Jeddah: Oscar-winning Hollywood actor Will Smith proves he’s all about creating the right energy in a room. It may sound ironic since he’s the chief architect of the notorious ‘slapgate’ scandal at the 2022 Academy Awards night where he smacked the host of the evening, Chris Rock, on his face for making fun of his wife’s baldness, effectively ruining the spirit of the evening.
As The Guardian put it at that time, “it was the slap that launched a thousand tweets, memes, and overreaching op-eds on the subject of Black masculinity.” But at his recent appearance at the Red Sea International Film Festival, the ‘I Am Legend’ actor was all heart and humility as he led one of the most engaging and jovial in-conversation sessions with his fans.
Unlike other celebrities who participated in similar sessions at the festival and entered directly onto the stage maintaining an almost aloof demeanour and sticking to their lane (here’s looking at you, Katrina Kaif), Smith made his way down the stairs among the audience and met their ‘I love you, Will’ declarations with his own ‘I love you all’ squeals.
I want to teach filmmaking … What's exciting to me about Saudi is it's a brand-new film community with brand-new filmmakers. There's a style of global storytelling and I understand how those tiny little adjustments can make things global … And yes, working with Denzel Washington in Saudi also is a great idea.
“Fame is really a unique monster, and you must be careful. You can’t get excited when everybody is saying good things about you because the more you take in when people are saying good things about you, the more hurt you're going to be when people are saying bad things about you,” said Smith, without divulging any specifics of his life events. He preferred to club all his lows in the last two years as “adversities,” perhaps a deliberate dumbing down of all the controversies that rocked his life, including his unconventional marriage with Jada Pinkett Smith and Oscar slap.
“You know with what I have experienced … My adversities of the last couple of years, I now must be clear about who I am and what I am attempting to do in this world. I can’t need others to applaud for me to stay focused on my mission. I have always wanted to put good into the world, and I have always wanted to make people smile,” said Smith to a full house of cinephiles and Smith followers.
And he made good on that promise because there was not one bored face in that crowd. His animated style of speech, his mimicking Arnold Schwarzenegger giving him life lessons on being a global star, and how his barber gave him tips on how to nail the body language of Serena and Venus William’s father in ‘King Richard’ made it a precious masterclass. While he was jovial and kept the mood light, he often let his guard down. While controversial topics like his marriage, the Oscar slap, and Chris Rock were side-stepped, he often revealed his humane and vulnerable side.
“I am here because in my deepest heart, I want you to feel good. At the same time, I am deeply human, and my virtue is not yet perfected. I am in the process of perfecting my virtue … The greatest thing that has happened [in the last two years] is I have been deeply humbled and deeply inspired to perfect my life. And that’s what this next phase of my life is going to be … Perfecting and shining my light as brightly as I can on as many people as I can,” said Smith. As if on cue, the seasoned actor and rapper – who was last seen in ‘King Richard’ and ‘Emancipation’ – lit up his fans’ imagination when he announced that he’s soon going to start work on ‘I Am Legend 2’ with Michael B Jordan. The 2007 apocalyptic film was a blockbuster that has garnered its own cult following. Now if you had seen the theatrical version, you will remember that Smith’s character Dr. Robert Neville dies, but the DVD version that was released had an alternative ending in which he lives.
“We’re going with the mythology of the DVD version where my character lives, and I can’t tell you anymore … I have a call with Michael B. Jordan, and the script just came in,” said Will Smith. And he claims that he doesn’t believe in making sequels just for the sake of it or just appearing ‘cool’.
“I'm always trying to figure out what is the elevation of the character? What is the new idea? What is the change that will match the changes in our lives? I want the character to grow, learn, and expand as we're learning and growing and expanding … The sequel must have something new to say.”
So, who were his biggest screen idols? Just like James Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen, Will Smith also adores Bruce Lee.
“I just loved how he was bigger than life. I love how he created that energy that you walked around on the streets with after his films ... You were often acting out his sequences and wanted to flip just like him. The level of inspiration that came from the screen was impressive,” said Smith. It was from this idol that he learned the transformative power of cinema.
“I recognised cinema as a tool for inspirational energy … You can depict situations, and you can depict people, historical circumstances, you can inspire people to learn and to grow and change. The power to brighten our world through storytelling came with films like ‘The Pursuit Of Happyness’ and ‘Ali’ where I realised cinema is more than just entertainment. It can touch people's lives in a way that they're able to change their environment and communities,” said Smith. While he found cinema a potent instrument for social change, he also wanted to be “the biggest movie star in the world”. He asked 'Terminator' icon Schwarzenegger how to achieve global domination.
“He said: ‘If you want to be the biggest guy in the world, your movies cannot only be popular in America, you must go to every country in the world, you have to meet the people, you have to see the people. If you're only successful in America, you are not a movie star.’ It opened my mind and how much bigger the world is than just America.” True to his word, Smith has traveled far and wide, including constant stops in the UAE and India.
For this actor, his career is his biggest exploration of self.
“Roles are a beautiful way of getting to know who I am … The characters teach me about myself, and about life, and they helped me hone my contribution to humanity. It's beautiful.”
He remembers how his interaction with Chris Gardner, on whom his celebrated feature about a salesman scraping his way to success in ‘The Pursuit Of Happyness’, nearly broke him. As a part of role preparation, Smith was shadowing Gardner’s tough times on the streets.
“He took me to the bathroom at the subway that he had to spend the night with his son … He asked me to spend some time there alone and as I stood in that dirty subway bathroom, I just burst into tears … Ultimately, we shot that scene with my actual son on my lap. It was tough. But I grew as an actor with that film … I grow with all my characters.”