Whilst others have come and gone from the limelight, Will Smith has remained one of the most consistently bankable stars of the decade. From romantic comedies to modern day action, to family drama and sci-fi of both the escapist and the more thoughtful kind – the versatile actor literally has his pick of what project he’d like to do next and chances are he can make it shine.
In 2004 he achieved great success with a film version of the Isaac Asimov science-fiction story classic “I, Robot”, and now he’s taking on another landmark novel of the genre – Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend.” One of the season’s most anticipated films, the 39-year-old actor (as buff as ever) spends much of the film alone and he sat down with us in Los Angeles the other day to talk about the project:
Question: Can you talk about the experience of shooting a large scale production in New York City and what that was like?
Smith: Shooting in New York, especially something on this level, is difficult. I would say percentage wise it’s the most amount of middle fingers I’ve ever received in my career. I was like, ‘I’m used to people liking me, when I come (laughs) to town it’s fun, so I thought ‘middle fingers?’ I was starting to think ‘f-you’ was my name. (laughs) We shut down six blocks of Fifth Avenue on a Monday morning. That was probably poor logistics, that was poor planning. You realize that you have never actually seen an empty shot of New York. When we were doing it, it’s chilling to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. There is never an opportunity to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. At 2 o’clock in the morning on Sunday you can’t walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. What happened is that it just created such a creepy energy. There are iconic buildings, there is a shot in the movie with the UN, there is Broadway, and it puts such an eerie, icky, kind of feeling on the movie when you see those shots. Logistically, it was a nightmare, but it absolutely created something that you can’t do with green screen, and you can’t do shooting another city for New York.
Question: How significant do you think it is that the last man alive is African American?
Smith: (Laughs) First and last, baby. (laughs) It’s funny, it’s almost a metaphysical idea for me. I rarely think about that until someone brings it up. Then I say ‘Oh, wow. That never actually crossed my mind in that way.’ I kind of feel like, for me at least, the acknowledgement of those kinds of ideas put a weird boundary on my thoughts. I can’t allow myself to be a part of it because it sort of makes me think smaller, if that makes any sense. All that to say that I’ve never really thought about the significance of that with the film.
Question: What about the loneliness of your character, Robert Neville, and the madness he begins to feel? Basically, you are acting for the first half of the movie by yourself.
Smith: It was such a wonderful exploration of myself. What happens is that you get in a situation where you don’t have people to create the stimulus for you to respond to. What happens is that you start creating the stimulus and the response. There is a connection with yourself, where your mind starts to drift to in those types of situations, that you learn things about yourself that you would never even imagination. In order to prepare for that, we sat with former POWs and we sat with people who had been in solitary confinement. That was the framework for creating the idea. They said, ‘The first thing is a schedule. You will not survive in solitary if you don’t schedule everything.’ We talked to Geronimo Ji-Jaga, formerly Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panthers, and he was in solitary for over three months. He said that you plan things like cleaning your nails.
You will take two hours, which you have to because it’s on the schedule, which you have to just clean your nails. He said that he spent about six weeks and he trained roaches to bring him food. I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my God.’ The idea of where your mind goes to defend itself. Either he really did train the roaches, which is huge, or his mind needed that to survive. Either way, you put that on camera and it’s genius. For me, that was the thing, to be able to get into the mental space where whatever the truth was for Robert Neville didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered is what he saw and what he believed. How many people picked up on the mannequin shot at the end with the little turn of the head? You saw that? There are probably like six or seven of those in the movie. It was such a great exploration of what happens to the human mind that is trying to defend itself. For me, I’m a better actor for having had to create both sides of the scene, with no dialogue.
Question: A couple of questions here, You have had a passion for “I Am Legend” since you were going to do it with director Michael Bay. Why has Neville stayed with you for the past twelve or thirteen years? Also, the grey hair you have in the film, was that a special effect or the real Will Smith?
Smith: That was a special effect. We had the world’s best grey hair people come in from — uh, they were uh, from Europe.”
