Former Fresh Prince gets serious about acting

‘I’ve had growth as an actor and as an artist and as a man’ says Will Smith

By Miki Turner
MSNBC contributor

NEW YORK - It might be about time that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air becomes King William of Hollywoodland.

Will Smith, the world’s most bankable raptor (rapper-turned-actor), has gone from sitcom star to Oscar nominee to pursing happiness in a film that just might become the defining role of his career.

Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner in the rags-to-riches saga “The Pursuit of Happyness,” is already generating Oscar buzz and is projected to do well at the box office when it hits theaters on Dec. 15. Smith, however, isn’t that concerned about the magazine polls or the box office receipts because he has already received the ultimate reward for his efforts.

“I’ve had growth as an actor and as an artist and as a man and that is overshadowing numbers right now,” said Smith, dressed in a charcoal gray turtleneck with matching slacks and a tweed blazer. “I’m excited about the possibilities of moving people. I have a deep desire to do good. I want the world to be better because I was here. This is one of those rare opportunities with the limited gifts that I’ve been given that my artistry can potentially make a difference. It’s one of those films where the idea just hits dead center.

“If this movie doesn’t make a dime, I just want people to see it.”

‘Tis true. Inspired by actual events, Chris Gardner’s story is as American as a tall decaf mocha latte with soy. Gardner was once a struggling, homeless, single father who wrangled his way into a non-paying internship program at a top brokerage firm in San Francisco. His wife (Thandie Newton) grew weary of his get-rich-quick schemes and abandoned her husband and young son (Jaden Smith) to pursue her own happiness.

The plethora of dramatic and emotional arcs in Gardner’s story will certainly have some folks reaching for their hankies — especially during the scenes between father and son.

With a little help from his son

Smith’s real-life 8-year-old son Jaden plays 5-year-old Christopher in the film. It’s Jaden’s acting debut — yes, he had to audition for director Gabriele Muccino — and his dad couldn’t be prouder or more grateful for the lessons he learned working with the eldest of the two children he’s had with wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

“What it taught me — it’s interesting on camera and off with Jaden — is that the bottom line is time,” the 38-year-old Philadelphia native said. “The amount of time you spend with your child. If it’s in the bathroom or like Chris Gardner said on ‘Oprah,’ in a million-dollar home, it’s the time. And Jaden and I got to spend every single day, 10 to 12 hours a day together working on this film. It became clear that whatever you have to offer financially doesn’t matter. Whatever situation you’re in, it doesn’t matter. You have to be there. You have to be with your child. To be able to spend that many hours a day together, our bond took off in a way that I never imagined.”

Jaden, whom Smith says has his heart set on appearing in a comedy next, apparently subscribes to the Biblical adage that “a child will lead them.” Although his dad got an Oscan nomination portraying Muhammad Ali in “Ali,” and has appeared in such box-office hits as “Men in Black,” “Bad Boys,” “Hitch,” “I, Robot” and “Independence Day,” Jaden had no qualms about critiquing his pop’s technique.

“I was struggling with a scene and [director] Gabriele Muccino would come and give me notes,” Smith said. “Every time Gabriele would give me notes and wouldn’t give any to Jaden; Jaden took that as him winning [laughs]! He would look at me like I got a note and he didn’t.

“So, it was a particularly difficult scene I was struggling with and Jaden said to me, ‘You do the same thing every take Daddy.’ I was a little offended by that but what he was saying was that innately he couldn’t understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time. He was feeling like that’s not real. I thought we were supposed to be making this real. And I started watching him and he broke me out of a mechanical space.”

Pleasing Chris Gardner was key

Playing real-life characters, however, is often daunting even for veteran thespians. Gardner, an associate producer on the film, was on the set nearly every day. Smith said Gardner’s journey reminded him of Nelson Mandela. “He’s a man who survived the things he survived and still have a big belly laugh,” Smith said. “There’s always going to be the scar tissue of traumatic experiences. But he’s so peaceful walking through it.”

Although Smith felt he nailed the character he nonetheless was very nervous when he accompanied Gardner, who is now the owner and CEO of his own investment company, to view the completed film for the first time.

“I sat behind him when he watched the movie, which is the most gut-wrenching thing you could ever do is make a film about somebody’s life and then sit in the theater with them while they watch it,” Smith said. “I did that with Chris and with Ali and I’m not doing that any more!”

Gardner’s reaction?

“He was crying and thanked me for the service to his family,” Smith said. “For me, that was a win and all of this is gravy time now.”

It sounds as though Smith has already completed his mission. He’s transformed himself from a place in which his performances were often overshadowed by Computer-Generated Images to one where he can and will probably challenge the way people view him and the world around them.

“I know how to make a movie make $100 million,” he said. “I know how to do it. I’ve studied the hero’s journey. I know what the Top 10 films of all time are, I know you need special effects, I know you need creatures and a love story. I know how to do it.

“For me, I’ve never had the feeling from people that I’m getting with ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ The way that this film is touching people — I’ve just never had this experience before. And it just came from such a freedom space that I had no idea of what I was doing the whole time. I connected with Chris Gardner and we looked in one another’s eyes and I said ‘I’m going to learn your story and I’m going to tell your story.’ He said just tell the truth. I went and found the truth.”


For the Fresh Prince, films are family business

By Donna Freydkin

NEW YORK — Will Smith doesn't stroll. He strides. His every step has a purpose, his every word a point.

