It really doesn’t get much bigger than Will Smith, one of the most bankable stars in modern Hollywood history. Yet in spite of all his many $100 million hits, Smith has confined himself to crowd pleasing action or fantasy blockbusters and romantic comedies with only the occasional diversion into dramatic territory like “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Ali”. Now he’s trying again in “The Pursuit of Happyness” about a man pursuing his dream, even as that dream costs him basically everything. He recently sat down to talk about his work and life:
Question: You’re not always sympathetic in this film. What kind of choice or bridge was it for you?
Smith: I’m at such a different place in my life right now. The opportunity to work with Jaden [Smith’s son in real-life], and it’s really been the series… Michael Mann opened my mind to a completely different way of working and creating and it’s grown through this process now with Gabriele Muccino and the last little spark coming from Jaden. I connected with Chris Gardner and we looked in one another’s eyes. I said, “I’m going to learn your story and I’m going to tell your story.” And he said, “Just tell the truth.”
And I went and found the truth and I have so many roadblocks, emotional roadblocks to the truth of characters because I know what a character needs to do to be likeable. And my son has just developed me to a space where I’m starting to understand and starting to be more comfortable with the idea that the things that you don’t do well are the things that are really going to help people. So it’s new for me and I haven’t completely figured out how to articulate all the things that are in my mind but I’m excited right now about the connection between the things that I believe and now being able to find a way to illustrate those beliefs in my artistry?
Question: What tips did Jaden give you?
Smith: He told me, Gabriele Muccino was, I was struggling with a scene. Seven , eight times he was coming up and giving me notes. With that particularly difficult scene I was struggling and Jaden said to me, “Psh, you just do the same thing every take, Daddy.” And I was like, you know, I was a little offended by that. But what he was saying was that innately he couldn’t understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time. He was feeling like well, that’s no real. I thought we were supposed to be trying to make this real.
I started watching him and you know how kids are. If he decides he wants to get up and walk, he’ll get up and walk. The cameraman will just follow him. But I had my blocking, I knew my left leg was forward, I knew that I was saying it with my left hand every time, so in order for them to make the edit, I would do it with my left hand every time. He broke me out of a mechanical space. I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation.
My father used to say all the time, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” So if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready. That is how I run my life. Just stay ready. Stay in shape and then you don’t have to rush to train before the movie starts. And I’ll show you my abs later because I’m in shape. But that idea, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. So I had this preparation, I had this performance, I’ve seen it in my mind and I know I’m going to go out there and deliver this performance that way that I want to do it. Gabriele told me one day, he said, “Don’t pose for my camera.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re posing for my camera. I don’t want you to pose for my camera.” He said, “You’re making faces like you are hurt. We will shut down, you go away, you come back when you hurt for real.”
I was like wow. He and Michael Mann are the two directors that I’ve worked with that know all my tricks. They can see right through me and all of the Willisms and the things that I know how to do to make the audience laugh or smile or cry, I know all of those things and they beat those things out of me. It’s interesting, it’s scary for me right now because I’m moving into a space where I just have no idea what’s going to happen when I’m going into these scenes. I’m living in the moments. I’m shooting I Am Legend right now and I’m excited about the possibilities of finding that artistic space.
Question: Was it a Willism at the end when you got the job and didn’t cry but your eyes turned red?
Smith: No, no, that is all authentic. Gabriele Muccino did a brilliant job of beating me away from my go to moves. It’s like I felt like I’m thinking I’m Allen Iverson in the acting world. How you gonna not let me do my crossover? He was like, “Nope, that’s not in this movie. You’re going to find other things. You’re Chris Gardner. So you’re going to create in a different way, you’re going to find different things and however long we have to shoot until you discover it, that’s how long we’re going to shoot. But what we’re not going to do is the same face you made with K at the end of MEN IN BLACK.”
Question: What would you say to the idea of struggle like this?
Smith: The first part of the question, I’ve been referring to a film called WHAT THE BLEEP [DO WE KNOW]. It’s about quantum physics. You’ve heard the old phrase, if a tree falls in the forest, nobody’s there, blah blah blah. The idea is that you have command over what you’re future, what your situation is, that you internally and with your spirit or however you want to put it, the tao or muslim Allah or Jesus, whatever that universal force is that you connect to, you in sync with that force have command to will your future.
And in WHAT THE BLEEP it talks about the idea that objects exist if you acknowledge they exist. And that was something that Chris and I seriously connected on. In the film, there’s no hint to any racism. And that was something specifically that Chris spoke about. He said, “Well, sure, there may have been racism but the belief that if you acknowledge it, you give it power over you. And your you cal it arrogance, you call it naivete, you call it whatever you want but I truly believe in a situation where you are hoping to create something, it is a much more powerful space to know that you will not be denied.
