Actor-musician Will Smith

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Two-time Oscar-nominated actor says people who aren’t getting what they want in the entertainment business are being out-hustled.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Will Smith back to this program. The two-time Oscar nominee is one of the most popular and sought-after actors working in film today. Earlier this year “Newsweek” named him the most powerful actor in Hollywood.

Will Smith: Woo!

Tavis: That’s a long way from Overbrook.

Smith: Woo! (Laughter)

Tavis: Long way from west Philly.

Smith: Yeah.

Tavis: His latest project is called “I Am Legend.” The movie opens around the country this weekend, as if you didn’t know. Here now, some scenes from “I Am Legend.”


Tavis: Of course, I love you and I love your work, but then I saw the trailer – I couldn’t wait to see it. But I did say to myself, “Here come this Negro saving the world again.” (Laughter)

Smith: Yeah, no, I missed this time. I missed this time. Robert Neville was trying to save the world, but he was called in to save the world, but he missed and failed miserably.

Tavis: First of all, good to see you man.

Smith: You too, baby.

Tavis: This is a classic text, “I Am Legend.” So you’re – third, third time.

Smith: Third time, yup, yup, absolutely.

Tavis: It was made into a film. Why this script?

Smith: Yeah, I just – for 10 years, I’ve been looking at this script and I just loved the concept. There’s something mythological about the idea, it’s like in that collective unconscious dream space, this 4-year-old kid’s wish. I just wish everybody was gone and I was here by myself, you know what I mean? And it’s like you be on the freeway sometimes, like, damn, I just wish I was here by myself. (Laughter)

And then it’s like there’s an idea in that about the loneliness and the yin and yang of wanting to be by yourself and wanting to have your space and wanting to do what you want, but then what happens when you get that? You be careful what you wish for. And so I just felt like there’s just beautiful mythological elements to that whole concept that I wanted to explore.

Tavis: There is something, obviously – let me say, I don’t want to presume – I assume, I presume that there is something about sci-fi –

Smith: What’s the difference between presuming and assuming?

Tavis: Well, they’re two different words, so they do mean different things.

Smith: They mean something different, like so pre- is if you do –

Tavis: Presume suggests that there is some rationale for why you’re making the assumption.

Smith: Ooh.

Tavis: When you just assuming, you’re just out there. (Laughter)

Smith: You ain’t –

Tavis: I just assume they (unintelligible). Anyway, I digressed on that point. What do you prefer, assume or presume?

Smith: I just whatever one sound best near my shoes, man. (Laughter) Whatever one sound best near my shoes.

Tavis: What kind of fabric is that, by the way? What kind of fabric – it’s nice.

Smith: It used to be something. Yeah, that’s a nice –

Tavis: Yeah, that’s nice, whatever it is. (Laughter) I assume, I presume, looking at the kind of stuff you’ve done, that there’s something about sci-fi that turns you on. Have you always been that way since you were a kid?

Smith: Sitting in the movie theater watching “Star Wars,” I’ve never had an experience with any form of entertainment that was like that. It was almost spiritual. I couldn’t believe that someone’s mind created that. And, right, it felt like George Lucas had a piano that was playing my emotions, and he could go ahead and do whatever he wanted and make me lean forward if he wanted, or he could make me go oh, or he could make me hide my face.

Like that it’s so connected to something about creativity and something about human connection and being I never had met him, didn’t see him, and he created something in his house that sparked an action thousands of miles away in a little kid that he didn’t even know, right?

So there’s something about science fiction, there’s something about transporting to that – what Joseph Campbell would call the special world. There’s something about going into that special world, into that other place, that just speaks to my heart. Like, just the possibilities. To me, it’s science fiction for me to do the things I’ve been blessed to do in this industry. Little Black kid from west Philadelphia doing a premiere in Mumbai, India, you know what I mean? Like, that’s science fiction. (Laughter)

Tavis: But one of the things that I so regard and respect about your work, and I think I’ve told you this before, where your sci-fi work is concerned, I don’t know if you even process it this way, but at least when you, when Jada or Fish or somebody in the “Matrix” or Dr. West or whoever, there’s something cool for me about seeing some Black folk in the future.

Smith: I know, right?

Tavis: You know what I’m saying?

Smith: Absolutely.

Tavis: I don’t know if you process it that way when you do this stuff, but that is not always the case. And back to Lucas, Lucas had some brothers. Billy Dee Williams, he had some brothers in the future. Everybody – “Star Trek” had that. But not everybody does. I think that’s cool, though.

Smith: To me, I don’t have another option. (Laughter)

Tavis: You gonna be around.

Smith: Yeah. I generally don’t process it in those terms during the creative processes. I try to connect to human emotion. I’m always looking for something primal, something really base that is beyond language, that people understand beyond language. Even with the “Pursuit of Happyness,” Black, White, other, whatever, you understand what it means to not be able to feed your child.

Like there’s no language barrier, there’s no emotion barrier. When you connect to a primal idea – life, death, hunger, hope, fear – any of those primal ideas are going to translate, and I think that’s the thing that I’ve always been attracted to in my work.

