In 1997 Will Smith starred in Men in Black, his second straight special-effects-laden science-fiction movie. Some people thought it was strange that Smith was concentrating his acting on a film genre that had rarely featured African Americans. But Smith was simply following a plan he had worked out with James Lassiter, his agent and business partner, to become one of the world's biggest movie stars. Smith explains why he and Lassiter decided he should appear in science-fiction films:
We got the [list of the] top ten movies of all time, and we realized that ten out of ten were special effects movies. Nine out of ten were special effects movies with creatures. And eight out of ten were special effects movies with creatures and a love story. So Independence Day and Men In Black were really no-brainers.57
Men in Black featured some of the wildest special effects and weirdest and funniest aliens to ever explode—literally, regarding the horrible insectlike monster that Smith destroys at the end of the movie—on the big screen. Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play the black-suited, sunglass-wearing government agents of the film's title. Their job is to keep track of and police a wide variety of aliens who are living on Earth even though humans do not know the strange creatures are there. The film earned $250 million and became a cult classic. More importantly for Smith, the movie reaffirmed his status as one of the world's most popular movie stars.
Independence Day and Men in Black both earned more than $50 million when they were released during the Fourth of July weekend. Movie studios like to release movies during that summer holiday because so many people are on vacation and can go see them. However, a movie has to be really good to succeed because so many films open for that big weekend. Ever since Smith had the two blockbuster opening weekends, he has liked to brag that he owns that holiday: “There's a piece of me that likes to say ‘July 4 is my day, I dare you to stick another movie there.’ It's just my job to save the world every summer.”58
Smith made that comment in 1999 when Wild Wild West was released on the holiday weekend. The remake of the popular television western did not fare as well as his other movies, taking in only $27 million the weekend it was released. But Smith rebounded in 2002 with Men in Black II and in 2004 with I, Robot, which both topped $52 million. And in 2007 Smith proved he was not just a summer hero at the box office. When I Am Legend opened on December 14, it earned $77 million to set a weekend record for a non-Christmas film released in December.
That film was further proof of Smith's status as the world's number one box-office star. The film helped him tie Tom Cruise and
Tom Hanks as the only three actors in the history of film to have seven consecutive movies that made more than $100 million. But in July 2008, Smith grabbed the record for himself with Hancock. The star who rules the Fourth of July helped the movie about the mixed-up superhero sell $66 million worth of tickets in its opening weekend. A few days later Hancock soared past the $100 million mark to give Smith eight such blockbuster movies in a row.
Even before Hancock was released on July 2, 2008, movies that Smith starred in had sold nearly $5 billion worth of tickets worldwide. Hancock is another science-fiction epic with spectacular special effects that showcase flying, super strength, and other superpowers that Smith's character possesses. Hancock, however, also has super flaws: He is lonely, depressed, and drinks too much. And people hate Hancock because he often damages property or even hurts innocent bystanders with the stumbling way in which he captures criminals or averts disaster.
In one memorable scene in the movie, Hancock removes a dead whale from a beach by throwing it into the sea. His heroic feat is nullified by the destruction of a boat on which the whale lands. Smith loved the strange take on a superhero who becomes a menace to the people he is supposed to be protecting: “Hancock's a horrible superhero! It's one of the most brilliantly bizarre scripts I've ever read. It's actually the dark comedy reality version of what it would be like to be a superhero.”59
Playing a character who is hated and feared was a switch for Smith, who usually portrays heroic figures. In his first two science-fiction films, Smith saves the planet from angry aliens; in I, Robot he fights renegade robots who want to destroy humans; and in I Am Legend he is a military scientist trying to save the world's last remaining humans from a virus that has killed almost everyone or turned them into mutant monsters. However, two of Smith's favorite roles were biographies of black men who had achieved greatness—Muhammad Ali and Christopher Gardner.
Ali, which was released in 2001, tells the story of the heavyweight boxing champion who for decades was the world's most famous athlete. Ali was born Cassius Clay, but he changed his name when he converted to Islam. He was controversial for becoming a Muslim as well as for refusing to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. Smith had to train hard physically for the role to strengthen his body, learn to box, and learn Ali's speech patterns and mannerisms.
