to analyzing what has made their action comedies a billion-dollar box office franchise since the first movie debuted in 1997. At the start, the potential rested mainly on the clever idea of straight-laced government agents keeping in check the vast, secret comings and goings of aliens on Earth. Once fans saw the duo together, the franchise Jones’ seasoned, surly Agent K and Smith’s eager, convivial Agent J.With 2002’s Men in Black II, even the actors concede they didn’t get what they wanted — “the second one actually lacked originality,” says Jones — yet despite poor reviews, the sequel was a solid hit.
The rapport was there when they started working on the first film, and it came back in an instant when Men in Black 3 began shooting, Jones said.
Smith, 43,had made a mark on the big-screen in Six Degrees of Separation and Bad Boys. Jones, 65, was known for serious roles in such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter, JFK and Natural Born Killers. A newbie to comedy when he made Men in Black, Jones says each sequel has been a cheery reunion, mainly because of Smith.
“Will is more generous than anyone, and he spreads joy,” Jones says. “He walks into a studio, walks onto a set, and … he makes certain that everybody’s happy. He can’t help himself.”
“You gotta have fun,” Smith says.
Barry Sonnenfeld, who directs the movies, recalls that Jones was shooting on his own for two weeks on the first one while Smith was finishing Independence Day.
“Tommy and Will, from the very beginning, from the entire first movie, loved each other. Will genuinely feels Tommy’s one of the funniest people he’s ever met, because Tommy is George Burns and Will is Gracie Allen. You need both.”
With Jones as straight man, Smith as comic foil, the series has delivered Hollywood’s most enduring mismatched buddies.
“Partnerships are good engines for narrative,” Jones says. “If you think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. On and on.”