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Will Smith treading new ground as actor

When Will Smith walks into a room, it causes a commotion. So it was on a recent morning at the Rocky Mountain News, when Smith arrived to promote Seven Pounds, opening next Friday. Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent who has endured a tragedy in his life, then resolves to redeem himself by helping seven people in need. Seven Pounds is a far cry from the derring-do of Independence Day or the comic bravura of Hancock. It packs the pathos of Brokeback Mountain and the feel-good spin of It's A Wonderful Life. Rocky pop culture writer Mike Pearson spoke with the actor about his powerful new film and a role steeped in drama and purpose. What attracted you to Seven Pounds? It's unlike anything you've done before.

That was one of the big things that attracted me. I had so many questions after I read the script, and it started making me ask questions about myself and the nature of giving. Logically, if you go by the numbers (budget, salary), it's not one that would have been at the top of my choices. But I had such an emotional and intellectual reaction to it, and even a spiritual reaction to it. My hope is that it sparks some of those same things for the people that watch it.

How do you explain to people what it's about without giving it away?

I tell people it's an uplifting movie, but bring a bed sheet 'cause you'll need some tissues for the fourth quarter.

How much are you and your character, Ben Thomas, alike?

He's really changed my perspective. After working on this film, I really had to start questioning the nature of giving, and the idea of whether you can give too much and be too generous. I started to question the relationship between what you need and what others need. The airlines always say put your mask on first 'cause you can't help nobody if you don't put your mask on, but there's something that seems spiritually unsound about that idea. I would say (Ben and I) are extremely different in our perception of ourselves in connection with other people, and just the amount of pain he lets in. That was part of what attracted me. It's really opposite with how I deal with trauma.

How difficult a role was it? Your character carries a heavy emotional burden; there's no wisecracking.

It's kind of what I've been experimenting with for the past few films. The relationship between trauma, depression, hope and purpose, and how those things work together. I've been really exploring the nature of loss and how people react to loss. There's an idea that death is an end, not necessarily literal death but figurative death. You get divorced or lose your job, and people view that as an end - it's over. What I'm discovering, and what I think is my true spiritual belief, is that nothing dies, it just ends and creates the rebirth. Birth, life, death, rebirth. You have to prepare yourself for the rebirth after you experience a literal or figurative death. In my mind, my characters are helping me decide who I want to be, and Ben has been fantastic with the idea that he didn't realize there was still life left for him after the trauma he experienced.

How do you describe the film to people?

I say it's a story about a man who makes an awful mistake and it costs him more than he believes that mistake should have cost him. In order to repent or repair what he destroyed, he's going to find seven people and save seven lives and souls. There are a lot of secrets that have to unfold.

Rosario Dawson does a great job in the film. It's not your first time working together; she played your love interest in Men in Black II.

She has grown so much; I just love her. That is so attractive to me when a person can make that kind of adjustment and change and growth in their lives in such a short period of time.

What's going on with the Fresh Prince and your music?

I feel like these next 10 years are going to be my acting sweet spot. Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out called Outliers, and he talks about the concept of 10,000 hours being the amount of time it takes for someone to become good at something. I feel like I've just completed my 10,000th hour of filmmaking, and now I feel like I'm ready to take a journey to be great. So I feel like these next 10 years are going to be a real sweet spot for me as an artist. I want to stay focused on the acting. I don't want the music or any of those other mistresses to get in the way of my true love.

Whatever happened to DJ Jazzy Jeff?

We perform maybe six or seven times a year. We performed after the Hancock premiere; we performed in South African for Nelson Mandela.

Your son Jaden has a film coming out (The Day the Earth Stood Still came out on Friday). How's that competition going to play in the Smith household?

Seven Pounds was originally set for release on Dec. 12 and I just thought I'd be a good father and move mine to Dec. 19. His really is a fantastic film, so I wasn't going to have my son beating up on me. Hancock came out at the same time (my daughter) Willow was in Kit Kittredge. I said, 'Daddy loves you, baby, but I've got to stomp you at the box-office.' But I had special effects that time.

What are your thoughts on the election of Barack Obama?

I think it's an evolutionary flash point. I think that America and humankind have changed forever. This has never happened before on Earth. The meteoric rise of the African-American community is historically unparalleled.

Do you think your kids understand how historic this is?

It's so funny; I have a 16-year-old, and he couldn't understand why I was so nervous. For the weeks leading up to the election he was saying "Dad, it's already done. What news are you watching? What are you worried about?" He was taking me and showing me (polls) online. There was something that was blocking me from being able to see. The idea that I was so out of touch, it scared me, which is a big part of why I wanted to get out. The idea of me coming to the (newspaper) building as opposed to meeting at a hotel . . . When he won, there was just this burst of emotion. My kids were looking at me like "Dude, what is wrong with you?"

You once said that if you put your mind to it, you could become president in 15 years.

I don't think politics is for me. It's a little confining. I do want to be able to use the goodwill that I've been able to create with people. I want to make my country better. I just believe wholeheartedly in the ideas and concepts set forth by our forefathers . . . of pushing those ideas and ideals forward. All the president-elect has to do is make the call, and I will respond.

