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Will Smith explains how a film turned his father's death into a 'beautiful journey'

In his new film, "Collateral Beauty," Will Smith's character suffers a tragic loss, and as he revealed to Ellen DeGeneres Thursday, it's a part he understood all too well.

"What was really interesting is I got the screenplay right when my father was diagnosed (with a terminal illness)," Smith explained. "I’m doing all of this research about a guy who experiences death at the time my father was given six weeks."

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But the "Concussion" star wasn't troubled by the timing. Instead, he considered it a gift.

"It turned out to be such an amazing thing to have to work through and go through all of this," he said of the topics he had to confront for the part. "I’m studying all the things the character goes deeply into — Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism and everything about God — trying to understand. But my father and I were sharing it during that time, so the performance for me and the movie for me and the ideas are so deeply personal."

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Willard Smith Sr. and Will Smith at the 'Concussion' special screening in New York, on Nov. 12, 2015.

Willard Smith Sr. lived months longer than he was expected to, and when the end came in November, the actor found comfort in what they'd been through while he made "Collateral Beauty."

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"He passed about a month ago, but it was so beautiful to have the opportunity and to share this and to go and not hide from it," Smith continued. "We were looking and we were talking and sharing everything, so this film for me is the most personal and beautiful journey. When art and life comes together in that way and when you create something that could potentially help people get through difficult times, you know, it’s fantastic."

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    Will Smith in photos: See actor's evolution from 'Fresh Prince' to movie star

    From "Fresh Prince" to box-office king, a look at the actor/rapper's two decades in the spotlight.

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    Fresh Prince's throne

    Will Smith has come a long way in the past two decades. From rapper to TV actor, to a husband, father and blockbuster star, Smith seemingly does it all. 

    Smith forayed into acting, starring in the hit show "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," in which he played a streetwise teen from West Philadelphia sent to live with his well-to-do aunt and uncle. Smith was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards for his work on the show, which ran from 1990 to 1996.

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  • Rap roots

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    Rap roots

    Smith was lauded as the first crossover rap artist, when he and DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes), left, won a 1988 Grammy for Best Rap Performance and American Music Awards in the category Favorite Rap Artist and Favorite Rap Album for their second album, "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper."

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  • Drama king

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    In 1993, Smith received critical acclaim for his first dramatic big screen role. In "Six Degrees of Separation," which also starred Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, he played a gay con artist. A stand-in had to be used for a kiss with co-star Anthony Michael Hall because Smith refused to do it. In a later interview with Entertainment Weekly, Smith called that decision "very immature" on his part.

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  • Box-office gold

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    The 1996 film "Independence Day" solidified Smith's status as a box-office golden boy. Co-starring with Harry Connick, Jr., Smith played a fighter-pilot who helps save the Earth from an alien-led apocolypse. The movie made more than $300 million in U.S. theaters and proved to fans and critics alike that Smith was here to stay.

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  • Alien annihilation

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    Once again, Smith was battling aliens to save mankind — this time donning a dapper black suit. In the 1997 hit film "Men in Black" Smith co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones, blasting away extraterrestrials and reviving his music career with the success of the film's title track.

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  • Back to the Grammys

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    Smith performed the song "Men in Black," from the film of the same name, as a space ship landed on the stage to open the 40th Grammy Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The song won Smith a Grammy in 1997 for Best Rap Solo Performance.

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  • Box-office bust

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    In the period piece "The Legend of Bagger Vance," directed by Robert Redford, Smith co-starred with Matt Damon. Smith received positive reviews, but the 2000 film was one of his few box-office bombs.

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  • Proudest work

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    "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Smith took on one of his most challenging roles, starring in the biopic of iconic boxer Muhammad Ali. The film is focused on the early days of Ali's life and career, and Smith trained for nearly one year in boxing, Islamic studies, and perfecting Ali's speech patterns. Smith has said that "Ali" (2001) is one of his proudest works.

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  • 'I, Robot'

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    Mr. Roboto

    In the futuristic film "I, Robot" (2004) Smith played a technophobic police officer who investigates a crime possibly committed by a robot. In addition to the film, Smith and his wife Jada worked as executive producers on "All of Us" a semi-autobiographical sitcom about blended families.