In an interview in Japan before the film was released, Smith said he was honored to play Ali, who had been one of his childhood heroes. Smith said Ali was a great man who had opposed racism and dared to stand up for his beliefs. “Muhammad Ali,” said Smith, “is one of the most famous people in the world. Muhammad Ali is a fighter that made his name in a boxing ring but created his spirit outside of the boxing ring. He is a spiritual genius.”60
In 2006 Smith starred in The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of how Gardner goes from being a homeless man living on the street with his son to becoming a rich investment broker. Gardner is able to turn his life around because he believes that he can realize his dream of having a good job if he works hard enough to make that dream come true. Smith has always had that same belief about obtaining the goals he sets for himself. After Smith saw a television show that explained Gardner's life story, he became determined to play him in a movie: “From the moment I saw the 20/20 piece, I saw this story as the embodiment of the American Dream. The concept this country is based on is the hope that any person, armed with will and determination, can create their life, can create their situation—from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.”61
Will Smith had to prepare harder for Ali than perhaps any film he has ever made. Although Smith is physically fit because he is a runner, he had to gain 30 pounds (14kg) of muscle during fourteen months of intensive training to look convincing as the legendary boxer. In this excerpt from a story in Essence magazine, Smith explains what he went through to portray Ali:
Mostly research and study. There was a good seven months that I lived everyday as Muhammad Ali. Director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) broke down training into a three-tiered syllabus. The first tier was physical, the second the mental and emotional space of Muhammad Ali and the third was spiritual training by Islamic teachers. Generally, I walked around at about 195 pounds [before training for the movie], and I peaked at about 223. We traced why his voice sounds that way (in the mental and emotional sense) back to Baptist preachers who he had seen growing up. That's why he put certain emphasis on words—he would ride up and down and then get dramatic. We found three or four Baptist preachers and I studied the inflection in their voices.
Quoted in Kym Allison Backer, “The Big Will,” Essence, December 6, 2001. www.essence.com/essence/themix/entertainment/0,16109,266807,00.
Smith loved the movie because of the strong, positive message contained in Gardner's life story. But Smith also loved it for another very special reason—his son Jaden starred in the movie with him.
One reason why The Pursuit of Happyness is so heartwarming and touching is because the real-life love that exists between father and son is evident in all their scenes. Jaden Christopher Syre Smith was born on July 8, 1998. Jaden—who is named after his mother, Jada Pinkett Smith—was only seven years old when he made the movie with his dad. Despite his youth, Jaden was widely praised for his acting because he was able to naturally express his emotions in various scenes, including those in which he had to cry. Jaden says he succeeded because he took some advice from his father, who told him to just try to express the emotions he felt while acting out various scenes in the movie: “You have to just be in the moment,” Jaden says. “My dad told me to do that.”62
Jaden is not the only child star in the Smith family. Willow Camille Reign Smith was born on October 31, 2000. She appeared briefly in her dad's blockbuster film I Am Legend, and in 2008 she costarred in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Like her brother, Willow seems to possess a natural talent for acting. “It's really fun,” Willow has said of making a movie. “Because on the set, the directors tell you something and you can do it a whole different way. And they will still like it.”63Kit Kittredge, however, wound up putting her in competition with her father because that movie and Hancock both opened on the same day, July 2. When Willow was asked which movie would do better, she showed the confidence that has helped make her dad a success by saying her film would attract more people.
Trey has also been involved in entertainment. He served as Access Hollywood's special correspondent for events such as Nickelodeon's Kids Choice Awards and the premiere of The Pursuit of Happyness. Trey, who lives with his father, also had a guest role in the television show All of Us.
Although some parents would hesitate to have their children involved in show business at such a young age, the Smiths are happy that their children are following in their parents' career path. “It would be best for us,” says Jada. “It's what we know.”64 Jada revisited her acting career when she costarred with Will in Ali; in the film, she plays the part of the boxer's first wife.
Jada curtailed her professional life for several years after her children were born, but in 2008 she wrote and directed The Human Contract, a movie about a businessman bearing a deep, dark secret. In 2008 Jada also provided the voice for one of the animated characters in Madagascar 2: The Crate Escape. She had also performed in the first movie in that series.
A Demanding Father
Will Smith believes a major reason why he has been so successful is because his parents made him feel like he was contributing to the family by making him do chores around the house, like rebuilding a brick wall one summer. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are trying to instill those same feelings in their children, Jaden and Willow, by allowing them to work in films. Smith explained what he expects of his kids in an interview in 2007:
In our family we believe successful relationships are based on exchange; that if you are part of a group you have to contribute. They can't just eat for free. There's no feeling like looking in the eyes of a child that knows they're a valuable member of the family. Yes, there are some tough decisions that have to be made, they have to be away from their friends sometimes, but the selfesteem that's created when they know they've done something, added something to the family I wouldn't give it up for anything.
