Will Smith: "I Could Absolutely be the President of the U.S."
Will Smith, in a deep-blue V-neck sweater with tailored collar peeking out, enters and eyes an African-American reporter sitting in the back of the room.
"Barack’s the President," he quips, "you don’t have to sit back there." We all laugh and smile at each other as he circles the room, shaking hands, being almost scarily personable. He’s noted "I could absolutely be the president of the United States if I wanted to," and the truth is, in these days, he probably could be.
Smith has an infectious charisma that sets the room at ease, and that is remarkably different from the tortured character he plays in his upcoming film Seven Pounds. But this Wednesday morning, the actor is accessible and ready to talk at length. Will Smith discusses "male chick flicks," how the ad campaign for his new film is like the U.S. invasion of Normandy, and of course, the new president.
Slide Show: Will Smith at St. Louis premiere for Seven Pounds
Since you brought it up, what are you feelings on the election of Barack Obama?
It was something that I preached as true for a long time, even quipped about, "I could absolutely be the president of the United States if I wanted to." I led my life and carried myself in that way, and it was like some deep rooted part of me, part of a belief system, got validated. I’ve studied the declaration of independence and the constitution and it’s like those are some of the finest words ever committed to paper, some of the finest ideas, some of the most well-crafted concepts that have ever been committed to paper about the way human beings should treat one another.
All of that got validated as truth, you know, it’s: "America is not a racist nation." We have a horrible history, but America is not a racist nation. There are racist people who live here, but as a whole, America is one of the finest nations that has ever existed in the history of the planet. And I’ve always believed that, and there was visible validation of something that was deep and spiritual and powerful inside of me.
Speaking of Barack, do you guys talk, do your kids hangout? have you been offered a cabinet position yet?
I wanna be the ambassador to Brazil, or something. Not yet, the kids haven't…
No play dates?
Nope, no play dates yet. It's pretty much been all work, I met him on the campaign trail, so there really hasn't been a "hey, what's going on" meeting, there's been none of that. It's been all work, and probably will be for the next eight years. We'll probably get to sit down in 2016, sometime, to have our cabinet discussion.
Obama has been called a rock star, and compared with celebrities. Have there been many comparisons with you?
It's the ears, the ears; it's a problem Barack and I are gonna have to live with, it's just the truth of who we are. That energy that you're talking about, that's a rock star energy, people don't bring that. Ideas bring that.
When someone's a rock star and you look at someone, it's: "they caused that thing;" it's because they're touching a spirit inside of you -- about something you believe, that you're connecting to something that you believe that they believe. You can't sing well enough to give someone that feeling. It's what you're singing that connects to that person.
With Michael Jackson, when we were growing up, it wasn't just that he had a fantastic voice; it was that he was six. You know? That guy is six. God has to give you that, so that's what we were looking at, with Michael Jackson. You know, he trained and he worked hard, but he was touched in a way, and Quincy Jones said "God touches all of our shoulders, but he just leaves his hand hanging a little bit longer on some peoples' shoulders," you know, and that's the thing about that rock star thing, it's ideas that speak to some part of us.
Speaking of rock stars, you claimed this millennium as yours—
—right, the Willenium.
Right, has anyone else tried to stake their claim on the millennium, and have you had to fight back for it?
Well, no one has tried to stake their claim -- it was 2000 when I called this the new Willenium, so I'm actually kind of counting on Barack as a part of the new Willenium. I'm counting on that as a part of something that I prophesized.
The last few roles of yours—I Am Legend, Pursuit of Happyness, Hancock -- you play these tragic, tortured characters. Was there any premeditation in that? and how has playing those characters veered from your normally bubbly self?
I've been studying story for about that last eight years, and I've been having such revelations about story, and what stories are for, and going back and reading ancient stories in foreign languages. And I realized why human beings told stories; the whole purpose of telling stories is to reveal a pattern about life. To reveal a truth about existence. When the first cavemen chopped stuff on the walls, they were telling stories, you know "Yo, man there's a lion over there by that tree, don't go over there." That was the purpose of telling stories.
I've always connected to a release. I've always wanted to be able to make and tell stories, like in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Independence Day, the really sort of basic ideas that give you a good feeling, you know, like church, you get a good feeling to be able to start the week. So I've always wanted to do that, and be able to create that. But then there's the other side, the revelation of a pattern, that says "Ay, don't go this way, cause this will happen, or, you should go this way, because this happens."
I probably started being able to get control of that a little bit with Pursuit of Happyness, and then with I Am Legend, and into Hancock a little bit to just start burying those ideas and concepts. Seven Pounds probably marks the first time that I feel like I kind of got a hold of it a little bit, and was able to give the performance and also be able to have the concepts and ideas. It's really a cautionary tale.
There's what Oprah refers to as "seven seconds in this movie that will change your life forever," and we can't talk about it, you would give stuff away. But what he was doing while he was supposed to be doing something else, that idea, entire movie is precipitated by that one little moment of stupidity. And just how things deteriorate from those single moments in our lives, that you really just can't afford to be unconscious in your existence, because in just a second you can say something or do something that will change things forever.
