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Will Smith talks about the "crazy epiphany" that changed his life

Actor Will Smith in a scene from "Seven Pounds," his 2008 drama.

Will Smith's physical and verbal assault on Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards was shocking for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for how out of character it seemed. Smith has played anti-heroes and villains in some of his many movie roles, but he's best known as a force of positive energy, on screen and in person. Seeking deeper insights, I went into the Toronto Star's files, looking up an interview I did with Smith in 2008 when he was at the top of his game as a beloved movie star. He was as charming as usual, but he talked about his journey of discovery "about my own management of trauma and loss in my life."

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Sat., Dec. 13, 2008

HOLLYWOOD — Call it perverse, or maybe a savvy career move.

Just when it seems that Will Smith couldn't be more popular — even President-elect Barack Obama is a fan — the actor and rapper is working on dimming his sunny image.

Smith is arguably the world's most popular actor, a goal he famously set for himself two decades ago. His past eight movies, from "Men in Black II" in 2002 to this summer's "Hancock," have each grossed more than $100 million (U.S.) at the North American box office, a record run of hits.

He's everybody's first pick to play Obama in the eventual biopic of the president-elect's rise to glory. Obama has said he'd like to see it happen. You'd better believe that Smith is up for it, although he hopes it happens after Obama has completed eight years as president.

"When I get the order from my Commander-in-Chief, as a good American, I will rise to the call!" Smith tells the Star, as he begins an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. He's dressed as if at a job interview, all smiles and good cheer in a white shirt, dark tie and natty baby blue pullover.

Despite all this, Smith is busy tarnishing his screen persona. It's a project he began with the release two years ago of "The Pursuit of Happyness," in which he played a down-and-out single dad. He followed that with his survivalist scientist in last year's "I Am Legend" and his grumpy superhero in the recent "Hancock," each role tougher than the last.

With "Seven Pounds," his new drama opening Dec. 19 (it reunites him with "Pursuit of Happyness" director Gabriele Muccino), Smith will really challenge his many admirers. He plays a government tax collector who stalks poor and unwell people, so insensitive and boorish that he mocks a blind man.

"I've been experimenting," Smith said, agreeing he's strayed far from his grinning Fresh Prince guise that made this striver from a poor Philadelphia family a music, TV and film star while still in his 20s.

"For some reason, I'm really attracted to the nature of emotional trauma in human lives. It seems like a really rich and unmined area in my personal life. I turned it off. When my grandmother died, I never cried or anything like that.

"So for me with my characters, specifically 'I Am Legend,' 'Hancock' and now 'Seven Pounds,' I'm exploring trauma and loss. To be able to go there with a character reveals things about my own management of trauma and loss in my life."

The drive to experiment comes in part from the realization that he's now at the halfway point of his life. Smith turned 40 this past September, although he hardly looks it.

"It was just another birthday. I live my life so abundantly that turning 40 wasn't a huge deal. But a couple weeks ago, my son Trey turned 16 and I sat in the passenger seat and he was driving. That really rocked me. It was so huge a signal that life is moving on and things are changing, and quickly. He's driving!

"It was not so much about getting old, but it was as if I could be missing something, like things were happening fast and maybe I wasn't paying attention as much as I should have been. It was more that feeling, `Dude, wake up! Look! Things are changing quickly and aggressively!'"

It's difficult to write about "Seven Pounds" without revealing a payoff that Smith, Muccino and co-star Rosario Dawson are all anxious to keep secret. Suffice to say the film unspools like a mystery, but seriously examines the meaning of life.

Making the film was "a crazy epiphany," Smith said, prompting him to further reflect on his life. He used a mountain climbing metaphor to describe his feeling of always having somewhere else to go.

"As soon as you get to the mountain that you wanted to climb and you put your flag down and you stand there for 10 minutes, you say, `Ooh, look at that mountain over there!'

"The journey is the destination, and the worst thing that can happen is that you actually arrive where you thought you wanted to go. It's a really weird time and probably the last two years have been really frustrating for me. It just felt like there's so much I wanted to and so much I wanted to be, but it was like I was blind and I couldn't see. Working on 'Seven Pounds' gave me a crazy epiphany about what I want to be and what I want to do."

