Will Smith: Iron Will
Will Smith was between blockbusters when he graced the cover of Movieline’s “Black Hollywood” issue in December of 1996. Independence Day had just made Smith a bonafide movie star over the summer and he was preparing for next summer’s smash, Men In Black. Stephen Rebello asked Smith about his background in music and television and what he wanted from his burgeoning film career.
It’s a six-floor elevator ride to the toney offices of Will Smith Enterprises, the wraparound windows of which offer sprawling vistas of a town Smith currently holds in his hip pocket. The Independence Day audience favorite has just moved his headquarters to West Hollywood from the NBC Burbank offices he occupied during six years on the air as “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” a show he pulled the plug on while it was still a hit. He’s moving way on up, as anyone hereabouts will tell you.
Having nailed the showiest scenes in last summer’s Godzilla-size sci-fi hit, and having done Men In Black, next summer’s potential Godzilla-size sci-fi hit, Smith’s a dervish who seems to know exactly when and when not to whirl. Witness: as a rapper partnered with DJ Jazzy Jeff, he iced the cake of three platinum-certified CDs with two Grammy awards, including the first ever awarded for Best Rap Performance (for the 1988 single “Parents Just Don’t Understand”). He then promoted his rap persona into a hit television series.
From there, he launched his film career with movies that, one by one, inched him into bigger roles, better reviews and ultimately mind-boggling box office: Where the Day Takes You, Made in America, Six Degrees of Separation, Bad Boys and ID4. He’s also made changes on the personal front: 28 and recently divorced from Sheree Zampino, the mother of his four-year-old son, he is keeping company with Jada Pinkett, star of The Nutty Professor and Set It Off, whom he affectionately calls “Miss Jada.” No wonder he bounces up to meet me grinning a grin that says ain’t-life-grand? His is.
With all the fuss around him, Smith could be forgiven if he resembled the proverbial deer trapped in headlights. Five seconds with him, though, makes it clear that he’s the one behind the wheel, not the imminent roadkill. Some Hollywood insiders say he’s demanding, cocky, downright relentless about getting what he thinks is right for himself. Maybe, maybe not. Who gets to where he’s gotten by going with the flow? One thing is certain: under the charm and glee, this guy’s got laser focus. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since I last encountered Tom Cruise.
Lately, Smith has gotten a dose of the surreal side of stardom no drama school can ever prepare you for. I ask him to give me some post-Independence Day examples of the craziness, and when he answers, he’s obviously choosing from plenty of cases.
“I was in Manhattan making Men In Black and this girl was driving along, saw me and started mouthing over and over, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God,’ then crashed into another car.” Smith shakes his head in amazement. “Now, she gets out of her car, but she doesn’t say, “Oh. I crashed into the back of a car!’ She runs over to me and asks for my autograph. That’s when I thought: This is real different. Then, I was at the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan and this girl came up to me, pulled her shirt up and asked me to sign her breasts with a Sharpie. I mean, she’s standing there in the middle of the store with her titties hanging out and I’m like, ‘Listen, those are really nice breasts, but this is really an inappropriate time and place.’ In another store, this toothless 80-year-old lady came up to me, grabbed my face and tried to kiss me right on the lips. I said, ‘Now, ma’am, if I walked up to you, grabbed your face and tried to kiss you on the mouth, the cops would give me a Rodney King and take me right to jail.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, stop being mean. Just give me a kiss,’ I mean, geriatric tongue kisses are pretty much out, in my book.”
How is Smith handling all this attention?
“I’m pretty good at diffusing potential situations,” he says. “But I find myself having to diffuse them a lot more often than before. I heard Sylvester Stallone say once that after he made Rocky, everybody wanted to fight him. Well, every big guy wants to fight me now. They go. ‘Yo. I ain’t no alien–hit me,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hit you. I just want to get some cheese from the supermarket to make grilled cheese sandwiches for my son.’ Why do people want to fight me? What did I do? I think of myself as a pretty calm, likable guy. It’s really weird. I was non-threatening on ‘The Fresh Prince,’ so nobody wanted to fight me, but then I buffed up for Independence Day, came on a little cocky, and suddenly people want to knock me down. People who know me from TV think I’ve seen them in their underwear drinking on their couch, so the response is more familiar, more friendly. Film gives you almost god status, you know’? It makes people crazy.”
