“I don’t find it difficult at all to make a hit movie,” says Will Smith, arguably the biggest movie star on the planet for the past 20 years, as we sit down to tape the 13th episode of Awards Chatter, the first podcast that he’s ever done. “I find it really freaking hard to make a good movie.”
Smith’s latest film, Concussion, in which he portrays the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who took on the National Football League for suppressing evidence that concussions cause players long-term harm, is likely to be received as both. Indeed, the hard-hitting drama, which had its world premiere at AFI Fest on Nov. 10 and will be released by Columbia nationwide on Christmas Day, almost certainly will bring Smith his third Oscar nomination for best actor (the previous two also came for biopics, 2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness) — and could even result in his first win.
Over the course of 45 minutes, which you can listen to or read excerpts of below, the 47-year-old speaks candidly about, among other things, what drove him to shift his focus from rapping to acting; the strategy he set at the outset of his career that has guided it ever since; why he’s willing to risk offending some members of his loyal fan-base by making a film critical of the NFL; and what his aims are for the years ahead — among them, it turns out, is entering the political arena “at some point in the near future” in order to try to change a socio-political climate that has left him “incensed to a level that I can’t sleep.” (Might the Fresh Prince want to become the Fresh President? More on that later.)
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet/Seth Rogen/Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani/Michael Shannon, Ridley Scott, F. Gary Gray/O’Shea Jackson, Jr./Corey Hawkins/Jason Mitchell, Ian McKellen, Brie Larson, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Amy Schumer, Paul Dano/Elizabeth Banks/Bill Pohlad — on iTunes.)
Smith’s remarkable journey from West Philadelphia rapper — nicknamed “Prince,” as in “Prince Charming,” by an elementary school teacher he kissed up to, he added “Fresh” when that slang came along — to Hollywood superstar Will Smith was motivated by the simplest of things: a girlfriend cheating on him when he was 15 (“I made a pact with myself that if I would just be the best in the world at everything, no one would ever cheat on me again”) and a grandmother whose approval he craved (“There was a look of pride that my grandmother used to have when she would watch me perform, so for my entire career I’ve yearned for that look”).
The navigator of the journey, in a sense, was James Lassiter, a childhood friend who used to hand off records to Smith’s turntable rival-turned-partner Jeffrey Townes, aka “DJ Jazzy Jeff.” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince put out their first record in 1986, 30 days before Smith graduated from high school, and they were big on the rap scene for the next few years — even winning the first Grammy ever given to a rap artist, for 1988’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Lassiter, meanwhile, had gone off to law school, procured a degree and returned to become Smith’s manager.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s sophomore album “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper,” released that same year, went multi-platinum, but its follow-up the next year performed below expectations. When Smith arrived at the realization that “the musical days were going to be numbered,” he initiated a conversation with Lassiter.
Smith recalls, “I said, ‘You know what? I want to try something. I want to try acting.’ ” Soon after, he was cast in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which premiered in 1990. “Quincy Jones saw my music videos and he came to me, with Benny Medina, with the ideas for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And he never actually asked me if I could act. He just assumed that I could, from what he had seen in the music videos.” In reality, Smith wasn’t a trained actor, but he felt comfortable in front of the cameras (“I was doing me“), learned from those around him (“That was my acting school … everybody was stage trained”), and the show was a hit.
Before long, big screen opportunities began to come Smith’s way, which, he remembers, led to another conversation with Lassiter: “I said to JL, ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.’ And he said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s figure out what that means.’ And he went and got the top 10 movies of all time, the list of the top 10 movies of all time at the box office — top 10 box office successes — and we also looked at them, adjusted for inflation and views versus dollar value. Also, we looked at all the different variations. What we found is at the center, there were always special effects. So it was always special effects, there was always creatures, there was always a love story. So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story.”
That conversation provided Smith with a roadmap for the sorts of films and parts he would take on and, with precious few exceptions, it has held him in good stead ever since. Following a supporting performance in Six Degrees of Separation (1993) that proved he had chops — “That was at a time no one was taking me seriously, no one thought that I could actually act,” he says — he embarked on a virtually uninterrupted string of massive hits, with him at their center. Among his huge blockbusters: Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), Men in Black II (2002), Bad Boys II (2003), I, Robot (2004), Hitch (2005), I Am Legend (2007), Hancock (2008) and Men in Black 3 (2012). Per Wikipedia, he is the only actor to have eight consecutive films open atop the domestic box-office, eight consecutive films gross over $100 million domestically and 11 consecutive films gross over $150 million internationally.
