How Bruce Willis Inspired Will Smith in ‘Independence Day’

Independence Day was Will Smith’s big break in blockbuster movies. He had done some comedies and indie dramas while The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was on. Bad Boys showed he could carry an action movie, with partner Martin Lawrence. Independence Day was the big summer movie that began Smith’s 4th of July movie tradition, and Smith called Bruce Willis one of his influences. 

Bruce Willis and Will Smith together on the red carpet
Bruce Willis and Will Smith | KMazur/WireImage

Smith spoke with reporters at the Independence Day press junket in 1996. The reporters had seen him a year prior with Bad Boys, so they asked him about his new role. That’s when Smith mentioned Willis. 

From Bruce Willis movies to Will Smith

Before Will Smith, there were really only three A-list action heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis ruled the genre. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal made some hits in between, and Harrison Ford had Indiana Jones, Han Solo and The Fugitive, but was still considered more of a dramatic actor. 

Even Willis was a relative newcomer. With 1988’s Die Hard, he horned in on Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s territory. For a good decade, Die Hard sequels and the occasional Last Boy Scout or Armageddon kept Willis in the action game. That’s who Smith wanted to be like. 

Will Smith in ‘Independence Day’

In Independence Day, Smith played Capt. Steven Hiller, an Air Force pilot called in when alien ships arrive over major cities. Yes, after they blow up the White House, he’s eager to “whoop E.T.’s ass” but Hiller is not a gung ho hero. He’s just doing his job, and that reminded Smith of Willis. 

Will Smith with Jada and Trey in army fatigues
L-R: Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Trey Smith | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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I think the two people that I really paid attention to, the two actors that really showed me how to play this character, was Bruce Willis first of all because he plays heroes that don’t want to be heroes. The last thing Bruce Willis wants to do is run over that glass. If he could do anything to get out of having to run over that glass, he would. And Harrison Ford kind of plays the characters that way.

Will Smith, Independence Day press junket, 1996

The reluctant hero

Willis did popularize the reluctant hero in Die Hard. John McClane just came to Los Angeles to make up with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). He doesn’t want to save the hostages from Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) but he’ll do what he has to do. Ford’s characters may have been similar. Indiana Jones was primarily an archaeologist, and Fugitive‘s Richard Kimble was an innocent man on the run. Schwarzenegger and Stallone specialized in larger than life heroes.

Will Smith at the Bad Boys for Life premiere
Will Smith | John Parra/Getty Images

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“That was the one thing that I really concentrated on is: don’t be the guy that walks out with the guns in the middle and people are shooting and standing up,” Smith said. “I want to be the guy that’s ‘Yo, man, why y’all shooting at me?’ The guy that does heroic things out of necessity, not out of an enjoyment for it.”