Will Smith is in an enviable position. Entangled in full clinch with Charlize Theron, he’s wrestling around for a frisky fight scene on the set of the romantic comedy “Hancock.” Sweating and grunting, they grapple in the bucket of a fake bulldozer against a green screen, doing take after take for director Peter Berg and a crew of about 50 standing below. It’s the film’s last week of shooting at Sony’s studios in Los Angeles, and Smith’s hallmark laugh — confident, flagrant, manchild mirth — is the loudest thing on the soundstage, a pleasing basso profundo. While movie sets like these can become a grind, Smith — playing a down-and-out superhero who hires a publicist (Jason Bateman), only to fall for the flack’s wife (Theron) — is churning out DVD extras as he boxes the air, taunts Berg, and keeps Theron in stitches. “Did anyone see Will fall like a girl?” she asks, toppling over in imitation. Finally, on the seventh take of intense tussle, they nail it, so to speak. Smith grins and declares: “That one was kind of soft-porny.”
Remember, this is the Willenium, and you’re just living in it. Whether the camera’s rolling or not, whether he’s getting jiggy or getting real, the 39-year-old Smith exudes the same appeal — an organic hyper-likability that has helped make him the most bankable star in the world, surpassing even Pitt, Clooney, and those white dudes named Tom. With Smith’s last four movies — “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Hitch,” “Shark Tale,” and “I, Robot” — each grossing over $300 million, and his total worldwide box office topping $4.4 billion, he is as sure a thing in Hollywood as celebrity DUIs, Botox, and paternity suits. Not that you’d ever find him indulging in all that. “I’ve never met anybody at that place who is as grounded and non–full of bull----,” Theron attests. “I don’t say this kind of stuff about people, but he’s godly.”
Everyone — literally, everyone — agrees. Michael Mann, who directed Smith’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Ali,” says, “I would do anything for Will Smith at any moment in time, period.” “Hitch” costar Eva Mendes: “If you don’t like Will, you’re a jerk.” Tommy Lee Jones, his Men in Black” wingman: “If someone had a bad day at home, or is a little bit grouchy or sad, he’ll know it, and he’ll go straight to ’em and he’ll work on ’em until they’re laughing.”
During a late-morning break, the vibe is dorm-loungey on the “Hancock” set. Smith invites me into his trailer, a tricked-out duplex stocked with Balance bars, Vitamin Water, and Cribs-worthy appliances befitting a former fade-topped rapper, including a huge flat screen tuned to ESPN. “I saw race car driver trailers like Mario Andretti’s that pop up, rather than the trailers in Hollywood that pop out,” Smith says, tucking his six-foot-two frame into a banquette. “So I got a guy and asked him, could he design one that pops up and pops out? Go take a look upstairs.” He grabs his BlackBerry and dials his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, with whom he has two kids, Jaden, 9, and Willow, 7. “Ma-ma, love you to the moon, I’ll call you in a bit.”
Looking for art in big-budget films
Up close — with his sleepy eyes, sly smile, and ears that stick out like small satellite dishes — Smith projects that adolescent jauntiness he perfected on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” As he talks and teases and table-slaps, all you can think is, I’ll have whatever he’s having. Leaning forward, he launches into an explanation of his new calculus in choosing roles, which peaked in edginess with his first major part — as a Ripley-esque hustler in “Six Degrees of Separation” — and have since tended to skew commercial (maybe you didn’t pay money to see “Wild Wild West,” but plenty of people did). “I never worked for money,” he insists. “But the approach has to be the small art film in the blockbuster package.”
Before the 10 months of production began, Smith, his manager and childhood friend James Lassiter, director Francis Lawrence, and Akiva Goldsman — who won an Oscar for his screenplay of “A Beautiful Mind” — spent 300-odd hours on the story alone. “It’s not script notes,” says Lawrence, “but Will actually sitting in the room with us while we’re coming up with the script. I’ve never experienced that contribution at this level: structure, emotional beat, really nailing the tone, and how the film plays out.” As a result, the stakes are higher than ever for Smith. “It’s gonna be real scary if ‘I Am Legend’ doesn’t work,” he says, “because I got everything I wanted.”
