Will Smith: Best Will in the world

Movie star, platinum-disc rapper, model family man... Is there anything Will Smith can't do well?
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The Independent Culture

It's not often (almost never) that a studio (in this case, Fox) will fly you to New York, put you up in a fancy hotel and allow you to interview the star of their summer epic (Will Smith), without you first watching the movie they're promoting. How can I question his interpretation of the character? Or better still, how can I disagree with the ending?

There was no finished print of the movie to critique, as it was still in post production. This was no surprise, taking into account the 800-plus special effects in Smith's eagerly awaited $100m sci-fi film, I, Robot, which may be alien-free, but is brimming with futuristic robots, all with minds of their own.

"Alex Proyas, the director [The Crow, Dark City], has done what I think is the best job of the summer in creating action sequences that stop when they're supposed to stop," Smith offers, with his trademark infectious laugh.

"Take it from me, this movie is a wonderful blend of genres and it's smart when it's supposed to be smart, it's funny when it's supposed to be funny. It doesn't depend on the special effects. Akiva Goldsman [the Academy Award-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind] came in and his concept was to completely ignore the action sequences and special effects. He said: 'I'm creating a story that makes sense from beginning to end, whether you have robots and explosions or not.'

"It was such an interesting world for me. You know, I've made action movies, but I've also worked with Michael Mann [on the biopic Ali]. On one kind of movie someone spends two hours in the morning explaining to you what your character is thinking, and on an action movie, the director spends two hours in the morning trying to keep you out of the way of messing up his shot!"

Who would ever imagine this once wise-ass, college dropout, street-smart kid from West Philly could become a Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum rapper (Big Willie Style); a sitcom star (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air); one of the biggest movie stars in the world - with hits such as Independence Day and the Men in Black films - and be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the boxing champ, Muhammad Ali, all by the age of 30?

It's a ridiculously humid day in Manhattan, and we're chatting in his air-conditioned, retro-decorated, whitewashed suite, at the Mercer Hotel, in Soho. I'm sitting opposite the handsome, debonair actor and his allure is such that it's almost impossible not to fidget. His strapping, 6ft 2in athletic frame looks slightly smaller, as he lies back in the trendy, oversized, black leather armchair.

A decade ago, Smith managed to make the transition from being Hollywood's flavour of the month, without turning into the next season's sour aftertaste. And anyone who meets the actor walks away feeling not only better about themselves, but wishing that a sprinkle of his charismatic magic dust will rub off on them.

A highly intelligent man, with a natural flair for comedy, Smith is like the best friend you kept turning down for dates at school, because he wasn't cool enough - for which you end up kicking yourself years later. Because, unlike a lot of movie stars whose sex appeal fades over time, Smith has definitely become sexier with age. Now pushing 35 (no spring chicken by Tinseltown standards), he is unlike the majority of Hollywood A-listers, in that he has no fears about ageing.

"Oh no, not at all. I'm going to be so sexy when I'm older!" he smiles, with that endearing boyish charm, which makes women swoon and men want to emulate. "No listen, you have no idea just how sexy I'm going to be. I know you're moved by me right now, but see me in five years, and it will be hard for you to just even talk to me. I'm going to be too sexy for the silver screen!"

Nonetheless, Smith is realistic enough to know that his days of running around shooting guns in a half- ripped-up T-shirt are numbered.

"When I'm 55, there's going to be a new young dude who will take off his shirt in the movie and who won't have rolls around his waist like I will," he smiles. "I figured, at least for the next three or four years, I want to run around, jump, shoot and take my shirt off as much as I can."

In an industry and a town where scandal is rife, Smith is one Hollywood actor you never hear a bad word about. A family man, he has been married to the actress Jada Pinkett Smith, since 1997 ("She wears the pants in the Smith household" - his words), and the couple have a son, Jaden, six, and daughter, Willow, almost four. Smith also has a 12-year-old son, Trey, from his first marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Sheree.

There have been no scandals in the press. No affairs. No whining on set. No fisticuffs. No moodiness. Come on, is this guy for real?

"What can I say, everyone loves me, man," quips Smith. Joking aside, Smith like the rest of us is mystified as to how he arrived at such a coveted place in life.

