Will Smith — 20 years before that slap he could do no wrong

                                      June 2002   By Philip Berk

Nothing deflates Will Smith!

Certainly not the mixed response to his latest, Men in Black II,  the summer’s most eagerly anticipated blockbuster.

To hear him tell it, “The audience loved it.”


But Will’s never been one to look back.

In answer to the question, are there things he’s done that he’d like to “neuralize” from people’s minds — neutralize is how Men in Black erase memory — he replies, “I try to believe that everything that happens, everything you do, the mistakes you make, help make you a better person.”

Fortunately his beautiful wife Jada (Pinkett) feels the same way. 

Recently on a TV talk show she admitted that Will has a number of women who satisfy his sexual fantasies.

Such as Scary Spice, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce of Destiny’s Child.

How about Rosario Dawson, his romantic interest in MIBII?

“No, it’s never women that I know. It has to be women at a distance. Some of the old ones before I met them were Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayak. I guess I really like Latin women.”

How about Jada. Who does she fantasize about?

“What’s that supposed to mean,” is his bug-eyed reply.

Then he adds, “The Rock. She likes the Rock.”

Is it true that his physical training for Ali made him a lion in the bedroom? 

“Absolutely. Absolutely.”

But then he qualifies his answer.

“The big thing that I was struggling with was testosterone. I was in a very aggressive mental space. But then coming onto Men in Black II, it just stopped. and I was able to settle down, just relax, loosen up, and start trying to be funny again.”

So it was more about mental attitude than sex drive. How did Jada adjust to the change?

“She liked it. When you’re making a comedy, you’re in a sillier mood. It’s more fun, you’re a little looser, a little lighter. And it’s good for your wife and your kids.”  

Is it difficult to maintain a relationship in Hollywood?

“It’s very difficult because one day you’re Agent Jay, and the next day you’re Muhammed Ali. Six months from now you might be playing a psycho killer. As an actor you have to hypnotize yourself into being another person. When I played Ali, for four or five days in a row I would live as Ali. Your family has to be prepared to deal with that, so it definitely affects your life.”

For MIBII, he’s again written the title song “Black Suits Comin’,” for which he’s also made a music video.

His previous attempt, for the first MIB, won him a Grammy.

And his song for Wild Wild West did better than the movie. 

When did he write the song?

“I write all the time. I have a studio at the house, and when I have down time that’s what I do. I’m writing, I’m creating, I’m making records all year round; so about a month into the shooting I had a couple of days off, and I started writing everyday. I’d write a line, I’d come up with a concept. By the time we finished shooting I’d already put the song together, and then I took a couple more weeks with it before I let anyone hear it.”

It’s one of the tracks on his new album, Born to Reign.

Is there anything he’d like to say about that?

“It has lots of different types of songs, reggae, Latin based music. It’s the most diverse album I’ve ever created, so I’m very interested in how people will react to it. We use a 60 piece orchestra which has never been done before with rap music; so you could say I’m experimenting, expanding my musical tastes.”

Is it true he’s currently working on another album?

“I create all the time so there’s always an album in the works. We recorded forty songs for this album, and we picked the best fourteen. What we then do is go back though the songs we didn’t use. If there’s anything worth salvaging we start putting together another album.” 

Wasn’t Michael Jackson supposed to do the title song with him?

“We were trying to do something, but we were both working on albums at the same time, so it didn’t really work out. But I’d still love to work with Michael.”

Michael makes a brief appearance in the movie. How did that come about?

“After he saw the first film, he told me how creative he thought the film was and if there was a MIBII he’d like to be in the movie. So when he heard the film was going into production, he called Barry (Sonnenfeld) and Steven Spielberg (the executive producer) and said, ‘Do not make Part II without putting me in it.”

Like Michael, Will is one of the smartest businessmen in the industry — he was paid $20 million for MIBII — so it comes as a shock to learn why, at age twenty, he was virtually broke. 

He didn’t file his tax returns!

(So much for streetwise kids.)

What exactly happened? 

“In the music business you get a lot of cash from your record company, but it’s your responsibility to pay your taxes. It’s not like other jobs where they take the taxes out. I hadn’t paid taxes for four years.”

How come?

