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Will Smith lends voice to animated 'Shark Tale'

Latest DreamWorks cartoon is uncharted waters for the Fresh Prince. He talks to 'Today' host Matt Lauer about the film.
/ Source: TODAY

The last time we saw Will Smith on the big screen, he was an action hero out to save the world in "I Robot."  Now he appears a little fishy, and he's scaling new heights in the animated comedy "Shark Tale." He lends his voice to Oscar, a little fish in a big pond hoping to finagle his way to the top of the reef. "Today" host Matt Lauer talked to Smith about his latest role.

Will Smith: “Good to see you, man. How are you feeling?”

Lauer: “I'm fine. Thank you. Okay, you get all kinds of offers. I mean, you get to see all kind of scripts in Hollywood. Why are these so hip right now, to do animated roles.”

Smith: “You know, it's – it's – it's so current. It's so perfectly, exactly what people are –

are feeling and thinking at the moment.  It's the pop culture references, all of that, and there's such an opportunity for perfection. And it's a cast that you could never put together in a live action film.  So it's great all around.”

Lauer: “I'm going to talk about the cast in a second.  Is there also a nice kind of respite from the pressure?  In other words, if one of these movies goes to the box office it does okay, but it doesn't do great, no one's going to say it's because Will Smith's voice was not right for Oscar.”

Smith: “Yeah, right. Will –Will – Will Smith's voice was horrible and that's really the reason that I couldn't go – I couldn't bear the film because of his voice.”

Lauer: “Right, exactly. So you get to be part of a big project and you don’t bear a lot of the responsibility.”

Smith: “Yeah.”

Lauer: “Wouldn't that be fair?”

Smith: “Right. That's very fair. And – and it's such a small amount of work.  You probably – you do it over two years.”

Lauer: “What is the total?”

Smith:  “Probably – probably a total of 80 hours over two years.

Lauer: “And you're working at scale...”

Smith: “Yeah.”

Lauer:  “...right? Yeah?”

Smith: “Yeah. Yeah, you know, working.  It's just for the love of  the art.”

Lauer: “Yeah, exactly. When they came to you, did they say you've got to play Oscar like they always do, the Hollywood producers. There is no Oscar without you...”

Smith: “Oh, yeah.”

Lauer:  “...or did they give you a choice of roles?”

Smith:  “No, they – they – they brought it and Jeffrey Katzenberg from DreamWorks already – already had the picture of Oscar and the fish. And it looked like me and all of that.  So it was – he said that it was – I was first choice.  So...”

Lauer:  “You were the inspiration for Os...”

Smith: “I was – I was the inspiration for the project.”

Lauer:  “’When we drew Oscar.’  Tell me about the other actors. Most of  the time when people come in to talk about doing animated movies, they say ‘It's great, but I am in a booth alone.’”

Smith: “Right, yeah.”

Lauer: “Did you work with any of them?”

Smith: “Only Jack Black.  Jack Black and I worked together for – we probably have 10 hours that we worked together. But for the most part everything is individual in a booth by yourself.”

Lauer: “And when you worked with Jack Black and neither one of you is known as a very serious guy, so do they let you go off the script at all?”

Smith:  “Yeah, you know, that's – that's exactly what – what they desire. They want us to go in there and create the characters. To go in and – and ad lib and improv and come up with things because with animation, the animators need life. They need humanity in order to animate.  So the more that you give them, the more options that you give them, the more that they have to create the animation.”

Lauer: So in other words, they are not coming to you and saying, ‘Here's what we think is going to happen.’ They're saying, ‘You tell us what's going to happen and we will make the animation work ...’”

Smith:  “Right, absolutely.”

Lauer:  “...based on what energy you gave us in the mood.”

Smith:  “That's right.”

Lauer: “People in the movie, I mean, DeNiro, Scorsese, Renee Zellweger, Jack Black, as you mentioned.  I mean, when you think about the types of actors and directors who are doing these movies these days, I mean, it's really kind of like – it's just star studded.

Smith: “You know, the thing that is amazing here.  You'll -- you're sort of realize when you look at the cast, you can sort of tell who has young children.”

Lauer: “Yeah.”

Smith: “As soon as you see one of these casts come together, you're like, ‘Okay, yeah, somebody's kid just turned seven.  Somebody's kid just turned seven.'  That's why they are doing this.”

Lauer:  “And when your kids see you in this, as opposed to seeing you in some of your other films, they think you are a lot cooler because of this?”

Smith: “Well, my daughter, she's three.  She – she struggled with it at the beginning, because they – they – they sent the picture first.  So she's looking at it and she thought that someone had caught a fish that looked like daddy, you know.  So it sort of threw her off a little bit at the beginning, but I took her – walked her through the process.  And tomorrow night – well, tonight will be her fifth time seeing it, so they love it.”

Lauer:  “We should mention that our own Katie Couric has a little cameo. Would you call it a cameo when it's--yeah, there she is – she plays Katie Current.”

Smith:  “Katie Current.”

Lauer:  “Katie Current.”

Smith: “And she is one of the most fabulous fish actresses.”

Lauer: “Try and say that three times fast.”

Smith: “Yes, fabulous fish actresses ever.”

Lauer:  “Right. I know she's very proud of her role. Okay, controversy. How often do you have controversy in an animated movie? Some Italian American groups are concerned that the sharks in this movie are members of the mob. And they say that if we're – if we're playing this for young kids, we are giving them stereotypes of Italian-Americans at a young age. Take it away.”

Smith: “Well, you know, there – there – there are a lot of people that, you know, don't have a lot of time.”

Lauer:  “A lot of things to occupy their time.”

Smith: “You know, a lot of things to occupy their time, you know. But see, I am more concerned about the Negro portrayal of the fish in this film, Matt. To be honest with you, no. How do you – how do you even respond to that, you know?”

Lauer:  “So you've got to have – you've got to have a good sense of humor and take this tongue in cheek.”

Smith: “Yeah. We – we – we premiered the film in Italy, and to – to the biggest premiere that – that there's ever been, in – in Italy.”

Lauer: “No death threats?”

Smith:  “No. Yeah. And it's like people seemed to really respond to it well, but, you know, I'm not Italian.  I'm – I'm, you know, I'm African-American, if you haven't noticed, Matt.”

Lauer:  “Oh, yeah.”

Smith: “But I – I – it’s just – it's a difficult thing. But, you know, that's part of the land we live in.”

Lauer:  “I know you and Jada have been traveling around a lot.”

Smith: “Absolutely.”

Lauer:  “And Jada, by the way, is going to do the voice of an animated character coming up.”

Smith:  “She's going to do ‘Madagascar.’”

Lauer:  “Right, she plays a hippopotamus, I think.”

Smith:  “Yes. She plays a single mother hippopotamus?”

Lauer:  “Good role model, I'm sure. The movie's called ‘Shark Tale.’ Always good to have you here.”

Smith: “Well, thank you, Matt, a pleasure.”