You once said you wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. It seems you've pretty much accomplished that goal.

That's the funny thing about setting goals: They depend on where you are in your life at the time. It's so far beyond that for me now. As I've gotten older I just want different things. I just turned 40. I just want my life to have value, and I'm measuring that value by how many people I can help. How many people eat because of what I do, go to college because of something I do, how many families can be stable because of decisions I make. I'm measuring my value not by the size of my star but by my service to humanity.

Why are you out promoting this movie?

First, it's a new America. Usually, we do a press junket in New York and Los Angeles and say we've done our American press tour. I don't think so. (New York and L.A.) are not the whole of America. At this point the machine for my films is oiled well enough, but it's really a personal thing for me to get out here and meet people. I want to be able to create in the next 10 years in a way that is transformative, and I just don't think you can do that from a hotel room in Los Angeles or New York. You've really got to be out talking to people and shaking hands. And I really like doing that. For me, that's energy.


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Will Smith taps into emotional trauma

He plays a tax collector in Seven Pounds. What's next, a politician? Will Smith may be Hollywood's brightest star – and less-than-sunny roles don't seem to dim the lustre

Dec 13, 2008 04:30 AM


A hero he's not: In Seven Pounds, Will Smith plays a government tax collector who stalks the poor and unwell.

HOLLYWOOD–Call it perverse, or maybe a savvy career move.

Just when it seems that Will Smith couldn't be more popular – even President-elect Barack Obama is a fan – the actor and rapper is working on dimming his sunny image.

Smith is arguably the world's most popular actor, a goal he famously set for himself two decades ago. His past eight movies, from Men in Black II in 2002 to this summer's Hancock, have each grossed more than $100 million at the North American box office, a record run of hits.

He's everybody's first pick to play Obama in the eventual biopic of the president-elect's rise to glory. Obama has said he'd like to see it happen. You'd better believe that Smith is up for it, although he hopes it happens after Obama has completed eight years as president.

"When I get the order from my Commander-in-Chief, as a good American, I will rise to the call!" Smith tells the Star, as he begins an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. He's dressed as if at a job interview, all smiles and good cheer in a white shirt, dark tie and natty baby blue pullover.

Despite all this, Smith is busy tarnishing his screen persona. It's a project he began with the release two years ago of The Pursuit of Happyness, in which he played a down-and-out single dad. He followed that with his survivalist scientist in last year's I Am Legend and his grumpy superhero in the recent Hancock, each role tougher than the last.

With Seven Pounds, his new drama opening Dec. 19 (it reunites him with Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino), Smith will really challenge his many admirers. He plays a government tax collector who stalks poor and unwell people, so insensitive and boorish that he mocks a blind man.

"I've been experimenting," Smith said, agreeing he's strayed far from his grinning Fresh Prince guise that made this striver from a poor Philadelphia family a music, TV and film star while still in his 20s.

"For some reason, I'm really attracted to the nature of emotional trauma in human lives. It seems like a really rich and unmined area in my personal life. I turned it off. When my grandmother died, I never cried or anything like that.

"So for me with my characters, specifically I Am Legend, Hancock and now Seven Pounds, I'm exploring trauma and loss. To be able to go there with a character reveals things about my own management of trauma and loss in my life."

The drive to experiment comes in part from the realization that he's now at the halfway point of his life. Smith turned 40 this past September, although he hardly looks it.

"It was just another birthday. I live my life so abundantly that turning 40 wasn't a huge deal. But a couple weeks ago, my son Trey turned 16 and I sat in the passenger seat and he was driving. That really rocked me. It was so huge a signal that life is moving on and things are changing, and quickly. He's driving!

"It was not so much about getting old, but it was as if I could be missing something, like things were happening fast and maybe I wasn't paying attention as much as I should have been. It was more that feeling, `Dude, wake up! Look! Things are changing quickly and aggressively!'"

It's very hard to write about Seven Pounds without revealing a payoff that Smith, Muccino and co-star Rosario Dawson are all anxious to keep secret. Suffice to say the film unspools like a mystery, but seriously examines the meaning of life.

Making the film was "a crazy epiphany," Smith said, prompting him to further reflect on his life. He used a mountain climbing metaphor to describe his feeling of always having somewhere else to go.

"As soon as you get to the mountain that you wanted to climb and you put your flag down and you stand there for 10 minutes, you say, `Ooh, look at that mountain over there!'

"The journey is the destination, and the worst thing that can happen is that you actually arrive where you thought you wanted to go. It's a really weird time and probably the last two years have been really frustrating for me. It just felt like there's so much I wanted to and so much I wanted to be, but it was like I was blind and I couldn't see. Working on Seven Pounds gave me a crazy epiphany about what I want to be and what I want to do."

He believes in the movie so much, he'd rather undersell it than risk overselling it. The one-sheet poster for the film has an enigmatic shot of Smith's face. This could be the film that snaps that $100-million streak, but it doesn't need to be a blockbuster if enough people embrace it as thoughtful entertainment.

