Will Smith Admitted He Was "Immature" for Refusing to Shoot Love Scene
He declined to film a kiss with another man in Six Degrees of Separation.
The year was 1993. Will Smith was 25 and starring on NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air after becoming famous as half of the hip-hop duo, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Having made his film debut in 1992's Where the Day Takes You and then appearing in the Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson vehicle Made in America, the young star took a surprising next step when he starred in the arthouse satire on race and class, Six Degrees of Separation.
Playing Paul Poitier, a con artist who charms his way into the upper crust of the Manhattan art world, required Smith to embark on months of preparation. However, there was one thing he refused to do for the part: film a kiss with another man. Read on to learn why Smith asked for a stand-in and why he later called his refusal to film the kiss "immature."
Smith turned down $10 million to take the role.
In his 2021 memoir, Will, Smith recounted the early days of his Hollywood career and the decision to take the job in Six Degrees of Separation. Riding high on Fresh Prince's sitcom success, he was offered a whopping $10 million to star in the film Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag. Despite the big payday it would mean for both of them, his manager James Lassiter felt the role was out of sync with Smith's long-term goal of becoming the biggest actor in Hollywood. "Tom Cruise wouldn't take this role," he told Smith.
Instead, Lassiter advised his client to look at a different role, which paid a relatively paltry $300,000 but would show his range to make audiences "forget they were watching a rapper." That role was Paul Poitier, a con man who infiltrates the life of an upper-class Manhattan couple played by Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland in Six Degrees of Separation, an indie film adapted from a Pulitzer-nominated play.
In the context of the time, the role—which involved a scene in which Poitier is found in bed with a man—was considered something of a bold choice. While Keanu Reeves had recently gained the indie credibility that would soon help him break into post-Bill & Ted roles in Speed and The Matrix when he co-starred with River Phoenix as a gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho, it would be another year before Roseanne showed primetime audiences a same-sex kiss (albeit preceded by a parental advisory warning) and another four before the coming out of the titular character on Ellen.
In a 1994 article in The Advocate titled "Six degrees of trepidation: Willl Smith plays gay with apprehension," the actor called the part "a risk, a weird choice for a person in [his] position"—but one he felt had "a big upside" should it be well received.
He refused to film kiss with another man.
Smith brought his dedication to the role to director Fred Schepisi, who told Entertainment Weekly in 1993, "I interviewed a lot of actors. But Will tried to convince me that he'd do whatever it would take, would go through whatever process, was sure he could get himself prepared." The sitcom star trained with an acting and dialogue coach for the next three months. "This character had to learn to walk and talk and act," Smith said of the identity-shifting Paul. "And I had to learn to walk and talk and act to play him."
Despite his commitment to inhabiting the character—which he later wrote included taking Method acting so far he put a rift in his first marriage as he "fell in love" with co-star Channing, per People—there was one key part of filming that Smith refused. Per EW, Smith backed out of a scene in which his character was to kiss an infatuated MIT student played by Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club) just before filming. Instead, a double was brought in, and Schepisi had to film the stand-in from behind as he cupped Hall's face and leaned in for a kiss.
Smith claimed he took advice from a more established star.
The surprising refusal may have been based on the advice of Smith's friend and mentor, Denzel Washington. According to The Advocate, Smith had told Premiere that Washington had advised him not to do the kiss with Hall. (Asked to comment on the story, Washington responded to The Advocate, "This is what a reporter said Will Smith said!" before refusing further comment.)
Regardless of why he made the stand, Smith quickly came to regret going halfway on the role. "It wasn't until after I viewed the film that I really saw how silly [refusing to film the kiss] was," he told The Advocate. Discussing his mindset in EW, the young actor criticized his reluctance.
"It was very immature on my part. I was thinking, 'How are my friends in Philly going to think about this?' I wasn't emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film…This was a valuable lesson for me. Either you do it, or you don't," he said."
Ian McKellen called him out.
Despite Smith's self-described immaturity, his performance in Six Degrees of Separation was praised by critics, paving the way to the actor achieving his goal of being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But at least one person in the industry refused to forget that he had been squeamish about a kiss.
In 2015, Ian McKellen, who played a wealthy South African dinner guest in the 1993 movie, shared his memory of working with Smith with Time Out London. "He was a charmer and a good actor," the Lord of the Rings actor recalled. "But he did one silly thing: he refused to kiss another boy on screen, even though it was there in the script."
McKellen, who is gay, wrote on his personal website, "I wasn't around when he reportedly said that such a gesture would upset his fans, otherwise I should have explained that his twinge of homophobia was unseemly and unnecessary." He also recalled his own cheeky response, "When I met him at the Los Angeles opening of the movie, I made sure to give him a kiss for the benefit of the paparazzi."
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