Of his rare misfires, such as Wild Wild West (1999), Smith wryly notes, “For me, a quarter of billion dollars at the worldwide box office is a flop,” adding with a chuckle, “[2013’s After Earth] only did a quarter of a billion.” But he does concede that he felt down about the under-performance of that film, the story of which he conceived and which starred his son Jaden — for a while. “That Monday morning, after the box office receipts came out, I had about 10 or 12 minutes where I was sulking, and then I got the phone call that my father had been diagnosed with cancer. And I was like, ‘Yup, thank you, God. Got it. Absolutely. Got it. I get it.’ I went downstairs, I got on the treadmill. I did my hour on the treadmill and then I flew to Philly to see my father.” Ever since then, he’s kept much better perspective about things.
Aside from his “Midas touch” at the movies, Smith’s stardom has been solidified and sustained by his unusually pristine image in real-life: he’s been married to actress Jada Pinkett-Smith since 1997; he is, by all accounts, a great father to his talented children Trey, 23, his son from his prior marriage to Sheree Zampino (1992-1995), and Jaden, 17, and Willow, 15, his son and daughter, respectively, with Pinkett-Smith; he’s always been gracious with press and fans; and he’s never run afoul with the law. For someone who has been in the public eye for as long as he has, that’s a rather remarkable track record.
He is the first to acknowledge that he was fortunate to come to prominence at a time before the digital revolution: “If I had to grow up in the age of the Internet and Twitter, there’d be a very, very different story that would be written. Fortunately, most of my career, I was shielded from that level of scrutiny. There actually was privacy. There was actually the ability to create mystery. Movie stars need mystery. People need to not know in order to come to see you in a movie theater, whereas music is slightly different. People want to know you. They want to feel connected to you. So I had the opportunity to create the level of mystery in my life that it takes to be a movie star.” He adds, “I’d be really interested to see if there will be any new movie stars. It’s a difficult thing to create.”
With his box-office bona fides firmly established, Smith has ventured, every few years, away from the formula that he and Lassiter set out to follow, and towards biopics of the sort that the Hollywood establishment tends to respect and reward with accolades: Michael Mann’s Ali, in which he plays the greatest boxer — and one of the greatest characters — in history, Muhammad Ali; Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness, in which he plays Chris Gardner, a smart and decent man and father of a young boy, who falls into and works his way out of homelessness; and now Peter Landesman’s Concussion, in which he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the brilliant Nigerian immigrant to America who established the connection between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Smith says he’s proud of all of his films, regardless of their sort — he calls one kind “popcorn” and other kind “gourmet popcorn,” and he professes, “I’m obsessed with trying to put small character dramas into the middle of blockbuster packages. The most successful I’ve ever been with that concept is I Am Legend. I Am Legend easily could’ve been a stage play, right? You know, a one-man show, a dude with a dog — you generally would think you need a little bit more than that for a blockbuster, but to date that’s my biggest opening and my second biggest film. So that’s an obsession for me, to not act so much that people don’t want to see it. You [can] act so much that you turn people off, or you [can] put so many creatures in it that now people don’t take the acting seriously.”
That said, he admits that his own-viewing habits gravitate toward “gourmet popcorn,” saying, “I’m almost exclusively a small character-drama watcher. If a movie goes crazy globally, then I’ll go see it in a theater to see what people are excited about, but for the most part, I got popcorn. Popcorn is not what I’m struggling for.” And, he grants, the pressure that comes with making biopics is different and greater in nature than his other sorts of projects: “The stakes for me, in biopics, is 10 times as high, because at the end of this process, I’m going to sit in a movie theater next to the person who I’ve played. I’ve only ever played people who are still living, so there’s pros and cons to that. The pros are that if you get stuck in a scene, you can actually call the person … But then there’s that difficult thing that never seems to dawn on me in the beginning. I always get in and then remember, three quarters of the way through the process, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to watch this with their family!'” To Smith’s relief, all of the real people he’s played have offered ringing endorsements of his work, none more so than Omalu, who said after its premiere that Smith’s portrayal of him was, in his view, “perfection.”
