By Tambay A. Obenson
shadow and act.com
First, as I said when I reviewed the script for Django Unchained in the spring of 2011, Will Smith was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice to play Django…
Django isn’t quite the hero here – not the way you’re probably expecting. For a good 2/3 of the script, he’s playing second fiddle to Christoph Waltz’s character who is essentially Django’s mentor, and the man responsible for his freedom, later providing him with the necessary skills Django needs to eventually challenge the plantation owner who holds his wife captive. Waltz is pretty much playing Hans Landa, the same character her portrayed in Inglorious Basterds… the difference being that he’s on the side of “good” here. But, as I read it, I saw Landa all the way – multi-lingual, professorial, cunning, but efficient and deadly when necessary.
In fact, I’d say that Django doesn’t really, fully, come alive until about the last 25 minutes of this almost three-hour script/movie. And there are circumstances that accommodate that transition – circumstances that felt all-too-convenient. Suffice it to say that just as it takes the assist of a white man to set Django free and on course towards saving his damsel in distress, it also takes the assist (however unintentional) of a white man to finally allow Django his moment to really shine, and get out of the white man’s shadow. And even those last 20 minutes, aren’t very satisfying.
Waltz is pretty much the show for much of the film, with the occasional unintentionally comedic line from Django, as well as flashback sequences to provide back-story.
I’d have been shocked if Will Smith agreed to do this, as is. I couldn’t see it AT ALL! Not only because the part didn’t suit him; not in the slightest; but also because this isn’t what I’d really call leading man material. As I already noted, Will Smith would essentially have to play second fiddle to Christoph Waltz for about 2/3 of the film, and I just couldn’t see him signing up for that.
What I think a lot of us would have prefered, given your reactions to the initial announcement of this project, is a story centered on some brute slave, fed up with the oppressive system he’s been subjected to for all his life, seething with rage, who courageously takes it upon himself, in the face of near-insurmountable, even deadly adversity, to restore some humanity and dignity to the life he and his family lead. Sure, like Nat Turner, he most likely would be killed in the end, but, I’d rather have that, than this, essentially, black/white buddy action/comedy movie, in the most basic sense.
At the time of that post, Will Smith had reportedly received the screenplay, read it, talked to Tarantino a bit about it, but hadn’t yet signed on to play the part.
Of course, he later decided not to star in the film; and while I wasn’t necessarily surprised by that, I did wonder why he decided against it.
A year later, in an issue of Empire magazine, Will, while promoting Men In Black III, said the following when asked why he didn’t take the part:
“I came really close, it was one of the most amazing screenplays I had ever ever seen… I was in the middle of ‘Men In Black 3’ and [Tarantino] was ready to go, and I just couldn’t sit with him and get through the issues, so I didn’t want to hold him up. That thing’s going to be ridiculous. It is a genius screenplay.”
As I said at the time, I felt Smith was being diplomatic, and wasn’t entirely honest about why he turned own the part. I felt that the section of his response where he says “I just couldn’t sit with him and get through the issues,” was particularly telling.
Obviously he had enough “issues” with the script that a sit down with Tarantino was necessary.
And then a week or so later, we got Tarantino’s side of the story, who “set the record straight” during the Django Comic-Con panel, saying the following, when asked about Will Smith’s casting in the title role:
“Much more has been made out of that than is the case. When I wrote Django, I did not write it for anybody. I had no idea who was going to play it and it was kind of a little bit like, gosh, who is going to play this guy? And so I met with six different actors. “[Will Smith] was one of the people that I met with. And then I met with Jamie [Foxx] and he came over to my house and I was going to put him through the ringer. It was going to be like a three-tier meeting with everybody and kind of really test it out and this and that and let’s do some scenes together. And at the end of this long process, I would make my decision. And, frankly, Jamie was the last one that I got together with and after I got together with him, I called the other guys up and I go, ‘Look, I found my Django. And no disrespect and everything and we could have taken it further and I know…’ But you just know when you meet the guy and I met the guy.”
As I also noted at the time, there seemed to be some conflict between what Tarantino said above, and what was believed to be the case when it was first announced that Will Smith was supposedly Tarantino’s number 1 choice for the role (casting “top shelf” is what he said from the beginning), with suggestions that Smith didn’t take it because of the controversial nature of the part, and also the fact that, as I noted, he’d be playing second fiddle to Christoph Waltz’s character for much of the film.
Now, skip ahead to this morning, months after the film debuted in theaters, to an interview posted on Entertainment Weekly’s website, in which Will Smith, doing some early press for this summer’s release of After Earth, tells EW that he turned down Django Unchained because… drum-roll… his character would’ve been second-fiddle to the bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz) who teaches Django his trade.
“Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” says the Men in Black star, whose departure opened the door for Jamie Foxx to play the role. Smith says that before he left the project, he even pleaded with Tarantino to let Django have a more central role in the story. “I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!’”
That’s deep… He actually pleaded with Tarantino on this, and Quentin apparently didn’t want to make the adjustments!
But his last lament (“I need to kill the bad guy”), I think sums of some of the frustration that many folks (myself included) had with the film’s story. What instead happens is that Django maims (shoots him in the knees) and then roasts Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the house negro, by burning down the plantation home, as if to suggest that the house negro deserves a worse fate than the slave master/plantation owner himself.
I had several problems with the script/film that I’ve already detailed in a number of past posts, so I won’t rehash everything here. But I really dig the fact that Will Smith didn’t compromise (even if it was more of a Will Smith ego thing than a “brothaman” thing), and stood his ground, forcing Quentin to make second and third tier choices – the 6 other actors he met with for the part; actors who apparently were OK with the story as it was (seemingly); or felt that starring in a Tarantino-directed film could be a boost to their careers.
Or maybe the other actors felt as Will Smith did, and Jamie Foxx was really the only one willing to do it as is…
Things that make you go hmmm… all very interesting nonetheless. And also maybe indicative of Tarantino’s motivations and intent here. Let’s see if he responds.
Clash of the egos…