When Variety Creative Impact Award honoree Will Smith received the script for “Concussion,” producer Ridley Scott told him it was a gift. After reading the script, Smith thought, “‘This ain’t no damn gift!’” he recalls. “I’m a football dad. Some of my happiest memories are of watching my son catch and throw a football. I didn’t want to be the guy who did a movie saying football could be dangerous.”
But Smith was taken by writer-director Peter Landesman’s script, and agreed to meet with the man he would be portraying, Nigerian pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. It was Omalu who discovered a link between football players and a brain injury known as CTE, a connection the NFL tried to suppress. In that meeting, Omalu said something to Smith that resonated so deeply, it ended up in the film: that while growing up in Nigeria, America was just a step below heaven; it was the place God sent his favorite people.
“He so deeply believes in American ideals. Even now. And I am deeply and profoundly American. There’s no country on earth that would allow me to exist and live the way I exist and live; America is the only country that would produce and support a Will Smith. So when he hit me with that, we really connected.”
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Smith spent hours with his counterpart and even attended autopsies. For Smith the experience was life-changing. “He is such a beautiful man. He is really brilliant, but he is innocent. He literally could not understand why the NFL didn’t want to know. As an actor, it was such a beautiful thing to get my head around being that smart and that innocent at the same time.”