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Mr. and Mr. Smith


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Will Smith defied Hollywood expectations and became an international superstar. Now, in ''The Pursuit of Happyness,'' he turns his image upside down -- with a little help from his son, Jaden by Neil Drumming


t's a Friday afternoon at a family-style restaurant outside Baltimore. The place is nearly empty and, apart from a burly bodyguard named Mike posted at the door, nothing remotely glamorous would appear to be taking place. Even Will Smith is hunched as unassumingly as possible over a cup of coffee. The conversation has turned to his friendship and rivalry with Tom Cruise, and the actor, ordinarily a perpetual-motion machine, starts answering questions slowly, feeling his way as he tends to do when addressing delicate matters like race, religion, or, apparently, close friends who suffer grand public image crises.

''We never talk about competition,'' says Smith, 38, who's in town visiting with his wife's family for Thanksgiving. ''But we mark ourselves off of each other. Movie stars are becoming extinct, and Tom and I are helping one another.'' It's jarring to hear Smith refer to himself as a movie star. For the past hour or so, he's been effortlessly affable and grounded. With a drab olive sweatshirt drowning his surprisingly lanky frame and his short-cropped hair uniformly flecked with silver, he's more like a gabby favorite cousin than one of the planet's biggest box office draws.

''His wedding was world news,'' he continues, and seems poised to launch into the inevitable defense of Cruise's privacy. ''I love that, but I'm jealous.''

Wait a minute. Jealous?

''I am sooooo jealous of him right now!'' Suddenly, Smith is roaring like a kid who just lost at Mario Kart. ''World news! Iraq and Tom. I'm like, Dude, you're beating on me right now!''

Unlike others in his stratosphere who sue tabloids and bristle at paparazzi, Smith has no problem being known and beloved around the world. He's just tired of being known for one thing. ''For 80 percent of my career,'' he says, ''it's been the hip-hop persona. That dude from Men in Black is almost indistinguishable from the Fresh Prince.'' In his latest film, The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith sidelines his signature bravado to play Chris Gardner, a real-life salesman and single father who, before finding fortune as a stockbroker, struggled just to feed and house his young son, who's played by Smith's own son Jaden, now 8. Back in the '80s, Gardner and his boy spent a year sleeping in shelters and train station restrooms in San Francisco while he pursued a lowly internship at a brokerage house. Gardner's gamble eventually paid off — a good omen for Smith, because taking the part was a risk all its own. When the actor's name first came up in meetings, Gardner was ambivalent: ''Honestly, I was like, 'Will Smith? Man, I don't know.' He had just never done anything like this. You think of Will, and you think of aliens, spacecraft, lots of violence, guns, fast cars. Come on!'' Which is precisely why Smith pursued Happyness. ''I've turned a corner,'' he says, insisting the role is not an isolated departure, but the beginning of a move away from his ''safety zone.''

In addition to being safe, that zone happened to be stacked high with cash. Between 1996 and 2004, Smith headed up so many summer blockbusters that the month of July was just presumed to belong to him. He scored with Independence Day, Bad Boys II, Men in Black I and II, and I, Robot. Even when he turned in a half-baked performance, he cleaned up at the box office. ''I got cocky,'' says Smith of the ''failure'' Wild Wild West (which grossed $114 million). ''I was at the point where if we just called it Big Willie Weekend and put it out on July 4th, then it's done. Hang it up. It's a wrap.''

During that period, a peculiar thing happened: Smith became a bankable star not just in the States, but all over the world, gaining admission to a private club generally restricted to white guys named Tom. It was a level of stardom no black man had ever attained — or was ever expected to.

he myth, says James Lassiter, ''is that African Americans mean nothing at the box office overseas.'' Lassiter has been Smith's manager since their days hanging out in Jazzy Jeff's basement in West Philadelphia; their production company, Overbrook Entertainment, is named after the high school they attended. ''Unfortunately, it is a myth that has been perpetuated and now it's ingrained in the DNA of these studios.'' Lassiter says he and Smith ran up against the ''myth'' early on. But because they had already sold out rap concerts worldwide, and had seen the proliferation of hip-hop — i.e., African-American youth culture — they knew there were plenty of people outside the U.S. who would be receptive to a black movie star, especially one who came directly from that scene. ''I think it's a generational thing,'' says Lassiter. ''I've spent time with international distributors, and some of them are caught in a time warp. A 60-year-old distributor who thinks that no one will go see a black actor in a movie — he's speaking from his generation. He's not speaking to his 30-year-old son or his 15-year-old grandson.''

