Capone With Will Smith!! How STAR WARS Changed Will's Life!! An I AM LEGEND Tidbit!! + THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS!!
Published at: Dec. 14, 2006, 10:15 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here, finally caught up on my sleep after BNAT8, and exhausting and wholly satisfying event that featured, in my estimation the finest collection of premieres this even has ever seen.
There wasn't a bad--or even so-so--one in the bunch. I wish I could say the same for Harry's vintage film choices, but they were good inspiration for sleep, so I won't begrudge him too terribly.
I also have to give a shout out to the man who sat to my left the entire 25-or-so hours, Moriarty. He's a vocally enthusiastic film watcher, but at least he doesn't snore. Seriously, though, he was fun to sit with, and when baby Toshi made and appearance as things were winding down, all I could think was, I can't wait until this kid is old enough to start coming to these and have his mind warped.
But now back to the real world. Well, not exactly. When you share a space with someone as overwhelmingly famous as Will Smith, you almost get distracted thinking just how great this guy's life is: he's got a hot wife, great-looking kids, and more money than all the gods on Mt. Olympus. He's also a big ol' movie star, one of the last of a dying breed. And the dude is a solid actor when he chooses roles that actually require him to act and not just deliver sassy punchlines. His latest effort, The Pursuit of Happyness, features as solid a performance from Smith as I've ever seen him attempt. He'll probably get an Oscar nomination, and it will be more deserved than the one he got for Ali. And talking to him is as exciting and entertaining as many of his Fourth of July releases over the years. This was a group discussion, so not all of the questions are mine. But I did manage to get a little one-on-one time after the roundtable to ask one question about a certain long-gestating film he's currently in the middle of filming, a little number called I Am Legend. Read on. This man loves to talk.
Will Smith: [He walks into the room, takes a sip of water, and begins without prompting] How are you all doing? There's one thing I want to talk about first. I had an emotional experience yesterday on "Oprah." I think it was in 1994; I was in the Righa Royal hotel in New York. It was July 5, and I was looking out of my room and I could see the Zigfield Theatre. The line came out of the theatre, went around, all the way around the block, all the way around another block, came back, and then went across the street. And it was for Independence Day. I was standing there and looking, and I had this crazy overwhelming feeling. I remember thinking, It will never be the same again. Life will NEVER be the same again. There is absolutely nothing I can do to regain what my life was, how my friendships were, how my relationships were, how everything is different right now forever. Right?
So I was sitting on the "Oprah" couch yesterday, and they announced my son's name. And he walked out, and the audience had seen the movie, and they gave him a standing ovation. And that feeling washed over me again, and I realized, Oh shit. It's like they were clapping for him; it wasn't because he was my son. He had broken off from me and Jada. He had separated from me and Jada, from his brothers and sisters, and there was absolutely nothing I can do. It will never be the same again. All the family dynamics, all the relationships, everything is over and different.
And that was the first time I felt that overwhelmed in 10-15 years. And it's like, I have my life in a place where everything is manageable, I understood it. My five-year-old daughter, she walked onto "Oprah," and everybody's saying "Hi Jaden [Smith's son who co-stars in the film with him]," and my daughter said to me, "I want Oprah to say my name, and I want to sit on her lap." And I was like "Oh my God." So things are starting to happen and chance with that attention that Jaden is getting. And Oprah said to him that this was the best child performance that she had seen since Tatum O'Neal in PAPER MOON. This is my kid, and there were things that he did that were really great and he shocked me a couple of times. But the universe is getting ahold of it now, and I'm trying to get my bearings together in my life right now, so you'll hear some of that in some of my answers.
Question: Do you think that with this film being the film that's he's being introduced with, and also you seeing his separation from him because of this film, is that a universal message within itself? [I didn't ask this question, folks. I just transcribe faithfully...]
WS: I'm not the type of person who generally has a fear for things going in the right direction, out of my control. But with this one, I'm actually shaken a little bit because everything is really perfect.
As an artist, what I've always connected to and the ideas I've always connected to, I've felt that my job is to create images that inspire ideas that inspire change. And that's exactly what this is. I fell like this is artistically one of the great projects I've ever been involved with. And there's my son. And it's a real story, in the movie we're in together. Aaaaah! It's scary, that aspect is really scary to me.
Q: As I was watching the movie, I thought you may want to take a note or two from him, because he ran rings around you sometimes.
