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Why ‘Concussion’ Changed Will Smith’s Life

Will Smith honored at Palm Springs Film Festival for collaboration with 10 Directors to Watch selection Peter Landesman.

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.”

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.”

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