I Am Legend: The Will Smith Interview

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Playfully mood swinging back and forth in opposite directions during this hyperactive conversation, Will Smith fielded some tough questions about how it’s always on his mind if he could actually have the courage in real life, of the danger junkie characters that he’s gotten used to playing in movies. On the other hand, about that stressful full length feature one man show, I Am Legend, Will wanted to make it clear that those weren’t really his own high anxiety gray hairs sprouting on his head, and he offered to prove it by unzipping his pants, uh, no thank you. Other topics touched upon with this legend in his own right, included where babies come from in his house that has something to do with tequila, how prisoners confined to solitary and POWs helped him flesh out his lonely character in the movie, and what’s different about filming in New York City that’s connected to everybody giving him the middle finger.

Will Smith

Those gray hairs of yours in I Am Legend, was that a special effect, or maybe the real Will Smith?

WILL SMITH: That was a special effect. We had the world’s best, you know, gray hair people come in from Europe. It’s not mine. I swear! Solid black is normally the color. [Will laughs, and begins to unzip his pants] I can prove it! I can prove it!

Um, never mind. So what would you do in a real life disaster, and have you ever had to play the hero in the real world?

WS: That’s always a tough question. But that is what’s interesting about playing a character like this, you get to explore and wonder how you would react. For me, Ali was the greatest time for asking myself that question.

When Ali didn’t step forward because they wouldn’t call him Muhammad Ali, and he knew he was going to jail, he knew what the situation was going to be. But still he couldn’t step forward. I just remember thinking, in that moment, what would I do?

And I just don’t know if I would be enough man to give up everything I have right now, the way Ali did, for that principle. And when I look at Robert Neville in this movie, I think, what was there to live for, what was there to hope for?

You know, to wake up every day and try to restore something that is good and gone. I like to believe that I would put my chest up and stand forward, and just march on and continue to fight for the future of humanity. But I would probably find a bridge and say, I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth!

So it’s a tough question. And I guess the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t think so. You want to be tested to know what you would do, but you really don’t want to be tested. And that is sort of the space that I have lived in with quite a few of the roles I’ve played.

How was it shooting I Am Legend in New York City?

WS: I would say that percentage-wise, it’s the most amounts of middle fingers I’ve ever received in my career! I was like, hey, I’m used to people liking me! I was starting to think that ‘f*** you’ was my name!

Okay…How do you get into character anyway, to play somebody who spends most of the movie talking to himself?

WS: There is a connection with yourself, where your mind starts to drift to in those types of situations, and when you learn about yourself things you would never even imagine. And in order to prepare for that, we sat with former POWs and we sat with people who had been in solitary confinement.

So that was the framework for creating the idea. They told me, the first thing is a schedule. You will not survive in solitary if you don’t schedule everything. We talked to Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panthers, and he was in solitary for over three months. He said that you plan things, like cleaning your nails. You will take two hours, which you have to because it’s on the schedule, to just clean your nails. And he said that he spent about six weeks training roaches to bring him food. And I’m sitting there like, oh my god.

You put that on camera, and it’s genius. It was such a great exploration of what happens to the human mind that is trying to defend itself. And for me, I’m a better actor for having had to create both sides of the scene, with no dialogue.

What was it like working with your own daughter Willow in I Am Legend, as your make-believe kid in the movie?

WS: You kind of don’t work with Willow, you work for Willow! But it’s interesting, Jada [Pinkett-Smith] and I are always debating the age old question at home, of whether it’s nature versus nurture. You know, is it because two actors went to Mexico and drank some tequila and made a baby, does that make the baby an actor? Or, did she grow up in a house where that is what is in her house, that is just the life, and that’s the experience that she knows?

When I look at Willow, I just believe that it has to be neither one of those things. There has to be something else. [A glass accidentally falls on the floor] See? That’s the problem, a black man starts to make a good point and you got to keep him down. Trying to keep me down? I get it, I get it!

Oops…Please continue!

WS: With Willow, she just loves it. We were doing the bridge sequence, and it was probably twenty-nine degrees or something. Willow is out there, she has her stuff on, and she’s cold. She is getting a little irritable. Then she looks at me and says, Daddy, I don’t care how low it goes, I’m going to finish.