WS: Oh yeah. Listen, he changed how I act. We were on the set about two weeks, and he looked up at me and said, "Daddy, you just do the same thing every take." So I started watching him, and he doing what acting is supposed to be. He's living in the moment. He's pure and natural in the moment.
If we're sitting there talking and his scarf becomes interesting, he's grab his scarf while he's doing the dialog. That's what actors look for, that's the nirvana, when you find out that you're natural, that you're in the moment. A take, if it's a dramatic take and it's supposed to be really serious and he finds something funny, he'll laugh. That take was funny to him. He's like, "If I'm supposed to scared, you should scare me, daddy. You didn't scare me." In the scene where I'm shaking him, he laughed one time. That's what he got from it.
I re-evaluated how I performed, and I stopped preparing. With Jaden, we would just tell him this is what happened. You know, your father is late and you're tired. And he'll say, "How long have I been awake? I went to school? And then what? Did I take a nap? And what time is it?" And you'll say, it's 10 o'clock. And he'll go, "Oh. Okay, you can say Action."
He programs what it is and allows to come out what comes out. And that is the way that I have adjusted my acting style, and I went back and got acting coaches to try and strip away all of the thinking that I've done up to this point, to the mechanical. I know how to hit the heart with the things I know how to do. I got movies, I got good moves, you know what I mean? I will cross you over every time. And he helped me create new moves. And in this movie, it's almost like the new moves are no moves.
Q: Tell me about this idea of being happy. The scene at the end of the film where you're on the street. What was that moment for you in your life?
WS: Oh my goodness. I've had a few of those. I met with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and I felt so small, right? With the life that he lived, and I would never do anything and I'm so insignificant. But at the same time, I felt the truth and the ceiling blew out on how big I could actually be. I didn't have anything to draw from for that moment. To sleep in a bathroom with your child [as his character does in the film], that is a moment I do not know, and I hope to never know. To answer your question, I haven't ever really been tested like that. My life hasn't dealt me that level of test to determine if I really am who I think I am.
So, I connected to Chris [Gardner, his character in The Pursuit of Happyness] and Chris's life in that moment. That was one of those moments in the movie where you have that actor's nirvana where you really believe it. When that man is says, "Wear a shirt tomorrow, because it's your first day." It's like, oof. Right now, that gets me because I've connecting to Chris's experience. As for me, I don't have those tests in my life. And when I did have things that I thought were those types of tests, I failed. I would say the hardest thing for me was my divorce.
That was a real test of my integrity, because I don't believe in divorce. It's like, you can't stand up in front of God and your family and friends and say, "Til death do us part" and then ya'll parted and ain't neither one of ya'll dead. You can't do that! Just don't say Til death do us part. Just say, Til it kind of don't feel as good as it did in the beginning do us part. You can says that, you're allowed to change your vows. So for me, that was one of those tests, and I failed. I survived and hopefully I'm stronger and more certain about who I am and what I believe, and more careful with the commitments and situations I put myself into, but I just don't have any life tests like this one.
Q: What about the pressure of having a film open on Fourth of July weekend? You had that for many years.
WS: I can do that; I got moves [laughs]. I'm a student of patterns, I believe in universal patterns. Things happen certain ways since the beginning of time, right? Study the pattern, find the pattern, and at the minimum, you give yourself a 99 percent chance of succeeding.
Top 10 films of all time have special effects, with creatures and a love story. So if you make a movie with special effects, creatures, and a love story, you can be pretty damn sure you're going to open it on the Fourth of July. That's the things, the aspect, the gift and the curse that I have that my son is helping me break, because it's easy to live in the patterns; I want to create patterns in the universe in a certain direction where it starts to move and change based on something that I've added, and that's a scary place.
Q: I was listening to some women talk after the movie yesterday, and they were all saying that this is a movie that men should go to see because of the relationship between Chris and his wife, you felt no love there. But the idea that Chris felt like he had nothing, but he had to have his son with him was like his valued the legacy, fortune, and value.
The relationship between Chris and his son, and you and your son, how did that even bring out that part of you? [Again, folks, not my question. But if you guessed that his long-winded, non-question came from the same person who asked the very first question in this interview, you win a prize!]
WS: It's an innate understanding by bring my son in. There's an innate connection; we already had that. It was actually cheating, right? It was the lazy actor in me. And also he was the best. He went through the whole process. When you're acting, it's about looking in someone's eyes, and all of the love and the trust is in my son's eyes already. To be able to deliver that on screen, it was emotional even before we got to the script. It was a journey that he had to go on. It was a 71-day shoot, and he worked 69 days. He worked 69, eight-hour, ten-hour days.