"We're trying to do a non-sale. It's like, we're not going to sell this movie, we're going to hope that we've created enough trust in the industry that people will listen if I say, `You know what? This is a good movie. I think you'll enjoy it. Just trust me; I can't tell you anything about it.'"

Smith is totally unlike most Hollywood celebrities in that he's not afraid to admit to his weaknesses. In a discussion with a roomful of movie writers, Smith continued to talk candidly about personal issues – things like the failure of his first marriage, to Sheree Zampino, the mother of Trey. They married in 1992, divorced in 1995 and when it was over, Smith said he was left in shock over "the idea that somebody could not like me anymore."

He's having no such concerns with his second wife, actress Jada Pinkett, whom Smith married in 1997. They have two children: Jaden, 10, and Willow, 8. Both are following their parents' footsteps as movie stars. (Jaden has a major role in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the sci-fi remake that opened yesterday.)

Yet Smith insisted there is some trouble in paradise, in the form of unwanted extra pounds on his abdomen, although they aren't at all apparent. Even though he lost 15 pounds making Seven Pounds, much of it was the muscle he'd sculpted for I Am Legend.

"It's so not I Am Legend," Smith said, pointing to his abs.

"Now it's I Am Luggage!"

Smith is so disarmingly open, he'll even admit to being a lousy on-screen kisser. He 'fessed up after Seven Pounds co-star Dawson told the movie writers about her frustration getting Smith to kiss her in the movie.

"Will is shockingly shy about intimacy with strangers, I guess," Dawson said.

"That's not too bad, but it was really unbelievable how much he delayed our kissing scenes. For weeks. To the point where I started getting really nervous about my breath. I was starting to get down to the little details of going, `Seriously, like it's not that bad. We don't have to totally do tongue. We can work on this.' It was such a big deal. He was talking about having Jada (on the set)."

When the time came that Smith could put the kissing off no longer, he prepared for the scene with some solo heavy breathing, like an athlete preparing for battle.

"Will was standing outside going, `Yeah! We're gonna get this scene! Woo! Yeah! I'm ready to go today!' And I'm like, `You haven't done that for the past 55 days. Why today, babe? You're kind of freaking me out. I need a little calm to go into this. I need candles and some nice music and you're screaming at me like we're about to play football or something!'"

Smith chuckled when Dawson's comments were relayed to him, and didn't try to dodge the implication that he's no sex machine. He is, after all, the most mellow of rappers, who had a hit with ditties called "Summertime" and "Parents Just Don't Understand."

He explained that his intimacy issues have to do with his upbringing.

"My mother and grandmother were firm about how men were supposed to treat women ... For me, my worst nightmare is for an actress to come on my set and feel like I'm taking this as an opportunity to get a little quickie feel, some legal cheatin' going on. I just specifically need women to be comfortable around me. I just don't want to feel like that dude, and doing a love scene with her clothes off.

"It just puts me in my defensive space, but it also hurts the acting if I'm in that space. You gotta find a comfortable space to feel free, where your hand can brush up against her and all that and it's not all, `Ooh, excuse me.'"

He joked that wife Jada told him to knock it off and just get down to work.

"Jada said, `Listen, I know you aren't comfortable, but you better not embarrass me. When you do that love scene, you better show 'em what you workin' with.'"

Smith laughed as he told the story. A smile is never far from his face, except when he feels unsure about what to do next. That's the one thing about fame that bothers him – how to follow success with more success, and whether he should even try.

"The only part of that that I would say is a burden is when I lose certainty about my next step. Then it becomes a burden. You know how in Forrest Gump, when (Tom Hanks' character) finished running and everybody's following him? Everybody is so connected to the purpose even though they didn't know what it was. But there was purpose, there was meaning, there was movement. It's such a necessity in life to have that purpose. Then he stopped running and it was like, he let everybody down."

Smith's 'just hyped' about Obama

HOLLYWOOD–Will Smith plans to be in Washington, D.C., next month to attend Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.

An excited Smith believes the event marks not just a change of government, but a change of attitude. He hopes people of colour will now feel empowered to tell more of their stories on the big screen.

"When Barack was elected, it validated something that I believed a long time," Smith told writers attending last weekend's Seven Pounds junket.

"As a black man in America, I've never been allowed to say it out loud, but I don't think America is a racist nation. I think there are racist people who live here, but I just don't see America as a racist nation.

"For so many years I've been wanting to say, let's create our own movies!

"Yes, (a role) was written for a white character, yes they wanted to put in a white character, but you take the responsibility and show how it can be something else!

"You were called Uncle Tom if you said that. The white man's got you brainwashed! Now I just feel so free; that I've been unleashed to say things and do things the way that I felt for such a long time.

"America, to me, is the most fantastic nation that has ever existed in the history of this planet. `We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.' There's nothing ever been written better than that, ever!

"Now we just have to live up to it. A cycle of African-American citizenship has been completed with this. I'm just hyped."

-Peter Howell


Edited by Ale
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Ale, I bet u are gon enjoy this movie, u are sooo into it its crazy! lol, thx for all the reports man, I apreciate this, gracias!