And then on the other side of that idea, there's the concept that no matter what you lose, no matter what you destroy, no matter what happens—and with this character it's a cautionary tale, because he didn't realize the power of love as a catalyst for rebirth. There's birth, life, death, but it doesn't end at death—we act like it ends at death, something dies, we lose something, something's over; that's not the way it works, the next step is actually rebirth. There's winter and the trees look like they're dead, and you can't grow nothing, and you can't find no food, and it's a really bad time, but the spring is always coming. So that's another idea that's sort of woven into the fabric of the story.
And that was probably way too much for that. You're just asking "Why're you making all these dark-ass movies?"
Slide Show: Will Smith at St. Louis premiere for Seven Pounds
How did you get your hands on the script, and what did you think about it?
When I first read it, the idea of the accident wasn't in the first draft. You know, and I was reading it and there was the cool device, with the seven people and all the numerology and all of that's cool, but it was missing that thing, it was missing the driving force, what I call the trauma. And [Director] Gabriele Muccino, he read the script and he came up with that idea. And I've always thought it was beautiful, I've always thought it was a great idea, but it didn't have that element. Then when Gabriele created that element it started to blossom, when he gave a reason for all the actions that he was undertaking. However insane the reasoning might be, it was something that, as an actor, I could get my head around.
So are you and Gabriele Muccino going to work together again?
Oh, yeah, he's a fantastic director, we have a very similar sense of character. And he has a very unique ability: he makes male chick flicks.
We had an NFL screening for Pursuit of Happyness, so it was like the minimum weight in the room was like 310. And I'm watching all of these big guys, and Michael Irving was there, who is a tight-end for the Cowboys, he's about 6'5" or something like that, he's sitting there with his wife. And the part in Pursuit comes to where I put my foot on the door, and he turns to his wife and says "Woman, you sitting over there crying?" And she says, "No, Michael, that's you."
So Gabriele has this really unique ability to make really masculine, male stories; you can really relate to the strength of the characters and all that, but it's just tearing guys up, sitting there watching those movies, I think Seven Pounds has that same thing.
Would you consider the character Ben Thomas in 7 Pounds a hero much like the other characters you've played?
What we landed on in this movie was, as filmmakers, we didn't want to make a choice. There was a version of the film where the music was different, there was a voice-over at the end, and we made the choice and led the audience down. But we haven't done that this whole movie. So let's let it be what it is, and let people decide. Which is scary for me, because the movies that I make take a stance, and I say, this is what I think, and here it is, and I'm going to make the music at the end real loud, so ya'll'll know, that this is what I think. But what we found is the artistry of this, and if you do that, it cut out half of the ideas and patterns that are there.
There are people, like Alfonso Rivera, who played Carlton on Fresh Prince. He saw it the other day and he said "I was angry. I was angry at Ben," He said. "Why did he refuse to hope?" And then Karen Parsons, who played Hilary (I had a Fresh Prince screening) she was like "No, that's the point. It's that he loved her so much that he refused to hope. He wasn't gonna let God make the decision like God made the decision last time. He's gonna make the decision this time." She was like, "didn't you get it, he's an engineer. That's the whole point. It's like, he's gonna build it, he's gonna fix it, he's gonna design it so it comes out the way it's supposed to come out, he's not gonna let God design it." And I was like, "wow," you know, when we were creating it that's what we were hoping to do, to create it in the way, that it sparks and polarizes people in that way that they will have the conversations and illuminate the ideas.
Slide Show: Will Smith at St. Louis premiere for Seven Pounds
If you were faced with that situation, would you have done the same thing?
Phew, I'm gonna take a line from Nelson Mandela. One time we were in South Africa, and they were asking about the new South African president. And he said: "I'm going to have to ask you to speak up, I have a hard time hearing difficult questions."
You know, if it was Jada, could I just stand there and hope, if I had that possibility, and I don't want to talk too much to blow it for the readers, but it's different when you have kids, it's a different dynamic when you have kids. Then you have a responsibility to your kids and all that. But I think Ben did what he did out of love. And I think that if I did what Ben did, I would be doing it out of cowardice. It's a really fine line. I think I would convince myself that it was noble, but at the end of the day in the back of my mind I would know that it would be out of cowardice, that I wouldn't want to face the next day, without Jada.
Does playing someone so dark affect you?
This one really messed me up so bad. Six Degrees of Separation [one of Smith's earliest films] was the only other movie that twisted me up in that way. As an actor, what you try to do is try to reprogram your instincts, so you have an instinctual, not an acting, reaction. So you train it and train it and train it, and do it and do it and do it, until it starts happening without you knowing. But there's also the de-training.
So what happens is, you don't realize—you're sitting at the dinner table with Jada and the kids, and everybody's quiet. "Why you all so quiet," and Jada's like "Dude, cause you're being weird." And I didn't realize it at all. One of the things that the character would do is, I programmed myself that he's trying to find good people. And I had given myself this idea that he's sees people with a mask on. And he's trying to see around the mask, or through the mask, to see if they're a good person.
So what happened was I developed this physical thing where I would try to look around the mask. So if somebody turns their head, he's really trying to look around the mask, but to keep his mask on at the same time.