"I planned every movement of my career up until this point, starting with probably midway through The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when I started choosing movies," he says, leaning forward, his brown eyes beacons of intensity.

"What we call luck, what we call chance, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If you stay ready, you ain't gotta get ready."

Smith has meticulously plotted his ascent and today is the person least surprised by where he finds himself: as perhaps one of Hollywood's most bankable and appealing leading men.

If money talks, then Smith, 38, delivers the numbers. He commands more than $20 million a movie, and the last three films he has headlined — 2003's Bad Boys II, 2004's I, Robot and 2005's Hitch— have grossed more than $400 million total in the USA.

With his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, by his side, the father of Trey, 13, Jaden, 8, and Willow, 6, has soared up the A-list without the slightest whiff of scandal and with a burnished all-American image.

"He has such a definite personality, and it transcends issues of complexion or culture or ethnicity," says Michael Mann, who directed Smith to a best-actor Oscar nomination for 2001's Ali.

Smith mixes the popcorn with the potent, as in The Pursuit of Happyness, which opens Dec. 15 amid positive buzz and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey.

This time, Smith plays the real-life Chris Gardner, a single father with big dreams of becoming a stockbroker. He interns at a brokerage by day and sleeps in homeless shelters, subway stations and motels with his son at night.

Despite Smith's multimillion-dollar paychecks, he says he related to Gardner's single-minded drive to make something of himself — with one crucial variation.

"When I was broke, it was different, because I was by myself. It is a completely different world to be broke by yourself than to be broke with a child."

Like Gardner, who in the movie has his bank account garnished by the IRS, Smith had a run-in with the tax man when he was starting out as rapper the Fresh Prince with his sidekick Jazzy Jeff.

"When the IRS came and took all my stuff, I was by myself. Jeff and I had one of the first 900 numbers. We made a lot of money," Smith says. "We didn't purposely not pay taxes. You get paid in cash, and you forget those things. But being down in that situation was so different from the feeling of walking in Chris Gardner's steps, that feeling of ultimate parental failure."

The victim of Gardner's life is his son, Christopher, played in the film by Smith's own offspring Jaden.

Playing his dad's son in the film wasn't a cheery cakewalk. Jaden has to cry, particularly in one ravaging scene in which he loses the one toy he has left and a stressed-out Smith gets rough. Jaden says he thought of "sad things" to bring on the waterworks but won't reveal details.

And Italian director Gabriele Muccino, handpicked by Smith, says getting physical with his son proved tough for Smith. "A real father gets mad at his son. I wanted to push," Muccino says. "The scene was difficult for both of them, for Will because he has to be so mad at his son, and for his son because he has to cry." Jaden "really put himself into this kid's shoes. It took five or 10 seconds. He was ready, and he was crying."

The Smiths had no qualms about giving their son such a high-profile role in a major studio release. "Anytime you can introduce your children to a business or a potential career and something that has fulfilled you and can potentially fulfill them, and it happens to be in your greatest sphere of knowledge, that's unbeatable," Smith says.

Plus, "the world is going to be hard, no matter what he chooses to do. Being in a field that I understand is beautiful for me. I'd much rather he be an actor than a subatomic physicist."

Jaden, who sits in on part of the interview with his father, sprawls across his lap. "Let's try to get settled," Smith says, urging his son to focus on the interview and not his PlayStation Portable. "You're at work, buddy. You don't play video games at work."

His son lolls backward in Smith's arms, playfully punches his dad's palms and gets a kiss on his forehead. Intermittently, he throws in a few words, as his mom watches the interview from an easy chair nearby.

Hollywood in their blood

In a sense, Smith's children were raised to be on camera; Trey (from Smith's first marriage) was a special correspondent for Access Hollywood, and Willow stars as Smith's daughter in next fall's I Am Legend. It all started when Smith bought a video camera for one of Trey's birthdays and shot home movies featuring his kids.

On the Happyness set, Jaden says, Smith is "always in character. Always."

"We had a little bit of fun, right?" Smith asks. "We had night shoots one time when it was hard." Responds Jaden: "We played when it wasn't a scene."

A late-night one involved a slice of pie. "I didn't want to eat that pizza," the boy says. "I don't even like the crust of the pizza, so I put the crust in my mouth, and I pretended like I bit it, but I didn't."

Says his dad: "See, that was an acting trick I taught you! Where I took a bite out of the pizza for him and when they said 'action,' he just put his mouth over the bite mark, and he had a piece of crust in his mouth so he pretended like he was chewing it."

The Smiths say Jaden came to his starring role by accident, not default, beating out 100 kids for the part. "He wanted to audition," Pinkett Smith says with a dismissive roll of her eyes. "So we said, 'All right.' "

Jaden, who wants to keep acting and longs to appear on Disney's That's So Raven or The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, starts scribbling on a pad of paper.

"Are you done?" his dad asks. "You're done. He's drifting."

"Daddy, what's drifting?" Jaden asks.

"That's drifting," Smith responds, holding up the sheet of paper with gibberish on it. "We're trying to let him find his own tempo." Jaden opts to be near his father and moves away to play video games under the supervision of his mom.

Ask anyone about Smith's own tempo, and his co-stars make him sound like the Energizer bunny. Smith has "boundless energy. He's a real force of nature," says Thandie Newton, who plays his embittered wife in Happyness.

When he's out, Smith hugs reporters, high-fives fans and beams that ear-to-ear grin of his. He exudes buoyancy and confidence and believes he could be president, although he denies any plans to run for office. And he could learn to fly the space shuttle.