Gracias a ti VIsqo, yeah I love it when Will plays serious roles, so I can't wait to see this movie. I must be the only 1 :lolsign:

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Ale, I bet u are gon enjoy this movie, u are sooo into it its crazy! lol, thx for all the reports man, I apreciate this, gracias!

Gracias a ti VIsqo, yeah I love it when Will plays serious roles, so I can't wait to see this movie. I must be the only 1 :lolsign:

I'm with you on this one brother....so you're not the only one;) I don't know if that's good news or bad news for you, maybe you wanted to feel special;)

The only reason why I'm not excited is that after SP we'll have to wait over a year for his next movie...and even then it might be one of the many crappy-sounding movies he recently declared interest in doing. Here's hoping that it's going to be either "Empire" or "The Last Pharaoh" and not "I Am Not Legend Yet", "Hancock 2" or "Oldboy"...

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Good news of course man. I think viber, AJ and a few members more are very interested in this movie too, so that's cool :thumbsup:

And yes, I hope his next movie after SP is 'The Last Pharaoh' or 'Empire'. We'll see, we'll have to wait a bit more to know that I guess.

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'Seven Pounds,' seven keys to Will Smith's success

By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY


Will Smith, photographed here at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, plays an IRS agent on a quest for redemption in new movie Seven Pounds, opening Friday.

NEW YORK — Spend seven seconds sitting across from Will Smith, and you'll never wonder why he's a superstar.

He's charming and attentive, observant and clever — without ever seeming to try. When he talks, he makes eye contact; when he laughs, it takes over his whole body.

"You gonna put that in the article, that you're playing footsie?" cracks Smith after feet collide under a table at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Though he seems happy-go-lucky, the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn't end up where he is by accident. Like Ben Thomas, the painfully orderly and painstakingly wary IRS agent he plays in Seven Pounds, opening Friday, Smith, 40, is consistently in charge, on point and thinking ahead.

"That's one of the elements that attracted me to this idea — how much control you can have over your life, but how much you don't have once you relinquish it," he says. "I make choices in my life after working on this film. I found myself walking down the stairs and it's raining, and I found myself grabbing extra-hard on the railing. Just think, one slip — and that's it. You have to be conscious. You don't have control after you've set these dominoes in motion. Your control point is before you make this crucial mistake."

Seven Pounds may have made him think consciously about navigating slippery steps with care, but he has nurtured his career with nary a misstep, amassing $2.45 billion in box office in North America alone. Here's how he does it:

1. Think globally

Any film Smith makes, as a star or through his Overbrook production company, "has to be extraordinary, it has to be entertainment, it has to be art." And be "delivered to all people of the world."

Not every film fits neatly into that mold, including Seven Pounds, a non-linear story about his character making amends that has a shocking ending. It's "a bit of a stretch for us. The extraordinary entertainment art is easy, but because you can't actually talk about the movie, the delivery to all people of the world is slightly more difficult," Smith says.

He thinks about pitching everywhere from Peoria to Paris from the start. "If we don't know how to sell it, we're not going to begin — no matter how extraordinary I think the entertainment art is going to be. All I need is one visual, and I can sell that anywhere on Earth."

2. Talent at the top

Smith handpicks his directors. For Seven Pounds, he's re-teaming with Gabriele Muccino, who directed him to an Oscar nomination for 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness. The holiday hit starred Smith as a homeless man who breaks into the elite world of finance.

"He takes me to places that I'd never choose myself," Smith says. "It will be the biggest departures from who I am when I work with Gabriele. He sees me similarly as Michael Mann (Ali) does. He knows all my tricks. They erase all the Will Smith-ness."

Muccino, for instance, went so far as to alter the way Smith naturally makes eye contact. Smith's Ben Thomas never looks away, almost glares.

"He's trying to look under people's masks," says Smith. "I'm physically trying to look under people's masks. For me, it's a common courtesy to look away for a second when you're talking and you let people have their privacy for a second. This character never breaks eye contact. It's uncomfortable for me."

3. Mix it up, to a point

For every bombastic audience pleaser like Hancock, Smith tries also to release a more thought-provoking film like Seven Pounds.

"I have to challenge myself and push myself," Smith says. "My only job is to make sure I don't leave anything on the table, that I maximize what a young dude from Philly can do in the world of cinema. There's no telling what I can create at this point."

Two scripts he'd love to star in that Overbrook is developing are the stories of Nelson Mandela and Marvin Gaye.

"I'm not certain I'm actor enough yet," Smith admits. "I love both of those, and I need to make sure I'm man enough."

4. Preserve the Smith brand

Smith doesn't get busted for DUIs or punch or scream at paparazzi. "Not any more, not any more," he jokes.

His parents and grandmother instilled in him the belief that with privileges comes responsibility. Smith doesn't moan about the attention he gets, kvetch about the lack of privacy or lash out at reporters for asking personal questions.

"By being famous, you're afforded rights that other people who aren't famous aren't afforded," he says. "If I'm going to walk to the front of the line (at the restaurant) because I'm Will Smith, then I have to sign all the autographs. If I don't want to sign any autographs, I don't walk to the front of the line. It's that simple. Stand in the line with everybody else."

