Have you ever wondered what a movie would be like with a different lead actor? There are so many casting decisions that nearly went a different way. We’re going to explore Will Smith as Neo in 1999s The Matrix over Keanu Reeves.
I’ve taken a look at a handful of disappointing movies and also took a look at how those movies could have been better. Most recently, I also looked at how a great movie could have been even better. I examined what would have happened if Jake Gyllenhaal had played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
In that same vein, today I will take a similar look at another great movie. The start of a well-known trilogy: The Matrix. Much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Han Solo in Star Wars, the film producers originally wanted to go in a different direction with the iconic role of Neo. But if Keanu Reeves had not played that part, how would it have affected The Matrix and its sequels? And what would have happened to Keanu’s career as a result?
That’s right, movie fans. It’s time to take that uncomfortable red pill and ponder an alternative reality without Keanu Reeves as Neo. So let’s dive in…
The situation: What if Will Smith had accepted the role of Neo?
In the mid-’90s, the Wachowskis directing team formulated the idea to create The Matrix. It wasn’t exactly an easy sell due to its overarching philosophies and complex plotline. Also, the Wachowskis were looking to incorporate the radical new “bullet time” method into their filmmaking. These days the concept of “bullet time” and other similar camera tricks isn’t anything crazy. But, at the time it was a jarring change-up from the more “traditional” aspects of filmmaking. There was quite a lot about this new movie – and its ensuing franchise – that was radical. It was new, and potentially confusing to all parties involved.
Would audiences go for such a complex and philosophical story as the foundation for a potential blockbuster? Remember that in the 1990s the most successful movies were more in the feel-good or melodrama category. There was starting to be an undercurrent of more non-traditional, complex filmmaking from up and coming directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. But they weren’t yet racking up the major accolades as they would later on (i.e. Forrest Gump winning Best Picture and Best Director over Pulp Fiction).
Movies in the 1990s tended to be more focused on ‘Big Star + Big Budget + Feel-Good Story. Or Over-the-Top Melodrama = Money & Oscars.’ This led us to such curious decisions as the Forrest Gump-Pulp Fiction issue. As well as other gems like Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture of Saving Private Ryan, Titanic winning Best Picture over…anything, and American Beauty winning Best Picture over The Sixth Sense.
So you couldn’t blame the Wachowskis, when trying to cast their ambitious new Matrix project, for trying to secure a big name for the lead role of Neo. Their first choice for the role, as one could surmise from the title of this article, was Will Smith. From a financial standpoint, Smith made sense as the new in the new movie. He was a well-established musician with a multitude of hit albums and singles. Plus he was the lead in the long-running hit series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He had also recently proven himself to be a capable leading man in the successful Independence Day and Men in Black films. Will Smith would certainly be able to carry The Matrix movie and bring viewers in.
But, Smith’s casting never came to pass. After meeting with the Wachowskis, Smith turned down the role of Neo. He didn’t understand the role and the overarching concept behind the movie. Much like how Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Smith turned down the starring role in The Matrix and opted instead to make Wild Wild West. Which spawned an incredibly catchy lead single that rose to #1 on the Billboard charts but bombed in every other area. It was a critical and commercial failure. Will Smith has gone on to admit that turning down The Matrix was his biggest professional regret.
With Smith out of the running for the part of Neo, then, the Wachowskis had to go back to the drawing board for the lead role. Other options included Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, and Johnny Depp. The role ultimately came down to Reeves (who was Warner Bros.’ first choice) barely edging out Depp (who the Wachowskis favoured).
The rest, as they say, as history. Keanu Reeves nailed the part of Neo. The Matrix became a critical and commercial success, and it spawned a successful set of sequels. Though not exactly as critically beloved as the original. Now, twenty years later, a fourth Matrix film is set to come out in the next year or so to continue on the original story.
But as I’ve done previously we need to take a look at the ripple effects of this decision. What if Smith hadn’t turned down the role? What happens to his career, Reeves’s career, and the Matrix movies as a whole?
The aftermath part one: Will Smith’s career and The Matrix trilogy
Will Smith is a pretty solid actor with a decent amount of range, as seen in films such as Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness. But, as a general rule, Will Smith tends to play Will Smith: a loud, entertaining, somewhat cocky lead with an undeniable swagger. This works fine when the movie calls for it, usually in an over-the-top and silly movie where such a character can fit into the milieu of the film, like in the aforementioned Independence Day and Men in Black films.
