Will Smith: From Fresh Prince To King William

posted December 20, 2006 12:00:00 AM CST | 0 comments

Its been 13 years since the former Fresh Prince made the leap from small-screen silliness to big screen cred with Six Degrees of Separation, a serious dramatic departure that cast him as a troubled con man. In all that time, Will Smith has only had one other role that truly tested his dramatic mettle, portraying legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in the Michael Mann biopic. Still, there was little doubt that hed be the perfect actor to star as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, the true story of a single dad who battled homelessness and hopelessness to become a multi-millionaire stockbroker. The film features Smiths son, Jaden, making his film debut as Gardners boy, and finds the rapper-turned-actor delivering one of the finest performances of his career. We recently attended a press conference at New Yorks Regency Hotel, where Smith discussed everything from working with his son and the American dream to the things parents just dont understand...

Jadens not here today?

No, not today. We did Oprah the other day, and Jaden and my daughter Willow were both on the show. Willow was on the show because she wasnt about to let Jaden be on Oprah [by himself]. During the show I looked at him, and Jaden is so unaffected. He wants to act and play videogames. I was watching the two of them and Im like, I got Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton.

Have you thought about what happened with Tatum O Neal and Ryan O Neal? She won the Oscar, and it ruined their relationship!

(Laughs) We were probably about eight weeks into shooting and hes such a natural, nailing moment after moment, and I told him, Its a good thing youre my son, because Id been leaning into his close-ups and everything. But its a beautiful thing.

Did you always consider having your son play the part?

No, not at all. One night, Jada and I were laying in the bed and he comes crawling in between us while were reading a script and says, Tell me the story, Daddy. I tell him and he says, Pshaw, I could do that! We do shorts around the house, so hes familiar with the process, so Jada took him in the next week to set up an audition. There were 100 kids, then 50 and 20, and he was still there. It got down to about 10 and Im thinking, I might need to pay attention over here. Gabrielle Muccino fell in love with him. (Impersonating the Italian director) I love your baby, Will! I must have your baby! I was like, Hold on. Let me get clear about what youre asking. (Laughs)

Howd you get involved in the project?

Well, it started with the whole 20/20 piece, and this has been lightning-quick in Hollywood [terms] from idea to completed project. Its been just about two years. They called us in and we loved it. The imagery of black fatherhood; thats not the image we have in America, and it was a powerful.

What about the story connected to you?

I loved the idea that your desire creates what your future is. The white man dont create the future, and your circumstances dont create your future. Your desire to be who you wanna be and your commitment to that is what creates your future. Thats the idea this country is designed upon: Life, Liberty and the PURSUIT of Happiness, not Life, Liberty and Happiness. Chris Gardner believed it, accepted it, and connected to it in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. And thats something Ive always believed. Theres this bizarre concept for The Audacity of Hope that Ive always been committed to and always believed, and Chris and I shared that.

After you saw the 20/20 piece, did you go after the chance to play Chris?

No, a couple of other people were a little quicker on the draw, but they sent it to us. I dont know if youve seen the piece, but its absolutely brilliant. The image that gets you is Chris Gardner going back to the subway bathroom he stayed in with his son. That was the image that made me want to make this movie. When Chris took me and walked me through those steps... theres a moment that actors look for when you get it. Trying to find a character, youre in a dark room and youre just feeling around and you grab something. When I walked into that bathroom with Chris, I got it. I understood. Then to shoot the scene with my real son on my lap? No acting necessary.

When youre standing in line at the homeless shelter, there are lots of other African-Americans. The film seems to say that its a racial problem. What are your thoughts on that?

Theres a movie called What the Bleep? that has a quantum physics idea Chris and I both connect to, [which says that] that something is only there if you acknowledge its there. Something only has power over you if you allow it power over you. Chris specifically said that he knew he was in America and there was racism, but he never paid attention to that. He found good people and connected to good people. He felt that if he allowed himself to say, Someones trying to keep me down because Im black, it weakened him and created an obstacle.

