The interesting Variety article below seems to suggest Will's new Seven Pounds film is a commercial risk
that may or may not pay off (especially for those who already know the SP's film's downbeat ending),
but since Will alternates between doing safe bet films and less safe bet ones and is now one of only 2 or 3
A list actors left who can still open a film, it'll be interesting seeing how the SP film will fare with both North American and overseas filmgoers. At least he's taking a risk with the SP film, which will need careful, unarrogant marketing from Sony.
Posted: Fri., Dec. 12, 2008.
Smith pushes his range as an actor. Finding comfort zone means it's time to move on.
By ROBERT KOEHLER.
There's a mystery behind the well-planned show business career : The better the planning, the less it shows. So it is with Will Smith, who's moved, steadily and smoothly, from the hip-hop frivolity of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' to the multi-level life of a co-owner (with James Lassiter) of Overbrook Entertainment, not to mention proud parent/serious-actor-in-serious-movies.
What's made Smith's progress seem so invisible, is he's appeared to fit right into every project he's taken on and that just about every calculation has worked. On paper it didn't always appear so neat. Why would a TV star of one of the lightest of sitcoms work in the role of a young con artist in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, fooling a train of white folks into thinking he's the son of Sidney Poitier ? Why would the same TV star lead a half-comic ensemble in the post-Spielberg sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day ? Why would the star of two of the '90s' biggest franchises (Men in Black and Bad Boys) risk it all wanting to play Muhammad Ali ? Why would playing Robert Neville, the last man on Earth (meaning having to act solo) in I Am Legend,
work for Smith when it had defeated so many previous superstar attempts ? Why star in an all-American film titled The Pursuit of Happyness under the guidance of an Italian director with an unsure grasp of English ?
'If you look under the charismatic surface of Will, you realize that there's someone who takes enormous risks and feels just as confident that he can take them', says Ital director, Gabriele Muccino who's helmed his 2nd film with Smith Seven Pounds), but there's something else under this as well. Will Smith all along had a plan.
'The key was range - as an actor and in the business. So my strategy from the start, was I'd lay down markers, so I'd never be in a situation in which someone considering me for a role would say, 'he can't do that', and the same with Overbrook : Range of projects means there's no pigeonholes you can slot us into, whether it's Lakeview Terrace or The Secret Life of Bees, to name 2 we've done just this year. So in practical terms, this meant that while doing 'Fresh Prince' - I mean right smack in the middle of doing that show, I'd act in Six Degrees. It was a role that was so totally, completely at the other end of the spectrum, that took me so far away, that I'd then have an argument for any role in between. It meant if I could do Fresh Prince and Six Degrees, then surely I could do Bad Boys', says Smith. But it's Smith's follow-up thought to this explanation of his grand plan, that might explain how he presaged the Obamafication of America, the way in which African-American men like Smith and Tiger Woods made themselves comfortable with the country and the country with them : 'In Six Degrees, Paul claiming he was Poitier's son made himself feel welcome in homes that he'd never otherwise enter, but since TV viewers had already welcomed me into their homes, I could make Paul believable'.
Smith was also riding the crest of a national cultural change, led by hip-hop (and in part by how his unthreatening rapper alter ego helped the music go mainstream), for which he gives great credit to MTV : 'I might not have gotten as far and as fast as I did without MTV's reach and influence in the '80s and '90s, since it was the first conduit between the inner city and the suburbs. Suburban kids knew the lyrics to all of NWA's songs, like 'F__k the Police. ' MTV hasn't gotten enough credit for bringing young whites and blacks together. When I started rapping, rappers couldn't go on the radio out of fear that they'd violate FCC requirements and couldn't stay at the Four Seasons. I thought all that was unacceptable, so it was important to help be a part of breaking down barriers and opening up TV, radio and movies for all kinds of possibilities. Now that's such old news, nobody thinks about it anymore, but it was huge when I was coming up'.
The wide open range Smith wanted to graze in as a movie star, included everything from Michael Mann's hagiographic biopic Ali, to the troubled The Legend of Bagger Vance. Poll most moviegoers and they won't think of Smith as a sci-fi star -- not in the iconic way Charlton Heston or William Shatner or the Star Wars crew is, yet he's certainly the major figure in big-budget sci-fi over the past decade and the genre factors largely in Smith holding the record for most consecutive films (8) grossing more than $US 100 million.
'That was part of what I always wanted to do and again, not limit myself to that, but definitely work it and get involved with as many interesting projects as I could. So that included Independence Day, which was such a breakthrough for me in a lot of ways, Men in Black and of course I Robot, I Am Legend and Hancock : sci-fi movies that were sci-fi, but also had other angles going for them'. To think Smith turned down (to his enduring regret) The Matrix's Neo lead role.
Working with Smith on his I Robot robot-killing cop character, acting coach Aaron Speiser noticed Smith 'had an amazing drive and was obsessed with being the best and sensed something was missing for him. His wife Jada introduced me and as we talked about his character, he began to plumb the pain he felt. Artists bring their pain to their work. He took that role into darker places than he had before and now if you watch his work in recent films like Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend and especially Seven Pounds, he's reached real depths as an actor. His work in I Am Legend is astonishing and his emotional nakedness in Seven Pounds is far beyond anything he's accomplished before'. The critics too have taken note of Smith's transformational work. Of his role as the struggling single father in Happyness, EW's Owen Gleiberman wrote it's 'a beautiful and understated performance, one that hums with a richer, quieter music than Smith has mustered before'. The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle chimed in that 'Smith has the right quality for the role, as an easy man to root for, but he augments this by channeling some inner quality of desperation and need'.
At the core of Smith's motivation, according to Speiser, is 'that he not only wants to excel at every single thing he does - as a father, producer, actor or anything else, but he wants to please. That also means he wants to please the director with his performance. It's a wonderful trait as a human being and a measure of what a kind, sweet man he is, but great acting is dangerous because it means you have to let go of the urge to please. He's discovered that'. 18 years since his Fresh Prince first popped, Smith now has some focused ideas about what makes for a good performance and a good production company. 'When I'm getting into a role and reading the script, I'll ask some fundamental questions (the answers to which) give me the clues to the character. What's the one thing that happened in the character's life that he most often recalls, the greatest experience ? Sometimes like in Seven Pounds, that experience is in the movie. The other key question What does he want ? These get me to my role's physicality, emotionality and spirituality. Now the big thing I've learned with the kind of company we have with Overbrook is team-building. If you put the right people in the right positions, it's easy to juggle as much stuff as I and my whole family are juggling right now'. (Smith notes in an aside not only is Jada producing, directing and acting, but daughter Willow is a voice alongside Jada in Madagascar 2, son Jaden is in the mediocre TDTESS film and Willow is in Kit Kittredge : An American Girl.) He goes on : 'The problem in an organization is when a job is left undone and somebody has dropped the ball. So we've become diligent at the company on situating people where they succeed and work the best'.
This points to the next likely phase of Smith's brilliant career. Overbrook's slate continues to grow, with upcoming projects like Pursuit, the thriller adaptation of Thomas Perry's novel and the child fantasy Monster Hunter looming, so a few select movie stars such as Mel Gibson, Smith's reach (in his case as a producer-actor) could once again be risk-taking and full of impact. 'This wouldn't be noticed by those who don't know him, but he's harder on himself than anyone -- maybe including me! He's very self-critical and sets high goals for himself. To be good isn't enough. He wants to be extremely good', says Muccino.