In his latest film Seven Pounds, Will Smith is reunited with director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happiness) in a redemptive tale based in Will's character Ben helping seemingly unconnected people with a series of extreme acts. Smith is joined onscreen by Barry Pepper, Roasario Dawson and Woody Harrelson and as a bonus point of interest, Seven Pounds also features the film debut of Connor Cruise, the adopted son of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier recently sat down with Will Smith in Hollywood, CA to try and put Will's incredible run of the past few years into perspective using both the inherent challenges within and the lessons learned from Seven Pounds as a mental springboard...
Emmanuel Itier: What does it feel like to be called 'the biggest movie star on planet Earth'? [Smiles]
Will Smith: I wish I could remember who wrote that story. My wife remembers where I read it. Anyway, I read an article where somebody said he’s a mountain climber and he had it set in his mind that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. He said, “I want to climb Everest,” and he went to the top and realized he couldn’t breathe. The only thought he had was, “How in the hell can I get down from here as fast as I can?” So, basically, be careful what you wish for, because you fight to get there and then this discomfort sets in.
The last year-and-a-half has been scary and frustrating for me. I had an epiphany after working on Seven Pounds. Part of that feeling was I was looking at my life and looking at myself and my future too much, based around these movies. After Seven Pounds, I had this huge epiphany of how much more I want to be and do... the idea of living in service to humanity versus living in service of commercializing my movies. That explosion washed away that scary, uncomfortable feeling. I don’t necessarily want to be remembered as the biggest movie star on the planet: I want to be remembered as a man who cared about people and dedicated himself to making the world better. Emotionally, it’s so much better of a place for me after having that epiphany.
EI: Do you want to make the world a better place by making message-movies like Seven Pounds?
WS: It’s not so much that I want to make message-movies. I was attracted to the idea of Seven Pounds not because there was a fantastic one-liner I could sell around the world easily, but there were ideas and emotions I was hiding myself from. I took Seven Pounds almost as a self-examination and self-exploration. Jada said to me, “It’s funny how much you are rejecting this character. It’s funny how you’re doing it, because you know that you are Ben, don’t you?” I was like, “What?!” And, she said, “The reason you’re so nice and you fight so hard to be up-tone is that you’re at war with that guy inside of you.” I was like, “That’s damn deep, lady.”
With the projects I was choosing, everything had to be okay in the end or it emotionally hurt me, but now my sensibilities are slightly less delicate and I can venture into the world of emotions and artistic ambiguity. It was terrifying for me. As a child growing up, my grandmother told me, “God will make everything okay. However scary life gets, someone in a high place is always on your side.” So to play a character who feels like he has to fix everything and to learn how to carry that emotional weight is a terrifying place for me to be emotionally.
EI: What else did you learn about yourself from making Seven Pounds?
WS: Well, I’ve been exploring the idea of trauma and the relationship between trauma and continuing life, with I Am Legend into Hancock and then into Seven Pounds. I’m starting the character of Ben when he’s experiencing a trauma. But what’s the difference between someone who falls into depression and a Mandela, Ghandi, or Mother Teresa who keeps going in the ultimate weight of life?
In Seven Pounds, I discovered when you have a purpose and you’ve dedicated your life to something beyond yourself, all is bearable. It so exploded in my mind. If one of my movies saved my life, it’s Seven Pounds. It wasn’t Independence Day…although, when I punched that alien and said, “Welcome to Earth,” that still was a huge moment. [Laughs]
EI: What was it like to do this love scene?
WS: With love scenes, I always remember what my grandmother and mother taught me. My grandmother was really firm, and so was my mother, about how men are supposed to treat women. When I first started driving, I was excited and just hopped in the car, but my grandmother would stand outside and tell me, “Get out and open the door for me.” So my worst nightmare is for an actress to come on my set and feel like I’m taking a love scene as an opportunity to get a quickie feel and some legal cheating. I need women to be comfortable around me, so doing a love scene and her having her clothes off puts me in my defensive place. But it hurts the acting if I’m in that place where I’m worried about my hand brushing up against a naked woman.