"I have no illusions, no doubts at all," he says. "There's a power in believing something that manifests itself in reality."

Ever since the Philly native broke out as a rapper 20 years ago, ultimately winning four Grammys, he has never deviated from his clean-cut, upbeat public persona. At times, you get a peek behind his game face. When he arrives for a photo shoot earlier that day, his expression is serious and focused, that grin invisible.

"Will's a smart man. When we work, we work really hard. But it's always fun, a lot of goofing around," Mann says. "On Ali, I'd have Will and Jamie Foxx and Jon Voight, all cracking jokes and basically doing standup for 1,000 extras."

He always has been uncompromising, even when playing a goofy, gangly kid living with his rich relatives on NBC's hit The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1990 to 1996. Even then, his co-star Alfonso Ribeiro says, Smith demanded "perfection. When people don't want perfection, that's probably the only thing that gets him upset."

Smith also is a chivalrous actor, says Mann, who's also producing Smith's 2008 release Tonight, He Comes. "A girl on the set makes a move and winds up exposing herself, and out of the corner of your eye, you see Will look away."

Eva Mendes, who co-starred with Smith in the 2005 comedy smash Hitch, says the actor is "a brainiac dork. He's an avid reader. When I met him, I thought, 'Oh my God, the Fresh Prince is an intellectual.' "

The Smiths at home

The Smiths, for all their bonhomie in public, remain a private couple. They rarely go out, opting for nights at home watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel or playing Monopoly or Crazy Eights. Perhaps Pinkett Smith and Willow might bake a cake or sugar cookies.

"(It's) a whole lot of kids and a whole lot of just sitting around and kicking it," Pinkett Smith says. "We're a pretty boring crowd."

The secret to their nearly nine-year union is a mix of the sexy and the cerebral, she says. "La Perla (lingerie) and communication. Gotta keep it right in the bedroom and keep talking, and that will handle everything," says Pinkett Smith.

As parents, the Smiths view themselves as guides rather than disciplinarians.

"We feel that we are partners in their life, but they are responsible for their lives," Smith says. "Something we noticed in our upbringing and specifically in the black community coming out of slavery in the United States — children were dealt with in the master-slave relationship. We're trying to break the cycle of 'beat them when they do something wrong.' If you get them used to a master-slave relationship, when they leave your home, they're going to be looking for a master. We want them to be looking for partners."

They're home-schooling their three kids.

"There are specific things we think our children need to know that aren't necessarily covered in the industrial-era traditional education," Smith says as his wife nods. "First and foremost is their ability to communicate with people. The quality of your relationships and the quality of the groups of which you are a member are more important than the Pythagorean theorem could ever be."

Smith gets ever more impassioned. "I'm 38 years old, and I'm just getting an understanding of what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means," he says. "Kids need to know that in kindergarten. They need to be interacting with one another in a way that will further their group and their individual ability to survive."

He's friends with vocal Scientologist Tom Cruise and attended Cruise's wedding in Italy. Although Smith has learned about the controversial religion, he has not converted to it. He says he's a connoisseur of all faiths.

"I want to go on the hajj to Mecca," Smith says. "I don't believe in religious separatism. I love people, and I don't believe that the twin towers getting knocked down means all Muslims are bad.

"I was raised in a resurrection Baptist church in Philadelphia, and my grandmother was a devout member of the church. The things that I believe are 90% morally what I learned growing up. But the additions that Jada and I have made — we've traveled around the world."

They have been "to India, and United Arab Emirates, and to Jordan and to Jerusalem. We are students of world religions."

He believes in the "power of the individual, of the human spirit to overcome."

That's why you won't catch him playing a morally bankrupt Hannibal Lecter-type serial killer anytime soon.

"It's the reason I'm attracted to happy endings. I really believe you can do that, you can will that into existence."


No Robots, No Aliens and No Safety Net

By Sharon Waxman
The New York Times

A HOMELESS man? Is Will Smith kidding? He’s been rich, famous, handsome and beloved for close to two decades and the man isn’t yet 40. One look at the guy and you just want to break out in a smile: hey, it’s Will Smith, things are looking up.

He lounges on a pale suede settee in his five-story town house on the East River, with the sun streaming through the plate glass. At 38, Mr. Smith barely looks different from the young man in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” still playing somewhere on cable reruns: the jug ears; the wide-set, dancing brown eyes; the ready smile and familiar belly laugh.

He is lanky and muscular under a black dress shirt and artfully distressed blue jeans, and barely shows the strain of having shut down traffic in Midtown Manhattan the previous day for the shoot of his next big-budget effort, “I Am Legend.”

As a movie star Mr. Smith has found a steady audience as a can-do, good-natured winner, a hero battling on the side of good. He has been believable as a robot-battling cop (“I, Robot”), as an alien-battling agent (“Men in Black”) and as a really-big-alien-battling pilot (“Independence Day”).

So it seems like a stretch, and not a small one, to believe he might be a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. But that’s the real-life character that he plays in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a small, heart-wrenching drama about the kind of failure that Will Smith has never known, and isn’t likely to know.

Today Chris Gardner, the person on whom the movie is based, is a successful stockbroker. But for a year in the 1980s he found himself faced with a curious set of circumstances: single father to a young boy, a barely paid intern-trainee at the brokerage firm Dean Witter, and — suddenly — homeless.