Jokingly he replies, “I guess because I didn’t want to do all the paperwork. I figured I’d save everybody the hassle and keep it all. But the Internal Revenue Service thought that wasn’t a good idea. In the meantime I had bought a house, I had bought cars, I’d spent a lot of money on women. So what happens is,  they want all the money today, and I didn’t have it. Fortunately I got the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, so for the next three years they were taking 70% of my check. But I’m paying my taxes now, which is better for everybody.”

Especially Uncle Sam! (the U.S. government.)

Just three of his  movies, Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State,  earned over $700 million at the box office.

And he got to keep some of it. 

He owns two homes, an 8000 square foot residence in Calabasas, and an even more luxurious estate in Malibu.

Bagger Vance and Ali were commercial failures, but he walked away from both of them with rave reviews and (in the case of Ali) an Academy Award nomination.

Did that have special meaning for him?

“I knew after Independence Day and Men in Black that I was an established box office draw, but it wasn’t until Ali that people accepted me as an actor. People stopped calling me Will.  I was Mr. Smith, and that’s really intoxicating. So part of the reason for me to do MIBII directly after was I didn’t want to get caught up in that place of only wanting to do ‘big dramas.’ ‘I only want to do films that mean something and help the world.’ I had gotten to that place for a while.  

“But I was sitting talking to Nelson Mandela — when we had the premiere of Ali in South Africa — telling him essentially that I want to do something with my life, make movies that change something. And he said for the twenty-seven years he was in prison, he was only able to watch a different movie every six months, that’s when they would change the movie, and he told me I will never know much of a pleasure it was and how it kept him going because someone in a film had made him laugh. For two hours he was able to take himself away from his struggle. 

“So he really re-inspired me to know that what I was doing wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. To be able to make people laugh can help in the struggle and essentially he validated that side of my performing abilities.”

Men in Black II is his first sequel, but he has another in the works, Bad Boys 2, again with Martin Lawrence, which starts filming in August. 

How difficult is it for an African American actor to play a diversity of roles?

“For people like Denzel or Lawrence Fishbourne or me, it’s not really an issue because we can just about get any film made, but it’s difficult for the studio to make its money back with other Black actors because Blacks are only 13 percent of the population.  So if you don’t get the white American audience into the theatre, you’re pretty much limiting yourself to 13% of the box office potential.”

Is he bothered by Hollywood’s racial profiling?

“Look, I don’t like to put my responsibilities or responsibilities of Black people on anyone else. If white people aren’t letting us be in movies, then we have to make our own movies. My thing is more with black Americans and black Hollywood. We need our own writers, our own directors, and our own producers to be able to effectively tell our own stories. So I’ve never felt we needed a hand-out from Hollywood. We have to be better.  That’s the bottom line, that’s just the way it is. We have to break into the industry the way Tiger Woods broke into golf. That’s how you got to do it, by winning by ten strokes, and no-one can say anything. That’s how I want to do it.”

Did he ever think he’d become a movie star?

“I never thought about it. I always loved the movies, but it never really dawned on me until I started making music videos and people started saying to me, ‘You know, your music videos are a lot like acting. You should try acting.’ And then I got to read for The Cosby Show when I was about sixteen, but I was too scared, so it didn’t work out. But then four years later when Quincy Jones said,  ‘Hey, Will, you know, I have a T.V. show idea.’  I said, ‘Yes, yes, I’ll take it!  I’ll take it!’ Fresh Prince was really the first acting I ever did. Quincy gave me the job without seeing me read a word of dialogue.”

Does he see himself as a role model?

“The only litmus test I have is, I make sure the music I make, the television shows that I make, and the films that I make, are ones that will make my mom proud when her friends see or hear it.”

How much of an influence was his mother?

“My mom is the type of woman who if we were going into a building, if I walked in, she’d just stand outside. She wouldn’t say anything. She would just stand there until I remembered to come back and open the door for her. I’d say, ‘Come on mom!’ and she’d just stand there. ‘Oh, God, I’m sorry. You’re right, mom.’ and I’d go and open the door for her.”

So she taught him to respect women?

“I’m trained now. I’m well trained.” 

What were the other influences in his life?

