Will Smith stars in the post(viral)-apocalyptic I Am Legend, a film which represents the third film adaptation of what is now one of the richest source material novels in cinematic history, Richard Matheson's 1954 Sci-Fi classic (after 1964's Last Man On Earth and 1971's The Omega Man).
After a generically-altered measles virus intended as a miracle cure for cancer mutates and inadvertantly wipes out 90% of humanity, the survivors become predatory vampires (known as Darkseekers), all except for a handful of 'normal' humans who were blessed with a natural immunity to the virus. Lieutenant Colenel Robert Neville (Smith) is the last healthy human left in New York City, but as a virologoist, he also possesses the ability to try and return the darkseekers back into the ranks of humanity...
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with Will Smith in Los Angeles, CA to talk about faith, self-confidence, the power of solitude, and about acting with his son Willow in I Am Legend.
Emmanuel Itier: How did you prepare to be this person – the main and only character for most of the film? How lonely of an experience was this for you?
Will Smith: Indeed, this was the terrifying part of taking on this film. There are 80 pages of me and a dog, so I freaked out when I read this script. And even though I’m sure people like to see me on the screen, I was afraid it might be a little too much of 'Will' for anybody... so it was an interesting process to get to understand this character.
I actually studied and met with real P.O.W.s - Prisoners of War - and we found a guy that had been in isolation, we found the things and the people who could create the texture of what that truly means to be by yourself. One thing that was across the board is 'schedule'. A guy who had been in isolation during the war told me that to keep your sanity, you had to schedule things, like cleaning, just to keep a sense of what it is to be a human being and keep the illusion of the notion of “society.” You had to train your mind to do things according to a very strict schedule and hope you won’t lose your sanity. He was for example, spending two hours cleaning his nails! That was the basis for creating this character.
Also, another aspect of my character is the internal monologue. When you have no stimulus, when nobody speaks to you, you lose the stimulus/response with your thoughts and feelings. You forget the names of simple things. One time, a guy who spent time in isolation was telling us that for four hours he was looking at his hands and was trying to remember what these “things” were called, and then it came back to him, ”Fingers! These are my fingers!” It’s really daunting to lose your mind like this when you have no stimulus or response needed. With the internal monologue, we structured it in a way where I had to say both, “Oh, it’s a beautiful day, today,” and “Yes it is, you’re right.”
EI: Tell us also about physical transformation - you lost 20 pounds, which is a lot for you, since you’re already pretty trim...
WS: What we determined from our research is that in these conditions, eating is just something that’s a basic necessity but not a pleasure or luxury, which means that you eat less and therefore lose a few pounds: There is no desire to eat. For me, I have an easier time to lose weight than put it on. And to do Ali was 50 times harder than to be in I am Legend. If you run 30 miles a day and six days a week, trust me, you will lose all the weight you want. It’s important for me to stay in good physical condition in order, among other things, to keep a happy mood in my couple! [Laughs]
EI: Here you are again saving the world... but this time it’s around the holidays. Is there an extra warm feeling about the timing of the release of your post-apocalyptic film? [smiles]
WS: Good question... yes, it is an extra positive feeling to save the world around the holiday season. I’m humbled by this coincidence and will try to keep my cool about me saving the world… one more time!
EI: How was this film difficult to put together creatively, beyond the fact you’re the only actor on screen most of the time?
WS: Well, it was a difficult movie for me on a creative level all across the board. The main struggle was to make a Fall movie that is both big in scope like a Summer movie, but also has the intensity and artistic quality level of a Fall, pre-Oscar movie. We truly tried to commit to an artistic and indie feeling movie of a man and a dog but in a big concept box office winner and Summer-type picture. We’re hoping people will respond to both, to the big, popcorn side of this film and the more intellectual, moving aspect of it as well.
EI: If you were the last man on Earth, what would be the comfort items you would need to keep your sanity?
