A couple fo weeks ago, we were on hand in Beverly Hills for the press conference for I Am Legend and one thing came to mind after listening to Will Smith speak: after all of the blockbuster films he’s been in, he’s still a pretty cool and grounded guy. After years spent in development hell, I Am Legend finally hits theaters. It wasn’t that long ago when almost every writer in Hollywood took at crack at getting the project right with original writer Richard Matheson’s approval.
Now, with the Christmas season fast approaching, Will Smith walks alone in the futuristic thriller I Am Legend and luckily we made our way to L.A. to get his thoughts on being alone for the entire movie, the film’s PG-13 rating, his attitude toward life, his friendship with David and Victoria Beckham, and the status of Empire with director Michael Mann.
Will Smith on dealing with being alone for most of the movie:
“That was the terrifying part of even taking part in this film, the idea that there is probably eighty pages of just me and a dog. I was like, ‘Okay, there’s good times I’ve had on camera and people have enjoyed me in a movie theater, but that might be a little too much for anybody.’ I looked at it and worked with Akiva Goldsman, the writers, and we studied POWs and we found a guy who had been in isolation in prison, and we found the things that create the texture of what that truly means to be by yourself. And the one thing that came across was schedule, Geronimo Pratt said that you would schedule things like cleaning your nails. You would have two hours to clean your nails, that was the only way to maintain sanity is that you had to have a regimen, a schedule. You had to do things that you trained your mind that would have to be done this day at that time. That was the basis of how we tried to create the schedule. And then it’s the idea of the internal monologue.
“When you have no external stimulus, no one is talking to you, [and] you lose the stimulus response concept with your thoughts and feelings. A guy told us, he said you forget the names of simple things. He says he remembers sitting in his cell one time and for about four hours he was trying to remember what these things were called, and he couldn’t remember what they were called. And he said, ‘Damn fingers,’ and it just dawned on him that’s what happens when you don’t have the stimulus response your mind really loses basic simple concepts. We really worked in that area with the internal monologue. Rather than having someone saying it’s a beautiful day today, you say, ‘Yes, it is,’ but you have to say both to yourself. So, in a scene, I’ll be sitting there looking and thinking it’s a beautiful day, [and] did I clean my nails today? And the extensive internal monologue you have to create, it does a weird thing on camera because when you see it, it looks full. There is a lot of stuff going on even when it’s just a dude sitting there with a dude. That was way too much time for a question, I swear I’m going to go faster than that. That was a Tommy Lee Jones right there.”
Smith on the discipline of losing twenty pounds for the role:
“For me, the important part of that, and what we determined from our research, is that eating becomes something you do because you have to. There is no pleasure, there is no desire to eat, you just know your brain won’t function if you don’t. So losing weight and then the working out being part of the regimen you have to do – but for me I have a much easier time losing weight than putting weight on. Ali was fifty times harder trying to put weight on than to drop. If you run thirty miles a week and do five miles six days a week, your body will look like whatever you want it to look like.”
On the film being released over the holidays and the PG-13 rating:
“Fortunately, the MPAA gets to make that decision. You show them the movie and they decide what the rating is. This film was a difficult decision-making process for me creatively. Akiva Goldsman, we met during the Oscar run when he won for A Beautiful Mind and I was nominated for Ali. We met, we talked, and we posed a question to one another: ‘why do the big movies come out in the summer and the good movies come out in the fall? Why are they separated? Is there a possibility you could take both and marry them?’ You could take the one with big ideas and the big concept, yet put a person at the in the center of it and follow the character of whatever that situation is. It’s difficult for me because there are genre concepts – for example, you never have a realistic situation with a dog in a summer movie the way we do in this film. You just wouldn’t do the realistic version of it, because the movie cost too much to risk it. So we truly tried to commit to the small art-house artistic truthful version that stayed to the source material and that energy, but stay with that big blockbuster package. We’re hoping that people will respond to it. We know when people are going to go into the theater that people will be a little shocked by it, but hopefully that will turn out to be a good thing.”