His image remains one of the most unblemished in Hollywood. The only question that surfaces is whether, because of his close friendship with outspoken Scientologist Tom Cruise, he, too, is a member of the controversial church. Smith repeatedly has denied it, saying he's a student of all religions.

Hitch co-star Eva Mendes says that off-screen, Smith is a bit racier than the clean-cut guy most people see. "He's funnier in person because his jokes get a little more daring. To this day, he doesn't call me Eva. He calls me Reva Melendez. He has this character he does named Redondo, an interviewer who never gets anyone's names right."

5. Cross color lines

With the exception of 2001's Ali (his other Oscar nomination), most of Smith's roles could have been played by him or Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr. The IRS agent he plays in Seven Pounds could have very easily been Caucasian, as could the bitter superhero in Hancock.

And that has been by design. Growing up in Philadelphia, Smith attended a mostly white Catholic elementary school and a mostly African-American high school. He lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, attended a Baptist church and admired the Muslim girls who lived one street over.

Along the way, Smith learned that laughter is collective and unifying. "Those universal elements became really clear in my experiences growing up."

Race is not something Smith dwells on in interviews, and it's not something often addressed in his films. "Being an American, this is the only place on Earth I'm even possible. My life is not possible anywhere else," he says.

It's a sentiment often echoed by President-elect Barack Obama, with whom Smith identifies.

On Election Day, Smith says, he didn't even have a beer. "I wanted to be totally sober. I wanted to see and feel and remember everything. The whole family was there. It was really fantastic — either way I knew it would be a historical evening. I wanted to be there and be aware," he says.

6. Be master of your domain

Eighteen years ago, Smith charmed audiences as the fast-talking, appealingly glib Fresh Prince. Today, his films gross an average $136 million. And Smith says he finally feels he's starting to own his profession.

"I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and he talks about the concept of 10,000 hours. That you don't really settle into any level of mastery until 10,000 hours, and I feel like I've just completed my 10,000 hours of story structure and filmmaking.

"Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, which is my favorite book, he talks about the whole of the universe, and it's contained in one grain of sand. For years I've been saying that, and now it's really starting to expose itself to me. My own grain of sand has been story. The next 10 years will be my peak of innovation in filmmaking and just as a human being."

Since 1996's blockbuster Independence Day, Smith has generated a movie a year, sometimes two. When he signs on, he's fully committed.

"He's very firm with his own ideas and considerations about things," Muccino says. "He doesn't change his mind easily. If he says no, it's no. If he says yes, it's yes. He's a man of his word. In Italy we call them men of honor."

7. Leave nothing to chance

That includes his 11-year marriage to Jada Pinkett, with whom he has two kids: son Jaden, 10, and daughter Willow, 8. Smith also has son Trey, 16, from his first marriage.

"We did a business plan," Smith says. "Listen, everyone should do a marriage business plan. Why are you together? What's the point? Because he's cute? That's not going to hold up. It can't just be sex and somebody can cook. That's a really good purpose, but not for 40 years. Jada and I have connected to the purpose of our relationship, to teach and to continually learn about human interaction. Our marriage will have purpose for other married people."

Smith always wants to know the conclusion. Because if you know the end, you know precisely where you're going and how you're getting there.

"Jada and I sat down and asked, 'Where do we see ourselves?' We went to 40 years from now. We see ourselves some place where there are seasons. That's a big thing for Jada. We think there's mountains. We think we live on a golf course. We don't have more children — we have grandchildren.

"We are the greatest philanthropists that America has ever seen. We're going to try and get up there with Bill and Melinda Gates. We talked through all the elements of where we want to be so we can start, in this moment, designing our life toward that."

Yes, Will Smith has a plan for everything. But for people like Mendes, his success is the result of something that doesn't need so much preparation.

"Of course he's talented, of course he's sexy, of course he's got a body to die for, but who cares?" she says. "He's so full of light. We all want to be next to him and root for him. People want to be around it. He's a light force."


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For Will Smith, 'Seven Pounds’ offers chance to shed some of his old persona

The box-office champ says 'Seven Pounds’ offers him the chance to shed some of his old persona

DALLAS — "Stop looking at the porn," Will Smith jokingly admonishes as he steps inside the hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton.

He takes long strides across the room. His smile is wide. His laugh is booming. He shakes my hand like he’s a corporate CEO and we’ve just closed on a million-dollar deal.

He was in Dallas just two years ago, promoting his Oscar-nominated The Pursuit of Happyness, and little seems to have changed: This is a guy very conscious of his power to instantly win over whoever is in his midst.

(Oh, and just for the record: I was checking my e-mail when Smith walked into the room, not trolling for porn.)

Except once the laptop is tucked away and the interview begins, a different side of the actor is revealed. For the first time in recent memory, the world’s biggest movie star — a man whose least commercially successfully effort of the past six years, Bad Boys II, managed to gross $273 million worldwide — seems to be a little worried about his latest project.

"It’s definitely patience-trying," Smith acknowledges of Seven Pounds, an unexpectedly somber drama that opens nationwide Friday. "This is a movie that totally banks on the fact that you trust the filmmakers. It tries my patience . . . but I would say that I was fairly certain that people will be able to get through [it]."

