Will Smith Talks Focus

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According to Will Smith, it’s a good thing that pretending he was other people in the stylishly elusive thriller Focus, was not something he was being required to pull off in real life. Since obviously when you’re Will Smith, who would ever think otherwise.

In any case, Will was as eager to share enlightening information during this conversation, as much about getting into the trickster head of his artful dodger character Nicky, as what he learned about himself and everyone else pertaining to how pervasive the art of the con can be in the real world.

The combo charismatic and comedic star also weighed in on new career directions with Focus, key words of wisdom he picked up from Muhammad Ali, and exactly when and where he just knew Margot Robbie was the right choice for his leading lady in Focus, even if just arriving in wet clothes and all from Croatia.

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Smith in May 2012.

Will, when you walk in a room or on screen, you own it. Have you always been confident like that?

WILL SMITH: Um, I think it’s the opposite. You know? Like when I did Ali, he would say, I’m the greatest, I’m the greatest.

And when we talked, it was about how much “the greatest” he didn’t feel. Right? It was just always a mantra for himself.

And that’s sort of a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve wracking for me sometimes, you know, to walk into a new space.

And my experience has been, if I just let myself go, it’s a whole lot easier. Rather than letting the voices in me go, oh my god. And rather than that, I like just to leap.

Have you ever tried pulling off a con yourself like in Focus, pretending to anyone that you’re someone else?

WS: Ha! It’s been difficult for me for a few years, to pretend to be someone else!

How and when did you know that Margot was the one to be your leading lady in Focus?

WS: It was pretty instantaneous. Yeah. The second she walked in! Uh huh…

That seems to be quite an unusual direction for you, romance in a movie.

WS: Oh yeah! Um you know, I think I’m coming into a different time in my career. Like I’ve always been the goofy kid.

You know, I always enjoyed the comedic aspect. In relating to women! It was always the funny take on it. Even on camera.

And this was, you know, one of the first times in my career where it was full on, you know, steamy … Grown man-ness!

But it’s funny, because this was actually an uncomfortable space for me. And for me to settle into that.

My natural instinct is always that, when you set a moment in that way and it’s really serious, that’s the perfect time for the joke. Right?

So to be constantly pulled away from that, and to just live in the, um sexiness of the moment, was a little uncomfortable. For me.

But when Margot was called to audition, she raced over there all the way from Croatia. And still in her wet clothes from swimming there.

And I thought to myself, she really doesn’t want this job! But she was fantastic. Especially when she ad libbed and went off the script.

I got there late. Bad traffic. And she ad libbed, oh you’re such a dick! And that’s when I knew. But I was like, I’m Will Smith! You don’t say that!

But it was her absolute, complete fearlessness. And complete comfort. Yeah, it was. And you can’t create chemistry.

You either have it, or your don’t. And when she walked in there, it was really palpable.

And I never used that word in public before! But that felt good! It was the right usage, right? Okay, it was palpable!

But part of what was exciting for me about taking this role, is how everybody is running a con. Right? So every single person right now is running a con.

You know, how you choose your clothes, how you do your hair. Everyone wants to be perceived a certain way, to gain the things that they have decided are the things they want.

You know, in your life. So that was what was so exciting for me. Like, oh my god. Everything is a con. Everything.

So what did you learn from this con man role to apply to your own life – like maybe conning your kids into cleaning up their rooms?

WS: Ha! Um, I guess for me, the huge takeaway is how everything is perception. And how reality almost does not matter. At all.

When you’re talking to a person, it only matters what they are perceiving. Like for instance, that you need them to perceive you as a loving husband!

Yeah, you don’t necessarily need to be one! I mean, it is actually a good road – if you are one! Because…it’s easier! Yeah.

But their perception will ultimately dictate what your interaction is. And that is so intriguing, and exciting.

And the audience is getting played at the same time. And that was such a great opportunity, to be able to do that. You know?

Did you ever steal like your character, in real life?

WS: Oh, I did some stuff! There just wasn’t no Twitter back then!

What stuff did you do?

WS: As a kid? Wait, the statute of limitations! – Oh, seven years! Well, I’ve always been a jokester.

Like the things I got in trouble for when I was little, was always making a joke. Like always setting up a prank.

Or being silly, when I should be paying attention. But it was very different with Focus, and I’m so glad I didn’t know those things back then!

You know, those powers of manipulation. Oh my god, I’m really glad that I didn’t know some of those things! When I was young.

And I think that’s my general disposition on life. You know, is what’s funny about it.

Are you anxious about this movie, particularly after what happened with your last one?

WS: What the hell is that supposed to mean!

Well…And your big movies coming up soon too.

WS: Okay, this movie marks for me, a transition in my life. And emotionally, in my career.

Um, after the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind. I was like, oh wow. I’m still alive! Oh wow. Actually I still am me.

Even though the movie didn’t open number one. Like wait, all of those things in my mind – eight in a row number one – all of those things got collapsed.

And I realized that I still was a good person. So when I went into Focus, I completely released the concept of goal orientation.

And I got into path orientation. This moment, this second, these people, this interaction.

And it is a huge relief for me, to not care whether or not Focus is number one. Or number ten, at the box office.

I’ve already gained everything that I could possibly have hoped for. You know, from meeting the people that I met.

And from the creation of what we did together. But I no longer measure the quality of myself, on whether or not somebody else thinks it’s beautiful, or not.

Well, it is a great movie…

WS: But I don’t care! Kidding!

So would you say there’s a fine line between a con artist and an actor?

WS: What the hell is that supposed to mean!

And you and Margot are going to be in a movie together again, will you have those great romantic scenes in that one too…

WS: We’ll put some in! Just to have ’em!

Watch the Focus trailer:

Warner Bros

Rated R

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.