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Independence Day became the first of Will Smith’s many blockbusters that would earn him the nickname “King of the Fourth of July,” which isn’t a reference to the movie’s title, per se, but rather the rapper turned sitcom actor turned action-star’s reliable success at summer box offices. Following The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airending its six-season run in May 1996, Smith’s next career chapter was solidified two months later with director Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion epic.
When ET chatted with Smith leading up to Independence Day’s premiere, he recalled the first moment that convinced him the movie was destined to be a hit. Putting aside his own standout moments, as well as The White House explosion sequence that had been making waves since the movie’s Super Bowl spot, Smith instead cited Bill Pullman’s now-iconic speech before the climactic final battle.
“I got chills,” said Smith, who first marveled at that on-screen magic when he was in the middle of doing ADR work during post-production. “That was the first time that I really felt that we had something special.”
He added, “Because [Pullman] just ripped that scene. Ripped it.”
While Jeff Goldblum may have been the scene-stealer in Jurassic Park, Smith brought his own brand of comic-relief-amid-peril-energy to ID4 that went toe to toe with his co-star. Ultimately, that gift would shine the brightest when Smith lacked a scene partner. Perhaps the most memorable example features his character, smart-mouthed fighter pilot Stephen Hiller, dragging an unconscious alien through the Nevada desert toward Area 51 following their aerial dogfight. When ET visited the set in 1995, Smith had already completed filming the solo tour-de-force, which was actually shot at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
“It's one of the most bizarre attractions of nature you will ever see,” Smith told ET on the set, where production had shifted to shooting his scenes with Harry Connick Jr. He was fascinated by the landscape’s unique topography, which stretches on for miles and even allows people to see far enough that they can make out the curvature of the earth. He remarked, “It was so beautiful, but it's weird.”
When asked about his own belief in the potential for extraterrestrial life outside of Earth, Smith revealed he keeps an open mind.
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Will Smith Shares Shirtless Photos and Says He’s in the ‘Worst Shape’ of His Life
“I just think it would be arrogant of us to think that humankind is the only 'kind' that exists in the entire universe. How is that possible?” Smith said.
He added, “But I'm a conspiracy junkie, though, so I believe all that stuff.”
While speaking with ET in 1996, Smith recalled the challenge of acting as if he was facing this type of doomsday scenario.
“You kind of have to go to that next level inside yourself to try to figure out, ‘How would you actually react if the world was coming to the end?'" Smith said.
To achieve this, Smith did find help in Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin, who Smith applauded for bringing “realism” to their depiction of the apocalypse. (Both filmmakers were later behind 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, while Smith opted not to return for the sequel). In particular, he praised one of ID4’s news segments for what he believed was its accurate representation of how Southern California would respond to an enormous UFO emerging from the sky.
“The thing I love is the news clip in Los Angeles where [the news anchor] says, 'Please don't shoot your guns at the alien spacecraft,'” Smith said. “As soon as the ship got overhead, people would take out their guns and start shooting at it.”
There was plenty for Smith to reflect on as Independence Day made its way to theaters, where it ended up raking in over $800 million at the worldwide box office. It was the 10th anniversary of his and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s debut single, 'Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble,' as well as the dawn of his career’s first act. In addition, he recently wrapped up the sixth and final season of the TV series that he would later go on to credit for turning him into an actor.
“It was hard to turn down the seventh season of The Fresh Prince,” Smith said. There had been financial incentives to keep the series alive. According to Smith, he was offered “plenty of money” to remain on the show. In the end, the difficulty was in simply having to say goodbye to the people onscreen and behind the scenes. “[The cast and crew] had a life together. It was like a second family.”
Smith had caught up to his ambitions -- or vice versa. He recognized Independence Day as both an organic extension of his work philosophy, as well as the type of opportunity with potential to take his career beyond the stars.
“The audience likes when you do different types of things,” Smith said. “But this is the role of a lifetime.”
Independence Day is streaming on HBO Max.
Watch Will Smith break down the music video for his other alien-centric '90s classic!