Smith on the comfort items he’d need if he were alone:
“A pistol, because I’m out of here. [laughs] I’m going to the nearest bridge. That’s another thing I realized. It’s such a primal childlike idea: ‘I just wish everyone was gone, I wish I was by myself.’ No you don’t. As much as people get on your nerves on the freeway, as much as people irritate you through your daily life, if you took every one away and you had it exactly the way you wanted it, it would be the most miserable existence that you could experience. I walked down the middle of 5th Avenue, we had it cleared for six blocks and as cool as it is, it’s only cool because as soon as we yell cut there’s ten thousand people on the other side. Human connection and the groups we form, and being a part of something that moves and changes the world, is such a basic and human and simple idea. There was absolutely no pleasure for me at all in experiencing that amount of loneliness and solitude.”
Will Smith on whether he has a positive attitude towards life:
“Yes, absolutely. I feel very, very confident that the keys to life for me are reading and running. The idea that there are millions and billions of people who have lived before us, and they had problems and they solved them and they wrote it in a book somewhere – there is no new problem that we can have that we have to figure out by ourselves. There’s no relationship issue, there is no issue with your parents or your brother or your government, there is no issue we can have that somebody didn’t already write a thousand years ago in a book. So, for me, that concept of reading is bittersweet because you know it’s in a book somewhere but you’ve got to find the right one that is going to give you the proper information. I said reading and running and the running aspect is how can you connect with your weakness. When you get on the treadmill you deprive yourself of oxygen. What kind of person you are will come out very, very quickly. You’re either the type of person who will say you’re going to run three miles or you stop the treadmill at 2.94 and you hit it and you call 2.94 3 miles, or you get off after a mile, or you’re the type of person that runs hard through the finish line and when you get to 3.0 you realize, ‘God, I could really do 5,’ and you go ahead and do two more. And that little person talks to you and says, ‘Man, do you feel our knee? We should stop. I feel we should stop ourselves right now. This is not healthy anymore.’ When you learn to get command over that person on that treadmill, you learn to get command over that person in your life. That’s the same person that tells you, ‘Man, that girl’s got some big breasts. Listen, we don’t have to do nothing, let’s just go the hotel room together.’ That’s the same person. Getting command of that person has been really important.”
On dying his hair for the movie:
“Hey man, I don’t dye my hair. What you mean? It’s a big thing, ‘What are you going to do with your hair for your character?’ Pursuit of Happyness, Pierce Austin is my barber and he came up with the brush-back shag for Pursuit of Happyness, so it’s such a huge part of the presentation of the character. It’s how your hair says everything when you step on. It’s a huge element of having the audience try and suspend their disbelief.”
Smith on the previous big screen adaptations of I Am Legend:
“I looked at both of them. There are other versions of the book also. It is such a primal concept the idea of being alone and the fear of the dark. Every four year old has thought about that idea of being separated from their family and being alone and it being dark and what comes out of the dark. For me, it’s the idea in general is so in the collective unconscious. We’re all keyed into these fears and hopes. As far as the other versions, the thing I felt we would be able to do with this film is there has never been this level of technology to support this idea where you actually can shut down six blocks of Manhattan and if a car goes by in the background you can say, ‘Let’s just do the scene again and you can move it later.’ You can see empty New York, you can see fighter jets take out a bridge, that level of technology hasn’t been around to support the weight of this story. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to see visuals and feel emotions you haven’t in the past been able to.”
On the importance of shooting on location:
“I really got that concept from working with Michael Mann on Ali. It was important for Michael Mann to not shoot the Africa scenes in Mexico or in the Caribbean. He wanted everyone to take the flight that the characters took to Africa, you go into and immerse yourself into the situation. You just can’t beat actually walking down the center of a New York street with an M-16. What had to happen for me to be here? It really assists in creating the psychology of the character when you can actually be in the place and not green screen, and not in Baltimore playing it for New York. That you can actually go to the actual places is a huge assistance in playing the character.”
Was it important to have Richard Matheson on board this project?
“Yeah, that is an extremely helpful – with The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, when you do something that is someone’s baby, essentially that is so important that that person or people can feel like you’ve done justice. It was important to me that Matheson felt I could do it and he was on board on planning how we can do it. And at the end of the day, he felt like we had done a service to his vision. When he signed off it was all good.”