WS: A pistol, because I’m out of here! [Laughs] With this film, I realized it’s a childlike primal idea to dare to think “I wish I was all alone; that everybody would be gone from the surface of the Earth.” No, you don’t want to be by yourself and all alone in this world. Even if people get on your nerves on the freeway or irritate you through your daily life, if everyone would be gone, you would have the worse time of your life and go totally insane.
I remember I walked down during the shoot, through the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and we had cleared it for six blocks, and as cool as that is, it’s only cool because you can yell, “Cut” and all the people behind the camera suddenly reappear. You need a connection in life. You need to feel part of something. You need to feel love – it’s a primal need. But experiencing loneliness and solitude is devastating.
If it happened to me, I would probably read a lot. It’s what I do right now when I’m not doing anything, but usually I read books that help me apply the ideas I read to my life. And if I was alone on Earth, I don’t see how I could apply anything since there wouldn’t be anybody to validate the goodness or not of my actions. In any case, I love people so I would be miserable to end up all alone. So yes... love, reading, running… and of course women and sex!
EI: So, in that situation, you would commit suicide?
WS: Yes. The keys to life, for me, are reading and running. The idea that there are trillions of people who lived before us, and even if they had problems, they solved them and put them in books somewhere, so there is no new problem that we have to figure out by ourselves. There are no issues that were not written about and solved thousands of years ago by somebody else. So you need to find the right book. The concept of reading is bittersweet because, even though you know the solution is written somewhere, you have to find that right book containing it. You need the proper information.
The running aspect is how you connect to your weakness. When you get on a treadmill, you deprive yourself of oxygen. What kind of person you are is going to come out very quickly. You’re either the kind of person who says you’re going to run three miles and stop the treadmill, or you’re the type that when getting to three miles wants to keep going. So suddenly there is an inner talk with yourself going on, and either you control and command that inner voice, or you let it take over you. This has been an important aspect of life, to take control of my life and over my inner voices.
Emmanuel Itier: Shutting down six blocks in Manahattan... could you talk about working on a set as large as this one, as well as shooting in New York, what that experience was like.
Will Smith: Shooting in New York, especially something on this level, is difficult. I would say that, percentage-wise, it’s the most amount of middle fingers I’ve ever received in my career. [Laughs] I was like, I’m used to people liking me! When I come to town, it’s fun. I thought... middle fingers! I was starting to think “F-U” was my name. [Laughs] We shut down six blocks of 5th Avenue on a Monday morning. That was probably poor logistics, which was poor planning. You realize that you have never actually seen an empty shot of New York.
When we were doing it, it’s chilling to walk down the middle of 5th Avenue. There is never an opportunity to walk down the middle of 5th Avenue. At two o’clock in the morning on Sunday, you can’t walk down the middle of 5th Avenue. What happened is that it just created such a creepy energy. There are iconic buildings. There is a shot in the movie with the U.N., there is Broadway, and it puts such an eerie, icky kind of feeling on the movie when you see those shots. Logistically, it was a nightmare, but it absolutely created something that you can’t do with green screen, and you can’t do shooting in another city instead of New York.
EI: How significant do you think it is that the last man alive is African American?
WS: [Laughs] First and last, baby. [Laughs] It’s funny. It’s almost a metaphysical idea for me. I rarely think about that until someone brings it up. Then I say, “Oh, wow. That never actually crossed my mind in that way.” I kind of feel like, for me at least, the acknowledgement of those kinds of ideas put a weird boundary on my thoughts. I can’t allow myself to be a part of it because it sort of makes me think smaller, if that makes any sense. I said all that to say that I’ve never really thought about the significance of that with the film.
EI: Those thoughts were your only companion for a lot of this narrative: Can you talk a little about the loneliness of this character, and also the madness?
WS: It was such a wonderful exploration of myself. What happens is that you get in a situation where you don’t have people to create the stimulus for you to respond to. You start creating the stimulus and the response. There is a connection with yourself where your mind starts to drift in those types of situations, that you learn about yourself things you would never even imagine. In order to prepare for that, we sat with former P.O.W.'s and we sat with people who had been in solitary confinement: That was the framework for creating the idea.
