As we pass through Independence Day in the U.S., it also passes the birthday of the classic sci-fi film of the same name. It would be hard to imagine what the film would be like without director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin. It would also be hard to think of this 1996 blockbuster without its lead stars, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, but Smith almost did not make the cut due to his race.
For the 25th anniversary since its release in theaters, Emmerich and Devlin sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to dish out some trivia about the making of the film. This is where the casting issue came about Will Smith. It was not them who thought that the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star would not make the cut. It was on 20th Century Fox, which stepped in with it being hesitant about casting him as a lead as he would not “work in international [markets]” and he is “unproven.”
The studio went further about its reasoning behind Will Smith being bad for the box office. Devlin said that they were told that if “you cast a Black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign [box office].” Their counterargument was simple as the movie is “about space aliens. It’s going to do fine foreign.”
Goldblum was thought of immediately, but the other side of the coin became a greater battle. Emmerich revealed that some other actors were being considered besides Will Smith. Ethan Hawke, who at the time starred in Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, was one of the potential candidates. The filmmaker passed on him because he felt that Hawke was too young, thus leading to Smith and a battle with the suits at 20th Century Fox.
That was not enough to get Will Smith signed on. The filmmakers went back and forth with Fox about this decision. Eventually, Emmerich claimed that Universal was calling about Independence Day, and if they could not guarantee these two actors, then they would sign over to the rivaling studio.
With a budget of $75 million and a studio that was concerned over a Black actor as one of the leading roles, a lot was riding on Independence Day to rake in cash to prove Devlin and Emmerich were right with their casting. It turns out they made the right call. The domestic box office was a success with over $306 million. The international box office that Fox thought would be a disaster because of Will Smith blew those numbers away. International was over $511 million, adding to a total of over $817 million.
Casting Will Smith turned out to be a classic move of going against the studio executive’s wishes and coming out on top as the film’s legacy would be cemented within pop culture. Memes and other references would spread across social media nearly 20 years later. It was so successful, this sci-fi action movie, something that normally gets ignored at the Academy Awards, won an Oscar for its visual effects and was nominated for its sound design.