In the summer of 1997, ‘Men in Black’ became the movie that cemented up-and-comer Will Smith’s global status as a movie star. A universally panned sequel followed in 2002, followed 10 years later by a better received but notoriously troubled third instalment.
According to Hollywood’s clock, that means it’s officially time for a revisit. The Will Smith-free ‘Men in Black: International’, now in theatres from director F Gary Gray, stars Marvel Cinematic Universe veterans Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as the new agents in the expanding ‘MIB’ landscape.
Despite being fresh off the record-breaking success of the behemoth ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (where Hemsworth plays the mighty Thor and Thompson plays fan-favourite heroine Valkyrie) the stars admit they worried about measuring up to the original ‘MIB’.
“We’ve been discussing this a lot,” Hemsworth said in a phone interview. “Personally I always have a certain amount of fear and healthy anxiety as far as the work I’m about to embark on. Particularly when there’s a pre-established franchise, which we’ve both dealt with in the Marvel world, you use what’s available to you in terms of what’s been done before and you let the fear motivate you, then push it aside and make your own version.
“I like to make films that I’d like to see in the cinema,” he continued. “Visually impressive and fun — and that’s what this embodied. And the fact that it wasn’t a remake or a reboot but a continuation and an opportunity to expand the universe was pretty epic.”
That understanding of the film as an update to the series rather than a reboot also helped ease Thompson’s anxieties about measuring up.
“All of those worries and trepidation went away because I think what we’re doing is so important in its way,” she said. “We’re living in a time in Hollywood where there’s a lot of nostalgia and a lot of beloved franchises are being revisited. There’s never been a woman at the forefront of those stories so I think it’s really exciting to revisit these properties with an inclusive lens and a more modern sensibility.”
Though you wouldn’t know from the title, women have factored into previous instalments of MIB, though not prominently. Emma Thompson reprises her ‘Men in Black 3’ role as the head of the organisation and jokes with Tessa Thompson’s character about their employer’s misleading name.
“The reality is that women exist in the organisation through the name on paper wouldn’t make you think that,” Tessa Thompson summarised. “And I think that’s such a cute, funny joke because that exists in every crevice, not just in Hollywood but in the world.”
The timing of introducing a female agent into the universe as the film industry seeks to increase representation and inclusion among its own ranks is not lost on the actress.
“Obviously this is happening in a time where this cultural conversation, particularly in Hollywood, is around representation,” she said. “The truth is, the producers and the studio had been wanting to continue this franchise for a while. That idea happened before any of these conversations around representation.
“I think it’s happening right on time, but it’s certainly not just some sort of thin response to what’s happening in the moment,” she added. “The film is called ‘Men in Black’ and we had conversations about how we turn that on its head and make a joke about it so we can relinquish the audience worrying about it. To me, true equality comes when women can exist in those spaces and it’s not noteworthy. It’s not something we need to congratulate, applaud or comment on — it just is.”
Joining Thompson and Hemsworth as a franchise newcomer is Liam Neeson, who plays a pivotal supporting role in the film as High T, the head of MIB’s London bureau. Filming wrapped before the actor’s viral interview with the Independent was published earlier this year, in which he reflected on a friend opening up about her rape and the conversation prompting him, as a young man, to walk the streets for days looking to kill a “black bastard.”
Thompson says she discussed the controversy with Neeson via email.
“I realise that there were some cultural differences in terms of where he grew up, what his words meant to me and what they might mean to fans,” she said of the Irish actor. “People actually, not just fans. Forget about a movie, just humans.”
Though she says she has more thoughts about the topic “than we have time,” Thompson says Neeson was “responsive” to the conversation.
“I think it’s really complicated but I realise that sometimes there can be a chasm between your intention and your impact,” she said. “I think his intention was to open up an honest dialogue about revenge and what it means to be vengeful. And I don’t think he realised the impact of his words in terms of talking about race and the fact that violence is perpetuated upon people of colour just because they’re of colour.
I think it remains to be very rare, particularly to have a female and male team up where their dynamic is not romantic but is complicated.
“I think I understand his heart from having worked with him,” she added. “I think if there’s still any sort of curiosity or concerns about his initial words that people need to go and revisit what he most recently said. The truth is, the onus isn’t on me and it shouldn’t be on Chris or Gary or anyone else involved in the movie to explain but Liam.”
“Men in Black International” marked Thompson’s third big blockbuster outing with Hemsworth, following ‘Endgame’ and 2017’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.
“Working with Chris is really my introduction to making big movies,” the actress said. “‘Ragnarok’ was my first time making a movie of that size and scope, so I’m still kind of a baby at it. It’s interesting that my whole trajectory since I’ve started [on blockbusters] has been with Chris. I feel really lucky because he’s so good at it and so giving and has taught me so much about the stamina it takes to make these kinds of movies, the imagination, the sense of humour, and how important it is to keep morale up on set, which he does so well.
“In the history of Hollywood movies there’s been so many duos that get to work on tons of films together in this line of Hepburn and Tracy,” she added. “So I loved that idea of taking two people and putting them in different kinds of circumstances.”
Another significant thing about her previous experiences working with Hemsworth, Thompson says, was the chance to star opposite him not as a romantic lead but as an equal.
“I think it remains to be very rare, particularly to have a female and male team up where their dynamic is not romantic but is complicated, where they get to spar and battle in intellect and where they are partners,” she said. “And to get to do that in the context of a bigger tentpole movie, I think, is really unique. I feel very lucky because Chris is just an ideal partner to do that with.”
For his part, Hemsworth said, “Having this great friendship that continues to grow through each of these experiences has been a huge advantage. You’re able to hit the ground running and not spend the shooting schedule getting to know each other and understand one another’s rhythms and find the chemistry. No matter how hard you try, it’s kind of there or not. And we were lucky enough from day one on ‘Ragnarok’ to notice that we’re like-minded and have similar approaches to our work. It’s definitely one of my favourite working relationships.”
The actors have had different directors for each of their three projects, including Taika Waititi for ‘Thor’ and Joe and Anthony Russo for ‘Endgame’. That has made each film a drastically different experience, Thompson said.
For example, Waititi, whose third-act spin on Thor Hemsworth called “refreshing,” fostered collaboration by including himself in the improvisation process.
“Taika is such a gifted performer so he’s constantly giving us [alternatives] because he’s a writer,” said Thompson. “So ‘Ragnarok’ was a lot of being quick, where he’d shout something at you and you’d have to then make it your own in a second.”
On the other hand, Gray gave the actors more artistic rein to try things out themselves.
“Gary doesn’t write — he knows what’s funny so he can come in and say, ‘That works,’ but he’s not going to spit an alt out at you,” said Thompson. “So the process of working on ‘Men in Black’ was a lot more thinking on our feet and really improvising ourselves. We would pitch each other ideas and really work with each other, and that was the first time I’ve ever done that.
“We did so much collaboration on ‘Thor’ but Taika orchestrated so much of it and did a lot of heavy lifting,” she added. “This time around, it was a lot of Chris and I doing that. So I feel like I really grew because we were really in it together. We found our own rhythms that were really ours.”