They said, “The first thing is a schedule. You will not survive in solitary if you don’t schedule everything.” We talked to Geronimo ji-Jaga, formerly Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panthers, and he was in solitary for over three months. He said that you plan things like cleaning your nails. You will take two hours, because it’s on the schedule, which you have to just clean your nails. He said that he spent about six weeks and he trained roaches to bring him food. I’m sitting there like, “Oh My God.”
The idea of where your mind goes to defend itself – either he really did train the roaches, which is huge, or his mind needed that to survive. Either way, you put that on camera and it’s genius. For me, that was the thing, to be able to get into the mental space where whatever the truth was for Robert Neville didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered is what he saw and what he believed. How many people picked up on the mannequin shot at the end with the little turn of the head? You saw that? There are probably like six or seven of those in the movie. It was such a great exploration of what happens to the human mind that is trying to defend itself. For me, I’m a better actor for having had to create both sides of the scene with no dialogue.
EI: How attached did you get to Samantha the dog?
WS: Oh, Abby is the dog’s real name. When I was probably nine years old, I had a dog, Trixie. It was a white golden retriever that got hit by a car. I refuse... I have had no animals... “Jada, you can have the dogs you want, the kids can have the dogs they want, but I’m not putting myself emotionally connected to a dog anymore.” Then they brought that damn Abby on the set...
You say a 'smart' dog: It got to the point with Abby that she would be playing, playing, playing, and she would hear “Rolling!” so she would run over to her mark and get ready. I was like, “What in the hell?” It’s like she would know when I wasn’t doing my lines right. If I would get lost in the scene, she would just go... [silent], you know? [Laughs] It was the first time I had allowed myself to connect and be fond of a dog since that experience, and to the owner I said, “Please, Abby has to live with me. Please.”
He was like, “Well, this is how I make my living, man.” I was like, “Tell me what you need. Tell me what you need. A house in the hills?” She was smart, just fun, and warm. I experienced the pain again because he said, “I’ll bring her over every weekend Will, but she has to work.” It was painful. She is great. I used to watch Lassie, and animals really can be smarter than other animals. She is way on another plane of connecting to what your energy is, what your feelings are, and protective. It’s beautiful.
EI: You did have another member of your family alongside you in this film: Can you talk about working with your daughter, Willow?
WS: You kind of don’t work with Willow – you work for Willow. It’s interesting... Jada [Pinkett Smith] and I debate the age old debate of nature versus nurture. Is it because two actors went to Mexico and drank some tequila and made a baby? Does that make the baby an actor? Or did she grow up in a house where that is what is in her house, that is just the life, and that’s the experience that she knows? When I look at Willow, I just believe that it has to be neither one of those. There has to be something else.
She just knows… [a glass drops in the room] Oh see? See? That’s the problem, see? A black man starts to make a good point and you got to keep him down! Trying to keep me down, I get it, I get it! How often does the soundman make that much noise? [Laughs] With Willow, she just loves it. We watched… I don’t remember the building, but we were shooting the bridge sequence. There is a building that had a temperature gauge on it and we watched it. You started at sunset, and it was probably 29 degrees or something. Then we watched it go down to 1 and then negative. Willow is out there, she has her stuff on, and she’s cold. She is getting a little irritable. She looks at me and says, “Daddy, I don’t care how low it goes, I’m going to finish.” I was like, “Wow.” I said, “That’s good, baby, because Daddy is leaving if it goes any lower than that 1...”
She just wants it. She has a drive, an energy, and she just connects to human emotion. I think a big part of it is probably Jaden. After The Pursuit of Happyness and she saw what Jaden did, she thought, “I want that!” [Laughs] The night we told Willow that she got the role, because we make our kids audition and all of that – we don’t do the whole nepotism thing – so Jaden was sitting where you are... I’m Willow. We always call the family in and we announce all the good things that happen with everybody in the house and everybody has to share in it. Willow is there, Jaden and I are here, and Jada is behind her. We say, “Everybody, we just want to congratulate Willow. She got I Am Legend.” She immediately turns around to Jaden and goes [scowls at him] and I went “What’s that? What was that?” Never had she talked about any feelings she was having, but it was like, “Okay, I’m plotting on you, dude.”