Question: The cover of “Men’s Vogue” eluded to the idea that you may have converted to Scientology (like pals Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes)?
Smith: No, wow, that’s what you got? (laughs) Well, that is a broad array of questions. On the first one, Robert Neville staying with me this long. I think with movies I am really connecting to the Joseph Campbell idea of the collective unconscious. There are things that we all dream, there are things that each one of us has thought, that connect to life, death, and sex. There are things that are beyond language. To me, this is one of those concepts, that you have been on the freeway many times and wished that everybody was dead. (laughs) There have been times where things have gone and you just wish you were by yourself. You don’t need any of these assholes. You just want to be by yourself. That coupled with, that separation from people, that being ripped away from people, being separated, connected with the dark and the unknown of the dark, and how we would fare against whatever is in that realm of the unknown is a really primal idea. I couldn’t always articulate it like that but I’ve loved this concept because it connects to ideas that a four year old can understand.
Question: And, the grey hair.
Smith: Yes, that is a European, they are, GHI, or Grey Hair International and they just do that, because this is what it normally is. (laughs) I can prove it! I can prove it! (laughs) As far as Scientology. I don’t necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, went to a Catholic church, lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and had the biggest crush on the Muslim girls from one neighborhood over. Tom (Cruise) introduced me to the ideas. I’m a student of world religion, so to me, it’s hugely important to have knowledge and to understand what people are doing. What are all the big ideas? What are people talking about? I believe that my connection to my higher power is separate from everybody’s. I don’t believe that the Muslims have all the answers. I don’t believe the Christians have all the answer, or the Jews have all the answers, so I love my God, my higher power, but it’s mine and mine alone. I create my connection and I decide how my connection is going to be.
Question: What was it like working with your daughter Willow (Smith)?
Smith: You kind of don’t work with Willow, you work for Willow. (laughs) It’s interesting, Jada (Pinkett-Smith), and I debate the age old debate of nature versus nurture. Is it because two actors went to Mexico and drank some tequila and made a baby? Does that make the baby an actor? Or, did she grow up in a house where that is what is in her house, that is just the life, and that’s the experience that she knows. When I look at Willow, I just believe that it has to be neither one of those. There has to be something else. She just knows (a glass drops). See? That’s the problem, see? A black man starts to make a good point and you got to keep him down. Trying to keep me down, I get it, I get it. How often does the soundman make that much noise? (laughs) With Willow, she just loves it. We watched, I don’t remember the building, but we were shooting the bridge sequence.
There is a building that had a temperature gauge on it and we watched it. You started at sunset, and it was probably twenty-nine degrees or something. Then we watched it go down to one, and then negative. Willow is out there, she has her stuff on, and she’s cold. She is getting a little irritable. She looks at me and says, ‘Daddy, I don’t care how low it goes, I’m going to finish.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ I said, ‘That’s good baby, because Daddy is leaving if it go any lower than that one.’ She just wants it, she has a drive, an energy, and she just connects to human emotion. I think a big part of it is probably Jaden. After ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ and she saw what Jaden did, she thought, ‘I want that.’ (laughs) The night we told Willow that she got the role, because we make our kids audition and all of that, we don’t do the whole nepotism thing, so Jaden was sitting where you are. I’m Willow. We always call the family in and we announce all the good things that happen with everybody in the house and everybody has to share in it. Willow is there, Jaden and I are here, and Willow is behind her. We say, ‘Everybody, we just want to congratulate Willow. She got, ‘I am Legend’.’ She immediately turns around to Jaden and smiles and I went ‘What’s that? What was that?’ Never had she talked about any feelings she was having, but it was like ‘Okay, I’m plotting on you dude.’
Question: You’ve had a lot of experience with saving the world in “Independence Day” and “Men In Black.” (laughs)
Smith: I missed this time. (laughs)
Question: What would you do in a real life disaster? Have you ever had to play the hero in the real world?