'Seven’ secrets

Directed by Gabriele Muccino, with whom Smith also made The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds unfolds in extremely (some might argue maddeningly) elliptical fashion; it takes more than an hour before we have even the vaguest inkling of what is actually happening.

Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent — or at least that’s what he appears to do for a living — who takes a special interest in the cases of a seemingly unrelated group of people, including Rosario Dawson as a woman with a deadly heart condition and Woody Harrelson as a blind telemarketer.

Clearly Ben is harboring some sort of secret. Whether audiences will still be paying attention by the time the grand revelation takes place, however, remains open to debate. It’s a very strange choice for an actor who talks often about "studying patterns" and who says that he’s forever looking "for the No. 1 answer" — those rare commercial projects that bridge race, gender and nationality in their appeal.

"There’s a picture in my mind of who I want to be," Smith says, "and Seven Pounds — no matter how difficult it is to sell — is in line with the aggressive left turn that I feel like I need to make artistically."

A guy whose last films, Hancock and I Am Legend,had a combined worldwide gross of $1 billion feels the need to make an aggressive left turn?

"I just turned 40," Smith explains. "I don’t want people to feel like they know what I’m going to do. That’s not fun; that’s not exciting. If you know what something is, there’s no reason to look [at it].

"What we were trying to do with I Am Legend — and I think we did a very good job with it — was to do both things. There are ideas and concepts, and there’s a real performance at the center of it. But you also have the bells and whistles of the blockbuster film."

Global scope

As is fairly evident, Smith loves to talk about the entertainment industry and how he works to sustain his lofty place within it. He believes that the key to his success is that he personally travels to foreign countries to promote his films there. ("Movie stars are not made in America. Movie stars are made when you can pull $20 million out of Brazil, or when you can do $48 million in Japan.")

But, of late, the pattern that interests him the most is one he has noticed about the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time.

"One of the patterns in the top 10 is that there’s no comedy. I don’t know exactly why, but when people really love something, it’s dramatic. Ten out of the top-10 movies of all time are special effects. Nine of the top 10 are special effects with creatures. Eight of the top 10 are special effects with creatures and a love story.  . . .  When you look at the Academy Awards, it’s historical figures and mental illness. The patterns are undeniable."

The chances that Seven Pounds will emerge as the stuff of box office or Oscar legend, however, are looking slim. The studio has labored hard to keep the central premise of the film under wraps. (In the 24 hours preceding my interview with Smith, I received calls from three publicists, insisting that I didn’t ask a certain question that might result in the secret being ruined.) But the Internet has been rife with spoiler-ridden blog posts that have relentlessly mocked the film.

This month, a reviewer for the New York Post wrote that it "should be more accurately titled 'Seven Hundred Pounds of Schmaltz.’ " The film has not been mentioned in any of the year-end critics’ awards selections, and last week it failed to secure any Golden Globe nominations.

Smith is comfortable with the potentially negative responses, and in fact thinks that they’re essential for keeping his career in high gear. "If everybody loves it, you’re not in the right spot, but if everybody hates it, you’re not in the right spot," he says.

As for the question of whether it could prove to be his worst career move since The Legend of Bagger Vance in 2000:

"Talk to me in three months," the actor says, laughing.


Will Smith in his own words

On the mixed critical response to last summer’s Hancock:

"Chris Rock, he came up to me and said, 'Clearly I’m the only person on the face of the Earth who gets Hancock. We sat down and we did 45 minutes of him explaining how he got the concept. The idea of love versus duty, and all of those concepts . . . so somebody got it."

On Barack Obama being elected president:

"We had the family sitting in the house in Los Angeles. My parents came out; all my kids were there. I’ve always believed the ideas that America was founded on. I’ve always said in the press, 'I absolutely could be the president of the United States if I wanted to.’ That night I realized that I was living my life that way, but I didn’t totally believe it.  . . .  It was what I wanted to believe America was. . . . and when Barack [won], it was a validation of something that I’ve believed for 30 years."

On whether he would be willing to star in the film version of Obama’s life:

"He just wrote a fantastic ending — the story ends beautifully. It’s a fantastic story.  . . .  I should maybe secure the rights and get somebody started [on writing a screenplay]. It would have to come eight years from now.  . . .  W. was a tad too soon."

On mentoring young actors:

"Nick Cannon calls all the time. I spend a lot of time with Tyrese Gibson. It’s funny, because Quincy [Jones] would always say to me, 'How come you don’t call me more?’ I guess you don’t want to bother people. But I love talking about the road and the dangers [you face on] the path to your dreams."

On the young actor who impresses him the most:

"The person who is making flawless decisions right now is Shia LaBeouf. Flawless. He has one more step to make . . . and it’s to step all the way out front and say, 'This one is a Shia LaBeouf movie.’  . . .  If I were managing him, I would say hit one more out of the park.  . . .  Transformers is a Michael Bay movie. Indiana Jones is a Steven Spielberg movie. So he hasn’t shown us yet what’s a Shia LaBeouf movie." — Christopher Kelly


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"Seven Pounds" a heavy movie for Will Smith

By Todd Longwell

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Ten years ago, writer Grant Nieporte struck up a conversation with a stranger at his brother's 30th birthday party. About a half-hour into their talk, he realized that he was speaking to the saddest person he'd ever met.