Mr. Gardner spent night after night trudging the streets of the crime-ridden Tenderloin district of San Francisco, with all his earthly possessions on his back, diapers shoved under one arm, pushing the stroller with his toddler toward a homeless shelter. When the shelter was full, they slept in the park. Or under Mr. Gardner’s desk. Or sometimes in the public bathroom of a subway station.

This period was the subject of a “20/20” segment in 2004 and became the basis of Mr. Gardner’s autobiography, which shares the film’s title and was published earlier this year.

“The movie, fabulous as it is, focuses on one very tough, dark, frightening year of my life,” Mr. Gardner said in a phone interview from Chicago, where he now lives. As a smart striver in his 20s, he was determined to live out the American dream and achieve material success. But at the same time, he said, “I was determined to break the cycle of fathers who were not there for their sons.”

For Mr. Smith playing someone on the losing end of fortune’s whim was not nearly as formidable as portraying someone who was actually there on the set nearly every day of the shoot.

To play the role he had to be willing to strip away his movie stardom and put on someone else’s skin. Not all movie stars can do this successfully. Plenty of them — Harrison Ford, say, or Bruce Willis — don’t want to. It can be a painful process. Or, as Mr. Smith said, a “terrifying” one.

“It’s very scary to adapt someone’s life, and do it in two hours, and the person is there,” he said. “In the first period, you say: ‘I can’t do this. No way.’ Then the story starts to eat at you, and you say, ‘Oh, I have to.’ Then you meet the person, and it becomes clear how daunting the task is. It’s someone’s life. On top of my being a perfectionist — and trying to shoot for the idea of perfection in an imperfect science — it’s a gut-wrenching task.”

To help get there Mr. Smith lost 25 pounds, grew his hair and donned glasses. (The authenticity was helped by the fact that his own son Jaden Smith played Mr. Gardner’s son in the film.) But the harder work was on the inside. He had to drop a lot of his habits and tricks. His obsessive preparation. His tendency to make methodical lists: do the first take, angry; do the second take, frustrated. Peering through his lens, the director, Gabriele Muccino, made Mr. Smith give up the gloss and go deeper.

“ ‘You’re posing,’ ” Mr. Muccino would complain, Mr. Smith said. “ ‘Don’t you pose for my camera.’ He’d say: ‘You can’t trick me. You’re making faces as if you’re hurt. I need you to take some time. And come back. And be hurt.’ ”

Now, months distant from those private moments, Mr. Smith folded his hands carefully. “Acting is generally humbling. But it’s much more humbling when someone can see you like that.”

For the last several years Mr. Smith, having achieved every other goal he had set in his life, has been, as he put it, “struggling to hit my stride as an artist.” How hard that is to accomplish is difficult to imagine in a world where Will Smith the Movie Star is an overwhelming reality, hovering over every business conversation, clinging to him in every public encounter.

And unlike other goals, he found this one was not so easily achieved with elbow grease and his fabled charm. With “Ali” in 2001 Mr. Smith struggled to transform himself into Muhammad Ali, sculpturing his body into fighting form, giving up his soul to the director, Michael Mann. The performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor, though the film itself failed to ignite great excitement, and Mr. Smith was not considered a front-runner for the prize.

But of course the star persona persisted. When Mr. Gardner took the actor on an unannounced, nighttime walkabout among the panhandlers, prostitutes and drug users of the still-shabby Tenderloin — trying to shake him up — he asked if Mr. Smith was scared. He didn’t want to admit it.

“I said: ‘I’m Will Smith. People got love for me,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled. Mr. Gardner was not impressed. “He said: ‘Imagine you’re not Will Smith. And you’re sleeping out here, with your son.’ ”

James Lassiter, Mr. Smith’s friend and for two decades his business partner in Overbrook Entertainment, their production company, has seen Mr. Smith deepen and mature as he has sought to join the ranks of the most respected actors of his generation.

“Will has always been the guy who wanted people to love him, and he works hard at that,” Mr. Lassiter said. “I think he’s starting to understand that he doesn’t have to work as hard at that. That happens naturally.”

Part of letting the wish go was putting himself in the hands of Mr. Muccino, an unknown in America who had previously directed Italian films. “We only get to the next level by taking a chance,” Mr. Lassiter said. “In the past, safe made more sense for us. But Will is now comfortable enough to say: ‘I relate to this guy’s passion. I want to go with that.’ ”

With Mr. Muccino goading him on, Mr. Smith worked at relinquishing some of his self-control, on the set and off. “You want to trick yourself, you want to slip,” he said. “It’s a weird kind of temporary insanity. It’s like a sneeze: you feel it’s coming, it’s coming, and when you sneeze, you lose control, you close your eyes, your heart stops.

“That’s analogous to what I was searching for. That moment when you believe you’re actually Ali. Or Chris Gardner. Every take you try to get there.”

He felt it several times during the making of “Ali,” when he was on location in Mozambique. On “Pursuit,” the moments were more numerous, and quieter. Like the time Mr. Gardner took Mr. Smith to see the bathroom at the Oakland commuter train station, a place where he and his son had slept on many nights. Mr. Smith asked to be left alone in the bathroom for a few minutes. He came out five minutes later. “He was not the same guy,” Mr. Gardner recalled. “It was like a ghost jumped into his body.”