Yet, his overall “Will Smith-ness” can absolutely overwhelm a film. This trait draws attention away from the story and more towards how it’s a Will Smith movie (as what happened with the disappointing Suicide Squad). Had Smith been cast as Neo, it would have ruined The Matrix movie and tanked its franchise potential.
Toning it down
It’s much the same as when I discussed in a previous article how Al-Pacino as Han Solo would have undermined Star Wars because people would have seen it more as “that weird Pacino movie in space.” Had Smith been cast as Neo, one of two things would have happened. First, he would have brought his trademark over-the-top energy to the role. This would have either completely overpowered the movie or turned it into an unintentionally comedic film. Second, he would have toned down his performance to be more subtle. He did show he could do this later in his career, but he wasn’t exactly known for at the time. A more muted performance would have confused audiences who came to see a Will Smith movie but instead got a movie about living in a computer.
No matter which path Will Smith’s hypothetical performance would have taken. The end result would not have been positive for The Matrix and any possible trilogy. The Matrix mirrors Star Wars to some extent. Both movies have highly original and complicated concepts to many viewers; in essence, both movies actually were strengthened by having a cast that wasn’t packed with star power. By having a “no-name” cast, though The Matrix did include more well-known stars than Star Wars, audiences watching The Matrix were more able to focus on the story than on the people in it.
I think it’s fair to say that Will Smith’s career turned out fine even though he never accepted the role of Neo. But, had he accepted the role, The Matrix trilogy may not have turned out to be as profitable as it did. And then there’s the other side of the story…
The aftermath part two: What happens to Keanu Reeves?
Keanu Reeves, somewhat like Smith, is also an actor who generally plays a specific “type” in his roles. Reeves, though, has never really been an overpowering presence like Smith is. While some may describe his acting style as stiff or wooden, he is more of a “blank canvas” as it is. In other words, he is someone who is good at being “there” while the story unfolds. He is something of an avatar in which the audience can use to immerse themselves in the story at hand. This trait worked perfectly in a story like The Matrix. Focusing on the story allowed the mythology to fully develop, and for the movie to become one of the most influential in the last thirty years of American cinema.
What if Keanu Reeves never got the role of Neo?
I’ve already discussed how, with Will Smith in the lead role, The Matrix movie may have had middling success (or bombed entirely), and in doing so would have torpedoed the potential trilogy. But what would the effect had been on Keanu Reeves’s career had he not landed that pivotal role?
It’s not like Reeves was an unknown when he was cast in The Matrix. He was well-established for playing the role of Ted Logan in the Bill & Ted series. He had also proven himself as a solid leading man in movies such as Speed and Point Break. Had he not obtained the role of Neo in The Matrix, there’s a decent chance he still would have continued to land roles in Hollywood. But let’s not forget that, between the end of The Matrix trilogy and his re-emergence in the surprisingly successful John Wick franchise, Reeves mostly disappeared from major roles.
He didn’t stop acting, of course. But had he not taken on the role of Neo, would he have landed the John Wick franchise? Or would he have continued to play more Bill & Ted roles, ones where he was getting work but wasn’t getting cast in serious roles after not proving himself as a franchise player in The Matrix?
In the end, I believe Reeves would have turned out fine. And obviously, Will Smith’s career wasn’t harmed by not accepting the role of Neo. But had the roles been switched, it would have been The Matrix franchise that suffered. Had the first movie bombed, the franchise would have been DOA.
Thanks for reading our article about what would have happened if Will Smith became Neo in The Matrix. Do you agree or disagree with our points or have anything to add? If so, leave us a comment below.
Read what if Al Pacino was Han Solo HERE.
Check out IMDB information on The Matrix HERE.
9 Bands You Forgot Played Themselves In Movies
There are more bands than you think that played themselves on the big screen. Here are nine bands you might’ve forgotten appeared in movies.
