Will Smith’s Career Rollercoaster: A Bright Future in Politics?

Twenty years ago, Will Smith announced he’d love to become president. And why not? He’d won at everything else. At 12, he formed a rap duo that made him a teenage millionaire. By 23, he was a sitcom star. Now, he was 26 and his stunning hit streak of Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black had made him the most likable movie star in the world. The U.S. Presidency would simply be his fourth career—or maybe fifth. “Give me 10 years and I’ll make it,” said Smith, “provided I can squeeze in an NBA championship before that.”

He was kidding, and he wasn’t. Since then, Smith has floated running for president every few years. (He dropped his basketball dreams pretty quick.) In 1999, the Clintons invited him to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. “I told Bill that he should keep my room warm,” said Smith. “That might sound foolish to some,” he later told the NY Daily News, “But, in my mind, if Ronald Reagan can become President, then why not Will Smith?” His blockbusters had already given him the bragging rights to say he owned the Fourth of July—in theaters around the world, he represented America every summer.

His latest critical and box office stumbles like “Collateral Beauty” and “After Earth” have dinged Smith’s box office power. Still, even recently, he’s mused, “As I look at the political landscape, I think that there might be a future out there for me.” In turn, wife Jada Pinkett-Smith joked, “I told him that there’s no way he can run for President because nobody wants me as the First Lady.”

It’s been a rough stretch for the now-49-year-old actor. His latest film, “Bright,” an orc-cop action flick directed by David Ayer, opened on Netflix this Friday to another round of bad reviews, Smith’s ninth critical whiff in a decade. His star clout remains on the defensive. Yet, as Netflix examines what went wrong with their $90 million bet, it’s worth tracing the arc of one of Hollywood’s most analytical actors as he continues to navigate a landscape of PG-13 blockbusters he helped create.

Smith claims his success was fueled in part by what he’s called his “weird naivety,” the kind of magical cartoon-bird-on-your-shoulder charm and ambition that made a Philadelphia school teacher nickname him “Prince.” The other half of his brain is pure calculation. He’s always had a god’s-eye view of his career. He used his early music videos to convince people he could act, turning his 1989 hit “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” into a comedy skit where he ran around Philly in a Rocky costume. That got him his sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and from there, Smith got strategic. He knew he had bigscreen, cross-over potential. People trusted him. Playing a character like himself was “an asset,” he noted. “When I say a line, the audience doesn’t feel I’m acting.” Plus, he added, Americans just plain liked men with goofy ears, all the way back to Clark Gable.

Smith feared that his Fresh Prince image would keep Hollywood from taking him seriously, so he pushed for serious episodes on drugs and pregnancy (the network said no to the latter) and turned down all TV commercials, even though they might have made him a fast fortune. Insisted Smith, “You don’t see Robert De Niro for Nike.”

Talent agents warned him that most black actors don’t get second chances. When Smith told Hollywood yes, he had to get it right. He started with a bit part in “Made in America,” a Ted Danson/Whoopi Goldberg comedy where he got to be the best part of the movie. “I’m still working on my acting skills,” he explained. “I’m still not ready to step out with my own feature.” Then during the same stretch that Hollywood was finally taking ensemble black films seriously with “Menace II Society,” “Poetic Justice,” “Boomerang,” “Juice,” “CB4” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” he surprised everyone by saying yes to playing a gay con man in the otherwise all-white, Pulitzer and Tony-nominated “Six Degrees of Separation.”

“If you lined up a hundred films, this would be the last one that people would expect me to do,” said Smith. Yet, like him, his hustler character Paul Poitier—the alleged son of Sidney—has the charisma who called it “the best career move I’ve ever made.” He took heat for refusing to kiss his co-star, Anthony Michael Hall, a decision he later called, “immature.” But when Hall turns Smith’s Poitier and vows, “I’ll make you the most sought-after man in the East,” that promise came true—and then some.

For the next decade, Smith studied success, building a billion dollar brand from pieces of other actors he admired. He learned physical comedy from John Ritter, how to transition from TV to film from Bruce Willis, Jim Carrey, and Tom Hanks. From Tom Cruise, he learned about maximizing foreign sales, which when he analyzed the global box office meant saying yes to sci-fi blockbusters with monsters. And then to make sure he aced his those, he fixated on Ernest Borgnine’s performance in “The Poseidon Adventure,” watching it 20 times before he shot “Independence Day.” “What I learned from Borgnine,” Smith told Newsweek, “is you can stand there straight and just say a line, and let the moment make it funny.”

Once his action trinity made him a $20 million dollar star, he set out to prove he could make money in every genre from rom-coms like “Hitch” to the weepy “The Pursuit of Happyness.” In the first years of the Willennium, Steven Spielberg advised him his blockbuster persona had gotten too big to play dramatic characters, so Smith downshifted to “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and disappeared into Muhammed Ali. Also, he calculated, “for Best Actor Oscars, almost 90 percent of the time, it’s mental illness and historical figures, right?” (Correct—”Ali” scored him an Academy Award nomination.)

Will Smith arrives at the U.S. premiere of “Bright” at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles.
Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Smith insists he learns from his mistakes. His first stumble was turning down “The Matrix” for “Wild Wild West,” though he swears he found a “strange comfort” when the cowboy flick flopped. Its failure was a sign he’d gone off-course “promoting something because I wanted to win versus promoting something because I believed in it.” With every flop, he’s gotten more philosophical. “Seven Pounds” taught him to explore trauma and loss. Learning that his father had cancer on the Monday following “After Earth’s” disappointing opening weekend taught him perspective. Why did he always need to be number one? What was he trying to prove—and to who? Himself?

Smith’s descriptions of his career have the mental picture of a tall Tibetan mountain with meditation temples at every plateau. “When I’m angry or hurt I ask myself, what would Buddha do? Gandhi?”

Last year, Smith came to a key conclusion. “The power has gone away from the marketers,” he told an audience at Cannes. “I consider myself a marketer. My career has been strictly about being able to sell my products globally. But the power has gone away. The power is now in the hands of the audience, in the hands of the fans. The only choice I have is to be in tune with their needs, not try to trick them into going to see ‘Wild Wild West.'”

He’s clearly still figuring out what that means. Lately, he’s taken to calling Hollywood, “the ultimate forum for changing people’s hearts and minds.” He used to do that on talk radio, dialing into political shows in character to point out to people railing against illegal immigration that they were in Los Angeles driving on La Cienega Boulevard and, “How did she think we got those names?”

If he never enters politics, at least he can play a president. This summer on “Carpool Karaoke,” Smith said Barack Obama had given him his blessing to star in his biopic—the kind of role, naturally, that could get him an Oscar. Laughed Smith, “He told me that he felt confident that I had the ears for the role.”

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