AFI Fest: Will Smith Describes His Preparation for 'Concussion' Film Role
"There's such a high level of spirituality involved when Bennet [Omalu] is performing an autopsy," Smith said about researching alongside the film's subject. "Finding that connection to the dead, ... I got such a powerful sense that the human being is not their body."
The cast and crew of Concussion, as well as the film's subject, Dr. Bennet Omalu, celebrated the AFI Fest world premiere of the drama at the TCL Chinese Theatre Tuesday night and spoke to reporters about tackling the subject of brain trauma affecting professional football players.
Concussion, which is based on a true story, centers on Omalu (played by Will Smith), an immigrant pathologist who discovers a football-related brain disease called CTE while investigating the unexpected death of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. Along the way, Omalu finds allies such as Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and his wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
On the red carpet, director Peter Landesman explained his role as a storyteller through the film. "I love telling stories in territory where people have not tread before. Those are the stories worth telling because those are the stories we haven’t yet heard," he said.
Upon accepting the role of Omalu, Smith said he was conflicted between his love for football and the Nigerian-born doctor's story. As a father of a son who played football for four years in high school, Smith felt that he needed to deliver Omalu's medical discovery because he "did not know there was a potential long-term neurological issue" and thought fellow parents of football players needed to understand the risks.
In preparation for the role, Smith spent months and months researching with Omalu, specifically watching him and other pathologists perform autopsies. At the premiere, the actor noted he gained a deeper understanding of Omalu's mission to reveal the truth behind long-term brain damage in football players.
"There’s such a high level of spirituality involved when Bennet is performing an autopsy. Finding that connection to the dead, I saw a human body dismantled. ... I got such a powerful sense that the human being is not their body," Smith explained. "So, I’m looking and I’m watching him connect, but the thing … the soul, the battery — whatever the thing is that makes a human being a human being — is not this. Because all of that stuff was still there, all the pieces were still there, except that very thing."
Former NFL football players were in attendance at the premiere, including Leonard Marshall, who shared his thoughts on Omalu's story and Concussion's impact.
"I think that the science behind this entire project will prevail," Marshall shared. "I think it will become quite evident and very real in the mindset of folks that have an interest in professional football."
Omalu also expressed his hopes for Hollywood to help share the film's message and his personal story. "Hollywood is a very powerful medium of change, [it is] a way we could talk to the people," he said. "When you know the truth, it sets you free … that is what America is about: land of the free, home of the brave."