After wrapping Bad Boys in 1994, Smith reportedly urged producer Jerry Bruckheimer to let him promote the movie overseas. Despite its urban themes and R rating, the film pulled in $76 million on top of its $66 million domestic gross. Now Smith and Lassiter try to launch films in new markets like South Africa (Ali) or Russia (I, Robot) whenever possible. They've even gotten the studios down for the cause. ''When we did Hitch,'' says Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, ''it was a front-and-center goal for all of us to break the stereotype that you couldn't do well overseas with a romantic comedy with African Americans. I think it was shattered.''

Some might argue that the stereotype wasn't shattered at all, that Smith — a perfect storm of a star, combining macho cool, boyish charm, and hip-hop style — simply became the exception that proves the rule. Is it possible that he's the only black actor able to cross international boundaries? ''That is not the case,'' Lassiter says. ''Immediately, people go, 'Oh, Will is different.' He's absolutely not different. We can't buy into that. Chris Tucker proved it in [Rush Hour]. You take the right movie and you go around the world and you sell it and it will work.''

Smith thinks it's just a matter of elbow grease. ''The big issue is, we don't go,'' he says of his fellow African-American actors. ''I've had conversations with Martin [Lawrence]. I've had conversations with Eddie [Murphy] and Denzel [Washington]. It's long and it's hard to do, to trudge around the world for six weeks or seven weeks. And you don't get paid for that directly. Nobody wants to go — not even white actors, like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler. I'm like, Are you crazy? I can match or double my U.S. box office outside of the country because I go.''

Smith has as much reason to stay home as anyone. He and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, 35, have two children, Jaden and Willow, 6. He also has a son, Trey, 14, from a previous marriage. So why the relentless drive to maintain his fame? It's not about his bank account. He says he hasn't done a movie strictly for the money in years. Where does the ambition come from, then? ''I am dedicated to doing good,'' Smith says, sounding unapologetically earnest, like he's saving the world in ID4. ''When I wake up every day, I want the world to be better because I woke up today.'' And even though Smith hasn't converted to Scientology — ''I'm riding with Jesus,'' he says — he does cite Cruise as a role model. ''Tom Cruise wants the world to be better. He's committed beyond his own safety, his own protection.''

Smith won't get specific about how exactly he wants to make the world a better place: It involves some combination of storytelling, charitable acts, and an inspiring public image. Duane Martin, who has known Smith since they were both fledgling sitcom stars in the early '90s, finds Smith's example even more inspiring than Cruise's. ''Will is a minority,'' says Martin, who currently stars in All of Us, a CW sitcom exec-produced by Smith. ''Minorities all over the world relate to him and they marvel at him. When Tom is done, you're going to get another Tom coming through. But you don't get a Will coming through very often.''

Race is almost never overtly addressed in Smith's movies. It's only when you try to imagine what his characters would have been like if played by white actors that you see how freely he mines the black experience in his acting. From beatboxing with Biz Markie in Men in Black II to trash-talking with Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys to wearing his beanie cocked to one side in I, Robot, Smith lets his roots show. ''It's in him,'' says Martin. ''He hasn't forgotten.''

The Pursuit of Happyness does not confront race relations directly, but it's no small detail that Smith's character, in trying to claw his way back to dignity and self-sufficiency, butts up against a cadre of rich white men holding all the cards. It would have been easy for Smith to call attention to the color dynamics and make the film an indictment of a system that keeps minorities at the lowest levels. However, when Smith first heard Gardner's story (it had aired on 20/20 in 2003), he saw it as proof that, in fact, the system works. Gardner was, after all, a black man who started with little, played the game hard, and made it. The story resonated for Smith, who'd gone from cutting demos in his friend's basement to winning the first-ever Grammy for a rap song: ''You tell me in what other country a young black dude from West Philly who didn't go to college is going to be given an opportunity on prime-time television?''

