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  • Interview: Will Smith

    Thu, 18 Dec 2008 11:35:40

    Interview: Will Smith - Superstar Will Smith talks about his latest dramatic role

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    Will Smith calls Seven Pounds a life changing project, one of the most transformative experiences in his film career. Smith plays Ben Thomas, a despondent man who has seemingly given up on life, and definitely given up on the possibility of finding love after a traumatic event in his past. The film opens with Ben repeating seven names over and over again—the names of individuals whose lives he will profoundly change. Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) is one of those people, and the woman who slowly breaks down the emotional blockades he has put up around himself. Speaking about Seven Pounds, Smith explained why the film’s themes resonated with him and how playing Ben filtered into his personal life.

    Did you see this project as a “message movie”?

    I was attracted to Seven Pounds not because there was a fantastic one-liner I could sell around the world. I was attracted to Seven Pounds because there were ideas, there were emotions, there were parts of this character that I was hiding myself from. I took Seven Pounds almost as a self-examination, almost as a self-exploration.

    Jada [Pinkett-Smith] said something to me a few months ago. She [remarked that] it was funny how much I was rejecting this character. She was like, “You know that you are Ben. The reason you’re so nice and the reason you fight so hard is because you’re at war with that guy inside of you.” I was like, “Damn, deep lady!” [Laughs] That’s when I realized [that with] the projects that I was choosing, everything had to be okay in the end or it emotionally hurt me. Now my sensibilities are becoming slightly less delicate and I’m able to venture out a little bit more into the world of emotional and artistic ambiguity in a way that it strikes me as more authentic. It’s terrifying to me. As a child growing up, I needed to know to know that God was going to make everything okay. However scary [things] get, [to] know that somebody in a high place is on [my] side. To play a character who [doesn’t] necessarily believe that, to feel like he has to fix it—God made a mistake—and to carry that emotional weight is a terrifying space for me emotionally and artistically.

    I’ve been exploring the idea of trauma and the relationship between trauma and continuing life. From I Am Legend to Hancock and now with Seven Pounds, I’m starting [a] character [from a place of] trauma. What’s the difference between someone who falls into depression [and someone like] Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali [or] Mother Teresa? They just keep going in the face of the ultimate weight of humanity and life. The thing that I discovered in [making] Seven Pounds is purpose. When you have a purpose and you wake up and you’ve dedicated your life to something beyond yourself, all is bearable. If there’s been a movie in my career that I would say changed my life, it’s Seven Pounds.

    I took Seven Pounds almost as a self-examination, a self-exploration.

    Not Independence Day.

    Not Independence Day. When I punched that alien and said, “Welcome to Earth,” it was a huge moment. [Laughs]

    Has anyone ever extended an extraordinary act of kindness toward you?

    My grandmother, she was that lady. My grandmother was a woman who, [when I] would come home from school, [would have] four homeless people in the living room. She would say, “Oh, they’re just going to have a bath. Go do your homework.” I was like, “Wow.” The more random [the act of kindness], the better it made her feel. I sort of grew up with a comprehension of what that is. She felt like it was her responsibility because of what she had been blessed with. It wasn’t a choice she was making to be nice to people; it was a responsibility.

    What themes in the movie resonated with you?

    We talked about trauma, and there’s a [tendency] in the West to think about things in [terms of] straight lines. First, there’s life and then there’s death, and at death it’s the end of the world and everything’s over. That’s not really how things work. If you take the ends of that line and bend it into a circle, there’s birth, death, and then rebirth. Rebirth is inevitable. There’s no literal or figurative death. When it’s winter, everything dies. Spring is always coming. That’s just the way that it works. [Ben] is a character who didn’t realize that. He [wasn’t conscious of] the metaphor of spring [representing] new love; he didn’t know that he could fall in love again. He didn’t know that what’s broken could be repaired, [or about] the transformative power of love and that idea that you can’t destroy the crops just because it’s winter. Yes, your partner died, or you lost your house, you didn’t graduate when you were supposed to graduate, but relax. Please, just stay focused because the spring is coming. Be there and be prepared to catch the wave of new life. This movie is almost a cautionary tale, because Ben Thomas realized it too late. He didn’t know, and he set this thing in motion. He was trying to fix it and he missed the natural tide. I love that concept.

    How did playing this character filter into your own life?

    It’s funny; when you start to program a character, you don’t realize when it’s sinking in. It’s such a slow process. You’re working on it every day, but you don’t realize the adjustment. One night [my family] was sitting at dinner; Jaden [Smith, my son] is Mr. Reality. He keeps me informed about what’s going on in the house and he tells me the truth all the time. So we’re sitting at dinner really [quietly], and I asked Jaden, “Why is it so quiet?” And he said, “Because you look crazy.” [Laughs] I just had no idea.

    One of the ideas [about] this character [had to do with] trying to determine if someone is a good person. We wear masks. You wear your sensitive lover mask when it’s one of those special nights. [Laughs] You wear your disciplinarian mask when you’re dealing with your kids. You wear your law-abiding citizen mask when you get pulled over by the police. We developed [the idea] that my character was trying to look under people’s masks. It’s a figurative idea, but we [thought] that he was literally trying to look under the mask. Literally trying to see if he can look around underneath people’s masks, but while he’s keeping his on. I developed this really bizarre kind of behavior. I had programmed it so much I didn’t realize it, [so] when I was sitting at the dinner table, Jaden was like [mimicks funny look]. I hadn’t even noticed that I’d gotten to that place.

    Is this the most affecting role you’ve played to date?

    Well, with Six Degrees of Separation I got really messed up for a while because I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know that when you reprogram your instincts that way, you really are changing yourself. The movie was over, and I just needed to speak to Stockard Channing. I was like, “Why do I need to call Stockard?” [Laughs] At least this time I was prepared for the potential of it, so it took me about four to six weeks to get back and remember who I was. It changes everything.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Gabriele Muccino, Barry Pepper, Woody Harrelson, Seven Pounds, Independence Day, Hancock, I Am Legend

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