He believes in the movie so much, he'd rather undersell it than risk overselling it. The one-sheet poster for the film has an enigmatic shot of Smith's face. This could be the film that snaps that $100-million streak, but it doesn't need to be a blockbuster if enough people embrace it as thoughtful entertainment.

"We're trying to do a non-sale. It's like, we're not going to sell this movie, we're going to hope that we've created enough trust in the industry that people will listen if I say, `You know what? This is a good movie. I think you'll enjoy it. Just trust me; I can't tell you anything about it.'"

Smith is totally unlike most Hollywood celebrities in that he's not afraid to admit to his weaknesses. In a discussion with a roomful of movie writers, Smith continued to talk candidly about personal issues, such as the failure of his first marriage, to Sheree Zampino, the mother of Trey. They married in 1992, divorced in 1995 and when it was over, Smith said he was left in shock over "the idea that somebody could not like me anymore."

He's having no such concerns with his second wife, actress Jada Pinkett, whom Smith married in 1997. They have two children: Jaden, 10, and Willow, 8. Both are following their parents' footsteps as movie stars. (Jaden has a major role in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the sci-fi remake that opened yesterday.)

Yet Smith insisted there is some trouble in paradise, in the form of unwanted extra pounds on his abdomen, although they aren't at all apparent. Even though he lost 15 pounds making "Seven Pounds," much of it was the muscle he'd sculpted for "I Am Legend."

"It's so not 'I Am Legend,'" Smith said, pointing to his abs.

"Now it's 'I Am Luggage'!"

Smith is so disarmingly open, he'll even admit to being a lousy on-screen kisser. He 'fessed up after "Seven Pounds" co-star Dawson told the movie writers about her frustration getting Smith to kiss her in the movie.

"Will is shockingly shy about intimacy with strangers, I guess," Dawson said.

"That's not too bad, but it was really unbelievable how much he delayed our kissing scenes. For weeks. To the point where I started getting really nervous about my breath. I was starting to get down to the little details of going, `Seriously, like it's not that bad. We don't have to totally do tongue. We can work on this.' It was such a big deal. He was talking about having Jada (on the set)."

When the time came that Smith could put the kissing off no longer, he prepared for the scene with some solo heavy breathing, like an athlete preparing for battle.

"Will was standing outside going, `Yeah! We're gonna get this scene! Woo! Yeah! I'm ready to go today!' And I'm like, `You haven't done that for the past 55 days. Why today, babe? You're kind of freaking me out. I need a little calm to go into this. I need candles and some nice music and you're screaming at me like we're about to play football or something!'"

Smith chuckled when Dawson's comments were relayed to him, and didn't try to dodge the implication that he's no sex machine. He is, after all, the most mellow of rappers, who had a hit with ditties called "Summertime" and "Parents Just Don't Understand."

He explained that his intimacy issues have to do with his upbringing.

"My mother and grandmother were firm about how men were supposed to treat women ... For me, my worst nightmare is for an actress to come on my set and feel like I'm taking this as an opportunity to get a little quickie feel, some legal cheating going on. I just specifically need women to be comfortable around me. I just don't want to feel like that dude, and doing a love scene with her clothes off.

"It just puts me in my defensive space, but it also hurts the acting if I'm in that space. You gotta find a comfortable space to feel free, where your hand can brush up against her and all that and it's not all, `Ooh, excuse me.'"

He joked that wife Jada told him to knock it off and just get down to work.

"Jada said, `Listen, I know you aren't comfortable, but you better not embarrass me. When you do that love scene, you better show 'em what you're working with!'"

Smith laughed as he told the story. A smile is never far from his face, except when he feels unsure about what to do next. That's the one thing about fame that bothers him — how to follow success with more success, and whether he should even try.

"The only part of that that I would say is a burden is when I lose certainty about my next step. Then it becomes a burden. You know how in 'Forrest Gump,' when (Tom Hanks' character) finished running and everybody's following him? Everybody is so connected to the purpose even though they didn't know what it was. But there was purpose, there was meaning, there was movement. It's such a necessity in life to have that purpose. Then he stopped running and it was like, he let everybody down." 🌓

(This interview originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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