Given that Neville is alone for two-thirds of the movie, casting Smith was critical. (Fun fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger was once slated to star.) There were the other dividends of having Big Willie Style around. During a chaotic night shoot under the Brooklyn Bridge with 1,000 extras, 250 crew members, and Coast Guard and Army helicopters, a camera jammed just as the temperature was dropping to nine degrees. Smith grabbed a stray microphone and rallied the crowd by rapping his old hit “Summertime” with everyone singing along.
Back in Smith’s trailer on the “Hancock” set, a bespectacled, balding man with a feral look in his eye suddenly bursts through the door, and Smith freezes in alarm. “Hi! Sorry I’m late,” says the stranger. “Somebody tried to stop me coming in.”
Smith eyes the door. “We got,” he calls out, “a security issue!”
My entire body tenses, and for the first time in my life, I wonder if I should attempt to physically protect a movie star. A moment later, Smith’s bodyguard Mike — a towering, goateed fellow who looks like he could start his own rural militia — rushes in. “Come with me, sir,” he says. Suddenly Smith cackles, and the guy follows suit.
“I’m Akiva Goldsman,” he tells me, extending his hand. Smith is looking at me, laughing uproariously. Already I have broken Theron’s only advice for dealing with Will Smith: “Don’t take his (stuff).”
Willard Christopher Smith Jr. famously came of age on the playgrounds of West Philadelphia, where he met his comrade-in-rhymes, DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes. Smith’s parents, a school-board employee and a refrigerator-installation man, divorced when he was 13, but he inherited from them a knack for self-improvement. By the time he was a senior at Overbrook High School, he had already released his first rap album, “Rock the House.” Unlike today’s blood-and-bling hip-hop, it was a playful, PG-rated romp about troublesome girls, popularity contests, and The Teenage Condition — in other words, all sound and no fury — that went on to sell some 600,000 copies. By 1992, the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff had minted three platinum albums and the vox populi single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the first-ever rap to win a Grammy. Smith was 21 years old.
Sure, he splurged on rococo bachelor pads, Mercedes E-classes, and Gucci gear. But rather than riding a coked-up comet all the way to Promises, Smith moved to Burbank in order to attempt his first crossover — into prime-time TV. NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — starring Smith as a West Philly émigré to upper-crusty L.A. — charmed black and white audiences alike, the first indication that Smith could play easily across demographics. “Six Degrees“ followed, and then a string of powder kegs in which Smith battled creeps (“Bad Boys”), critters (“Independence Day,” “Men in Black”), and crooked spies (“Enemy of the State”), securing his place in the pantheon of $20-million-a-movie men.
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But ask him to explain his interracial, intergenerational, international appeal and he demurs. “I’ve had conversations bordering on arguments with a lot of actors,” he says. “I ask, ‘How many premieres of your movie have you been to?’ And they say, ‘Oh, one in L.A. and one in New York.’ Well, what about London? What about Berlin? Tokyo? Seoul? You have to go.” If it’s that simple, why doesn’t everyone do it? “I have no clue,” he says, his eyes wide in genuine disbelief. “It’s the only way that somebody gets to be a movie star in the way that you look at Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and myself.”
More than mere continent-hopping goes into his stealthy success. As Michael Mann puts it, “Will’s a guy with a very strong superego, which drives him to have massive artistic ambition. He is indefatigable.” As proof, Mann recounts the time during “Ali” when Smith was training in Mozambique with the Zimbabwe national champ. “They were sparring, hitting, and after Round 2, it was apparent — and I caught Will’s eye, and he caught my eye — he could take this guy.”
