Pop Culture

Former Fresh Prince gets serious about acting

It might be about time that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air becomes King William of Hollywoodland.

Will Smith, the world’s most bankable raptor (rapper-turned-actor), has gone from sitcom star to Oscar nominee to pursing happiness in a film that just might become the defining role of his career.

Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner in the rags-to-riches saga “The Pursuit of Happyness,” is already generating Oscar buzz and is projected to do well at the box office when it hits theaters on Dec. 15. Smith, however, isn’t that concerned about the magazine polls or the box office receipts because he has already received the ultimate reward for his efforts.

“I’ve had growth as an actor and as an artist and as a man and that is overshadowing numbers right now,” said Smith, dressed in a charcoal gray turtleneck with matching slacks and a tweed blazer. “I’m excited about the possibilities of moving people. I have a deep desire to do good. I want the world to be better because I was here. This is one of those rare opportunities with the limited gifts that I’ve been given that my artistry can potentially make a difference. It’s one of those films where the idea just hits dead center.

“If this movie doesn’t make a dime, I just want people to see it.”

‘Tis true. Inspired by actual events, Chris Gardner’s story is as American as a tall decaf mocha latte with soy. Gardner was once a struggling, homeless, single father who wrangled his way into a non-paying internship program at a top brokerage firm in San Francisco. His wife (Thandie Newton) grew weary of his get-rich-quick schemes and abandoned her husband and young son (Jaden Smith) to pursue her own happiness.

The plethora of dramatic and emotional arcs in Gardner’s story will certainly have some folks reaching for their hankies — especially during the scenes between father and son.

With a little help from his sonSmith’s real-life 8-year-old son Jaden plays 5-year-old Christopher in the film. It’s Jaden’s acting debut — yes, he had to audition for director Gabriele Muccino — and his dad couldn’t be prouder or more grateful for the lessons he learned working with the eldest of the two children he’s had with wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

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“What it taught me — it’s interesting on camera and off with Jaden — is that the bottom line is time,” the 38-year-old Philadelphia native said. “The amount of time you spend with your child. If it’s in the bathroom or like Chris Gardner said on ‘Oprah,’ in a million-dollar home, it’s the time. And Jaden and I got to spend every single day, 10 to 12 hours a day together working on this film. It became clear that whatever you have to offer financially doesn’t matter. Whatever situation you’re in, it doesn’t matter. You have to be there. You have to be with your child. To be able to spend that many hours a day together, our bond took off in a way that I never imagined.”

Jaden, whom Smith says has his heart set on appearing in a comedy next, apparently subscribes to the Biblical adage that “a child will lead them.” Although his dad got an Oscan nomination portraying Muhammad Ali in “Ali,” and has appeared in such box-office hits as “Men in Black,” “Bad Boys,” “Hitch,” “I, Robot” and “Independence Day,” Jaden had no qualms about critiquing his pop’s technique.

“I was struggling with a scene and  [director] Gabriele Muccino would come and give me notes,” Smith said. “Every time Gabriele would give me notes and wouldn’t give any to Jaden; Jaden took that as him winning [laughs]! He would look at me like I got a note and he didn’t.

“So, it was a particularly difficult scene I was struggling with and Jaden said to me, ‘You do the same thing every take Daddy.’ I was a little offended by that but what he was saying was that innately he couldn’t understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time. He was feeling like that’s not real. I thought we were supposed to be making this real. And I started watching him and he broke me out of a mechanical space.”

Pleasing Chris Gardner was keyPlaying real-life characters, however, is often daunting even for veteran thespians. Gardner, an associate producer on the film, was on the set nearly every day. Smith said Gardner’s journey reminded him of Nelson Mandela. “He’s a man who survived the things he survived and still have a big belly laugh,” Smith said. “There’s always going to be the scar tissue of traumatic experiences. But he’s so peaceful walking through it.”

Although Smith felt he nailed the character he nonetheless was very nervous when he accompanied Gardner, who is now the owner and CEO of his own investment company, to view the completed film for the first time.

“I sat behind him when he watched the movie, which is the most gut-wrenching thing you could ever do is make a film about somebody’s life and then sit in the theater with them while they watch it,” Smith said. “I did that with Chris and with Ali and I’m not doing that any more!”

Gardner’s reaction?

“He was crying and thanked me for the service to his family,” Smith said. “For me, that was a win and all of this is gravy time now.”

It sounds as though Smith has already completed his mission. He’s transformed himself from a place in which his performances were often overshadowed by Computer-Generated Images to one where he can and will probably challenge the way people view him and the world around them.

“I know how to make a movie make $100 million,” he said. “I know how to do it. I’ve studied the hero’s journey. I know what the Top 10 films of all time are, I know you need special effects, I know you need creatures and a love story. I know how to do it.

“For me, I’ve never had the feeling from people that I’m getting with ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ The way that this film is touching people — I’ve just never had this experience before. And it just came from such a freedom space that I had no idea of what I was doing the whole time. I connected with Chris Gardner and we looked in one another’s eyes and I said ‘I’m going to learn your story and I’m going to tell your story.’ He said just tell the truth. I went and found the truth.”

Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at .

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