But I developed this to the point that I didn't know I was doing it. So I'm at the dinner table with the kids, and they're like "Dude, whatever that role it, you should just stay at a hotel till you get finished with that. And it really does, just the darkness and the weight and the heaviness, it gets on your spirit, if you want to be able to perform well, there's a certain part of it that's almost hypnotism. And you really believe it, and it took me six or seven weeks after the movie was over to really shake it off. So the next one's gonna be a comedy.
Slide Show: Will Smith at St. Louis premiere for Seven Pounds
How difficult is it to talk about a film like this where so much is dependant on the audience not knowing?
Well that's where I need you guys. It's extremely difficult for two reasons. First, it's difficult because you don't want to ruin the movie. But secondly, it's difficult for me, because the mission statement for our company is to create extraordinary entertainment art and deliver to all people in the world. And part of that is the one-line of the movie: "an alcoholic super-hero" Everybody's coming to see that movie. "The last man on earth is not alone." Everybody's coming to see that movie. So it's difficult with this one, where we have a fantastic line… if we tell people, you know this a dude that's giving… I mean, we can come up with that line that'll make people come to see this movie, so to have to hold that back is excruciating, because it's like you have a knock-out punch that you're not gonna throw, but you're gonna be in the fight. It's like, the US going into Normandy, sending ground troops, but we got the atomic bomb, but we gonna send the ground troops...but, you don't need to. So it's one of those situations.
It was recently noted that you were the first actor to reach the $100 million-plus mark for eight consecutive movies. How do you feel about that?
I'm not gonna comment until it's ten. [Laughs] No, for me, box office isn't about money, for me. People go to work with jobs they don't like and bosses they hate and they slave for the money they get. And then Friday night comes and they have the 24-plex of all the choices of movies. And they're gonna take that hard money and put it down on my movie. I don't take that lightly. That is a fantastic vote of confidence.
And for me, I feel like that my part of that is to always give or create something that is, at a minimum, good. You know, I'll always try to make something extraordinary or fantastic, but I hate it when people go into one of my movies and they don't have a transformative experience. So I would say it's hugely important for me, more in a relationship sense. I look at the numbers more in a relationship sense than a financial sense. If that is…clear. It got confused in my head while I was saying it.
There was talk of a Independence Day 2?
He [Director Roland Emmerich] was trying to do another one, he had an interesting idea, but he didn't love it enough to send me a script. What's it been, 20 years? He said something about all the space ships crashed around the world and the aliens had burrowed, and no one knew. And humanity didn't know, but they had been breeding… but the script never came.
It's been said you made a bet with your parents during high school, about college...
Oh, it wasn't a bet, but my father was in the Air Force, and my mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon, so education in America was like really important in our family. So going to college was huge. My first record came out around 30 days before I graduated from high school, which, by the way, is not a good thing. If you have kids, hold their record until after they get out of high school. You do not want to have a hit record and be a senior. No good comes out of that.
My brother and sister had gone to Hampton University, so my mother went and she did everything, was filling out all of my things, and making me go on all the college tours, but I had no intention of going to college. It came down to the last few months, I had to tell my parents, listen I want to try to be a rapper. My mother thought that was the dumbest crap she had ever heard in her life. My father said, "Listen, take a year, and if you can make it happen, make it happen. If not, next year, you'll come back and pick one of these brochures that your mother filled out. In that year, we recorded "Parents Just don't understand," which won the first Grammy ever given to a rap artist… so, my mom's cool with that. Every once in awhile just for fun, "you know you need to go back and get your degree." I'm okay, mommy, they might sell me one.
Are you getting back to making music anytime?
No desire to get back into music.
You speak some Spanish in the film, and smatterings elsewhere. Are you fluent?
Hablo un poquito, pero necessito practicar mas.
There's this photo of you and Jazzy Jeff at the Million Man March...
Oh, man, that was huge. It was one of the only times in my life that I felt totally safe. There's just a weight of life that you carry around, but in that place, it was one of the only points in my life where I felt invincible. It was a beautiful and powerful, you felt like you could lose your kids in the crowd and not worry, someone would bring your kids at some point. It was such a strong spiritual… the entire country feels like that now. People want good things to happen, they're willing to put their differences aside to figure out how to make good things happen.
What is the thing that drives you most?
I want my life to mean something. I've sort of stumbled across the idea that real happiness is in service. How many people can you help, how many people can you feed, how many people can keep their house because of you, how many people have a better day, how many people smile, how many lives are better because you woke up today?
That's the mission that I'm on right now with the businesses that we're trying to start. We're looking at the crash of Wall Street. People have the wrong ideas about capitalism. Capitalism doesn't mean that you rape and pillage as many people as you can just because it's legal. I want to start business that have some concept and some idea of how to rebuild and circulate the winds.
If the team is losing, that's one thing, then everybody needs to suffer if we're losing.
But when we're winning, we shouldn't be winning as a company or winning as a country or winning as business, but the people at the bottom are losing. That's actually bad for capitalism, that's actually bad for the community, that's bad for us. I'm just really inspired about creating new models, and a thousand years from now I want my name to be on one of the walls in this country, or be somewhere.