Will Smith: Action speaks louder than words

Will Smith is Hollywood's Mr Clean: polite, impeccably groomed, with old-fashioned family values. So why has he chosen to star in yet another mindless shoot-'em-up movie? As Bad Boys II is released, Damon Syson talks to him about fame, money and serious drama
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The Independent Culture

In the flesh, Will Smith looks like one of those iconic Hollywood publicity shots from the 1940s. His skin glows like it's been buffed. His hair is trimmed with microscopic precision. His eyes shine with the limpidity of a man who sleeps the sleep of the righteous (and gets plenty of it). Even his manners are impeccable. He is, in a word, flawless.

He's been in London for less than 24 hours when we meet, but shows no sign of jet lag. "I feel refreshed and revitalised and ready to go," he grins. "When I wake up in the morning, I'm always rejuvenated. It's always new, it's always fresh. I always wake up with positive energy."

Positive energy isn't something Will Smith is short of. He's got it coming out of his (ever-so-slightly protruding) ears. Unflinching self-belief has made the 35-year-old rapper turned actor arguably the biggest star in the world today. Star magazine placed him at No 2 in their top box-office grossing actors of the 1990s, and let's not forget the 15 million albums he's sold (10 million as a solo artist, five million with his former musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff), and the two Grammys. Tom Cruise has a bit of catching up to do.

But in spite of being the master of all he surveys, Smith is an affable man. He's standing up when I'm ushered into the hotel room at the Dorchester in London, and unlike most stars he's taller than he looks on screen (he's over 6ft). He shakes my hand warmly, maintaining eye contact for a good five seconds, before saying: "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

We're left alone. No need for a protective publicist or manager with a consummate pro like Smith. I tell him I spent the morning watching Bad Boys II, the film he's in town to promote, and I'm still shell-shocked. "Yeah," he chuckles. "It's not really a morning film."

No argument there. Bad Boys was a high-octane buddy/action flick - a hipper, edgier version of Lethal Weapon. Bad Boys II continues the theme, but in a bid to up the ante, it pole-vaults so far over the top that it waves goodbye to any suggestion of good taste (lowlights include rats copulating, "comic" use of corpses and a sickeningly gung-ho invasion of Cuba). It's like Miami Vice meets a gangsta rap video - all Glock 9mm pistols, Hummer military vehicles, car chases and the requisite body and booty count. It will undoubtedly appeal to a huge audience, most of whom probably thought Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle was intellectually taxing.

Smith insists the gross-out element was intended as "very, very dark comedy", but he seems prepared to admit to some reservations about it - though the speed with which he passes the buck wouldn't look out of place at the Hutton inquiry. "Yeah, there are some bits that are quite raw," he says, shifting uncomfortably. "A little raw for my taste. But you know, film-making is very much a director's medium. As an actor you're a tool of the director, so I generally close my eyes and hope for the best."

None the less, you can't help wondering what possessed the intelligent, sensitive, non-swearing gentleman sitting in front of me to get involved in such a blatant money-spinner when he has the pick of Hollywood's peachiest scripts (though he did famously pass on Keanu Reeves's Matrix role).

From the outside, it smacks of chasing the dollar, though Smith insists that big paydays have never been his prime motivation. "I've never really worked for the money," he says. "I work because I love to do what I do and make people laugh or make people cry. I generally don't and never have paid attention to my fee [now $20m plus a share of the profits]. Even when I was DJing at parties back in Philly for $100, that was not an issue. The issue was ripping the party. In the same way it wasn't an issue 17 years ago, the money's not an issue today."

Smith's decision to make movies such as Bad Boys II - which his mom and her church group certainly won't be giving the thumbs-up - is doubly strange when you consider that off-screen he has carved out a niche as Hollywood's ultimate Mr Clean; more choirboy than bad boy. In this age of confessional celebrities and well-documented Hollywood misdemeanours, he's the closest thing there is to an old-fashioned movie star.

Even though he once joked that sooner or later he'd probably get caught out - "pictures of me with prostitutes in Vegas" - you sense it's unlikely. Smith is a noted family man, with three children: a five-year-old son, Jaden, and two-year-old daughter, Willow, with his actress wife Jada Pinkett; and a nine-year-old son, Trey, from a former marriage. His wife and children generally travel with him, and he describes himself as "a family business".

He doesn't raise hell (or if he does he doesn't get caught); he's effusively in love with his wife; and best of all, folks, he's staunchly patriotic. (He once said: "I love being black in America and I love being black in Hollywood.") Who can forget him punching out an alien invader in Independence Day? "I guess there's definitely an element in my career of always being the good guy," he smiles. "The guy who saves the world. Though there were elements of a bad guy in my Six Degrees of Separation character."

Released in 1993 to critical acclaim, Six Degrees was Smith's dramatic calling-card. His subtle, sympathetic performance as a gay hustler with a talent for re-invention alerted Hollywood to the fact that the erstwhile Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was worth far more than his TV incarnation. Some would suggest that since then he's been the victim of his own success, corralled by the Hollywood machine into cynical multiplex fodder when he's undoubtedly got an Oscar in him (he was nominated in 2002 for his performance in the Muhammad Ali biopic, Ali, one of the few times when he has punched his weight creatively).

