Will Smith

Will Smith grew up in middle class West Philadelphia and got the nickname 'Prince' because of the way he could charm his way out of trouble. Pursuing music, he met Jeff Townes and began performing together as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. In 1989 Smith met Benny Medina, who had an idea for a sitcom based on his life in Beverly Hills. Smith loved the idea, as did NBC, the result was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Smith basically played himself; a street-smart West Philly kid transplanted to Beverly Hills. The series lasted six years. During that time, he ventured into movies in Six Degrees of Separation (1993). With the success that came with the action picture Bad Boys (1995), Will's movie career was set. He had a huge hit with the Blockbuster Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).
Darren Rea caught up with him as his new movie, I, Robot was due to be released theatrically in the UK...

Darren Rea: I, Robot has done incredibly well in America, you must be happy about that.

Will Smith: I'm very happy about that. I'm more happy with the fact that I feel that we made a great movie, because I've had big box office success in the past with not so great movies, and that doesn't feel nice [laughs].

To be competent in the film with the powerful, intellectual base that Isaac Asimov set forth with his original short stories, and the great visionary future that Alex [Proyas, I, Robot's director] put together, and some of the greatest special effects you've ever seen. It's the biggest opening weekend I've ever had. I feel good about that, but I'm happy that people like the movie.

DR: You appear nude in the movie. What was that like to film? Did you have as few people on the set as possible that day, or did you just go for it?

WS: No, we brought people in. We had a studio audience [laugh]. No, it was really bizarre and awkward. You just want as few people there as possible, but it was really important character nakedness, Okay? It wasn't just gratuitous Hollywood nakedness. The character suffered from a psychological condition called survivor's guilt - that's where you are in an accident, and you're the only one alive and you feel guilty about it. One of the symptoms is paranoia, which is the reason why we had the door open, there's no curtain curtain. He doesn't wash his hair, because he needs his eyes to be open because he's paranoid. So it was deep nakedness.

DR: You turned down a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology...

WS: So the legend has it [laughs]

DR: Do you ever wonder where you would be now if you had taken that up?

WS: Well, you know maths and science has always been huge in my life. From about the time I was five years old I wanted to be a scientist and that was the road my parents were leading me down.

I was probably about 11 or 12 when I first got interested in entertainment. I guess my love of science fiction is sought of a blend of the future that had been set forth for me in science and then the ability to entertain. Then when I was around eight or nine years old, Star Wars was the movie that put me into a space where the science fiction element of it was almost a spiritual connection for me. That someone could imagine that, put it up on a screen and make me feel like that... My entire career I've been trying to make people feel how Star Wars made me feel.

DR: You've had a love hate relationship with reviewers over the years. One minute you can do no wrong, and the next they are attacking your latest project. Is that something that bothers you?

WS: You know, any time you create and you're putting something out in the world you have to expect that some things are going to be great and some things are going to be... not so great. Probably Bad Boys is the most pain I've ever experienced in my career. I feel that the better movie was inside the movie that we had. You take 25 minutes out of the film and get rid of some of the gratuitous things that were in that movie and it would have been a better film.

Then there's the movies like Wild Wild West, where we just missed - a swing and a miss. Bad Boys is much more painful to me because I feel like I have a relationship with the audience and I would strive for quality. I don't make movies for money. I make a movie because it's something that I would like to see and I would want the audience to see. So, for me, it's more painful when the quality is the let down rather than the box office let down.

DR: Do you pay attention to the media critics when they review your movies?

WS: Generally the type of films I make, the summer films at least, are virtually review proof. I don't think I've ever received a good review for one of the summer films. Siskel and Ebert in the States, who were the most popular reviewers, would give movies thumbs up and thumbs down. They actually gave Independence Day four thumbs down - the only movie in their history to get four thumbs down. Most movies would get a thumb up or down from both reviewers. They originally gave the movie two thumbs down, then it came out and was successful and they said: "You know, the movie was so successful, let's review it again. Maybe we missed something." So they watched it again and gave it two thumbs down again. [Laughs]

From the beginning of my career I've been used to bad reviews for the summer blockbusters. But for a film like Ali or Six Degrees of Separation, I desperately need you to stop writing bad things about me. [Laughs]

DR: The image of the future churned out by Hollywood movies is always rather bleak. Do you worry that as technology progresses that we may lose control and end up creating something that could destroy mankind?

WS: I think the concept of Isaac Asimov's paradigm, that he set out with the three laws, is essentially that there's nothing wrong with the technology. The technology is absolutely fine - the robots in I, Robot are doing exactly what they have been programmed to do.

The problem is more man's arrogance in thinking that we can confine the universe to laws. The universe will not be confined to laws. The only thing that's going to happen is this harsh adherence to logic, and rejecting our intuition, is that we will be left in the situation that we see in I, Robot.