The scene was shot later, on a set. In the film Mr. Smith — exhausted, hungry, dirty, rejected from every shelter he has tried, and with his son in tow — pretends that they have landed in a prehistoric wonderland, and must crawl into a cave (the bathroom) to hide from dinosaurs. His son willingly beds down on cardboard and a coat. Slumped against the tile wall, his son’s head in his lap, Mr. Smith locks the door and — as someone outside starts banging to be allowed in — a tear slowly crawls down his cheek.

“That’s acting nirvana,” Mr. Smith said. “You’re not acting. You’re slipping into the moment. I was there.”

MR. GARDNER and Mr. Smith do not nominally have much in common, certainly not in their family histories. Mr. Smith, as many of his fans know, comes from a two-parent, middle-class family in Philadelphia, his mother a school board employee, his father the owner of a refrigeration company. He is happily married to Jada Pinkett Smith, with two young children, and an older son from a first marriage.

Still single today, Mr. Gardner was born in Milwaukee and did not know his father until adulthood. As a child he shuttled among foster homes, relatives and his mother, after she married a violent, alcoholic man who, Mr. Gardner says in his book, constantly beat her and her children.

His stepfather, he says, took special pleasure in demeaning him as worthless. Much of Mr. Gardner’s life became dedicated to proving his stepfather wrong and, just as important, not to become him, or his own father, who abandoned him.

What Mr. Gardner and Mr. Smith do share is optimism and an unquenchable drive to succeed. In Mr. Smith’s case that success came early; he turned to music as the Fresh Prince, then to television, then to movies. Mr. Gardner had a more torturous run. He had some initial good luck, with a series of mentors that led from the Navy to the Veterans Administration in San Francisco, where he conducted medical research.

But his job there did not pay well. And after unsuccessfully selling medical equipment, he decided to try for the brass ring and be a stockbroker. He even managed to land the traineeship at Dean Witter without a college degree. But life got complicated: His wife left. Soon he and his new girlfriend had a child. Then she left too, returning after several months to deposit their son, when she found she couldn’t make it on her own.

Mr. Gardner chose to keep the boy, whatever the cost, while he continued to aim for the greatest possible success. This wasn’t exactly practical, but Mr. Smith understands the decision perfectly.

“I can so relate to that,” Mr. Smith said. “I am that guy. I have to be the best I can be. I have to achieve everything I can possibly achieve. I feel like I owe it to every single person I came into contact with, who knows my life, I owe it to them. It’s a call from God, or Allah, or Jehovah. I don’t even necessarily know why.

“The beauty of America is that we’re not realistic. The idea that anything is possible, that idea is being kept alive here. This story is why America worked — as an idea. The idea is that this is the only country in the world where Chris Gardner is possible. The pursuit is what makes America great.”

Then Will Smith did something surprising. He recited the Declaration of Independence. The whole first segment, including the “pursuit of happiness,” rapid-fire. When he finished, and noted the surprise of an observer, he said: “I believe it.” Pause. “I don’t believe we do it well.” And he recalled a moment from when he was walking through the Tenderloin with Mr. Gardner.

“We were just standing out there in this place of broken dreams. Of extreme poverty. And it washed over me that the greatest poverty is the poverty of ideas. Chris was equally impoverished as these people, but he never had the poverty of ideas. He was rich with belief. Rich with faith.” He smiled, that sunny It’s-Will-Smith-Things-Are-Looking-Up smile. “And I’ve always felt like that.”


The following article appeared in the May 6, 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly Magazine


Love Will find a way

By Susan Wloszczyna

NEW YORK — They lean forward and gaze into each other's eyes. Anticipation builds as their lips gently pucker.

Suddenly, Kevin James, TV's King of Queens, dives in and lays a dainty peck on the mouth of a shocked Will Smith. Cinema's king of the summer blockbuster recoils in mock disgust as he yells, "What the hell was that?"

The initial reaction of the New Yorkers who witnessed the filming of the smooch lesson gone awry for the courtship caper Hitch, opening Friday, wasn't much kinder.

"They had no idea what the movie was, no idea what the scene was," recalls Smith, who chuckles while seated in a high-rise eatery with a Central Park view the day after the movie's premiere. "All they see is me out on the corner kissing Kevin James. And this black dude screams out, 'Will, no! Uh-uh. Don't do that. Whatcha doing, Will?' "

Making amends, for one. The image-conscious actor came to regret his refusal to kiss a man as a gay hustler in 1993's Six Degrees of Separation, his breakout film that followed the popular sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and chart success as a rap artist.

But in these queer-eyed days, same-sex spit-swapping is de rigueur.

"It took someone like me to turn him," jokes James, who shines as a timid accountant who pines for Amber Valletta's stunning socialite. "I minted more for that kiss than the one with Amber."

Smith also is out to score some laughs. Much to the delight of his female admirers, the buff-and-polished action hero is finally starring in a romantic comedy. In Hitch, he's a lover, not a fighter. There are no aliens to battle. No androids gone amok. No big guns, bad guys or pug dogs wailing disco classics.

Instead, the relationship romp is overrun with hapless males in desperate need of guidance on matters of the heart. That is where Smith's Hitch comes in. His job is to coach woeful Romeos so they can impress unattainable Juliets. Meanwhile, Hitch must conquer his own commitment fears when he gets an itch for a sassy gossip columnist.

Eva Mendes, who plays the tabloid tattler, says of Smith, "God, he's so sexy. Women are going to respond to him in a different way. You really see his vulnerability."

Today, he's attired to inspire such thoughts in an urban preppy getup of Lacoste pullover and baggy jeans. The final touch: the multi-carat diamond rocks that anchor his unmistakable stuck-out ears.