Smith doesn't see it like that. He truly believes that you can please all the people all the time. Apparently, all the low-brow dreck is part of a master plan. "I figure I have five more years of action movies in me," he explains. "I'll start to settle into more dramatic pieces when I get older. I think I've established with the world film audience that I've got the dramatic chops - that I can do drama if I decide to. So I guess I'm waiting for my body to fail me - for my abs to stop showing through - before I pull out of action movies completely."

So it would seem that everything's tickety-boo in Will Smith's tightly-controlled world. And yet there's a small part of me that wonders if he's taking a risk letting his dramatic skills atrophy for as long as his pecs remain taut. You can't help wondering if, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's in danger of getting stuck in a rut and losing some of the goodwill he enjoys.

Of course, he would merely smile sagely at this argument and politely let it wash over him. Negativity is not permitted in Will Smith's world. When I bring up a rare cloud on his horizon (his former housekeeper is reportedly suing the family for non-payment of her salary), he brushes it aside with a cheery: "We don't even pay attention to that kind of stuff. We get sued probably 40 times a year, so we have legal teams that take care of it."

He won't even admit to having been disappointed when he failed to win that Oscar. "Oh no, not at all, not at all. In the deep recesses of my mind I wanted Denzel [Washington] to win. I didn't feel prepared to be on that stage. Or deserving to be on that stage. Denzel had been snubbed a minimum of three times. And it's also one of the few awards where just the nomination holds prestige. For the rest of my career people will say 'Oscar nominee Will Smith'."

But surely he wants one? Wouldn't it be the final cherry on his multilayered cake of achievement? "Um, I don't feel a necessity to have one. To me, I prefer the box office. If I had to decide between making a movie that's going to be the biggest box-office movie of the year, or winning an Oscar, I would choose box office every time. You can't fake box office. To me that's the greatest accolade you can receive - that kids all around the world are going to see your movie two, maybe three times. Never in a million years would I give up the international success of Independence Day or Men in Black for an Oscar."

And yet, deep down, you can't help sensing that Smith would relish a few more challenging roles rather than merely going bigger, faster, louder, dumber. When I ask whether he would make Independence Day now, in the current political climate, his answer is revealing. "It's always difficult," he says pensively. "It's such an in-the-moment decision. It depends on what mood you're in when you read the script. Then you have managers and agents. Then your wife has to read it. You have to ask your kids what they think of the concept. For the most part, I would say probably no. Probably the only two films that I did which I would still make - because the scripts were so far above and beyond anything I'd ever read - are Six Degrees of Separation and Enemy of the State."

Smith was raised in Philadelphia, the son of a disciplinarian father (an Air Force sergeant turned electrician) and a mother who worked for the local school board. One year his father made him spend an entire summer building a wall, to ingrain in him the importance of hard work.

"The biggest thing my parents taught me," he says, "is the correlation between self-discipline and dreams. If part of realising your dream is dependent on your waking up fresh tomorrow morning, you have to be able to make yourself go to sleep. If realising your dream means having your head be clear, you have to be able to not take a drink. That correlation is something that was heavily beaten into my head as a child."

He recently turned 35, a time when men tend to look back and take stock. He says the eventwas no big deal. "I've always been blessed that I've seen my dreams come true. I embrace every day as if it's my birthday." But has there ever been a time when things didn't go his way? Perhaps when 1999's Wild Wild West failed to justify its huge budget? Or when his next project, Ali, did not win the critical plaudits he expected? Did these events knock his confidence, make him shrink back into the comfort zone with two sequels in a row - Men in Black II and Bad Boys II - and the safety net of a $130m budget? "You know," he says, "I guess, I'm such a perfectionist that I never really feel like things go my way."

Whatever happens in the future (his next film project is I, Robot, based on the Isaac Asimov sci-fi stories), Will Smith is a thoroughly charming and likeable man, and a movie star the like of which Hollywood rarely breeds these days. And yet my lasting impression is that there's a need to please, a passion to succeed about him that borders on the compulsive.

As if to demonstrate, he ends our conversation with what he calls his Mike Tyson analogy. "OK, so you're going to get into the ring and fight Mike Tyson," he says, suddenly animated. "And someone's going to pay you $15m if you can beat him. So you train for six months and get proper sleep and do everything you're supposed to do. And you get into the ring in peak condition and Mike knocks you out in 16 seconds. There's a real comfort in knowing there's nothing else you could have done - you just can't beat Mike in a fight.

"But if you're not training as hard as you can, and you're eating pastries and having sex all during training camp, and then you get in the ring and Mike knocks you out in 16 seconds... that's hell. Because you'll never know what you could have done if you'd been at your best. So generally, what I do is, I like to stay as close to my best as I possibly can at all times."

'Bad Boys II' is on general release