“The household and the neighborhood I grew up in. I was raised Baptist. I went to a Catholic school. It was right in the centre of a Jewish community. I hung out with  Muslims, so I’ve had a very eclectic religious background. The one thing that I found from all of that is everyone believes the same thing. There is a basic drive for good in this world, and I believe people want to do good and be good. That’s really the only thing I concentrate on. I just treat people nicely and if you put out positive energy, that positive energy comes back to you.”

He has three children, a son from a first marriage and a boy and a girl with Jada. 

What did he learn from the breakup of his first marriage?

“I guess we learn – well, we should learn from our mistakes, and I never really view anything in my life as negative. I look at  life like a freeway. You’re driving on the highway, and it’s raining and there’s one car broken down on the side, hundreds of thousands of cars in perfect working order, and this one car broken down on the side.  One day that’s going to be you. One day you’re going to be that car on the side of the road. The tow truck is going to come, he’s going to pick you up. Afterwards you’re going to be back on the road. So take your downtime in stride and you’ll be back on the road before you know it.”

How has becoming a father changed him?

“When you have your first child, it’s a wonderful new experience,  but you still party a little bit. You still go out once in a while. But when you have two or more you feel out of place. Having a second child  settled me down. That’s when parenthood really settled in.”

How does he balance that with pursuing a career?

“It’s a difficult balance. When you’re working twelve hours a day, you really just have the weekends; you become a week-end dad. So you have to set specific times of the year when you don’t work. I don’t work from Thanksgiving through Christmas.”

Is he a workaholic?

“I work hard. I work a lot of hours. I just can’t leave until the day’s work is completed to the best of my ability. A lot of people who are less successful than me inevitably have a lesser work ethic, a lesser commitment to perfection. Me, I can’t sleep if something didn’t go well. I’m very obsessive.”

How does Jada react to that?

“She complains because I want things to be perfect all the time. But it’s difficult for me to let something go and let it be, even things I can’t control. She’s always saying, ‘Honey, it’s fine, it’s fine, just leave it alone,’ but I can’t stop with things I’m working on.”

Despite that, they have one of the most compatible marriages in Hollywood.

Can he remember their first date?

”Our first date? I can. We went to a little restaurant  and we just sat down and we kind of talked, you know. I had just gotten divorced, and she was there for me. That nurturing mother came out of her, and she kind of took care of me. She wouldn’t do anything with me. She didn’t – she was like, ‘No, no, no, not till your heart heals.”

Does he ever relax? 

“I play golf when I have the time.”

Is it true Steven Spielberg wanted Chris O’Donnel (rather than him) for Men in Black.

“It was offered to me. I was a little concerned about doing two alien movies back to back (the other was Independence Day) but then Steven called me at home, so it was like, you know, what am I supposed to say?  No!  Afterwards he sent a helicopter to pick me up in Manhattan and fly me to his house in the Hamptons, so we didn’t even need to have a meeting.”

Was he surprised when he got that call?  

“My first response was, ‘Stop playing.  Stop playing.  Who is this?  Who is this?  Steven?  This ain’t no Steven Spielberg.  You don’t even sound like Steven Spielberg. Pokey, is this you?  Is this you, Pokey?’ But then he was like,  ‘Yes, this is Steven, Will.’  ‘Oh, Mr. Spielberg, hey, you need to start straightening your stuff in your room and all that. Yes, hi, hi.’ You know, yeah, it was like really exciting. It makes you feel special when Steven Spielberg calls you at home, and you’re just walking around in your underwear.”

Speaking of underwear, what has been his biggest embarrassment?

“When I was in the ninth grade, there was this girl. She was just beautiful. For six months I didn’t say a word to her. But then one day at an assembly in the auditorium with 500 students in attendance — I was eight or ten rows behind her — I screamed, ‘Hey Charlotte, how you feeling?’ And she turned round and said, ‘Too good for you!’ I’ve never been that embarrassed in my life.”

And does he have any superstitions?

“Just one. After a movie is completed, I never watch it in its entirety until it comes out. I might watch the first half but then I leave. A couple of days later I’ll come in the middle and watch the second half. It happened with Six Degrees and Bad Boys. I was working on Fresh Prince at the time so I couldn’t see the film until its premiere. I’ve had luck with that, so I’ve done it ever since.”

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