And I was like, wow! I said, that’s good baby, because Daddy is leaving if it gets any colder! But she just wants it, she has a drive and an energy. And she just connects to human emotion. But I think a big part of it is probably Jaden. After The Pursuit of Happyness and she saw what Jaden did, she thought, I want to do that!

Okay, which one of your kids demanded more money, Jaden or Willow?

WS: Jaden is Johnny Depp. He just wants to do good work, and he doesn’t care what money he gets! And he doesn’t care if people see it or don’t see it. He just loves acting, he just wants to make good movies. Now Willow, she’s Paris Hilton! Willow wants to be on TV.

With the holidays coming up, are your kids like expecting Lamborghinis under the Christmas tree?

WS: It’s funny, it’s really simple. Jaden and Trey are very simple. Willow just wants clothes. She loves it, she’s dressed herself since she was about four years old. And she is very specific about her style. She is very specific about how she wants to look and how she wants to present, and all that.

Is she some kind of shopaholic?

WS: It’s funny, she doesn’t like shopping. And Christmas really isn’t big for her. If she knows it’s coming, it’s not a big deal. And Jaden just wants his family around. Anything that causes the whole family to be together, that is what he wants.

How do you keep them grounded?

WS: For us, traveling is hugely important, for our kids to really see other things, and experience other things. We have taken them to South Africa. So we try to get them to experience how other people live. And the grounded idea is more of a concept of how you relate to your service to mankind. So that’s what we try to impart to our children. You are a part of a whole, and you have a responsibility to uplift and be a positive influence.

How significant is that the last man alive in I Am Legend is African American?

WS: Ha! First and last, baby. It’s funny, it’s almost a metaphysical idea for me. But I rarely think about that until someone brings it up. Then I say, oh wow. But that never actually crossed my mind in that way. I kind of feel like, for me at least, the acknowledgment of those kinds of ideas puts a weird boundary on my thoughts. I can’t allow myself to be a part of it because it sort of makes me think smaller, if that makes any sense.

But there are things that we all dream, there are things that each one of us has thought, that connect to life, death, and sex. To me, this is one of those concepts. Like there are times I’ve driving on the freeway, that you…wished that everybody were dead!

But you know, there have been times where you just wish you were by yourself, you don’t need any of these assholes. You just want to be by yourself. And that coupled with being separated and connected with the dark and unknown, and how we would fare against whatever is in that unknown, is a really primal idea.

There was a recent story that you may have converted to Scientology like your friends Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, any truth to that?

WS: As far as Scientology goes, I don’t necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, went to a Catholic church, and lived in a Jewish neighborhood. And I had the biggest crush on the Muslim girls from one neighborhood over!

But yeah, Tom did introduce me to the ideas. I’m a student of world religion, so to me, it’s hugely important to have knowledge and to understand what people are doing. What are all the big ideas? What are people talking about?

And I believe that my connection to my higher power, is separate from everybody else’s. I don’t believe that the Muslims have all the answers and I don’t believe the Christians or the Jews have all the answers. So my God, my higher power, it’s mine and mine alone. I create my connection, and I decide what my connection is going to be.

Do you still hang out and jam with DJ Jazzy Jeff?

WS: Yeah, Jeff and I perform a couple of times a year. We’re going to go out big in July. We are figuring out some places around the world to do some big shows. It’s about to be that circle back to the golden age of hip-hop. You know, there’s starting to be a little resurgence. So yeah, we are planning some things.

As far as Fresh Prince, it’s interesting. On July 6, 1996 Fresh Prince stopped. And after Independence Day, that Monday, was the first time that anyone called me Mr. Smith. I was like, what the hell? All through The Fresh Prince, all through the music, it was ‘Fresh Prince, Fresh Prince.’

And that morning, when the box office numbers came out after Independence Day, it was, good morning Mr. Smith. It was so bizarre. And I specifically remember that morning, is when people started calling me Mr. Smith.

When was the last time you were called Fresh Prince since then?

WS: About four seconds ago!

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.