There’s a mystery behind the well-planned show business career: The better the planning, the less it shows. So it is with Will Smith, who has moved, steadily and smoothly, from the hip-hop frivolity of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to the multi-level life of a co-owner (with James Lassiter) of Overbrook Entertainment, not to mention proud parent/serious-actor-in-serious-movies.
What has made Smith’s progress seem so invisible is that he has appeared to fit right into every project that he’s taken on, and that just about every calculation has worked.
On paper it didn’t always appear so neat. Why would a TV star of one of the lightest of sitcoms work in the role of a young con artist in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” fooling a train of white folks into thinking he’s the son of Sidney Poitier? Why would the same TV star lead a half-comic ensemble in the post-Spielberg sci-fi blockbuster “Independence Day”? Why would the star of two of the ’90s’ biggest franchises — “Men in Black” and “Bad Boys” — risk it all wanting to play Muhammad Ali? Why would playing Robert Neville, the last man on Earth (meaning having to act solo) in “I Am Legend,” work for Smith when it had defeated so many previous superstar attempts? Why star in an all-American film titled “The Pursuit of Happyness” under the guidance of an Italian director with an unsure grasp of English?
“If you look under the charismatic surface of Will,” says that Italian director, Gabriele Muccino (who has helmed his second film with Smith, “Seven Pounds”), “you realize that there is someone who takes enormous risks and feels just as confident that he can take them.”
But there’s something else under this as well. Will Smith, all along, had a plan.
“The key,” says Smith, “was range — range as an actor, range in the business. So my strategy from the start was that I would lay down markers, so that I would never be in a situation in which someone considering me for a role would say, ‘He can’t do that.’ And the same with Overbrook: Range of projects means there are no pigeonholes you can slot us into, whether it’s ‘Lakeview Terrace’ or ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ to name two that (we’ve done) just this year.
“So, in practical terms, this meant that while doing ‘Fresh Prince’ — I mean, right smack in the middle of doing that show — I would act in ‘Six Degrees.’ It was a role that was so totally, completely at the other end of the spectrum, that took me so far away, that I would then have an argument for any role in between. It meant that if I could do ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘Six Degrees,’ then surely I could do ‘Bad Boys.’ ”
But it’s Smith’s follow-up thought to this explanation of his grand plan that might explain how he presaged the Obamafication of America, the way in which African-American men like Smith and Tiger Woods made themselves comfortable with the country, and the country with them: “In ‘Six Degrees,’ Paul claiming he was Sidney Poitier’s son made himself feel welcome in homes that he would never otherwise enter, but since TV viewers had already welcomed me into their homes, I could make Paul believable.”
Smith was also riding the crest of a national cultural change, led by hip-hop (and in part by how his unthreatening rapper alter ego helped the music go mainstream), for which he gives great credit to MTV: “I might not have gotten as far and as fast as I did without MTV’s reach and influence in the ’80s and ’90s, since it was the first conduit between the inner city and the suburbs. Suburban kids knew the lyrics to all of NWA’s songs, like ‘Fuck the Police.’ MTV hasn’t gotten enough credit for bringing young whites and blacks together.
“When I started rapping,” adds Smith, “rappers couldn’t go on the radio out of fear that they would violate FCC requirements, and they couldn’t stay at the Four Seasons. I thought all of that was unacceptable, so it was important to help be a part of breaking down barriers, and opening up TV, radio and movies for all kinds of possibilities. Now, that’s such old news nobody thinks about it anymore. But it was huge when I was coming up.”
The wide open range that Smith wanted to graze in as a movie star included everything from Michael Mann’s hagiographic biopic “Ali” to the troubled “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Poll most moviegoers, and they won’t think of Smith as a science-fiction star — not in the iconic way that Charlton Heston or William Shatner or the “Star Wars” crew is — and yet he’s certainly the major figure in big-budget sci-fi over the past decade, and the genre factors largely in Smith holding the record for most consecutive films (eight) grossing more than $100 million.
“That was part of what I always wanted to do,” he confirms, “and, again, not limit myself to that, but definitely work it, and get involved with as many interesting projects as I could. So that included ‘Independence Day,’ which was such a breakthrough for me in a lot of ways, ‘Men in Black,’ and, of course, ‘I, Robot,’ ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘Hancock’: science-fiction movies that were science fiction but also had other angles going for them.” And to think that Smith turned down — to his enduring regret — the role of Neo in “The Matrix.”
Working with Smith on his robot-killing cop character in “I, Robot,” acting coach Aaron Speiser noticed that Smith “had an amazing drive and was obsessed with being the best, and sensed that something was missing for him. His wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, introduced me, and as we talked about his character, he began to plumb the pain that he felt.
“Artists bring their pain to their work,” Speiser continues. “He took that role into darker places than he had before, and now, if you watch his work in recent films like ‘Pursuit of Happyness,’ ‘I Am Legend’ and especially ‘Seven Pounds,’ he has reached real depths as an actor. His work in ‘I Am Legend’ is astonishing, and his emotional nakedness in ‘Seven Pounds’ is far beyond anything he’s accomplished before.”
The critics, too, have taken note of Smith’s transformational work. Of his role as the struggling single father in “Happyness,” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that it’s “a beautiful and understated performance, one that hums with a richer, quieter music than Smith has mustered before.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle chimed in that “Smith has the right quality for the role — he’s an easy man to root for — but he augments this by channeling some inner quality of desperation and need.”
At the core of Smith’s motivation, according to Speiser, is “that he not only wants to excel at every single thing he does — as a father or producer or actor or anything else — but he wants to please. That also means that he wants to please the director with his performance. It’s a wonderful trait as a human being, and a measure of what a kind, sweet man he is. But great acting is dangerous because it means that you have to let go of the urge to please. He’s discovered that.”
Eighteen years since his “Fresh Prince” first popped, Smith now has some focused ideas about what makes for a good performance and a good production company. “When I’m getting into a role and reading the script, I’ll ask some fundamental questions, (the answers to which) give me the clues to the character. What’s the one thing that happened in (the character’s) life that he most often recalls, the greatest experience? Sometimes, like in ‘Seven Pounds,’ that experience is in the movie. The other key question — What does he want? These get me to my role’s physicality, emotionality and spirituality.
“Now, the big thing I’ve learned with the kind of company we have with Overbrook is team-building. If you put the right people in the right positions, it’s easy for me to juggle as much stuff as I and my whole family are juggling right now.” (Smith notes in an aside that not only is Jada producing, directing and acting, but daughter Willow is a voice alongside Jada in “Madagascar 2,” son Jaden is in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and Willow is in “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.”) He goes on: “The problem in an organization is when a job is left undone and somebody has dropped the ball. So we’ve become diligent at the company on situating people where they succeed and work the best.”
This points to the next likely phase of Smith’s brilliant career. Overbrook’s slate continues to grow, with upcoming projects like “Pursuit,” the thriller adaptation of Thomas Perry’s novel, and the child fantasy “Monster Hunter” looming, so that like a few select movie stars such as Mel Gibson, Smith’s reach (in his case as a producer-actor) could once again be risk-taking and full of impact.
“This wouldn’t be noticed by those who don’t know him,” says Muccino, “but he’s harder on himself than anyone — maybe including me! He’s very self-critical, and he sets high goals for himself. To be good isn’t enough. He wants to be extremely good.”