EI: With your children becoming acting veterans, which one demands more money? [Smiles] Are you planning to work with either of them any time soon again?
WS: Jaden – we say, when we look at Jaden and Willow, that Jaden is Johnny Depp: He just wants to do good work, he doesn’t care what money he gets. He doesn’t care if people see it or don’t see it. He loves acting; he just wants to make good movies. Willow is Paris Hilton. [Laughs] Willow wants to be on TV. [Laughs] We are managing both of those in our household...
EI: When you were a kid, did you have a favorite science-fiction book? I know you studied science, but moved to acting: Why?
WS: Science was always my strongest subject. I have always dreamed to design a fully computerized classroom, with keyboards in the desk and with a board with the teacher coming to that board. I always loved the idea of connecting technology and education. So yes, my life took a different turn, but this is why I love so much science fiction, because I’m able, in a way, to bring to a certain life, life on the screen, all of the dreams of my childhood. Books-wise, science-fiction-wise, I love it all. Loved the novel I am Legend, among other books.
EI: Do you consider yourself a risk-taker? Because it sure seems like it from the range of films you choose to undertake...
WS: It’s funny because I don’t consider myself a risk-taker... well, at least a huge risk-taker. I’m a student of the pattern of the universe. If I can figure out how something is seemingly risky but I got the numbers on my side, then I’m comfortable taking a leap of faith. And I do this when I decided to get involved with big effects movies like I Am Legend. When I first came to Hollywood, it was obvious, by studying the box office, what type of movies were making it big, and so I decided I would try to do the same, and it worked out. So Independence Day was not a hard call to make, and same thing with I Am Legend today. The risk is not about the type of movie to make but how to make it – the execution of it, the choice of the director, the shape of my character, and so on...
EI: Where is that self-confidence and the strong inner faith you have coming from?
WS: There is a very essential idea in my life: My grandmother thought I was just the greatest and she always pushed me a lot at church. There was a look of pride in my grandmother’s eyes and it became the fuel I need for life. I need my women; my wife, mother, daughter, to look at me with that look, that vote of confidence. I was 15 years old when my first girlfriend cheated on me, and it destroyed my concept of cause and effect in the universe – be good and good things happen and vice versa – and I found out that’s not true. That cheating gave me the illusion that I was not good enough, but I remember later making the decision that I would never not be good enough again! That was the last time ever that I would not be good enough. So in my 15-year-old mind, it gave me the confidence that nobody else would cheat on me or leave me. I went a little bit overboard, but truly I need that look in the eyes of my family.
EI: What is your concept of 'God'?
WS: I believe that there are forces at work in the universe. I think there is an end of human knowledge, and beyond that, unknown; we have to call it something in order for us to talk about it. If people didn’t have to put a specific name and want to fight about it, we all could across-the-board agree to call the unknown the highest power... let’s call it God. There are things we can’t control, and things happen that we can’t explain. I believe and try to understand and try to be a surfer of that energy, whether it’s prayers… Yes, I believe there is some sort of energy out there and I try to connect to it, and I try to use it and be in the good graces of this energy to have things in my life go the way I’d like them to go...
EI: Three quick questions…
WS: No, absolutely not. Security! Security! [Laughs]
EI: You have had a passion for this project since you were going to do it with Michael Bay... why has Robert Neville has stayed with you all these years–what is it, 12 or 13 years? Also, the grey hair – was that a special effect or really Will Smith?
WS: That was a special effect. We had the world’s best grey hair people come in from… uh, they were uh, from… Europe. [Laughs]
EI: And the cover of Men’s Vogue–they sort of elude to the idea that you may have converted to Scientology.