"It was strange for me, stripping it down to essentially just talking," says Smith, 36, of his genre switch. "No blue screens, nothing. To perform honestly and emotionally with a robot, that's a skill I've developed. But I love the interaction between Eva and me. I'm so at home in that romantic space."

His action days are waning

As his melon-sized biceps prove, he's also at home in the gym, lifting weights and running. But the routine can be a grind. "I'm going to stay in shape for about four more years," he vows between bites of bread. "Then I'm letting it all go. I'm going for the guy-with-the-gut roles. Soon as I'm 40, I'm going to stop watching what I eat."

This sci-fi junkie, who turned down a chance to go to MIT to pursue a music career, is smart enough to know that aging action heroes carry an expiration date. There are two paths to safeguarding your status: You can either mix it up as even Vin Diesel is doing in the upcoming comedy The Pacifier. Or run for governor of California, a post currently filled.

Smith also is reviving his hip-hop pursuits. His first solo album in nearly three years, Lost and Found, is due March 29.

This $20-million-a-movie club member, who also is a producer on Hitch, can afford a change of pace. A true superstar whose hot-weather outings have grossed more than $1 billion, he has ruled the July 4 box office on a regular basis since 1996's Independence Day. Now he's ready to set off a different kind of fireworks while seducing this weekend's Valentine's Day date crowd.

"Hitch is who I am," Smith assures. That would include the film's awkward college flashback in which the West Philly native exposes his inner Urkel. "Mike Lowrey from Bad Boys is my alter ego," he says, referring to his slick lady-killer detective. "That is who I dream of being."

He and his actress wife of seven years, Jada Pinkett Smith, go so far as to offer Hitch-style counseling to friends and family. "Jada and I study relationships. I am a student of male-female interaction."

Women likely will relish the sight of the Fresh Prince charming his way through love's pitfalls and pratfalls. But Sony, the studio behind Hitch, isn't taking any chances. Millions were invested in a Super Bowl ad to convince fans of his brawnier fare that their masculinity won't be compromised. "People generally look at romantic comedies as chick flicks. This one is not that," says Smith, who balances cutting up with James with canoodling with Mendes.

Learning from a master

He took his cues from one of the best in the biz: Cary Grant. "I love how Cary Grant could be so aggressive with women without losing his sensitivity," he says. "Like with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. She broke his golf club. He runs up and balls his fist to punch her, but he knows he can't hit a woman. So he grabs her face and shoves her down."

Hence, the vicious food fight between Smith and Mendes, in which chopped veggies are the weapon of choice.

For someone who effortlessly sinks into the role of a dating coach, Smith has very little personal experience to draw upon. Not because he didn't have luck with the ladies. Just the opposite. "My first record came out when I was 17, three weeks before I graduated from high school. The women always knew who I was. It wasn't, um, the average teenage experience."

Smith, who had an '80s hit with partner DJ Jazzy Jeff aptly titled Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble, continues: "When you are on the road, you are in town for one night, and the girl knows it's now or never. The dating is the walk from the lobby, up to the elevators to your room."

The easy pickings were swell for a while. But even men can't live by one-night stands alone. "You start to get a little older, and it's like, 'Wow. You don't know anything except I rap, and you are willing to do anything for me.' Well, that's not really for me then. That's for some person you don't really know, some fantasy of a guy who probably doesn't exist."

He's hitched to Jada

Not that Smith is incapable of long-term relationships with the opposite sex. He met his first crush when she was 3 and he was 2. They grew up together, and Stacey Alphonso remains one of his best friends. And his wife doesn't mind.

"I love women," he says, "and my desire to bathe and bask in femininity is the energy that creates the ability to love my wife. If you kill one, you kill the other."

Smith and his first wife, Sheree, mother of son Trey, 12, were divorced in 1995. He and Pinkett Smith were wed on New Year's Eve in 1997 and are the parents of son Jaden, 6, and daughter Willow, 4.

"Jada is a brick," he says, then amends it. "She's my cottony brick. She's a brick in reaction to her open wounds. Which most people are. I can see her clearly. From the first day, I knew who she was."

Hitch director Andy Tennant confirms that Smith is indeed the more romantic of the two. "It's all about the romance and taking it to the next level. He is a people pleaser. He excels at that."

So when other guys take their sweeties to see Hitch as a Valentine's treat, how will this celebrity couple spend the day?

No lame candy hearts here. "We don't generally celebrate holidays on the holidays," he says. "A few years ago we went to Hawaii in October. I surprised her, and we celebrated Valentine's Day. We had all the balloons and rose petals and all of that. We woke up the next day, and it was Valentine's Day all over again. For seven days in a row. The element of surprise is what makes it. You can't surprise anyone on Feb. 14."

Men, do you hear that? Don't do anything Monday for your best gal. Wait eight months to show how much you adore her. Tell her it was Will Smith's idea. She'll be so glad you made no effort on the actual day.

Then again, having a card and a couple of roses on hand might not be a bad idea.


The following article appeared in the July 26, 2004 issue of People Magazine


Robo Hero

As Will Smith Again Springs Into Action, He Sees a Gentler Future -- for Himself

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer

Something smells great. It's not me. It's certainly not the crowded sidewalks of SoHo on a Saturday afternoon. It's probably Will Smith, though it's possible there's a spiced candle burning somewhere in this sunny suite of rooms on the sixth floor of the Mercer. Or perhaps the tony hotel (so tony they won't even let you order a drink in the lobby without a room number first) is having an exotic man scent piped in through the vents.