One of Smith’s favorite post-mega hit responses came from his own father, Willard Smith Sr., owner of a Philadelphia refrigeration firm, who separated from Will’s mother, a school board administrator, when Will was roughly 13. “The Monday the first box-office numbers were announced, he woke me up by calling me from Philly at nine a.m., which made it six a.m. in L.A.,” relates Smith, with a laugh. “He’d just seen the numbers and said, ‘Boy, you remember when I told you that if you work hard and focus you can have anything you want?’ I said. ‘Yeah, Dad, I remember,’ and then he said, ‘That’s bullshit, boy. You’re the luckiest nigger I ever met in my life.'”
Clearly, Independence Day changed everything for Will Smith. Among other things, now that worldwide audiences have gotten a load of his sculpted pecs and macho flyboy shenanigans, he’s suddenly perceived as hot in every respect. If the auspices were right, would he play up his sex appeal and bare his all on camera? Smith rolls his head around like Stevie Wonder, indicating a most emphatic no.
“Men don’t have nice fronts,” he declares. “Penises aren’t attractive. Women think they’re functional, but not attractive. In fact, the entire male body is not attractive. As naked as I’ll ever be is in Six Degrees of Separation. Maybe I’ll do a love scene, but I’m not showing my balls to nobody, I have a ‘no balls’ clause. I couldn’t just take my balls out anywhere like Harvey Keitel. He’s like that girl showing me her breasts in the Virgin Megastore. I can see Harvey Keitel in the Virgin Megastore with his balls out trying to get some CDs.”
I ask, “But what if a filmmaker held the contractual right to digitally animate your private parts, the way Paul Verhoeven supposedly would’ve liked to have done with the male lead in Showgirls‘?”
“That’d be over the line,” he says. “But if you’re gonna simulate my balls, I want a really nicely generated set. I want ball approval. But this isn’t gonna happen, because men are making the movies and men are going to put in the things they like to see. All women have beautiful bodies. But I’ll tell you one thing: Miss Jada better not do that.”
Smith’s got no quarrel with sexing up his on-screen image, as long as it suits the character–and is done on his terms. “What’s sexy about being sexy is not trying,” he explains. “Once you become conscious of doing something to specifically be sexy, it’s not sexy anymore. I go the other way. Like, when I do a scene, I don’t want to do my hair and don’t want to put makeup on to specifically try to look sexy. In Independence Day, I worked out and wanted my body to look strong, but I was like, “Nah, let the hair be where it is. Don’t put no damn eyeliner on me.'”
Since we’re talking sexy, I ask Smith, who attended Catholic school, about how he lost his sexual innocence. “My first sexual experience never really, like, got off the ground,” he says, laughing. “It was with my girlfriend in eighth grade. Gosh, I shouldn’t have said that–I mean, my girlfriend in eleventh grade. Mom! Anyway, it happened at my house and all, but it just took me, like, 30 minutes to figure out how to get the rubber to work– sorry, Mom, the prophylactic. I just didn’t know how to work it. It was dark, too, and I dropped it and then I had to turn the lights on to find it. Anyway, finally it really didn’t…uhmm …happen, because I got a little ahead of myself. So to speak.”
OK. Let’s talk about movies. I wonder, have there been juicy parts Smith warned on his way up but lost out on?
“Something I wanted real bad but didn’t get was Blair Underwood’s role in Just Cause with Sean Connery,” Smith tells me. “It was shooting in Miami the same time we were doing Bad Boys. The producers and director said, ‘We’ll take a meeting, but we already know it’s “no.” The role’s too close to what you did in Six Degrees of Separation.'”
Smith concedes that the days of being rejected are over. “Independence Day pretty much put me inline to be one of the first guys to get the scripts now. For instance, there’s a script I’ve just been offered that if I don’t do, they’ll probably send to Steve Martin.”
Another facet of megasuccess, of course, is megacoverage in the tabloids. How does he think the press is treating him these days?
“There are members of the press who make their living infringing on people’s private moments,” he replies. “You never know where these people are going to be. They stay outside your house and climb the gates and walk around looking in your windows. Now I’ve got a bunch of 140-pound Rottweilers. It’s just a shame to have to live like that, because I like people so much. Still, you don’t know what people will do. You can never feel completely safe. You’ve got to look around all the time. I’m kind of used to that, being black, watching out for white people coming to get you. Now it’s tenfold.”