Smith: That is always a tough question. That is what is interesting about playing characters like this. You get to explore and wonder how you would react. For me, ‘Ali’ was the greatest time of asking myself that question. When Ali didn’t step forward because they wouldn’t call him Muhammad Ali, and he knew he was going to jail, he knew what the situation was going to be, but still he couldn’t step forward. I just remember thinking, in that moment, ‘What would I do?’ I just don’t know if I would be enough man to give up everything I have right now, the way Ali did, for that principle. When I look at Robert Neville, I think, ‘What was there to live for? What was there to hope for?
To wake up everyday and try to restore something that is good and gone?’ I like to believe that I would put my chest up and stand forward, just march on and continue to fight for the future of humanity. I would probably find a bridge and say ‘I’m coming to join you Elizabeth.’ (laughs) It’s a tough question, and I guess the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t think so. You want to be tested to know what you would do, but at [the same time] you really don’t want to be tested. That is sort of the space that I have lived in with quite a few of the roles I have played.
Question: Which one of your kids demanded more money, Jaden or Willow? Are you planning to work with either of them in any film soon?
Smith: Jaden, we say when we look at Jaden and Willow, that Jaden is Johnny Depp. He just wants to do good work, he doesn’t care what money he gets. He doesn’t care if people see it or don’t see it. He loves acting, he just wants to make good movies. Willow is Paris Hilton. (laughs) Willow wants to be on TV. (laughs) We are managing both of those in our household.
Question: How attached did you get to Samantha, the dog in “I Am Legend?”
Smith: Oh, Abbey is the dog’s real name. When I was probably nine years old, I had a dog Trixie. It was a white golden retriever that got hit by a car. So now I refuse, I have had no animals. ‘Jada, you can have the dogs you want, the kids can have the dogs they want, but I’m not putting myself emotionally connected to a dog anymore.’ Then, they brought that damn Abbey on the set. You say a ‘smart’ dog. It got to the point with Abbey that she would be playing, playing, playing, and she would hear ‘Rolling!’ so she would run over to her mark and get ready. I was like ‘What in the hell?’ It’s like she would know when I wasn’t doing my lines right. If I would get lost in the scene she would just go silent you know? (laughs) It was the first time I had allowed myself to connect and be fond of a dog, since that experience, and to the owner I said, ‘Please, Abbey had to live with me. Please.’ He was like ‘Well, this is how I make my living, man.’ I was like ‘Tell me what you need. Tell me what you need. A house in the hills?’ But she was smart, just fun, and warm. I experienced the pain again, because he said ‘I’ll bring her over every weekend Will, but she has to work.’ It was painful. She is great. I used to watch ‘Lassie’ and animals really can be smarter than other animals. She is way on another plane of connecting to what your energy is, what your feelings are, and protective. It’s beautiful.
Question: When is the last time you were called “Fresh Prince?”
Smith: About four seconds ago. (laughs)
Question: Do you still talk with DJ Jazzy Jeff?
Smith: Yeah, Jeff and I perform a couple of times a year. We’re going to go out big in July. We are figuring out some places around the world to do some big shows. It’s about to be that circle back to the golden age of hip-hop. There is starting to be a little resurgence, so yeah, we are planning some things. As far as Fresh Prince, it’s interesting. On July 6, 1996 ‘Fresh Prince’ stopped. After ‘Independence Day,’ that Monday, after ‘Independence Day’ was the first time that anyone called me Mr. Smith. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ All through ‘The Fresh Prince’, all through the music, it was ‘Fresh Prince, Fresh Prince.’ And that morning, when the box office numbers came out, after ‘Independence Day,’ it was ‘Good morning Mr. Smith.’ It was so bizarre. I specifically remember that morning is when people started calling me Mr. Smith.
Question: Will the new tour coincide with your next film “Hancock?”
Smith: Yeah, it will probably go out with ‘Hancock’ and do performances with premieres around the world.
Question: After “I Am Legend” do you want to do a comedy?