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  • Passing on the gene

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    Smith, an outspoken family man, has already passed on the acting gene to his son Jaden, center, who co-starred with Smith in the 2006 film "The Pursuit of Happyness" and to his daughter Willow, front, center, who appears in the film "Kit Kittredge." The couple's other son is Trey, left.

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  • A real-life legend

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    Returning to the sci-fi action genre with which he has found so much success, Smith starred as Robert Neville in the 2007 film "I Am Legend." Just prior to the film's release, Smith was chosen No. 5 on Entertainment Weekly's "50 Smartest People in Hollywood" issue, which declared that Smith has achieved "a level of global popularity unprecedented for an African American actor."

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  • Crazy in love

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    Smith met his his wife, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, when she auditioned for "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in 1995. She didn't win the part, but she did win Will's heart. Their secret New Year's Eve wedding was held in Baltimore at the Cloisters Mansion in 1997. Here the couple posed with the Cruises and the Beckhams at a party in Los Angeles in 2007.

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  • Forty years strong

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    In the summer of 2008, going on 40 and still going strong, Smith promoted his new film, "Hancock," in which he plays a superhero who has gotten on the public's bad side and is trying to revamp his image. Here, he uses a press photographer's camera for a joke while posing with co-star Charlize Theron at the Tokyo premiere of the film.

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  • 'Seven' heaven

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    7th heaven

    Smith, right, and Rosario Dawson are shown in a scene from 2008's "Seven Pounds." Smith plays an IRS agent with a fateful secret who embarks on an extraordinary journey of redemption by changing the lives of seven strangers.

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  • Sounds of Summer

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    Smith and Donna Summer perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert at Oslo Spektrum in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 11, 2009.

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  • Pound for pound

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    Smith accepts the Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Award for "Seven Pounds" during the 40th NAACP Image Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 12, 2009.

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  • Chop off the old block

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    Smith, center, joins his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and son Jaden Smith, along with actors Ralph Macchio, left, and Jackie Chan, right, at the premiere of "The Karate Kid" at the Mann Village Theatre in Los Angeles, on June 7, 2010.

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  • Friends at the top

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    Smith, wife Jada Pinkett Smith and Oprah Winfrey attend "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular" at the United Center in Chicago on May 17, 2011.

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  • Slimed!

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    Smith and Justin Bieber get slimed after Bieber accepts the award for favorite male singer onstage at Nickelodeon's 25th Annual Kids' Choice Awards on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Los Angeles.

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  • Back in black

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    Director Barry Sonnenfeld, left, and cast members Josh Brolin, Smith and Tommy Lee Jones pose together during the Japan premiere of "Men in Black 3" in Tokyo on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. Brolin plays a young version of Jones' character, Agent K.

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  • Are you sure about this?

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    Smith's "Men in Black 3" character, Agent J, looks a little uncertain about this scene.

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  • Family affair

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    From left, Willow Smith, Jaden Smith, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith attend the "Free Angela & All Political Prisoners" premiere during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2012.

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  • Smashing couple

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    Jada Pinkett Smith, left, and her husband Will Smith at the premiere of "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," at the Schomburg Center in New York on April 3, 2013. Pinkett Smith was one of the executive producers for the movie, an in-depth documentary that outlines the story of ’70s political activist Angela Davis.

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  • Concussion

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    In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play in the 2015 movie "Concussion."

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  • He's focusing

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    Focusing on the positive

    Will Smith played a con-man in "Focus" who takes on an inexperienced apprentice. The movie got mixed reviews with critics saying it was "unfocused."

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    Father and son

    Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith starred in Columbia Pictures' "After Earth." The movie is about a crash landing that leaves teenager Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his legendary father Cypher (Will Smith) stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced humanity's escape.

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  • Comic-Con International 2015 - Warner Bros. Presentation

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    In the comics

    Actor Will Smith attends the "Suicide Squad" presentation during Comic-Con International 2015 at the San Diego Convention Center on in San Diego, California. Smith joined the cast of the upcoming DC Comics film, which is set to hit theaters in August 2016.

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"Collateral Beauty" opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 16.

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