So I really was dragging my son around. There was really only one day, it was a night shoot, and that was the one time where he couldn't do it. He was just, "Daddy, I don't want to do it anymore. Don't make me do it." And you just have to say, "That's a wrap." There were parallel journeys going on, and to lay in that bathroom set with my real son, you can't buy that. You can't produce that. I'm laying there looking at my child. It was emotional and powerful, but it also took a huge chunk of actor preparation away.
Q: What's a moment from early in your career where you were told you got a big job that you really wanted, and that feeling of happiness took over, how did you celebrate?
WS: Getting Six Degrees of Separation was like that, because [playwright/screenwriter] John Guare said he wouldn't even meet with me. He said, naw he's a TV guy. I don't want to meet with him. And I'm begging and begging him, studying the monologues, preparing for all of the scenes, and John Guare was going to come to the set of "Fresh Prince" and meet with me.
I'd been turned down for a bunch of movies that I'd gone to read for. I read for Arsenio's role in Coming to America, and didn't get that. So I'd been doing a lot of those readings, and people we're feeling me. And I was beginning to get nervous that the "Fresh Prince" was going to be where I lived and died. And I knew I needed to break it with Six Degrees. So John Guare walked into my dressing room, and he looked on the wall and I had a picture of Malcolm X and Mao on my wall, and he went [air intake sound], "Why do you have those?" And I started to explain to him and he said, "Be quiet. You're him, you're him." And he turned around a walked out.
Those kind of moments...another thing in the movie that Gabriele Muccino connected to. he said, "Those kinds of things happen fast." It's a lightning strike. What's interesting about [the way the people at the stock broker firm treat Chris as an intern], what they know in the stock broker world that it looks bad to laypeople, but that how they do the guy that they like. They put the most pressure on the guy that they like; they try to break him.
Capone: Can you talk about Chris as a problem solver of seemingly unsolvable problems? And how do you as an actor portray that, because that's very much a mental thing, something that is tough to show visually. I guess you have the Rubik's Cube.
WS: Don't make me go get one. I trained too hard learning that Rubik's Cube for you to be questioning my Rubik's Cube dexterity. [laughs] You know, Chris and I connect on that perception of the universe and the world and how things happen...
Capone: You mentioned patterns before.
WS: Patterns, yeah, and problem solving. That stock market world is all about patterns and problem solving. That was something I didn't really have to do a lot of work on. We sort of agreed on those ideas. We both love the new sudoku and all of that stuff. We were in sync from the beginning.
Q: You talked a lot about changing the pattern and grabbing the moment. Can you speak about when you knew this was the film to do that? What about the segment [about Chris's life] on "20/20" told you not only that this was going to be a good movie but you wanted to be in this movie?
WS: There's a combination of simplicity and depth. When you can get that in a movie, it's so basic and so simple that a five year old can understand what's going on. Yet it's still so deep and textured and complex that you can talk about it with great minds for hundreds of hours. For me, the Pursuit of Happyness is so connected to the idea of why America works. This is the only country on the face of the earth where Chris Gardner can exist. That wouldn't happen anywhere else on earth. The hope for that doesn't even exist anywhere else on earth. That you're homeless, that you have $23, and without killing anybody, without oil, without an army that you go strictly based on an idea that you have in your mind. And you hold onto that idea and you create a multi-million-dollar empire. That doesn't happen anywhere else.
The idea that America thrives because that is the idea and the promise that we sell to the rest of the world. In practice, there's a little difficulty, but the promise of it is what inspires great minds to come here. The poor, tired, huddled masses, they're not just coming here for food and a house, they're coming here for an idea, and their idea is being murdered in other places. This is a country that says, We believe in nurturing ideas. That is so the center of humanity.
An idea can fill a spot in your stomach; you don't need food for a while if you got the right idea. You can go without love for a while if you got the right idea to hold onto. It's so connected to the center of the human spirit, and when I saw that [in the "20/20" segment], I didn't know it intellectually as I was watching it, I just know it resonated with me. And now going through and walking through the process, I can talk about the feeling a little bit.
Q: What did you do with the real Chris Gardner to prepare for the role, or was it more like natural feelings, like with you and your son?
