×

Will Smith on Paying Homage to Robin Williams and Bringing His ‘Own Flavor’ to ‘Aladdin’

When Disney’s animated classic “Aladdin” was released in 1992, Will Smith was best known as the rapper-turned-star of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and a career as a movie star seemed like a pipe dream. It would a few more years until “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day” or “Men in Black” would make him a box office king (and a few more years before the shine started to dull on the crown). Fast-forward 27 years to the premiere of Disney’s live-action adaptation of the film and witness Smith the superstar, taking on the iconic role of the Genie, and taking over the extravagant premiere.

“It’s a whole lot easier to stand in front of you guys when the movie’s good,” Smith quipped as he walked up to reporters at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The star had reason to be in high spirits since many of the early reviews of the film have been positive, including Variety’s own — with chief film critic Peter Debruge calling it a “high-risk, mostly rewarding” remake.

And one of the biggest risks the film had to overcome was finding a way to capture the magic the late Robin Williams brought to the Genie. Legendary composer Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the original film and the remake, told Variety that “Will’s performance is a tribute to him — the emotion that’s in it.”

“I was pretty confident that Will could do it,” director Guy Ritchie told reporters. “So my job really was to encourage Will to be more Will. And as long as we stuck to that M.O., then I felt as though it would work. Then gradually we found that identity in rehearsals. And then once we found it, we were off to the races.”

Smith said the biggest challenge of playing the role was “being able to find a way to not make it jarring and disturbing by how different it would be. To make people feel at home while they were getting something new and special.”

“The music was really how I saw my way in to be able to play the Genie,” Smith explained to Variety. “That first day messing around with ‘Friend Like Me,’ I noticed that it was in the BPM range of old-school hip-hop. So when I started playing with it, it was like, ‘Oh man — this really lends itself to a tempo and a flavor that I really understand.’ And that showed me how I could pay homage to Robin and not change the songs so much, so people would have the nostalgic value, but then also be able to come with my own flavor.”

“It’s thrilling. I mean the Will Smith aspect was very easy for me,” Menken said of reworking the songs for the rap star. After listening to Smith’s ideas for “Friend Like Me,” Menken said he thought, “this is gonna work. Because he made it fresh and he respected the song totally and brought such a joy to it.”

The film’s young stars Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Nasim Pedrad also relished working with the superstar. Massoud, who stars in the titular role, gushed over Smith, saying, “maybe we’ll come back together for a sequel!”

“We’re all just so ready for this movie to come out, it’s been two years,” Scott (who plays Princess Jasmine) said. “There was so much joy and love and thought that went into this movie and hopefully that translates on screen.”

Trey Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jaden Smith'Aladdin' film premiere, Arrivals, El Capitan Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 21 May 2019
CREDIT: Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

But back to Smith — the support for him didn’t end with the “Aladdin” cast and crew. The entire Smith clan made an appearance at the extravagant event, from his real family — wife Jada Pinkett Smith and his three children, Trey, Willow and Jaden — to his TV siblings, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” stars Alfonso Ribeiro and Tatyana Ali.

But the most peak-Will Smith moment of the night happened at the after-party, when a queue of celebrities waited to get a moment (and a photo) with the superstar, while his 1998 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” played over the speaker system of the Roosevelt Hotel. It’s a scene that the actor is sure to have experienced many times before; he just smiled and accepted the well-wishes, seemingly unfazed.

Menken summed it up best: “The Genie has been a pretty good role for a lot of people [mentioning Tony winner James Iglehart]. Now, Will is the king of that, long may he reign.”

“Aladdin” hits theaters on Friday.

More Film

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

  • Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis in Talks to Direct Live-Action 'Pinocchio' for Disney (EXCLUSIVE)

    Robert Zemeckis is in early talks to direct Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz will produce through their company Depth of Field with Weitz penning the script. “Paddington” director Paul King had originally been tapped to direct but had to leave the project for unknown reasons at the beginning of the year. David [...]

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for best actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content