"Later, I asked my mom, 'Did he just get out of prison for killing someone?' because that was the kind of weight it seemed like he was wrestling with," Nieporte recalls. "She said, 'No, but he feels responsible in his professional life for a national tragedy and the loss of life that accompanied that.'"

It turned out the man had moved to the West Coast to get away from his mysterious past. "I thought, one way to deal with it is to move away, change your life and find a new occupation," Nieporte says. "What is another way? What are the lengths that a character would go to make amends for a loss of life? How many years have to go by before you can forgive yourself, and when is it OK to live again?"

Those questions eventually would become "Seven Pounds," the tale of a man despondent about a past mistake who decides to redeem himself by committing seven acts of kindness for strangers before taking his own life. (The film, whose title is derived from William Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice," opens on December 19 via Sony.)

But the idea remained in the back of Nieporte's mind for the next seven years as he worked on the final two seasons of ABC's "Home Improvement" and served as a showrunner's assistant and writer on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "8 Simple Rules."

"I didn't know what the rest of the mystery would be or what the plan would be," Nieporte says. "It sort of germinated on and off, and I finally started writing in the spring of


Nieporte completed the script later that fall, and it was sent out to studios and producers the week before Christmas. The first bite came from the eventual buyer -- Escape Artists, a Sony-based independent production company. The producers met with Nieporte in January 2006 and optioned the script the following month. Their first comment: They wanted Nieporte to make it more of a love story. The writer didn't bristle at the request because he actually had excised a romantic thread to focus on the mystery surrounding why his main character, Ben Thomas, is so despondent.

"I knew I had the right producers when they started saying, 'Wait. What scenes did you cut?'" Nieporte says.

Once there was a solid draft, the producers approached Will Smith and his production partner, James Lassiter. The group had worked together on 2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness," which earned Smith an Oscar nomination for best actor.

"Will told me, 'Look, I planned on reading two or three pages and putting this thing down, but you had me by the first page,'" Nieporte recalls. "He told me he had to know what happened to the guy. He read it straight through and called up in the morning and said, 'I've got to do this.'"

Smith too had a few notes, including revising the original fantastical ending to make it more relatable. "That turned out to be a great note because it allowed me to bring the love story (involving a cardiac patient) full circle in a way that I never had in my earlier drafts," Nieporte says.

With Smith on board, the producers next approached Gabriele Muccino, the Italian director of "Happyness," who led Nieporte through yet another polish that wiped away some of the narrative fat that accumulated through previous drafts.

Finding financing was not a problem. "Happyness" had cost Sony a mere $55 million and grossed $300 million worldwide, so the studio was more than eager to be in business again with the world's biggest movie star and the same creative team. The "Seven Pounds" budget was similarly modest -- slightly less than $55 million.

The next step was filling out the rest of the cast. The most significant component was an actress to play Smith's love interest, Emily.

Rosario Dawson had heard about the part and was determined to land it. She had been in the running to play Smith's wife in "Happyness" but lost out to Thandie Newton. And after high-profile but relatively untaxing roles in such recent films as 2007's "Grindhouse" and this year's "Eagle Eye," she was ready for something she could sink her teeth into.

"I've read some great scripts over the years that I haven't even had the opportunity to audition for because they were already out to someone else," Dawson says. "With this one, I was being given the opportunity, and I knew if I didn't do well on the audition it would be nobody's fault but my own."

Initial signs were not encouraging. Arriving for the audition -- "One of the few times in my life that I was actually early," she says -- Dawson was greeted by other actresses waiting for their turns. Once she was in the room to read with Smith, Muccino made her repeat her scenes over and over again.

"He'd say, 'Don't do that. You're furrowing your brow. Don't act like you're upset, be upset,'" Dawson recalls. "But when the casting director cried, I thought, 'OK, that's a good sign.'"

It was. Dawson got the part, joining an ensemble cast that also includes Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy, Elpidia Carrillo and Bill Smitrovich. The film marks the acting debut of Connor Cruise, the 13-year-old adopted son of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. He plays Smith's character as a young man in a key scene.

Before principal photography began in February in and around Los Angeles, Muccino put the actors through five weeks of rehearsal while he honed the script without Nieporte, who couldn't participate because of the Hollywood writers strike.

"I always rehearse," Muccino says. "This time, I had to push Will to a place he's never been before. This character has nothing in common with Will Smith in real life. Will is somebody who's full of life. The character is somebody who believes his life is over. Will had to go to a dark place from which he had to be saved through the journey of the movie."

When cameras began rolling on the 60-day shoot, Smith -- who also served as one of the film's producers -- demonstrated a remarkable ability to dip in and out of that dark place.

"He can literally come off of shooting the heaviest thing and be instant comedy, cracking jokes and entertaining, right there with it and interested in people," says Nieporte, who was on the set for the bulk of the shoot. "Then they say, 'We're ready for you, Will,' and he's right back into character."