WS: Chris was there everyday. Chris worked with [screenwriter] Steve Conrad on the script. We would go out, and he would walk me through the places that he and his son had slept. He took me to [homeless shelter] Glide. It's a bizarre process as an actor because you don't really know what you're looking for. You just live it, try to feel it.
Then he took me to Oakland and showed me the actual bathroom in the BART station that he and his son slept in. And when I walked in the bathroom, it was like ghosts just jumping in me from being in that bathroom, and when I walked out of there, I could play Chris Gardner.
Q: One of the things you're best known for are your action films, and this film could be considered an action film with all of the running you're doing. But obviously this is a departure for you. Were you looking for something new to do, or did this just fall in your lap?
WS: I can't say...I wasn't looking, but I was open to it. I love walking into a mall on a Saturday afternoon and they've got to shut it down. I specifically go to Philly on Christmas to go to the King of Prussia mall. It's one of the most crowded malls in the east. I love people, right? So for me, Independence Day, Men in Black, the energy have to go see those movies connects to a thing that Star Wars did to me.
For a little boy sitting watching Star Wars, it bugged me out so bad, I couldn't believe that someone could think that, then see it, and grab hold of a thing inside of me that made me feel imagination and hope and all of those things. They popped in my mind when I saw Star Wars. Even now, reading scripts, it's so hard for me not to make that genre. It's like I'm chasing that feeling. Star Wars and "Thriller" gave me feelings that are burned in my mind and I can't shake it. I, Robot was a no-brainer. It's robots taking over, right! I'm so enchanted of showing something you can't see. I was pissed that Steven Spielberg wouldn't put me in Jurassic Park.
[laughs] I love that genre. Luke Skywalker, that hero's journey, it's so beautiful to me and it's difficult not to make that type of film. I'm 38 now; my knees are starting to say, "You know what?"
Q: How important is an Oscar to you?
WS: [long pause] I have two answers for you. The one I'm supposed to give would be that it would be an absolute honor to win an Oscar, and there are so many people who worked on this film.
The film is such an important addition to cinematic American history. And it would be an honor to accept on the backs of thousands of hard-working people. [cracks himself up].
For me, that period between the nomination and the actual awards is the best time. When you're nominated, everybody's won. It's a time of celebration that deteriorates into competition. It's like, the actual show is the balloon popping. There are a hundred-plus people representing hundreds of movies, and everybody is a winner. It's a celebration of cinema.
For me, when I was nominated forAli, and I didn't say it then, but I wanted Denzel [Washington] to win [for Training Day]. And me and Jada were sitting there, and I was saying, "I'm not scared. I ain't no punk. If I win, it'd be cool." But I really didn't want to win. For me, I wanted Denzel to win. There was something about that moment, about that "And the winner is..." moment that is distasteful to me.
Q: When you read a quote somewhere that calls you one of the last great movie stars, how does that make you feel?
WS: That's scary. That's not the stuff I read about myself. I guess I go to the other site on the Internet [laughs].
Generally, I avoid that type of media. For me, I test it in the mall. I walk into the mall, and I can tell how I'm doing, how was the last movie. You find out on Michigan Ave. You go, hey pull over, let me get out for a minute. That's generally how I test. For the most part, I've grown to a place where I'm not feeling as much pressure for that. I have a deeper desire to be able to create things to make people feel the way I felt watching Star Wars. I want to be able to create things that make people feel the way I felt sitting with Nelson Mandela.
That inspiration, that hope, that belief is equal to food and shelter on Will's hierarchy of human needs. That fuel, that inspirational fuel is a necessity for the advancement of life and living, and I just want to be a part of creating that. So, the box office used to be hugely important to me. It's much less important to me now. I want to be responsible with the people that I work with. I don't want to spend anything just to get the hope, $230 million worth of hope! But I'm inspired to create in a different way.
[So, the official Q&A ended, but I lingered while others said their thank you and good-byes to Will, and I moved in to get out this one last probing questions.]
Capone: I can't believe nobody asked this today, but how is filming on I AM LEGEND going?
WS: It's going great. We're taking a scheduled break right now, but we've been shooting in New York for a while. We've managed to make a small, character drama into a big special effect movies. It's that old school '70s kind of story-driven movie.
The special effects are ridiculous, but we don't depend on them at all to tell our story. They are insane, but there's no dependence on them at all. You don't know it yet, but you should be looking forward to it.