"Ain't nobody more surprised than me - trust me," he laughs. "In 1986, when my first record played on the radio, from that point onwards my life has been beyond anything I've ever dreamed. And the funny thing is, I'm just like Mr Magoo. I have no clue what I'm doing, but good stuff keeps happening."

He leans forward, as if about to reveal the secret to success. "What makes me different from other actors or rappers is that nobody's going to have the passion that I have, and that's where my confidence comes from. Nobody is going to work as hard as me. I'm not saying I'm better than anyone, and that the average person is lazy, but I have confidence," he grins knowingly. "They don't want to do the work." He elaborates: "When I was growing up, there were rappers who could rap way better than me, but while they were sleeping, I was rapping. While they were eating I was rapping, while they were out chasing girls, I was rapping."

With his gaze firmly fixed on mine, he continues: "You know, there's a crazy switch inside of me that takes over when I'm scared to do something. I was in Jamaica a while back, and I was standing on a cliff that had a 10-foot drop into the water and everyone was jumping off and swimming. I can't swim, but I just couldn't take being scared any more so I ran off the cliff anyway and someone had to drag me to the side," he beams, shaking his head. "When I'm that scared, I have to attack it. It's like I'm scared of being scared." This combination of fear and passion has paid off: there's little doubt Smith knows exactly what he's doing.

Smith was born in Philadelphia, the second of four children. His father owned a refrigeration company, and his mother was a school administrator. He remained close to his parents after they separated when he was 18, and he attributes his success to their love and support. "They were pretty strict with me, but there's a certain level of confidence and self esteem that comes from knowing for a fact that someone loves you.

"I was raised in a military household because my father was in the Air Force. We had to make the hospital corners on our beds, and I want to have some of those elements as a father. I want my kids to be disciplined and focused, so I try to be a tough dad, but Trey is so hilarious, it cracks me up." He deadpans: "He takes after me musically. Completely. No rhythm whatsoever. We're the only black people in our neighbourhood who don't have rhythm."

A devoted father, Smith passes on his philosophy of life to his children through chess, among other things.

"My father taught me how to play chess at seven and introduced beautiful concepts that I try to pass on to my kids. The elements and concepts of life are so perfectly illustrated on a chess board. The ability to accurately assess your position is the key to chess, which I also think is the key to life."

He pauses, searching for an example. "Everything you do in your life is a move. You wake up in the morning, you strap on a gun, and you walk out on the street - that's a move. You've made a move and the universe is going to respond with its move.

"Whatever move you're going to make in your life to be successful, you have to accurately access the next couple of moves - like what's going to happen if you do this? Because once you've made your move, you can't take it back. The universe is going to respond."

Smith has just finished reading The Alchemist, by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: "It says the entire world is contained in one grain of sand, and you can learn everything you need to learn about the entire universe from that one grain of sand. That is the kind of concept I'm teaching my kids."

Smith has an exceptional knack for telling stories. I'm not referring to his cinematic work, of course - a price tag of $20m a movie has already cemented that opinion. He lights up as he describes his latest film.

Inspired by the short stories of Isaac Asimov, I, Robot is set in a future Earth (AD2035), where robots are completely integrated into society. Smith plays police detective Del Spooner, a "robotophobic", who investigates a murder that might have been perpetrated by a robot, and which leads him to discover a far more frightening threat to the human race.

"I'm a tech-junkie, so I love this," Smith announces. "What's interesting about the film is that the robots actually don't have minds of their own. They're confined by human logic, which is inherently flawed, because there's only a certain amount of moves ahead that human logic can extrapolate.

"So when you create a machine that's going to follow your logical paradigms that can extrapolate hundreds of years down the line...can do calculations beyond human means, you're eventually going to have a glitch. There's a question - did the robots develop a mind of their own?"

A self-confessed sucker for gadgets, Smith is currently building a luxurious new house on the outskirts of LA. He comes across like an excitable child as he reveals his latest contraption: "We are installing these special toilets from Japan...have you heard about them? They're paper free. You sit on it and, and wherever you sit... it hits the bull's eye perfectly. It cleans it and dries it too. It's amazing! And when you sit down, it feels warm and it's so beautiful, man."

There's no answer to that.

'I, Robot' opens on 6 August