Keys to a successful marriage
Smith concentrates on his marriage to Jada, now in its 10th year, with a similar intensity. “Counseling, individual learning, books, conflict resolution,” he confides. “It is a full-time job to try and be happy. People tend to think that they can go to work for 50 or 60 hours a week and then come home and their relationship is just supposed to work.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Smith still have plenty of heat. “In other marriages, there’s a cooling that generally happens after a five-year period, so when you get to 10 you level off at a nice ... lukewarm. Jada and I still have fun, and that throws people off a little bit.” Recently, his first wife, actress Sheree Zampino — with whom he has a 15-year-old son, Trey — remarried and moved to San Diego, so Trey now lives in Will and Jada’s house full time, a $20 million Calabasas castle with a lake, basketball courts, and a pair of private par threes in the backyard. Does the whole brood ever gather for a Will Smith retrospective? “My kids love ‘The Fresh Prince’,” he says. “It’s not daddy to them. They don’t know that dude. You just never, ever know the things you and your kids are gonna bond on. Trey watched ‘Hitch’” — Smith plays a date doctor — “and he was like, ‘Dude, why didn’t you tell me you knew all that stuff?’”
The parental paradox is that the Smiths homeschool their kids — shielding them from the we-know-best dictates of L.A. private schools — but subject them to the world’s most ruthless industry by casting Willow in “I Am Legend” and Jaden in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and, with luck, a remake of “The Karate Kid.” “The hunter-gatherers had it right,” Smith laughs. “The kids have to go to work with you.”
Smith’s power marriage has begotten some power friendships, most notably with newlyweirds Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. “That’s my man right there,” says Smith. “We push one another to be better. We both homeschool our children, and there’s a comprehension of what each of us goes through that everybody else can’t understand, that’s a really unique position that less than .0001 percent of people on earth will ever experience.”
It is through Cruise that Smith — a polymath in a town of pedants — is learning about Scientology, and if there’s anyone in the world who can make L. Ron Hubbard’s universe sound less spooky, it’s Will Smith. “I studied Islam for ‘Ali,’ I grew up in a Baptist household, I went to a Catholic school,” he reasons. “I’ve studied Buddhism and Hinduism and I’ve studied Scientology through Tom. And nobody’s saying anything different! Look, I use the Bible to explain the ideas of God, and life, and love, and relationships, and the life of Jesus Christ to teach my children how to defend their spirit. But in all of the experiences I’ve had with Tom and Scientology, like, 98 percent of the principles are identical to the principles of the Bible. The Bible says, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And you know, there’s a Scientology principle: Do not create experiences for others that they cannot comfortably perceive.” Smith would rather stroll many paths to enlightenment than commit to one high road. “The Bible talks about your spirit being immortal, that you were created for existence beyond your physical body. Well, that’s no different from Scientology! I don’t think that because the word someone uses for spirit is thetan that the definition becomes any different.”
A typical day for Will Smith doesn’t really exist, but if it did, it would begin around 6 a.m. with a four- or five-mile run near his house. On set by 7:30, he hits the studio gym (cardio in the morning, weights in the afternoon). Most evenings he’s at home with the family, and rare is a boozy night on the town. “Will literally takes three sips and he’s buzzed,” says Eva Mendes. “It’s not even like three sips of whiskey; it’s literally a piña colada or a daquiri — he loves girly drinks — and he’s down.” Leisure, then, comes in the form of golf on the weekends with his trainer from “Ali,” Darrell Foster, or his younger brother, Harry, a real estate developer. An impressive 12 handicap — “single digits when I’m down for a month” — Smith belongs to Sherwood Country Club, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and keeps an entire golf trailer on set, replete with a putting green, electronic driving range, and swing-analysis video monitors.
So what’s next, exactly — other than, oh, simultaneously mastering actor/father/husbandhood? “It is terrifying,” he concedes, clasping his hands behind his head and leaning back. “At the center, it all comes down to, How good and how loving and how smart do I really want to be? What kind of physical condition do I really want to be in? I am my only obstacle. There is no X-factor. I am the X-factor.”
I tell him what Michael Mann said about his ego as psychic engine. “My ego is generally attached to pain,” he says. “The avoidance of pain. When I was 16, my first true love cheated on me.” He grimaces, showing a rare flash of vulnerability. Yes, they were only teenagers, and yes, he was away a lot, rapping on the road, but the incident changed him forever. “I remember a fit of excruciating emotional distress, making the connection in my mind that she must have cheated on me because I wasn’t good enough. And I made a decision: that I would never not be good enough again.”
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