Will Smith is in the best of moods, and he wants to make that clear. “I’m so happy I’m havin’ a heart attack,” he laughingly exclaims as he begins the push for the next new summer blockbuster Men n Black 2.
While in that movie, Smith is smartly donned in the now trademark black suit and tie, he is more comfortable, for THIS interview, to relax in a bright orange shirt, faded blue jeans and crisply clean white sneakers. Smith had just returned from Australia where he had begun not only to spread the MIB word, but also to visit his wife, Jada Pinkett, who was in Sydney shooting the two Matrix movies. “There’s nothing more comfortable for an actor being on somebody ELSE’S movie set and not havin’ to work; it’s like you wanna be away from YOUR movie set but for some reason you want to be on A movie set. That really signals ?vacation’ when you’re on somebody else’s movie set and you don’t have to do nothin’ but have to go to craft services.”
But even Smith, an old pro in shooting whiz bang Hollywood special effects movies, admits to having been in awe on THAT particular movie set. “That movie is going to be INSANE. I’ve seen about 15 minutes of it and they’re going to revolutionise action movies.” Perhaps his wife could come out of it a bigger star than her famous hubbie, and that doesn’t bother him one bit, he happily insists. “I like that, man; let her go out there for a change while I sit home for a couple of months.”
Often described by his peers and co-workers as an actor with relentlessly boyish enthusiasm, the description that causes him the most laughter is the one offered by MIB co-star Lara Flynn Boyle who calls Smith “not only the perfect co-star, but Jesus-like”. How can Smith respond to that, one asks when jokingly asking him to turn his Evian water into wine. “Well, my son,” he begins laughingly. “My wife has often said that I’m creatively co-dependant and that basically, in order for my creative mind to be engaged at 100%, I need everybody in the vicinity to be in a good mood, to be happy and to be comfortable; negative energy pulls on me creatively. So if someone’s uncomfortable or having a bad day in the room, I feel the need to perk that person up and try to make them laugh. It seems like this is a beautiful, Jesus-like, selfless act, when in actuality, a huge part of it is very selfish and needy on my part”, Smith insists laughingly.
That’s Smith, of course, on the one hand revelling in a sense of humour that is reflected on screen and off, yet also, a skilled perfectionist willing to immerse himself in creative diversity, from the special effects-dominated MIB to last year’s distinctive Ali, which would present Smith with his greatest artistic challenge. While he may be more comfortable doing comedy, he felt the need to stretch himself doing Ali. “I was just at the point in my career where I needed to be challenged. I’m a firm believer that people don’t respect the safe shot, no matter how much money the movie makes, no matter how good your performance is, if it’s something that people expect that you can do, then they don’t respect it.”
Despite Smith’s Oscar nomination and the amount he put into the film, none of that was reflected in its lacklustre commercial success, yet Smith has no regrets. “That’s what you have to expect when you make a film like Ali; I wasn’t expecting it to make $200m. When I started it, I knew that anything near $90m is a smash, home run. After all, it’s two and a half hours and a biopic about a Muslim that defied the American government. So in MY mind, breaking even on the film was the outside, while the most important thing to ME, was telling the story, one that I felt was important, that needed to be told. I couldn’t really ask for anything more.”
As challenging as Ali was, it was an added relief for Smith to jump from those shoes to the more comfortable ones of his secretive agent in MIB2, a sequel which fans have been clamouring for, for five years, and the time was right for Smith and company to return to the characters that truly made them stars. “Coming off Ali, I really wanted to do a character that I didn’t have to do any character work for”, he explains smilingly. “I wanted a rest”, he adds laughingly. “I mean I trained for a year and a half on Ali, which really takes it out of you, Man, so the idea of doing a character that I already knew and researched, that was a comedy, that feels more natural to me, and with the team that we have on this film, all really appealed to me.”
In MIB2, which is even more comedic and goofy than its predecessor, Smith says that doing this type of irreverent comedy feels natural to the actor, “I just think that my natural instincts are comedic; I think that comedy is actually more difficult than drama but comedy is where I’ve been for my entire career and I just feel very comfortable trying to create laughs.” In the much-anticipated sequel, Smith’s agent has to battle against an evil alien [a deliciously droll Lara Flynn Boyle] ready to destroy Earth. In so doing, Smith needs the help of the now amnesiac Agent K [Tommy Lee Jones] who is currently working as a post office employee. First, through a process of deneuralisation, Agent K has to get his memory back.
It’s been a long five years since the original, but Smith denies that getting to do the sequel had nothing to do with the complexities of putting together a major Hollywood deal. “That had nothing to do with it at all. It was more a question of getting the script together, and everyone’s schedules coming together; the deal was relatively easy.” Smith jokes about the whole salary issue in regards to getting this sequel off the ground. “We knew ahead of time that there’s no way they could pay everybody. What they said was: This is the most we have paid any group of people for a movie, so here’s the money, you guys figure it out how to divvy it up. It’s relatively a simple process.”
If getting the MIB2 script right was a factor in convincing Smith to return to that familiar black suit, its appeal, ponders the actor, “was the idea of that process of ?deneuralisation’, not to mention just the comedy. The things that Barry Sonnenfeld laid out that he wanted to do, comedically, were irresistible.” Including, Smith adds, Frank the Pug who comes close to stealing the film from his human co-stars. Will jokingly describes the all-talking, all-singing Pug, as “a wonderful actor.” With both MIB films, Will admits he’s an old hand at reacting to a multitude of special effects, blue and green screens alike, “but you DO have to have a big imagination to work with special effects, especially with the more elaborate scenes.”
As comfortable as he is playing movie star, which he firmly cemented with 1995’s Bad Boys, Smith’s passion for music will never wane. “There’s nothing in entertainment that compares to being on a stage when someone recognises you for your music. NOTHING compares to that – except for boxing and knocking someone out.” As to whether he would ever replace his acting with music, Smith says, he loves “the ability to go back and forth. My music always informs the next couple of years of films. When I get back in the studio, producers and writers know that they’re on the forefront of fashion, of slang, of technology, so being in the studio gets me that closer to what is the next thing that’s going to be. So I’ll make music till I get booed off stage.”
Even wife Jada gets into his musical act, and wants to continue working with her, both musically and as actors. ” We did a record together called A Thousand Kisses where she sings, we worked together on Ali and had a great time working together.”
As for a third Men in Black movie, Smith is not ruling it out. “If this one’s successful and people like it, which I’m sure they will, I think there’s some meat on the bone, but I don’t want it to deteriorate. I think THIS film has some scream-applause laughter. Any time you can make an audience clap a laugh, that’s a good thing. And if we can deliver that with an MIB3, I’m all for it.”
Talking about sequels, Smith is ready to be a bad boy again, with Bad Boys 2 set to go before the cameras in August. “We’ll be shooting in Miami and I think the movie will be great.”