While Smith's disposition remained outwardly bright, near the end of the shoot the actor admitted to Nieporte that the weight of the character's inner turmoil was causing him real psychic pain. It was on his mind all the time, even when he was home at night with his family.

"He said, 'I am just exhausted. I've got to shed this,'" Nieporte remembers.

Whether the finished film would affect audiences so intensely remained to be seen. Smith told Nieporte that the true test would be if it inspired what he called "the man cry."

"Will said, 'In "Pursuit of Happyness," we got the man cry,'" Nieporte says. "In this movie, I know we've got the man cry!"

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter


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Gabriele Muccino: Directing With Will Power


The director on working with Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, and "Seven Pounds"

Seven Pounds (Columbia) director, Gabriele Muccino speaks with a confidence one could only have when assured their work is of the highest quality. In his thick Italian accent, the Pursuit of Happyness (Columbia) sits down to talk about his latest effort, casting Rosario Dawson, and partnering with box office monster, Will Smith again.

VIBE.com: Seven Pounds’ storyline isn’t an easy sell. Was there any trepidation when starting this movie?

Gabriele Muccino:We were both scared to make such a difficult and brave movie. We had to stare at each other’s eyes and figure out if we were really ready to jump without a parachute. There was no safety net. There was nothing comparable to. The first third of the movie, this kind of episodic structure was pretty hard to handle, because we couldn’t give away certain information, but yet we have to hook the audience. [Will Smith’s character] Ben Thomas was walking around with a mask on his face, which didn’t allow the audience and also the people he was in touch with to understand who he really was. The script was terrifying. It was very cryptic. I didn’t understand anything up until the very last five pages.

Most people that have seen the trailer have admitted finding it pretty confusing. What should the viewers know before they see the movie?

We can say that this man has done something terrible. We can say that he has done something that has destroyed his life that made him become a dead man walking. But through love, he finds out that his life can start over again. This movie reminds us of what love can do. If we love ourselves, then we can give love. We tend to feel cheesy when we talk about love, but actually we shouldn’t, because love is something that if you are deprived of, we get empty and useless. So the idea that this woman [Rosario Dawson’s character] brings back love into the life of this man is enormous. It is a genius twist. It says to people who are surrendering (contemplating suicide), “Don’t surrender. Don’t give up.” There’s always a way to stand up again, even if you did something horrible.

This movie has some unanticipated twists and a powerful ending. Was there ever a push from the studio to make it more of a Hollywood-like, typical ending?

No. I did this movie with the same freedom and in the same spirit as Pursuit of Happyness. The movie was embraced the way it was written. Nobody believed it was going to be a easy movie. Nobody believed it was going to be a light, bright, comedy. Everybody thought this was going to be dark, it’s going to be edgy, and it’s going to be different. The only argument [with the script] was what we were going to give away and what not to give away.

Will Smith said that towards the end of the shoot, he began to really hate his character. Why do you think he felt like that?

He had to hate the character. Because the character is the furthest character you can find away from Will Smith. Will Smith is everything, but not Ben. Ben reacts and thinks in a way that Will wouldn’t. I forced Will to be dead inside, to be resigned. I spent five weeks of rehearsals with Will just understanding how to nail this man and how to portray this sense of blankness and pain, but not total death. Because if you are really dead, then you’re not reactive to love. [He had to play] someone who, despite his own knowledge, was reactive to love. Ben had to walk through the world with a mask on his face. Sometimes it was a smiling, gentle mask to gain the trust of the people he was willing to help. But Ben is a big fake, a big cheat.

Why did you cast choose Rosario Dawson as Will’s love interest, Emily Posa?

I hadn’t seen so much of her [movies] as I expected, but I wanted to give her a chance, so I asked her to come and audition. She came in and she wasn’t the only one. We had three or four incredible actresses come in a read with Will and she just had the best chemistry. That match revealed to be the best since the very first moment. I think she and Will push the movie in such a tender vibe and recall us of our experiences with love. [Look at] their eyes, the way that they caress each other, the way that they look at each other. All those elements are intangible, but they are on the screen because of their chemistry. I know we worked pretty hard to achieve the result, but there are things that no director can really pull out of actors. That’s natural talent.

This is your second time working with Will. What kind of relationship have you built with him and will there be more movies with you two involved?

I have a really strong connection with him. We know each other’s boundaries. We are very shorthand. I was never intimidated by working with a movie star. This allowed me to work the same way I did when I was doing Italian movies. The only thing that counts is the final result and being honest and urgent on the screen, no matter how I have to achieve that. If I have to say to an actor “This doesn’t work. You suck. Please go back to the trailer and work it out,” then you suck. That probably cemented the relationship with Will even more, because he knows when I say that it’s brilliant, it’s brilliant. And when I say it’s bad, it’s bad. He does the same with me. If he doesn’t like something, he tells me. I’ll think about what I said. And if I’m convinced of what I want to do, I don’t give a ****; I go back and say, “We’ll do it my way.” There’s a very strong trust and respect between each other, which I hardly believe is going to finish with this movie.

Seven Pounds hits theaters 12/19/08. Look out for more interviews with Rosario Dawson and Will Smith later this week.


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