I believe in science fiction and espionage and obvious plot twists, and so does Will Smith, and therefore the scent could be a secret mist, designed to turn contrarian reporters pliant. (And it's spreading: "They are so beautiful," sighs a 20th Century Fox publicist downstairs, smitten beyond her job requirement, having seen Smith and his wife of six years, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, simply walk across the lobby and into the elevator earlier in the day.)

Upstairs, Will Smith, who is 6 feet 2 and retains the best results of his Oscar-nominated "Ali" workouts three years ago, relaxes on a sofa by himself. He wears a tight black T-shirt, deep indigo Diesel jeans and a new pair of butterscotch leather Timberlands. Whenever he shifts around, there is another faint waft of something unbearably handsome and not quite musky.

Reporter mind-paralysis sets in. Smith talks about Paulo Coelho's book, "The Alchemist," a self-help fable of pursuing your dreams that has sold 20 million copies, a "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for the yoga-mat-slung-over-the-shoulder set: " 'The Alchemist' -- that's me. I am Santiago," Smith says. "That book so illustrates something that I've felt innately my whole life. It's better to die chasing your dreams than to live a comfortable life that is" -- and on he goes, like a page-a-day inspirational calendar.

The notebook says: "alchemist / dreams / what smells so good?"

I forget to ask.

You might forget too, within the whole banal construct: the celebrity movie star everybody likes; the interview; the hotel suite (in which the movie star is not intending to sleep tonight; this is always understood at such events); the references to things like "The Alchemist"; the offered beverage; the big mid-summer movie, crammed with special effects, that cost a lot to make ("I, Robot," $105 million, opening Friday); and this odd vibe of nervous promotional energy emitting from the studio that paid to make it, ergo the exactly one hour of face-to-face access with the star.

I arrive with a pound and a half of computer printouts in my satchel of all the stories ever written about Will Smith longer than 1,500 words, in which nobody has ever said a bad thing about Will Smith and Will Smith has never said anything bad about anyone or complained about the drudgery of being famous. He seems to have a temperament graced by God or something else, leaving him incapable of rant.

The worst thing anyone ever says alludes to his appeal to the mainstream -- Smith as the black action hero who broke through the showbiz laws of superstardom that would elevate a black man only to eventually destroy him. The worst thing anyone ever says about Will Smith is that he ascended by becoming the black man whom white moviegoers really, really like. Same goes for his recording career, churning out hip-hop hits manufactured with the broadest appeal (choosing to sing about his love for his child), thereby drawing the scorn of Eminem and other potty mouths. He is the only $20-million-per-picture man in the world who lives apparently unhounded by rumors, gossip, wildly religious impulses, or manic foible.

He will always be the kid from Philadelphia who went to Catholic school and then a magnet high school, and passed up an MIT scholarship so he could record, with DJ Jazzy Jeff, two albums of PG-rated hip-hop songs in the late '80s. Then he starred in one of those unconventional-family sitcoms where things always work out ("The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"), and moved on to action movies that demonstrated his rare ability to outperform his computer-generated co-stars.

Smith has become a millionaire many times over on the whole idea of being good, nice, marketable. His success says: It can still work this way, America. It's urban, it's Capra, it's tentacled aliens who talk jive. It has come to define Will Smith as a U.S. export:

"You can be penalized for being American," he says, like this is a news flash, having been razzed a time or two while making the scene at Cannes this year. "I'm Mr. America, everywhere in the world, I'm a black dude who's become a big movie star in America. Even if there are things that America does that I don't agree with or be more than happy to debate, I'm absolutely penalized, as all Americans are, for the actions of our government."

Back in his "Gettin' Jiggy With It" rise to fame in the 1990s, Smith told an interviewer that he could be president, if he put his mind to it.

"That's different than saying I want to be president," he says now. "I don't want to be president. That is not a good job. The level of American apathy makes it hard to do anything. Back in the day . . . there was a real desire for the common man to understand what the hell was going on, a desire to do what had to be done. Now, with the situation in Iraq, I have friends that I argue with on a daily basis, people that formulate an opinion just with no information. It's tough because people say, 'Are you for or against the war in Iraq?' and I say, 'Wow, that's a big question.' I've never been to Iraq. I don't know any Iraqis. I don't know any Americans that have ever been to Iraq. All I know is what's on CNN, and is that enough for me to make a decision?"

The studios usually release his movies on the Fourth of July, or near it. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "Big Willie Weekend," bringing us "Independence Day," "Men in Black," "Bad Boys II," "Wild Wild West," "Men in Black II." Things blow up or get torn up -- the White House, the New York subway system -- and Smith says something funny. Often there's a hit song to go with it. And the more he talks -- about Iraq, about celebrityhood, about life -- the less he says, which is correct behavior in the Big Willie universe: Play the middle. Stay jiggy.

Mainstream Rebel

Smith has been famous more than half his life -- he'll turn 36 in September -- and says he has three or four action movies left in him, and then he can no longer be that kind of Will Smith anymore. In the eight months it took to film "I, Robot" (every scene with a robot had to be filmed four different ways, for some technical reason known to the people whose computer mice painstakingly clicked together most of the movie's visual effects), Smith began to feel that inexorable ibuprofen ache of age.