So it's not specifically about what will happen with the robots, it's more an indictment of human logic than it is an indictment of technology. I think that the concept of technology is that we will have the lower intellectual endeavours taken care of by robots or computers, which will free man up and actually give us more time to read books and evolve.

I love technology. Whatever the latest in thing is, I've got to have it. I'm a serious techno geek. I have an Ipod, which is the greatest gadget of the millennium.

DR: Do you ever think that we will get to a point where robot's serve man in a way similar to that depicted in I, Robot?

WS: If you look at the technology of the last 50 years it's actually advanced at a rate equal to the last thousand years. With the discovery of the microchip in the 50s, technology is expanding exponentially.

I actually believe that the future that we see - the robotic technology, the electromagnetic cars and all of that - may not be even 30 years in the future. We could be much closer to that.

The robotic technology that exists, which we studied for the film, is already high advanced. They have cameras in some of the 7-11s in the States which are programmed with theft body language. The camera can determine whether someone is stealing through their body language. Is that just a cool camera? Or is it artificial intelligence? At some point, the camera is going to be a better judge of whose stealing than a person whose sitting there watching.

The technology is there it's just a matter of pooling it into one piece of hardware.

DR: So would you allow a robot in your house?

WS: Oh, absolutely.

DR: What household chore would you employ it to do?

WS: We can't talk about that [laughs]. No, I think the perfect use for a robot would be as a golf caddy. I play golf a lot, but I'm really not good. If you had a robot that could tell you the exact distance to the hole and what the wind was doing... I'd probably still be bad, but I'd have a robot.

DR: The rise of technology in movies is something that is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, to the point where the line between a visual effect and a CGI effect is becoming harder to spot. Do you worry that eventually actors may one day be replaced by CGI?

WS: What we saw with this film is exactly the opposite.

The performance of Sonny in this film is Alan Tudyk's [better known for his role of Jerry Lee "Wash" Warren in Firefly] performance. All of the body language, the eyes, the facial movements, the voice are all Alan Tudyk's. You are seeing the performance of an actor that were then adapted by the special effects people.

People go to the movies to see and feel humanity. And, at this point, you can not computer generate humanity.

DR: You started in the music business before moving over to acting - a transition that few musicians have been able to manage successfully. Why do you think you made that transition where others have failed?

WS: I think I was always an actor that was rapping. The music was always very theatrical and the music videos, I think, reflected that. Quincy Jones [producer and composer who has scored many TV themes including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air] introduced me to some people for the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I think making a transition to television prior to the film world was the best thing that ever happened to me. Television is like the gym - it's a really good training ground that gives you a really good workout and teaches you how to work fast.

Having the opportunity to move into films was a gradual process. Six Degrees of Separation was the first real "roll the dice on everything". But other than that, it was a really slow building process, really slow learning process and I've never had to do anything for the money. I think that's what really gave me the opportunity to make the right choices. When people start offering you money, I think that throws a lot of people off and you find yourself in a lot of situations that may not be the right ones.

DR: It's been said that the triumph of Halle Berry's performance in Monster's Ball was not that she won an Oscar, but that she was cast in a role that didn't specifically require a black actress. Do you think that Hollywood is starting to offer greater roles for all actors and actresses now, regardless of their ethnicity?

WS: The big issue with the racial elements of Hollywood are that you have presidents of studios, and 90 percent of the staff, that are Caucasian. So they are going to make stories that are close to their hearts. Therefore the roles that are created, the scripts that they are creating for their studio will reflect their experiences. Once Will Smith or Halle Berry shows another role or angle is when it comes onto the heads of the studios radar. But until that point you couldn't, and shouldn't, expect an American from New York to make a wonderful story about someone from Ireland.

DR: What about Tom Cruise in Far and Away?

WS: Oh yes. [Laughs] That's terrible. [Laughs] What was he thinking? [laughs]

I'm gonna stop right now or I can see: "Will Smith says..."

DR: The Hollywood machine is so intent, especially with summer blockbusters, to leave movies open for sequels. I, Robot is a stand alone movie is that intentional? Did you deliberately plan it that way so that that you wouldn't have the studio trying to get you to make a sequel?

WS: Alex [Proyas] is an art film director and cringes at the mainstream concept of Hollywood. We talked about the concept of Bridget and I kissing at the end of the movie and Alex was like "What?"

The film that Alex created is beautifully artistic to me. My favourite scene is Sonny and I in the interrogation room. I love the humanity of that scene. The direction that he gave me was that I was a racist sheriff who had just captured the person who I am most racist against. I wasn't used to getting that sort of direction in a summer blockbuster I would normally be: "No, it's fine. Just let me do me." [Laughs]

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Victoria Keeble and Emily Carr at Greenroom Digital

20th Century Fox's I, Robot is on general release from 06 August 2004

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