Will Smith: From Fresh Prince to movie king

Will Smith earns record amounts of money for films, and has been nominated for an Oscar twice. Short of world domination, Gill Pringle asks, what's next?
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The Independent Culture

If there's one reason why Will Smith is Hollywood's highest-paid actor, then look no further than the girl who broke his heart when he was a teenager. "I was probably about 15 when my first girlfriend cheated on me, and it so destroyed my concept of cause and effect in the universe; that you could be good and good stuff happens and when you're bad, bad stuff happens. And what I processed from that, [the reason] why she cheated on me was that I wasn't good enough," says the actor.

It's an interesting twist on the old adage that behind every powerful man is a strong woman, given that it was a cheating woman who launched Smith on the path to becoming the mogul, movie star and platinum-selling musician that he is today.

At 16, the mathematics and science student turned down a scholarship to Boston's prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) after he'd begun rapping with Jeff Townes (aka DJ Jazzy Jeff). Thereafter he became one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, together winning the first-ever Grammy in the rap category in 1988.

Two years later he landed the lead role in hit TV series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six years, and in 1993 he landed a role opposite Sir Ian McKellen and Donald Sutherland in Six Degrees of Separation.

Rapidly starring in a succession of box-office blockbusters including Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black and Enemy of the State his quick mind for numbers helped him gain a quick understanding of Hollywood's financial pulse. Paid a record-breaking $28m for the 2004 hit I, Robot, the actor today regularly tops up his basic salary by taking 10 per cent of the movie's gross box-office as well as serving as producer on most of his films.

Smith's trump card is the fact he is able to become a leading man for everyone. The second of four children raised in middle-class Philadelphia, his family were devout Baptists, although he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood. Enrolled at Overbrook High, a largely white Catholic school, most of his friends were black, although his closest neighbours were Muslim. In the process, he learnt to get along with everyone, translating his universal likeability and easy charm into movie gold.

Doubtless Smith's high-school heart-breaking ex has kicked herself many times since her former beau became one of the world's favourite leading men. And if she needs any further reminder of lost opportunity, Smith even named his production company, Overbrook Entertainment, after their high school.

While his marriage to actress Sheree Zampino produced a son, Trey Willard Smith III, now 16, Smith failed to find lasting love, divorcing after three years in 1995. Only in fellow actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, 36 they married almost 10 years ago did he meet his match.

"You're so much stronger when your partner is strong. I honestly believe there is no woman for me but Jada," he says, referring to the fiery actress he first met when she tried out for and lost the role of his girlfriend in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Together the couple have raised two precocious progenies in son Jaden, nine, and daughter Willow, seven. Co-starring with Jaden in last year's Pursuit of Happyness, his latest film I Am Legend sees him co-star with Willow, cast in the role of his daughter, Marley. However, he says that they both got their parts on merit. "We make our kids audition, we don't do the whole nepotism thing. But, you know, it's the family business. It's just what our family does, and it's good."

Smith also insists their children aren't spoiled, home-schooling them on the couple's 100-acre Calabasas ranch perched in the Santa Monica Mountains outside Malibu. "We live in La-la-land out here. For us, travelling is hugely important, for our kids to really see other things. We have taken them to South Africa and Italy and many places around the world. We try to let them experience how other people live."

Having attended Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' wedding last year, it has since been widely rumoured that the Smiths have become the latest Hollywood converts to Scientology.

Circumspect on making any public declaration of affiliation to the religious group, whose high-profile followers include John Travolta and Lisa Marie Presley, he says: "Tom [Cruise] introduced me to the ideas. I'm a student of world religion, so to me, it's hugely important to have knowledge and to understand what people are doing. What are all the big ideas? I create my connection and I decide how my connection is going to be."

A self-avowed proponent of self-help books, he says: "The idea that there are millions of people who have lived before us; and they had problems and they solved them and then they wrote it down in a book somewhere. So there's no new problem that we can have that we've gotta try to figure out by ourselves. "

If Smith won't absolutely confirm an involvement with scientology, then he will admit to a blossoming friendship with the Cruises' new pals the Beckhams: "I love his [David Beckham's] energy; I love his attitude like, what he represents to the sport and just getting to know them. They're very, very funny. I keep telling them: 'You probably should let people know how funny you all are, cause y'all are hilarious!'"

Smith probably spent more time in the gym than Beckham does for his football matches in preparation for his latest film I Am Legend, after he lost 20lbs for the role of Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist tortured by his inability to contain an incurable virus. Grieving the loss of his wife and daughter, he finds that he is the last human survivor in New York and possibly the world.

If no Smith movie is complete without a gratuitous display of the actor's impressive 6ft 2in muscle-bound physique, he says modestly: "For me, I have an easier time losing weight than I do putting it on. Ali was 50 times harder [than I Am Legend] trying to put weight on."

Based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science-fiction novel about the last man alive on earth, I Am Legend has already spawned two movies, 1964's The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and 1971's The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in the lead. Warner Brothers Pictures has owned the rights to the book since the 1970s, first attempting to adapt it in 1994 with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead and Ridley Scott directing. But plans were abandoned after the production went over-budget.

In I Am Legend, Smith hopes to combine his mass appeal with a serious acting performance. Having twice been Oscar nominated, for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, there's little left for him to achieve, other than Hollywood's ultimate badge of respect. "Screenwriter [of I Am Legend] Akiva Goldsman and I met during the Oscars when he won for A Beautiful Mind and I was nominated for Ali," he says. "So we hung out and talked, and posed the question to one another why do the big movies come out in the summer and the good movies come out in the fall? Why are they separated? Is there any possibility that you could take both and marry those ideas?

"So we tried to commit to the small art-house, truthful version that stays close to the source material, and has that feeling and that energy, yet has the big blockbuster package. We know when people go into the theatre, they'll be a little shocked by it, but hopefully that will turn out to be a good thing."

If Smith's gamble for the intellectual heart of Hollywood fails, then he may well return to Plan A. "I truly, honestly believe that if I chose to be the President of the United States, I could," he once said. "You have to believe in the impossible."

'I Am Legend' opens on 26 December