Whatever’s out there, you’re running over it. So we’re not even going to spend no time talking about the white man or they don’t have no spots left in this college so I’m going to apply somewhere. We’re not acknowledging none of that. I’m going to that college, period.” And there’s a, I’ve always called it naivete with me that a few years ago I said that I honestly, truly believed that I could be the president of the United States . Now, there were probably political experts that laughed, but put me on a lie detector test right now and I absolutely, positively believe that I could be the president of the United States.
I absolutely, positively believe I could fly the space shuttle. Period. And that’s where it starts. Chris Gardner laid down in a bathroom with his only child, seemingly the ultimate parental failure. The next morning, he woke up, he bathed his son in the sink and he went to work. You can’t do that if there’s a possibility this might not work out. You can’t do that. You have got to believe that it’s already a done deal. It’s just a matter of time before you get what you’re designing. To me, Barack Obama called it the audacity of hope. That’s designed into the fiber of this country. This country’s the only place that Chris Gardner could exist. I’m getting excited but to me, that is the essence of the power of this film.
Question: When you first heard Chris’s story, what moved you that wasn’t included in the movie?
Smith: Well, I first got turned onto Chris Gardner from the 20/20 piece. When I saw that 20/20 piece, Chris Gardner walks through and retraces the steps. There is a segment where he goes into the actual bathroom that he slept in with his son. I was like, “I’m making that movie.” Then eventually I met with Chris. He was actually writing the book while we were shooting the movie. So he would be on the set three, four days a week and every week he’d give me 10 pages, just run me through some of the ideas. He was extremely helpful all through the process. We would do takes. If something’s not feeling right, I would go away with Chris for an hour, just have him talk me through it.
Try to get me mentally into the space of the moment, what he connected to. He’s extremely thoughtful. He’s a lot like I felt like when I met Nelson Mandela. Chris, to have survived the things that he’s survived and still have a big belly laugh, there’s always going to be the scar tissue of traumatic experiences but he’s so peaceful walking through it. It was an extremely valuable resource him there and have him walking me through the scenes and taking me through San Francisco and Oakland. When he watched the movie, I sat behind him when he watched the movie, which is the most gut wrenching thing you could ever do is make a story about somebody’s life and then sit in the theater with him while they’re watching it.
With Chris and with Ali, I’m not doing that anymore. Someone trusted you with their life story. It’s their family, it’s their experiences and it’s not like there’s going to be a second shot at it. It’s one time and you’ll find that most people don’t even want to put the stuff out. It’s hard enough for them to even talk about it, let alone hand it to somebody to do what they want to do with it on the screen. So they have to love it. It’s a complete failure, if the movie makes X amount of 100s of millions of dollars and awards and all of that, and Chris doesn’t like it, it’s a failure. And he turned around after the film and I’m sitting there and my heart is jumping and he looked and he said, “I can’t even talk to you right now.” And he got up and walked out and I was like, “Well, what the hell does that mean?” But then we really went outside and he was crying. He just thanked me for the service to his family and he’s forever indebted for bringing his story and for me, it was a win from that point, so all of this is gravy time now.
Question: In the wake of Michael Richards, a coalition of Jesse Jackson and such ask for a moratorium on the N word. What is your sense of that?
Smith: I directed an episode of ALL OF US, the TV show Jada and I have on the CW. I directed an episode where we went into the N word. The little boy says it at his birthday party, and he actually says it to a white kid. He has no idea what it means, he heard it and he said it. The thing that is interesting and difficult is there is no answer. I’m an actor. I can take the words I hate you and I can make it mean I love you. So there’s no argument to the fact that [in happy voice] “Boy, I hate you so much, come here. Oh, it’s awful you did that to me, I hate you!”
The argument can be made that the words don’t matter. But then on the other side, there’s so much blood and hatred and pain connected to that word, even if that’s true, why would you use it? So it’s a very difficult situation that will take a whole lotta years for the black community to decide where we stand as a whole and we probably never will decide where we stand as a whole on it. It could probably go from maybe 37 to maybe 40% of the rap lyrics. We could probably just pull it down a little bit. As far as Michael Richards, he shouldn’t be saying it one way or the other. Let black folks figure it out. We don’t need his help. We’ll figure it out.
Question: How is I AM LEGEND going?
Smith: Yes, I’m working on I AM LEGEND right now. We’re kind of breaking form a little bit. I’m interested to see how people react to it. We’ve designed something completely aggressive and new and different and we’re sneaking a small art film character drama into the middle of a big summer blockbuster, so we’ll see how it works out.