EI: How did Jada react to such a stark love-making scene?
WS: Jada said, “Listen, I know you’re uncomfortable, but you better not embarrass me. You do that love scene, and you better show them what you’re working with.” I asked her to come to the set and she was like, “Are you nuts?” [Laughs]
EI: Is it fair to say that your grandmother's advice has played a big role in the person you've become?
WS: Oh yeah. My grandmother was that lady who always helped others. My grandmother was that woman that when you come home from school and there were four homeless people in the living room, she’d go, “Oh, we’re going to just give them a bath.” The more random it made her feel, and I grew up with a comprehension of what that is. It was her responsibility because of what she had been blessed with. It wasn’t a choice; it was things she had to do.
EI: You have always been such a nice guy, even now you’re in such a successful and prominent position in the film industry, you still remain down-to-earth and humble: How do you do it?
WS: I think because I’m scared. I’m so grateful to be in the position I’m in, to be blessed with what I’m blessed with. I was with Redman the other day in Chicago, and he came up and he said, “Man, listen. Now I’ve got this relationship I’m trying to make work. And if you and Jada don’t work, I’m done,” and he meant it. The only reason he’s gonna try to work on his relationship is because of what he saw with Jada and I and what we have, and he’s believing there could be a possibility.
To me, that so terrifies me that there are people’s lives I can affect with just little stuff - I’m not even doing anything big... I don’t want to break that. I don’t want to damage other people’s lives, so it keeps me humble and grounded. Sometimes I don’t feel like I should do this or that, because I might mess something up, so I stay focused.
EI: Do you think that there is still inherent racism lingering in the U.S. film industry? Is that why Hollywood doesn’t make more mainstream movies featuring an African-American cast?
WS: It’s interesting... but I don’t like the word “racism” because there are so many connotations that go with it. Look, if you put ten black artists in a room and we sit down and come up with something, it will be about black people.
It’s not racism with studios, because the majority of the creative people there are of a certain background, so it’s more our responsibility to be able to display and show how it could different, how to make a film like Set It Off, Bad Boys, or The Secret Life of Bees attractive to a mass movie-going audience. We have to display how that will work. We can’t expect people to write or produce our stories unless we do it.
EI: Do major shifts in society help with that - shifts like the election of the first black U.S. President, Barack Obama?
WS: We now have a black president, so we have no more excuses. [Laughs] I’m going to the inauguration, but let me tell you that it’s hard to get a front-row seat to that one! But whatever our Commander-In-Chief asks of me, I will do. Barack being elected did something to the mood of our country. I was crying uncontrollably when Barack was elected, because it so validated something I’ve believed in for a such a long time and, as a black man in America, I’ve never been allowed to say out loud... that America is not a racist nation.
I don’t see America as a racist nation. Barack being elected... validated something inside of me. Now I’m allowed to say it out loud. For so many years, I wanted to say, “Let’s create our own movies. Yes, it was written for a white character, but you take on the responsibility and show how it can be something else.” Of course, some people would say, “You’re Uncle Tom if you said that. The white man has got you brainwashed.” But now I feel so free, like I’ve been unleashed to say things and do things the way I’ve felt for so long.
America, to me, is the most fantastic nation that ever existed on this planet. We hold these truths that all men are created equal... there has never been anything better ever written. I’m hyped. My company just made a deal with the UAE for me to lay a conduit between the Muslim world and the West... it’s a perfect opportunity. I truly believe that a large part of why Barack is in office is to do what MTV did. What MTV did was it laid a conduit between the inner city and suburban American kids and the world. You can’t tell a fifteen-year-old white kid a lie about black people, because they know it’s not true. With their parents and grandparents, you could have fed them any misinformation, but MTV connected kids of all races, creeds, and colors together.
EI: Would you like to play President Obama in a biopic?
WS: I would love to! I’ll be looking to play him when he’s out of office in eight years...
EI: This film, Seven Pounds talks about the power of love and how your character realizes that it is just coming too late...
WS: There is an idea that was one of the central concepts that I fell in love with in this movie. There is an idea that, in the West, we think of things in a straight line. There is birth, life, and death, and then everything is over, but that’s not really how things work. If you take that line and put it in a circle, there’s birth, life, death, and rebirth.