You had a breakout hit with the song Parents Just Dont Understand. Now that youre a parent, is there anything kids just dont understand?

Kids dont know nothin! Thats my new record... (Laughs) It was actually a beautiful experience because I did more learning than Jaden did. My entire approach to acting is forever changed after working with him. I was reading Zen and the Art of Archery while I was working on the film, and theres an idea in the book that you discover the connection between yourself and your goals more easily when you discover it in a childlike manner [rather than] with some rigid schedule. You find it at play. There was a scene where wed done a few takes and Gabrielle kept giving ME notes. Jaden thought it was funny when wed do a take and the director would give me a note and not him; he took that as him winning. So theres a scene where Gabrielle keeps talking to me, and Jaden just looks up at me and says, You just do that same thing every time, Daddy. I was a little offended, but the idea that innately connected to him was, How can you give the same performance every time? Were supposed to be living in these moments, so how come youre not reacting to the new stuff thats happening? I started watching him and I realized that I have a lot of different roles: Im a producer, Im Will, Im a movie star, and Im all of that stuff in the scene. Jaden is just a character. Its a block Ive had in my career for years, and this is the first time I feel free of that. To hell with continuity. To hell if we make the damn day and how much the day costs and all of that. Im finding that state where Im committing to the truth of character, and its a liberating and artistic space. Ive been there two other times in my career with Ali and Six Degrees of Separation where I was just completely liberated. Im just extremely excited about it and happy to have my son show me the way.

Was there any consideration of having Jada play your wife in the film?

Well, Jada prefers not to work with me. (Laughs) Im like, You know, baby, the last take well, why dont you try it like this? Shes like, Boy, you worry about you and Ill worry about me! We worked on Ali together, and were trying to keep a happy home.

You used the phrase, The Audacity of Hope. Where does that phrase come from and what you mean by it?

Who did I hear say that?

Barack Obama

Right! I have a three-repeat clause. If someone has a cool phrase, its a three-repeat. The first time Ill say, You know, Barack Obama says The Audacity of Hope The second time I repeat it, Ill say, Someone said, The Audacity of Hope Then the third time, As I always say, The Audacity of Hope But what I mean by it is the idea that you believe in something with no facts and figures, absolutely no reason to support. The Audacity of Hope is the idea that youre gonna be so audacious that youre going to believe, while sleeping on a bathroom floor, that youre gonna own a brokerage firm one day. It takes real audacity to hope. Im connected so much to this film and this story, because it is the fiber of this country. Its time for us to remember why and how this country was designed: We, the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. There are serious, poetic ideas in the promise of what this country is supposed to be, and I believe it all starts with the Audacity of Hope.

Did you have your moment of audacity in your career?

It feels weird to talk about my Audacity of Hope in the framework of Chris Gardners life, but I have to say no, Ive never had any hope so audacious as Chris Gardner. But Ive had situations where theres been no reason to believe that things are gonna turn out the way theyre gonna turn out. Like when Jada and I got together. At that period in our lives, theres no reason for us to have been successful in our relationship. A whole lot of obstacles lined up for us not to make it. We always say, Divorce cant be an option. Because if you allow divorce to be an option, theres absolutely one day where youll check that box, so its audacious to remove it as an option. Thats not one of the choices we have, no matter what happens. And that type of audacity is what it takes to make things be successful.

What do you think are your Oscar chances, with it being this time of year and the Oscar race and all the talk, how does it feel?

That period between the nominations and the show is the best series of parties on the face of the Earth. Its every night in different cities. Youre a part of this wonderful, elite group and its a beautiful time. Its a little bittersweet when you get to the show because it makes the transition from a celebration to a competition. Ive never been an award guy. Its fun, but, as I tell my wife, Im more of a mall guy. Like, when I walk into the mall on Saturday afternoon, if they dont shut it down, I feel like Im slippin. Thats how I judge my worth. Thats how I judge the quality of my work them having to shut down the King of Prussia Mall on Christmas.

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