Men in Black: International is the first MiB film in seven years, and also the first entry in the sci-fi comedy franchise not to star Will Smith. Even though the Fresh Prince doesn’t appear onscreen in the latest installment, his legacy lives on in the form of the series’ new star, Tessa Thompson, who plays the top-secret alien-hunting agency’s newest recruit, Molly aka Agent M.
In a recent BUILD Series interview with Thompson and her co-star, Chris Hemsworth, the actress credited Smith with breaking down barriers way back in 1997’s original Men in Black that, two decades later, led to her own casting. “We take it for granted now, but when Will Smith was in the original film, it was hugely impactful in terms of what it told Hollywood at that time for a young black man to bring his identity to a studio film,” she notes. “I’m not sure I would have known that I could do what I do if [he] hadn’t been on television every week... or in this film originally.” (Watch BUILD’s video interview above.)
In the years since Men in Black, the number of Hollywood blockbuster vehicles for black actors has slowly crept upwards, with 2018 representing a particularly strong year. And it’s possible that Thompson’s presence in Men in Black: International could achieve similar results for black actresses, who still are wildly underrepresented in major studio productions. It’s a day she would love to see come sooner rather than later. “I hope we can get to a space where it’s not noteworthy that a woman — particularly a woman of color — should topline studio films. I hope we can just take it for granted because it happens with such frequency.”
Thompson’s other goal with this newest MiB installment is to expand the palette of characters that both she, and other actresses, are tasked with playing in action-driven franchises. When the original film was released in the late ‘90s, women were still frequently relegated to sidekick or damsel in distress status. These days, the trend is increasingly towards kick-ass figures like Valkyrie, the sword-wielding Marvel hero that Thompson played in Thor: Ragnarok.
While that’s a positive change overall, Thompson has also seen the shortcomings in Hollywood’s definition of “badass women.” “Some of the roles I’ve done feel sort of badass, but for me I feel like the thing that makes a strong female character is just that they’re fleshed out and feel like real women,” Thompson remarks, pointing to her Creed alter ego, Bianca, as the kind of relatable character she looks for. “I’ll get pitched, like ‘She’s a badass,’ and I’m like ‘But I have no idea who she is! I read 115 pages [of the script] and I don’t know anything except that she can kick.’”
One of the things that Thompson prizes about Agent M is that she’s a thinker, not a kicker. And she’s specifically interested in thinking about science, which delights the self-proclaimed nerd to no end. “Science is cool,” she says excitedly. “I like in a big studio film that someone is interested in science. My least favorite thing is an incurious person. I love that M is like, ‘I’m here... I care.’ It’s so cool to care.”
Men in Black: International is playing in theaters now. Visit Fandango for showtimes and ticket information.
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