Smith's faith in what he calls the ''powerful conceptual magic'' of the American Dream is informed by his increasingly international perspective. ''I've traveled the world,'' he says, energized, ''and the road through classism or racism isn't well lubricated in other countries. Think about what African Americans did in this country as an 11 percent minority. We changed laws. That doesn't happen anywhere else! South Africa had an 80 percent [black] majority or something like that during apartheid.… A guy there said to me, 'How do you do it?'''

Smith wanted Pursuit's director to have that outsider perspective, so he selected Gabriele Muccino, an Italian filmmaker who had never shot a movie in English. ''He's someone who looks at the Statue of Liberty,'' says Smith, ''and actually understands what a poor, tired, huddled mass is.'' The director, 39, says he had ''appreciated'' the actor's work in Six Degrees of Separation and Ali, but was surprised to get the call: ''When I knew he wanted to meet me, I was expecting something way different — comedy or science fiction.'' Smith saw in Muccino a fresh pair of eyes, someone who could help him forge a richer, more vulnerable character than the hip-hop-inflected superheroes he had played before. As Sony's Pascal puts it, ''Will knew that director would get something out of him that no one else could.''

During production, Muccino urged Smith to drop the protective armor of his confidence and charisma and imagine himself as a man who, every day, risked letting himself and his child down. ''Chris Gardner is very much like Will Smith today,'' says Muccino. ''But back then he was someone struggling to demonstrate that he was worth something.'' Working with Jaden also helped Smith connect with the role. ''His son was challenging for him,'' says Muccino. ''You never knew what Jaden was going to do — although we'd been rehearsing for four weeks. Each take Jaden would bring something unexpected. That forced Will as his partner to be adaptable, to be ready to change direction.''

An inspirational tale based on a real-life hero, a foreign director, a winter release date…it all sounds like an Oscar bid. Indeed, ads touting Smith for Best Actor, and Jaden for Supporting Actor, are already appearing in the trades. Smith waves such talk away. ''I want to do good in the world,'' he says, repeating his mantra. ''I don't need an Oscar to do good.''

A week after Thanksgiving,a couple dozen radio and print journalists gather in a conference room at the Regency Hotel for a Pursuit of Happyness press junket. Smith, on break from shooting the sci-fi zombie flick I Am Legend, is smartly dressed in a coffee-colored turtleneck and light brown blazer. His posture is better than it was in Baltimore; he sits tall behind a chunky battery of microphones.

As the questions begin, Smith quickly deflects one about how it feels to have five $100 million-plus-grossing films in a row. Instead, he explains how excited he is at the prospect of moving people and making a difference with Happyness. He charmingly refers to his ''limited gifts'' and ''average talent.'' He praises his director and son for helping him overcome his ''emotional roadblocks'' and ''Will-isms.'' He places Gardner's story within ''the intellectual and spiritual design of America.'' And, of course, he talks about wanting to ''do good.''

Before long, a black female reporter wakes up the elephant in the room by asking about struggle and poverty in the film. ''I know a lot of folks who have these experiences,'' she says. ''Especially black folks. Let's just call it what it is.'' Racism, in other words. Smith seems the slightest bit flustered — why doesn't the movie make any mention of race? — and starts speaking slowly, feeling his way toward an answer. Ultimately, he invokes a bit of quantum theory — and turns it into a black-power manifesto for the millennium. ''Objects exist if you acknowledge they exist,'' he says. ''So we're not going to spend no time even talking about the white man.'' What he means is that when you fixate on obstacles, they just get harder to jump over. And Will Smith certainly fears no white man — just ask Tom Cruise.



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Great article. I like how Will looks at the racism issue. I think he looks at it the right way. You have to keep fighting racism and not become a victim of it. I think that's why this movie is really going to do well. It is a story of hardships and triumph. It's about the individual will and drive to succeed against all odds. It's about maintaining faith and hope inspite of everything else.

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