WS: No… wow, that’s what you got? [Laughs] Well, that is a broad array of questions. On the first one, Robert Neville staying with me this long: I think with movies, I am really connecting to the Joseph Campbell idea of the collective unconscious. There are things that we all dream, there are things that each one of us has thought, that connect to life, death, and sex. There are things that are beyond language. To me, this is one of those concepts. Times that you have been on the freeway... many times and wished that everybody were dead. [Laughs] There have been times where things have gone and you just wish you were by yourself–you don’t need any of these assholes. You just want to be by yourself. That coupled with that separation from people, being ripped away from people, being separated, connected with the dark and unknown of the dark–it’s how we would fare against whatever is in that unknown is a really primal idea. I couldn’t always articulate it like that, but I’ve loved this concept. It connects to ideas that a four-year-old can understand. The one in the middle?
EI: The grey hair...
WS: Yes, that is a European… they are… uh… G.H…. G.H.I. or Grey Hair International, and they just do that, because this is what it normally is. [Laughs] I can prove it! I can prove it! [Laughs] As far as Scientology... I don’t necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, went to a Catholic church, lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and had the biggest crush on the Muslim girls from one neighborhood over. Tom [Cruise] introduced me to the ideas. I’m a student of world religion so to me it’s hugely important to have knowledge and to understand what people are doing. What are all the big ideas? What are people talking about? I believe that my connection to my higher power is separate from everybody’s. I don’t believe that the Muslims have all the answers. I don’t believe the Christians have all the answers, or the Jews have all the answers, so I love my God, my higher power. It’s mine and mine alone. I create my connection and I decide how my connection is going to be.
EI: There are a couple of books on The New York Times best seller list in the last couple of months dealing with being the last person on Earth. What do you think it is that has people so fascinated in that subject, the same subject this film deals with?
WS: I think it’s a primal idea. Carl Jung talked about the collective unconscious and how we dream similar things, even though we have no contact with one another. If you map the dreams of an Aboriginal tribe in Australia that has no contact with Tibetan Monks – if you monitor the dreams, they dream similar things. I think that this is one of those concepts. We have all had a piece of that collective unconscious idea. We have all dreamed about, or had nightmares about, being alone – being by ourselves. It’s the representative dark of the unknown and what that would be. The fear and the converse of the fear is the hope – the hope that you connect to those concepts.
EI: You have a lot of experience with saving the world in Independence Day and Men in Black…
WS: I missed this time! [Laughs]
EI: Have you ever thought what you would do in a real life disaster? Have you ever had to play the hero in real life?
WS: That is always a tough question. That is what is interesting about playing a character like this. You get to explore and wonder how you would react. For me, Ali was the greatest time of asking myself that question. When Ali didn’t step forward because they wouldn’t call him Muhammad Ali and he knew he was going to jail, he knew what the situation was going to be, but still he couldn’t step forward. I just remember thinking in that moment, “What would I do?” I just don’t know if I would be enough man to give up everything I have right now the way Ali did for that principle.
When I look at Robert Neville, I think what was there to live for? What was there to hope for – to wake up every day and try to restore something that is good and gone? I like to believe that I would put my chest up and stand forward, just march on and continue to fight for the future of humanity... I would probably find a bridge and say, “I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth.” [Laughs] It’s a tough question, and I guess the answer is that I don’t know. I don’t think so. You want to be tested to know what you would do, but you really don’t want to be tested. That is sort of the space that I have lived in with quite a few of the roles I have played.
EI: When is the last time you were called the “Fresh Prince?”
WS: About four seconds ago? [Laughs]
EI: Are you playing shows with DJ Jazzy Jeff?
WS: Yeah, Jeff and I perform a couple of times a year. We’re going to go out big in July. We are figuring out some places around the world to do some big shows. It’s about to be that circle back to the golden age of hip-hop. There is starting to be a little resurgence, so yeah, we are planning some things. As far as “Fresh Prince,” it’s interesting. On July 6, 1996, Fresh Prince stopped. After Independence Day, that Monday after Independence Day was the first time that anyone called me Mr. Smith. I was like, “What the hell?” All through The Fresh Prince, all through the music, it was “Fresh Prince,” “Fresh Prince.” And that morning, when the box office numbers came out after Independence Day, it was, “Good morning, Mr. Smith.” It was so bizarre. I specifically remember that morning is when people started calling me Mr. Smith.