If you lose your job or you get divorced in the winter, the spring is always coming and there is rebirth. This is a character who didn’t realize that the spring and the metaphor of new love was coming. He didn’t know what got broken could be repaired. I love that transformative power of love and that idea you can’t destroy the crops just because it’s winter. You’ve gotta stay prepared.
Yes, your partner died, you lost your house, you didn’t graduate, but relax, please, pay attention, stay focused, because the spring is coming. You gotta be there and be prepared to catch the wave of life. Ben realized it too late. He didn’t know... he set this thing in motion and he missed the natural tide... I could talk about this for hours... [Laughs]
EI: With that knowledge gained, what have been some of the worst winters of your life?
WS: For me, it was my divorce. My divorce was one of the most emotionally devastating things I ever experienced. I had a two-year-old, and the whole idea of failure was tough. The idea that I was too weak to make something work was devastating for me. The idea that somebody could not love me anymore, I just gave up and that was the most devastating part. I don’t mind if Mike Tyson knocks me clean the hell out. But you can’t be cowering in the corner and get knocked out.
EI: How do you usually transform yourself into the character you’re playing? What did you do to become Ben?
WS: When you start a new film and you’re developing a character, you don’t always realize when it’s sinking in. You’re working on it every day. One night, at home, we’re all sitting at dinner, and Jaden - who is Mr. Reality, because he keeps me informed about what’s going on in the house… we’re sitting at family dinner and it was really quiet, so I lean over to Jaden - that’s my man -- and ask him, “Why is it so quiet?” And he said, “Because you look crazy.”
I just had no idea. We had worked on this thing, and one of the ideas with the character is that he’s trying to see if someone is a good person, but he has to look underneath because everyone wears masks; you wear your sensitive lover mask when it’s one of those nights; or your disciplinarian mask with the kids.
So we developed this thing where my character tries to look under people’s masks; he literally tries to look under their masks while he’s keeping his on. I developed this behavior to go with it. So I’m sitting at the dinner table looking like who knows what, and Jaden made me realize that I hadn’t noticed I had gotten to that place.
EI: When you made Six Degrees Of Separation, you refused to kiss another man. Have you changed as an actor since then?
WS: Oh yeah. On Six Degrees, I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know when you could reprogram your instincts.
EI: Like Ali, didn’t you go through some physical training to play Tim/Ben in Seven Pounds? Didn’t you lose a lot of weight?
WS: I did, but this time I was prepared for the potential of it. It took me four to six weeks to get back to my normal weight, but it changes everything. For Ali, I was in shape and strong, but it changed things with Jada and I. For this, I lost fifteen pounds because I wanted the more sunken-in look, so you go to the gym more - two times a day - and you do more cardio. I just eat a lot more now, so it’s not pretty under my shirt now. I’ve packed on some pounds. It’s not like I Am Legend; it’s more like “I Am Luggage”! [Laughs]
EI: Speaking of I Am Legend, is it true that you might be doing a prequel?
WS: We have a fantastic prequel idea. We’re still trying to work through a couple of bumps in the story. It’s essentially the fall of the last city; the last stand of Manhattan. Within the body of the movie, D.C., and then Manhattan would fall as the last city.
It’s a really cool idea that we’re trying to figure out. There’s a reason why we have to take a small band and we have to get into D.C., so we have to make our way from New York to D.C. and then back to New York.
EI: And will the dog you loved so much in the original I Am Legend be back in the film?
WS: Yes, the dog will be a puppy... [Laughs]
EI: Finally, here we are again, chatting right before the holidays - I know last year you were hoping for Jamaica... but expecting to end up somewhere snowy... What will you and the family be doing for Christmas this year?
WS: For probably three months before Christmas, Jada keeps looking for the place with the maximum snowfall. She holds out until the last two weeks before Christmas and chooses the place based on the snowfall... so we’ll either be in Utah or Montana.
Columbia Pictures' 'Seven Pounds' is in theaters nationwide now.