"I started messing up my knee a little bit, my back started hurting. It was taking me a couple more takes to get the stunts," he says, "And I was like, oh my God, it's started. 'I, Robot' will be the movie that I look back and remember that this is where I started getting old. It gave me the wake-up call of, Uh-oh, you're not 19 or 20 anymore. If you injure yourself you gotta ice it, take care of yourself properly."

In this movie, even more than his others, Smith is thrown about, beaten, falls, rolls, dangles. He is singed by flame, thrown from a car. He staggers, he bleeds, but always he sasses.

"I, Robot," directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") and based on the mid-20th-century futuristic musings of writer Isaac Asimov, is set in Chicago in the year 2035. Smith plays Detective Dell Spooner, who is called in to investigate the mysterious suicide of a robotics scientist who designed the elegant NS-5, the newest model of polite, efficient, humanoid household help. In this Asimovian future, people own robots the way they own microwaves, regardless of class or income level. (We never learn how much the NS-5 retails for, although Spooner's sweet-potato-pie-baking inner city grandmother has to get hers by winning a robot lottery.)

At heart, Smith's character is a bit of Luddite, living old-school in an old apartment with a circa-2000 stereo, ordering Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers from an antique Converse dealer, and harboring apparently outdated suspicions of technology, especially society's dependence on robots to do work. His paranoia takes over when the prime suspect in the scientist's murder turns out to be an NS-5, who insists on having a name and an identity -- Sonny -- and is in clear violation of Asimov's first law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

By the end of the movie, the entire line of NS-5s has formed an evil army, having followed Asimovian logic to its farthest conclusion: The humans are a danger to themselves, therefore the robots deduce that they must kill them in order to protect them.

"I read [some of Asimov's short stories] after the script was presented," Smith says. "It's always great when you create a film from literature, because the groundwork is laid. So all your work is character work and you don't find yourself in the middle of the film and something doesn't make sense. You have a really solid intellectual foundation."

Smith considers the movie to be much darker than his usual fare. "I, Robot" is another of those future pictures where the future is not doom, gloom and nuclear smog. Instead, it's the lifestyles and apparent whittling of the Bill of Rights that get creepy. As in "Minority Report" and "A.I.," the future looks relatively clean, a mix of old and new and a strict aesthetic allegiance to Banana Republic and the Apple Store. People take mass transit or drive electric cars. ("I don't think so," Smith says. "If history teaches us anything, it's that something apocalyptic is going to have to happen before we change. We're not going to switch to electric cars until 70 percent of us can't breathe anymore.")

The bad news about all of these sunshiney futures is the right to privacy: Computers, and the corporations and governments who control them, keep tabs on everyone. In "Minority Report," Tom Cruise couldn't board the Washington Metro without a retina scan, so he had to have his eyeballs torn out and replaced to avoid detection. In "I, Robot," Americans seem to fully trust corporate dominance. Everyone, that is, but Will Smith, in the particular way that Will Smith plays the antihero within strictly defined limits of the mainstream.

A Major Change

Having vanquished the robot army, Smith now finds himself making a movie without, he swears, a single explosion or special effect. It's a romantic comedy due next year, "The Last First Kiss," co-starring Eva Mendes, "and I'm telling everybody it was almost sad to get paid for this one. You mean I don't have to run? I don't have to jump? I don't have to shoot? Nothing blows up? I don't have to do any of that. I get to talk. I get to actually play a scene. It's just so not work for me."

Smith is also working on a new album, which he hopes to release this year. (His last, 2002's "Born to Reign," continued a gradual sales slide from the heyday of 1997's "Big Willie Style.") "I make records in hotel rooms now," says the man who travels with four iPods -- two with his favorite music, one with audio books, and one with songs he's presently putting together. "I come from an era when it took three people on a big, huge mixing board to just mix the record. And now one person can do it. I have four songs I recorded in a hotel room, using a laptop, a microphone and a keyboard this big, mixed it and everything and burned it onto a CD. Done."

It turns out this was the future. Not Asimov, not robots. Entertainment was the future -- flatter TVs, bigger budgets for movies, cutting albums in boutique hotels. Will Smith movies -- glib and huge, opening wide -- were the future. Celebrities were the future, but on this phenomenon, Smith detects a ray of optimism: "In America, the thing that creates and sustains celebrity, the thing that creates and sustains America, is the same thing -- it's hope. The concept, however untrue it may be for some people, that all men are created equal is some powerful [bleep]. And I think that's part of the power of American celebrity. I think our culture thrives on that ability to feel like you're nobody, you are nothing, you own nothing, and the next day you could win the lottery, be on a reality TV show, and it's something within your power, however realistic. You just have to see that hope maintained through Paris Hilton."

And here he bursts into his signature, booming laugh.

But what about the next future? When the year 2035 actually does roll around, Smith will turn 67. It's entirely likely Smith will still be doing exactly what he does now, battling whatever menace science fiction can cook up for him, while rapping love songs in his spare time to his grandchildren.

But Smith hopes it turns out a little different. He doesn't want to still be running and jumping and creaking through progressively anemic blockbusters. The torso is the first thing to go. It makes it harder to watch Harrison Ford wave a gun and chase criminals down the street, having seen paparazzi photos of Ford, shirtless, with Calista Flockhart at the beach. "I just feel like I have to knock these action movies out now, because I do not want to be that old dude runnin'," Smith says. "You know the old dude runnin'?"

We do know the old dude runnin'. Will, baby, don't be that guy.