On whether he’ll be working with Michael Mann on Empire:
“Not a lot of details yet. It’s something we’ve been considering. Sort of Richard III is the model we’re working off of in the media world. It’s just ideas right now, not a lot to talk about. My cinematic education really reached a critical mass in working with Michael Mann. Something happened, something clicked in working with Michael Mann. I feel like over the next ten years I’ll actually make the best movies of my career. I feel like an athlete and I just caught my prime. I’m in the best physical condition of my life. I love what I do. I feel like this is truly the time for me to make my artistic sprint in my career.”
Smith on the type of risk taker he is:
“It’s interesting. I actually don’t consider myself a huge risk taker. I’m a student of the patterns of the universe, so if I can figure out how something is seemingly risky but I have the numbers on my side, I get really comfortable taking a leap. I’ve told this story a few times about special effects in films like this. When I first came to Hollywood, my manager, James Lassiter, and I – I said, ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.’ He said, ‘Okay, we should probably figure out what they do and plot a course.’ We went to the top 10 movies at that point and we tried to figure out what are the patterns. And the top 10 movies of all time, 10 out of 10 were special effects movies. 9 out of 10 were special effects movies with creatures. 8 out of 10 were special effects movies with creatures. Independence Day is not really a hard call to make when you look at the numbers. I Am Legend, in concept, is not a hard call to make, and then it becomes about execution. Can you get into that artistic place where you’re advancing an idea, advancing a genre? You can spend your energy in the most difficult area rather than bumping your head on ideas that have been proven and disproven. All of that to say I look at the patterns, so I’m using my maximum energy in that 10 percent. Jerry Bruckheimer said one time that the amount of energy it takes you to get from 0 to 90, that’s the same energy it takes you to go from 90 to 100. What I try to do is get to that 90 spot with that maximum energy left to make that final difficult artistic almost impossible push.”
Will Smith on his friendship with the Beckhams:
“They came to Los Angeles so we just started befriending them. They are friends with Tom and Katie and they are close with the Beckhams. I love his energy, I love his attitude, what he represents to the sport and getting to know them. They are very, very funny. I keep telling them you have to let people know how funny you are cuz you’re all hilarious. It’s like they’re open, funny. I’m interested in spending more time getting to know them.”
On where his confidence originates from:
“There is a very central idea in my life. My grandmother just thought I was the greatest. She always had us always playing piano and having us do recitations at church and all of that. She always kept us in the shows at church and there was a look of pride that my grandmother have in her eyes that became the fuel that I need in life. I need my woman and daughter and mother and women in general to look at me with that look that my grandmother had. I was about 15 years old when my first girlfriend cheated on me. It so destroyed my concept of cause and effect, that you can be good and good stuff happens, and when you’re bad, bad stuff happens. I processed why she cheated on me was I wasn’t good enough, and I made a decision in my bed that I would never not be good enough again. That was the last time in my life that I would not be good enough. In that bizarre hurt 15-year-old mind then nobody would hurt me or cheat on me if I’m good enough. I may have gone a little overboard on it but every single day Jada has to have that look. I can’t function if she doesn’t have that look in her eyes. That means with the movies, as a husband, as a father, everything I do in life I educate myself to the place that I can contend with the best on Earth and that’s the only way to keep my woman from leaving me.”
Will Smith on whether he believes in any God:
“I believe there are absolutely unquestionably forces at work in the universe that science can’t explain. There is an end to human knowledge and beyond that into the unknown we have to call it something for us to be able to talk about it. If people didn’t have to put specific names and argue and fight about, we can all agree let’s call everything we don’t know the higher power. Let’s call it the “X factor,: let’s call it God, let’s call it Allah. Let’s agree there is something out there beyond our control, things happen in interesting ways that actually have patterns to them. There’s things like karma, there are things that are mysteries, seem to have some sort of human qualities that we do not understand. I believe and try to tap in and understand and become a surfer of the Tao. To find that energy, whether its energy, prayer, if people will… there are things people do that try to connect to an energy that we all know is out there. So yes, I believe there is an energy and, yes, I try to connect to it and use it and be in the good graces of that energy to have things in my life go the way I like them to go.”