Dialogue: Will Smith
The actor on preparing for roles, being a workaholic and the Clint Eastwood phase of his career.Will Smith might have started out as a rapper, but it would be wrong to underestimate the seriousness he devotes to his work as an actor. It's not just that he's a self-declared perfectionist; it also is that he approaches each part with a commitment and methodology that would put Konstantin Stanislavsky to shame -- as he recently told The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: You grew up a million miles removed from the world of show business. What drew you to it?
Will Smith: I was a child of that first wave of rap music -- it was kind of moving out of the George Clinton-Funkadelic era and into hip-hop. And things just speak to you; it just connects to some aspect of your spirit. I settled into that world; the love for entertaining came from there.
THR: But you didn't stay in music. Why not?
Smith: I had a huge success (the 1988 album "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper" sold 3 million copies), and then I flopped an album and got a little antsy about paying the bills. But my videos were always theatrical, so it was a natural progression to acting. People had been saying for a few years, "You should try acting." I never really took that seriously until the IRS came and took my stuff!
THR: You take it very seriously now. People say you're a workaholic.
Smith: Oh, God yes, an obsessive perfectionist. When I'm not working on acting in a film, I'm writing a script.
THR: You write scripts, too?
Smith: I've written a few and directed a couple of shorts and created that stash for when I go into the Clint Eastwood phase of my career.
THR: Does that mean you want to direct, too?
Smith: Probably at some point, but not now. I feel I'm just catching my stride as an actor. I'm getting better as an actor.
THR: In what way?
Smith: I learned from ("Ali" director) Michael Mann. He said that in this business, we're trying to be artistic psychologists. The first step (in preparing for a role) is always turning to psychologists and getting character breakdowns to understand why these people do or say the things they do.
THR: Do you enjoy that?
Smith: I love that whole research process; I have four avenues of research -- psychology, mythology, philosophy and theology -- for every character. I find as many Ph.D.s in those fields as I can that are willing to read the script and give notes and find patterns. From their different perspectives, some gem of insight is always delivered.
THR: Why those four avenues?
Smith: They're really all one thing -- a collective consciousness we all innately draw from. They're just different ways of explaining a character.
THR: Did you use that approach when you played Muhammad Ali?
Smith: That's where it began. Michael had a neurobiologist come in to work with me. He created a 30-minute (video) loop of a specific way that Ali threw his jab. For 15 minutes in the morning and (again) at night, I sat in a dark room and watched that loop over and over again.
THR: You did a lot of physical training, too.
Smith: Of course -- learning how to box. The trainer I used created a real pro-training camp. Including the shooting time, it was a year and a half of boxing. At the height of it, we were doing three workouts a day, six days a week.
THR: Is this the kind of work you aspired to do when you were starring in NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"?
Smith: For the most part, I've always been happy where I was (at the moment). That was probably the job where I got to pay attention to the most aspects of storytelling and production. But I would have periods where I felt I needed to elevate and move forward.
THR: How closely is your career intertwined with that of your wife, Jada Pinkett Smith?
Smith: We keep our careers fairly separate; we definitely give one another notes and perspectives on all of our creative endeavors, but for the most part, we both do our own thing with our careers, knowing that we have the support of one another if we need it.
THR: Have you ever been afraid that you might end up like the character you play in your new film for Sony, "The Pursuit of Happyness," hitting rock bottom and in a homeless shelter?
Smith: I've definitely had a few difficult times financially, and there is absolutely a fear of that. (But) when I experienced those (difficult) situations, I was single with no children. When you bring a child into it -- the weight that that leaves on your heart and your mind has to feel like the ultimate failure.