EI: So this new tour will coincide with the release of Hancock?
WS: Yeah, it will probably go out with Hancock and do performances with premieres around the world.
EI: You are already a worldwide success in both music and film: So what is next?
WS: Working with Gabriele [Muccino] on something in March. It’s called Seven Pounds. Gabriele has a wonderful insight on who I am and how to get the best out of me. Michael Mann and Gabriele Muccino… you know how people can have X-ray vision on you? There are some people that you can’t pull tricks on – they know exactly what is going on. They see you right to the heart of who you are and what you are feeling. That is the relationship I have with those guys. I’m definitely looking forward to getting back in there with Gabriele. Hancock is July 4th with Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman... Peter Berg directed. Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, and myself are producing.
EI: What is it about?
WS: If you can imagine, it’s the Michael Mann version of an alcoholic superhero. It is so bizarre. Michael Mann developed a script about an alcoholic superhero…
EI: … Who is in love with his buddy’s best friend?
WS: Right. Jason Bateman plays a publicist and I save his life. He begins to rehabilitate me in the eyes of the public...
EI: OK, one last question...
WS: Is it going to be a good one?
EI: What is your favorite color?
EI: With your kids now being movie stars themselves, and with the holidays are coming up – are they expecting a Lamborghini? Are you keeping them grounded?
WS: It’s funny. It’s really simple. Jaden and Trey are very simple. Willow just wants clothes. She loves it. She’s dressed herself since she was about four years old. She is very specific about her style. She is very specific about how she wants to look, how she wants to present, the sizes and all that. Willow is like a…
EI: ... shopaholic?
WS: It’s funny – she doesn’t like shopping. She doesn’t like going out and shopping. She wants you to think about her and she loves the idea that she gets things by surprise. Christmas really isn’t big for her. If she knows its coming it’s not as big of a deal. Jaden just wants his family around. Anything that causes the whole family to be together, that is what he wants.
EI: And about remaining grounded… ?
WS: We live in La-La-land out here. Los Angeles and New York are cut off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. For us, traveling is hugely important – for our kids to really see other things and experience other things. We have taken them to South Africa. Gabriele hosted us just outside of Rome in his town. We try to get them to experience how other people live. The grounded idea is more of a concept of how you relate to your service of mankind. That is what we try to impart to our children. You are a part of a whole and you have a responsibility to uplift and be a positive influence on the whole. We feel like that will help with the concept of grounding in this.
EI: What would make your holidays perfect this year?
WS: We’d like to go to the snow, and this is my wife’s wish so I think we’ll go somewhere and enjoy the snow and the cold. My wife spends weeks trying to find out where the most snow is, and this is where we will end up… when I’d rather be in Jamaica!
EI: Jamaica? Is there another country you would like to take the family and go live in?
WS: Not to live. To me, Los Angeles and Miami – I just can’t imagine topping those places for where I would love to live. I have a theory that cities and towns have, essentially, emotional patterns. There are cities that each and every one of us could live in that match our emotional pattern, that we would just be better people if we lived in this place.
I think that my emotional pattern is like the weather patterns of Los Angeles and Miami. It’s warm all the time, it rains a little bit, but when it does it’s fun because it cools it off. The traffic might get a little bad, but it’s not like being in four feet of snow in traffic. Jada needs four seasons. She can’t function if it’s warm all the time. It’s light and fun all the time, and she needs the hibernation. She needs the time where nothing is moving, its quiet, you aren’t hearing cars and horns because they are muffled by the wonderful snow. If I never ever see snow again for the rest of my life, that’s great...
Warner Bros. Pictures' 'I Am Legend' is in theaters now.