1. Alice Cooper – Wayne’s World (1992)
Being a teenager in the nineties was great for many reasons. Two of those being the release of the Wayne’s World movies. The genius that is Mike Myers created one of the best music-based films of all time. Plus, he convinced one of the greatest rock musicians of all time to be in it. If you’re not a geek like me, you may have forgotten that Alice Cooper was featured in the film. It had the iconic scene of Wayne and Garth meeting, Alice, backstage on bent knees. We’re not worthy, indeed. Alice himself pulls off the diva Rockstar brilliantly, even though he’s a genuine, down-to-earth guy who plays a lot of golf.
2. Primus – Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Let’s try and erase the recent Bill & Ted movie from our memory and head back to 1991 for their bogus journey. They come from the future to kill the non-robot versions of themselves and ruin their performance at a Battle of the Bands competition. What’s cool is the band who are playing before them. Californian alt-metal kings Primus. Although the clip is only short, they play themselves and sound as you would expect. Epic.
3. Fall Out Boy – Sex Drive (2008)
You’d be forgiven for forgetting about this one. The teen sex comedy from 2008 is forgettable and won’t really appeal to anyone apart from its teen target audience. If you can sit through all the cringe-inducing moments, you will spot pop-rockers Fall Out Boy. They are performing in a barn in front of some drunk Amish teenagers. There’s a reason for that, but I won’t bore you with it here. What is good, is the soundtrack of the film. As well as Fall Out Boy, it features Airbourne, AC/DC and weirdly, Kenny Loggins.
4. Twisted Sister – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Paul Reuben’s character Pee Wee Herman made his big-screen outing in 1985. The children’s show star had a scene where he is being chased through a studio parking lot. Unbeknown to him, glam rockers Twisted Sister are recording a music video on a car. Lead singer Dee Snider is always up for a laugh, so it’s no surprise they’re featured. The clip is brilliant. Pee Wee’s prop-laden bike is just about to crash into Twisted Sister and the look on Dee’s face is genius. Go check out the clip.
5. David Bowie – Zoolander (2001)
Who can forget the brilliant Zoolander? Starring Ben Stiller as the dippy model, it’s one of the funniest comedies ever made. One of the best scenes of the film is the walk-off. This involved Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s characters doing a catwalk-off. Of sorts. Can you remember who refereed it? The legend himself, David Bowie. It’s not the first time Bowie was in a movie – remember Labyrinth? But this time, he plays himself. And does it with all the cool swagger you would expect.
6. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Clueless (1995)
I can’t say that I was a massive fan of this teen comedy at the time. The plot revolves around Alicia Silverstone’s character giving her friend a makeover. The premise doesn’t sound like it lends itself to a cool band cameo. You’d be wrong, though. There’s a scene where the lead characters go watch a gig. The band that are playing are The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The Boston ska-punk legends are only on stage for a moment, but it’s a slick clip. It certainly brings the film up a level on the cool stakes.
7. Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy (2010)
This sequel to the original sci-fi classic is a cracking movie. The visuals and effects are stunning, as is the atmosphere of the film. The music to the film is also rather special. A futuristic and dystopian movie could only have one act doing the score, and that’s Daft Punk. It works a treat. The music is intertwined into the movie and becomes a part of it. The delicious electronica is the perfect complement to the visuals. The French electronic masters also have a cameo at the end of the movie. They’re spinning the decks in a blink-and-you-miss-it scene.
8. Aerosmith – Wayne’s World (1993)
We’ve already had an appearance from the first film further up our list, and the second doesn’t disappoint either. The plot revolves around Wayne and Garth putting on their own music festival. Book them and they will come, is the advice given. And they certainly did. The headline band for the festival were none other than Aerosmith themselves. They do a sterling effort on stage as performers. And Steven Tyler also shows that he can handle his own on the acting front too.
9. Reel Big Fish – BASEketball (1998)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone star in this bizarre and hilarious sports comedy. Written by the king of spoof David Zucker, it’s become a cult classic. The soundtrack heavily features ska-punkers Reel Big Fish. They do a brilliant rendition of A-HA’s Take on Me, which they also perform in the movie. The band are the entertainment at the stadium where Parker and Stone are competing. You can tell by the footage that the band are clearly enjoying themselves. They add a touch more fun to an already hugely funny film.
That’s our list of nine bands who played themselves in movies. Did we miss any of your favourites? Let us know in the comments below.
Check out our list of actors in bands HERE.
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