The 1997 sci-fi film starred Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K, two government workers tasked with regulating aliens on Earth.
In a new interview with Insider, Sonnenfeld explained that the producers had initially wanted Chris O’Donnell and Clint Eastwood for the two leads.
However, the director said he had a different idea. “I had suggested Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith,” Sonnenfeld said. “Will was actually my wife’s idea.”
According to Sonnenfeld, the producers were quick to accept Jones, but at the time, Smith was a bit harder to get signed since he was better known for his work in TV (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and music rather than in movies.
Meanwhile, O’Donnell was a rising movie star thanks to roles in School Ties, The Three Musketeers, and Scent of a Woman.
Sonnenfeld further described a meeting he had with O’Donnell, where he swayed the actor from taking the role.
“I met with Chris and he had concerns about the script and had another movie offer,” the director remembered. “So I told him, ‘Yeah, we might never fix this script and I don’t think I know how to direct this movie.’ So he passed on the movie the next day.”
Afterwards, Sonnenfeld was able to arrange for Smith to meet the film’s producers, Walter F Parks, Lauri MacDonald, and Steven Spielberg.
“And that’s how Will got the part,” he recalled.
Now, looking back, Sonnenfeld said: “I think [O’Donnell’s] a good actor, but I had really been thinking about Will since my wife made the suggestion.”
Smith would become a global star due to his work in 1996’s Independence Day and Men in Black the following year.
Smith infamously slapped Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars, for which he has been banned from the Academy Awards ceremony for the next 10 years.