Concussion represented an unusual challenge for Smith, who heretofore has avoided projects that might turn off some who might otherwise buy tickets to his movies. “It was a huge conflict for me to make this movie,” he says. “I’m a football dad. I grew up in Philly, with my Philadelphia Eagles, so the idea of making a movie that illuminated this particular issue was not something I was chomping at the bit to be a part of. But I read the screenplay, and it was really, really well written. And then, I met with Dr. Omalu and he told me his story, and I’m looking at his eyes while he’s telling his story, and as an artist, it’s the type of story you live for, to have a person with this type of experience that you can talk to, and there’s social ramifications to the piece, and it’s also a brilliant story about the American dream. You know, so it’s all of those elements. And then, you have the part of it that it’s actually about an issue that’s close to my heart, also. My son was out there on that football field and I had no idea that there was a possibility, through repeated head trauma, that he could suffer long-term brain damage. I had no idea that that was a possibility. So then, I was impelled as a parent — I had to tell this story.”
As always, though, he wanted to make the performance both powerful and accessible to his fans who were willing to stand by him and come out for a different sort of Will Smith project. “I think Will Smith doing a Nigerian accent is not something that moviegoers are charging to the theater to see,” he cracks. “I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to deliver it in a way that wasn’t distracting. [I thought], ‘I might not be the actor for this,’ and I looked at it and I worked for about six weeks to get started on the accent, and then it fell into a place where I started to feel confident that I could dial it down to a level that it was authentic, but not distracting.”
One thing he was not willing to compromise on, once he climbed aboard the project, was the film’s depiction of what Omalu found — indeed, he was so commited to understanding the truth himself and then sharing it with others that he personally observed five real autopsies. For this reason, it was upsetting to him when The New York Times ran a story on Sept. 1, before the movie had been unveiled, that suggested the filmmakers had watered down the film to appease the NFL. Smith counters, “We were focused on telling Bennet Omalu’s truth. I had no contact with the NFL. And we had no intention of watering any aspect of this film down. The entire point that Bennet Omalu was making was ‘Tell the truth,’ you know? So our big struggle was not to sensationalize, and we kept very heavy focus on making sure the things that we were saying and the things that we were doing in the film [were accurate]. Even the juxtaposition of imagery is a huge thing — what you’re cutting from [and] to makes a statement. So we were very, very careful to make sure that we weren’t trying to paint good guys and bad guys. Bennet kept saying, ‘The truth doesn’t have a side.'”
Smith hopes that people who see Concussion will be as inspired by Omalu as he was. “I would love for people to take away the importance of standing up, the importance of using your faith or whatever strength you have to call on to tell and demand the truth. I think that there is such a potential higher quality of human interaction, if we could tell each other the truth, and then also if we could make receptive places for the truth.” He continues, “I’d [also] love for people to take away Dr. Omalu’s reverence for the American dream.” Smith shares that love of America himself: “America’s the only place on Earth that I could exist. No other country on Earth produces Will Smiths, you know?” He adds, “If you look back historically, of how black people have had it on the planet, America is elevating quite well, based on the history of our people.”
That is not to say Smith is content with the state of affairs in America right now — in fact, he’s far from it. He catches me off-guard with his next declaration: “I’m a climber, so if I see a mountain, I have to climb it. I’m not a camper; I don’t like hanging in one place too long. So I think, at this point, I’m elevating my ability to be useful in the world. I think that that’s what my grandmother always hoped, that I would make myself useful to people in this lifetime. I’m working really hard and my storytelling is elevating, my ability to be eloquent with my body and with my voice and to deliver ideas as an actor is elevating. And, you know, as I look at the political landscape, I think that there might be a future out there for me. They might need me out there. This is the first year that I’ve been incensed to a level that I can’t sleep, you know? So I’m feeling that at some point, in the near future, I will have to lend my voice to the conversation in a somewhat different way.”
Earlier in our conversation, Smith said of his acting abilities, “I don’t consider myself particularly talented — I consider myself slightly above average in talent — but nobody’s going to outwork me. I’ll take a slight talent and then add the skill to it and can make it look magnificent, you know?” Perhaps that approach can work magic in other areas, as well.
Concussion, a Columbia release, will debut in theaters nationwide on Dec. 25. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Smith for best actor.