Quoted in Alison Rowat, “A Legend Living Life on His Terms. He's One of Hollywood's Most Powerful Actors. But, Will Smith Tells, He's Not Ready to Trade Movies for Politics … Yet,” Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), December 26, 2007, p. 14.
Will Smith's Many Roles
In most movies Will Smith has made he has played a hero, from the alien-bashing Captain Steve Hiller in Independence Day to Agent Jay in two Men in Black films. Even Hancock is a hero, though a slightly tarnished one. But Smith has also portrayed a wide range of characters in other films, from Manny, the wheelchair-bound homeless teen in his film debut in Where the Day Takes You (1992); to Oscar, a jive-talking fish in the animated film Shark Tale (2004). Smith told one reporter that he enjoyed making Shark Tale because he felt he had so much freedom by doing just the voice for the cartoon fish while not having to appear on screen physically. Smith loves to play golf, and in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) he played the title character, a mystical caddy who helps a golfer regain the greatness he once had as a player. Some reviewers claimed Bagger Vance symbolically represented God, which would be his most heroic part ever. And in Hitch, Smith played Alex Hitchens, an expert in helping other people find dates who has trouble himself finding someone to love.
Despite the acting accomplishments of his wife and children, Smith is still the biggest star in his family. In fact, in 2007 Newsweek magazine claimed that his box-office appeal had made him the most powerful actor in the world. Smith shrugs off that prestigious title, but he claims that any success he has had is due to hard work and not raw talent. He once told a reporter, “I've never viewed myself as particularly talented. I've viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. Where I excel is with [a] ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy's sleeping, I'm working. While the other guy's eating, I'm working.”65
That fierce work ethic has led Smith to continue to drive himself in other areas of entertainment. He has not only continued rapping while making one hit movie after another, but he also oversees a company that creates television shows, movies, and record albums.
When Smith started being successful in movies, he was often asked whether he preferred making films or singing rap. “Um … I enjoy the one that pays the bills!”66 he responded jokingly. Luckily for Smith, both endeavors pay the bills. In fact, rapping and movie making combine to make him even more successful in both types of entertainment.
Men in Black not only established Smith as a box-office champion but also helped him ease back into rap. Smith's recording career had sagged while he had devoted most of his time to making movies. But when Smith sang the title song for Men in Black, it became a big hit and won him his third Grammy. He also decided to record a rap album on his own without his old music partner, Jeffrey Townes. Called Big Willie Style, it featured the hit single “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” The tune won Smith his fourth Grammy Award for top rap single. The song was so popular that millions of people began to use the term jiggy in their everyday speech. This is how Smith defined that catchy word for millions of people who were not quite sure what it meant:
Jiggy is the next level beyond cool. Jiggy is when you're cool times 10, like in the 50s, the Fonz [from the Happy Days television show] woulda been Jiggy. Some people are cool, some people are kinda hot. Some people are kinda sexy. Some people mix all that in one. Not many people can reach that plateau that we call Jiggy-ness.67
Not many people can work successfully at the same time in as many entertainment areas as Smith can. In addition to rapping once in a while, sometimes with Townes and sometimes by himself, in the late 1990s Smith helped cofound Overbrook Entertainment with James Lassiter. Their company, based in Beverly Hills, California, has produced soundtracks for Wild Wild West and Men in Black II and has been involved in some of Smith's biggest movies, from Ali to Hancock as well as Jada's The Human Contract.
Overbrook—which is named after the high school in West Philadelphia that both Smith and Lassiter attended—also created All of Us, a television series about African American families who raise their children after divorces; the series ran for four seasons. Will and Jada worked together to create the show, which paralleled their own life—Will's son Trey from his first marriage is a part of their family. Although most of Overbrook's clients in 2008 were members of the Smith family, there were several singers, including the heavy-metal band Wicked Wisdom.
The main reason that Smith started Overbrook is because he believes deeply in managing his own career. In 2007 he was being interviewed on television when Tavis Smiley, the host of the show, asked Smith if he had made a conscious decision to “really be the conductor of this career.” This is how Smith answered him: “Absolutely. I think that—and for artists out there, it's hugely important. You've got to run your career. What happens is a lot of times artists have this talent and they're just looking for somebody to take it and do something with it. And you have to be the creative force.”68