Question: What’s next?
Smith: I’m working with Gabriele (Muccino) on something that will probably start in March, it’s called ‘Seven Pounds.’ Gabriele has a wonderful insight on who I am and how to get the best out of me. Michael Mann and Gabriele Muccino. You know how people can have X-ray vision on you? There are some people that you can’t pull tricks on, they know exactly what is going on. They see you, right to the heart of who you are, and what you are feeling. That is the relationship I have with those guys. I’m definitely looking forward to getting back in there with Gabriele. ‘Hancock’ is July 4 with Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Peter Berg directed. Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, James Lassiter, and myself are producing.
Question: What is “Hancock” about?
Smith: If you can imagine, it’s the Michael Mann version of an alcoholic super hero. It is so bizarre. Michael Mann developed a script about an alcoholic super hero.
Question: Isn’t your character in love with his buddy’s best friend?
Smith: Right. Jason Bateman plays a publicist and I save his life. He begins to rehabilitate me in the eyes of the public.
Question: The movie with Muccino is a comedy?
Smith: No, it’s a dramatic film. It’s fiction.
Question: Many of the books on the “New York Times” best-seller list deal with life, the self-conscious and our feelings. What do you think it is that has people so fascinated in that subject, since that’s what the film deals with?
Smith: I think it’s a primal idea. Carl Jung talked about the collective unconscious and how we dream similar things, even though we have no contact with one another. If you map the dreams of an Aboriginal tribe in Australia that has had no contact with Tibetan Monks, but if you monitor the dreams, they dream similar things. I think that this is one of those concepts. We have all had a piece of that collective unconscious idea. We have all dreamed about, or had nightmares about being alone, being by ourselves. It’s the representative dark of the unknown and what that would be. The fear and the converse of the fear is the hope, the hope that you connect to those concepts.
Question: With the holidays coming up, are your kids expecting a Lamborghini? How do you keep them grounded?
Smith: It’s funny, it’s really simple. Jaden and Trey are very simple. Willow just wants clothes. She loves it. She’s dressed herself since she was about four years old. She is very specific about her style. She is very specific about how she wants to look, how she wants to present it, the sizes and all that. Willow is like a …”
Question: Would you say she’s like a shop-a-holic?
Smith: Actually it’s funny, she doesn’t necessarily like shopping. She doesn’t like going out and shopping. She wants you to think about her and she loves the idea that she gets things by surprise. Christmas really isn’t big for her because if she knows it’s coming, it’s not as big of a deal. Jaden just wants his family around. Anything that causes the whole family to be together, that is what he wants.
Question: How do you manage to keep them grounded?
Smith: We live in La-la-land out here. Los Angeles and New York are cut off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. For us, traveling is hugely important, for our kids to really see other things, and experience other things. We have taken them to South Africa. Gabriele hosted us just outside of Rome in his town. We try to get them to experience how other people live. The grounded idea is more of a concept of how you relate to your service of mankind. That is what we try to impart to our children. You are a part of a whole, and you have a responsibility to uplift and be a positive influence on the whole. We feel like that will help with the concept of grounding in this.”
Question: Is there another country you would like to take your family to and possibly live in?
Smith: Not to live. To me, Los Angeles and Miami, I just can’t imagine topping those places for where I would love to live. I have a theory that cities and towns have, essentially, emotional patterns. There are cities that each and every one of us could live in, that match our emotional pattern, that we would just be better people if we lived in this place. I think that my emotional pattern is like the weather patterns of Los Angeles and Miami. It’s warm all the time, it rains a little bit, but when it does it’s fun because it cools it off. The traffic might get a little bad but it’s not like being in four feet of snow in traffic. Jada needs four seasons. She can’t function if it’s warm all the time, it’s light and fun all the time, and she needs the hibernation. She needs the time where nothing is moving, it’s quiet, you aren’t hearing cars and horns, because they are muffled by the wonderful snow. If I never, ever, see snow again for the rest of my life, that’s great.