Once Hollywood’s biggest A-lister, Will Smith, 46, was forced to reassess his status two years ago in the wake of box office bomb After Earth, co-starring son Jaden. After a string of hit movies including I, Robot, Men in Black, Hitch, I Am Legend, Smith was accustomed to basking in the glow of success.
Raised in middle-class Philadelphia, the charming actor has always been able to talk himself in and out of any situation, skills he demonstrated in hit TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 25 years ago before reinventing himself as a movie and rap star.
Married for 18 years to Jada Pinkett Smith, the couple have son Jaden, 16, and daughter Willow, 14, while Smith has a son called Trey, 22, from an earlier marriage.
Now he is looking to recapture his former box office glory with stylish romantic thriller Focus co-starring Margot Robbie.
Together: Have you ever been pick-pocketed?
Will Smith: I’ve never been robbed in the pick-pocket kind of way. I had things that got stolen before, nothing as clever as we put together in this movie. I was in Vegas with Apollo (Robbins, a pick-pocketing consultant and body language expert), and he was: “Ok, listen. I need you to have the feeling. I’m gonna need you to walk in that store. I need you to go in and steal something. We’ll give it back but I just need you to feel like…” I was: “Dude, look at me!? Everybody knows who I am. I would have to wear a mask! A 6 foot 5 black dude puts on a mask and robs a store. No, man!” It was really interesting and it’s such a terrifying feeling… Everything! And that’s what Apollo was saying: “That thrill, that’s the thing! That makes it beautiful and exciting and fun.” But I was like, “Yeah you know it’s different for black people.”
What made you want to be in Focus?
The collision between lying and loving was really interesting for me. It just hit me at a great point in my life, the material I was looking for and the things that I wanted to do. I always wanted to have a parallel with what’s going on in my life, the concept of vulnerability and authenticity was in the forefront in my life. And then I read Focus and I just thought it was such a genius way to talk about the absolute necessity for authenticity and openness to create an environment for love and the fact that character has that struggle was perfect for me.
What do you mean by “when loving meets lying”?
Oooh, now we’re gonna get all deep! First, what I learned with Apollo, and I’d never looked at the world in this way, is that everybody is running a con. Every single person, when you wake up in the morning, you choose the things, the clothes you wear, how you do your hair… You choose all of the things that present the image that you think is gonna get you the things that you want. And the things that we don’t like about ourselves, we find something to cover those up, the things that we do like, we try to illuminate them versus a purely authentic presentation of ourselves and what happens with the world. What I realized, working on this film, is you can’t love through a mask! So you put a mask on that is what you want the world to think you are but you are not that. So then people try to love the mask but that’s not how you want to be loved because that’s not how you really are. So until you can take that mask off and bare yourself, warts and all, you actually can’t have the love that was the reason you put the mask on in the first place so… All of that to say that there is probably a little bit of lying that has to happen in the beginning so you can get comfortable – but until you can bare yourself purely and authentically, there is really no way around that existential loneliness.
You’ve been nominated twice for an Oscar but haven’t won one yet. How important are awards to you?
It is a really huge honour to be nominated for an Academy Award, it’s one of the most elite groups of that year. To be able to say I was nominated is huge, fantastic and wonderful but for me it doesn’t go beyond fun. It’s a great opportunity, you meet people and you hangout and these couple of weeks before the Academy Awards are like the best parties ever on earth! For me, that time is the beautiful time, it’s actually anti-climactic when you get to the Awards, it’s almost like the fun is over. It takes a little bit of a weird shift to have somebody better than others where you are a wonderful group and you are honoured as a group in those weeks leading up to the Academy Awards. I wouldn’t say I had any desire to win an award of any kind. For me, I always look at box-office, when people go to work and they work hard and they have their money on Friday night and they are gonna decide where they are gonna spend their money. For me, it’s much larger than any award, it’s a greater vote of confidence and artistic connection than an award could ever be so I’m much more concerned about how people are reacting to the material than an awards group.
Do you feel pressure to deliver a box-office hit?
The pressure for box-office, I had a huge revelation and experience with the failure of ‘After Earth’ for me was emotionally devastating. I’m big Willy weekend! I smash at the box-office! I’m number one, $100 million – we start there! Therefore for that to happen, to realize “Oh shoot, I can lose!” It was really emotionally difficult. I had to back up for a second. I was allowing myself to be defined by what other people think of my movies and “Focus’ was the first film that I made where I actually approached it purely about people, purely about having fun, having a good time, I don’t care if it’s a success, I don’t care if it’s number one or number 10. I can’t allow myself to be defined by the success or failure of my movies.
You and Margot Robbie became very close while making this movie?
We had done 10 or 15 auditions with other people before Margot walked in and when she walked in to the room for the audition, she had flown from Croatia and apparently her luggage had been lost which was apparent in what she was wearing.
What was your first reaction to Margot in that audition room?
My first thought was she didn’t want the job but we started working and then all of a sudden, whatever she clicked into, it was one of those moments. When Margot walked out of the room Denise di Novi [producer] literally jumped up and down and clapped. It was so magical. You cant create chemistry, you either have chemistry with people or you don’t, and you can have the best actors and directors and screenplay in the world and if your leads do not have chemistry, it can kill everything. As different as we are, chronically and now geographically and genetically – it was this crazy chemistry and magic that happens when we start performing together.
How much fun is it to be Will Smith?
You know, things are really good. I’m having a good time now. I’m feeling myself making a shift, a transition in my life and it starts to reflect more in my artistry. I’m anxious to see where things go but it’s a really great time to be me. I’m loving my life, I’m excited to see where the great river takes me.
Focus makes you a little paranoid about losing your passport, where you leave your passwords.
It’s a new world and the time spent with Apollo, we also saw the technology side of it. We went to a hacker’s convention, we walked in and he told me to turn my phone off because it’s always reaching for Wi-Fi or satellite connection so when you walk to a place, your phone doesn’t know where it is so it’s reaching and the guys was showing us on his laptop every time someone’s phone would reach for their own network. On his computer, he would grab the signal and then starts to figure out how to trick your phone that this is your own network and let him in. He was showing everybody’s cell phones coming up on his laptop. It’s a scary new world out there but I’m excited about it.