Tavis: Speaking of translating, and I take at face value what you’ve just said, and yet in the back of my mind I’m trying to keep track of what I read all the time about how people like you end up becoming the most powerful person in Hollywood. You have box office not just domestically but internationally, and beyond connecting to those primal issues that you raised a moment ago, you have to star in projects that have a life outside of the United States of America. And what makes you –

Smith: Well, I would say you have to create the life outside the United States of America for your project.

Tavis: I hear the difference, I hear the difference. But doesn’t that start, though, with a script that is universal?

Smith: Denzel said to me one time, he said, “From the specific comes the universal.”

Tavis: From the specific comes the universal.

Smith: Comes the universal. So you be as truthful as you can to a specific situation, and it will become universal. “Pursuit of Happyness,” again, a Black dude in San Francisco, homeless, with his child. That’s very specific. But from being true to the specifics of that, it becomes universal. The bigger problem is that no one even makes the attempt, right?

I talk to a lot of actors and you can look – there are actors that have huge U.S. box office that you don’t view as movie stars. The studio doesn’t create that forum for you if you can’t go get it from Mexico City, if you can’t go get it all throughout South America. There’s six continents that you have to be able to sell a movie on to be a movie star. And I saw “March of the Penguins,” so I think I’m going to try to go for that seventh continent. (Laughter)

Tavis: And if anybody can make it happen, Willie can. Big Will. Knowing you as I do to the extent that I do and the times we’ve interviewed and talked over the years and hung out a little bit, you strike me, more than most people who I meet in this industry and get a chance to talk to on this show or the radio show, as having completely, to the extent you can, take control over your career, the direction of it, the choices that you make.

And I’m not dissing managers or agents and all that, but I’m saying there’s something about you that just comes across that you decided some time ago to really be the conductor of this career. (Unintelligible?)

Smith: 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. If you look at somebody like 50 Cent, ain’t nobody telling 50 what to do and how to do what he does. He has a vision of who he wants to be, and he instructs everybody along those lines.

You just look through history. Michael Jackson, anyone who has been successful to the level that little kids are looking up, it’s because they have a vision. And also, those people all have a right hand. Mine is JL – James Lassiter. You don’t do it by yourself, but you have to be the energy. You have to create something in a way that has direction, that it has vision, and then your partner will take it and figure out whatever their expertise is.

For example, JL, “I Am Legend” was really the first movie that I chose, right? It’s always been JL, right? So JL, and we sit down and we go through it and we talk, we talk, we talk, we talk. And then I see it or I don’t, but the “Pursuit of Happyness,” I was terrified and wasn’t going to make “Pursuit of Happyness.” And that was JL saying, “Dude, you’re making this movie, period.”

Tavis: And $120 million later, I know you’re glad you did.

Smith: Oh, that’s just domestic, Tavis. (Laughter) You might as well say the whole number. You gonna throw numbers out, you might as well just say the whole number. That’s domestic.

Tavis: I hope JL got a nice Christmas gift for making that choice. (Laughter)

Smith: Golly, yeah. It’s 160 domestic. (Laughter)

Tavis: You mentioned JL, a long-time friend of yours, a partner of yours, which takes me all the way back to west Philly and back to where we referenced a couple of times. Your company, we all know, Overbrook Entertainment. Named after?

Smith: My high school.

Tavis: Your high school, Overbrook, which has produced some legends, speaking of legends.

Smith: Yup. Wilt Chamberlain.

Tavis: Wilt Chamberlain, Will Smith – I want to come back to that legend thing in just a second. But I’m going back to Philly right quick because we’re on in Philly, of course, and my heart has really been – I’ve been there a few times lately. My heart is just burdened by what’s happening in Philly, particularly around African American men.

Smith: Yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: And the issue of crime. The gun issue in Philly is just – the homicide, the deaths in your home town are so out of control. I know you’re passionate about that. Talk to me about – you survived it, obviously; you got out of it. But what’s happening in Philly right now?

Smith: It’s really different. It’s funny, when we went on the road in, like, ’88, ’89 was the first time we started traveling around the country, and Philly was known as a fist-fight city. Joe Frasier was from Philly.

Tavis: Rocky.

Smith: Rocky. We got the Rocky statue on the steps. Like, Philly was a fist-fight town. And something has happened in the last couple years, and I don’t even really have a grip on it. I’ve been working with my man, Charlie Mac, he moved back to Philly and he’s been working with the mayor and with the chief of police to just try to get a sense of what is happening, what is different with these kids today.

Because it wasn’t like that when I was coming up. And you always hate to be the old guy sitting on TV saying that, but it really was different. Something has happened. There’s no more poverty, there’s no less basketball courts or police athletic leagues. All of those things are still in place, but for some reason something has happened in the mind of the young kids in Philly, and fortunately there’s smarter people than me working on it.

But it’s a real issue, and we just keep beating on it and keep trying to figure out how to help. Charlie Mac just had the 10,000 men.

Tavis: Yeah, big march.

Smith: Yeah, call to action in Philly. That went over really well, it’s huge. Yeah, 10,000 men come down and integrate with the chief of police, and they’re men that are just going to go and stand on corners and shut down drug dealers. Like, you’re not selling drugs out here. And the mobilization of the community is really the only way to even try to get a handle on that, so I’m proud of my man. Charlie Mac, shout-out.

Tavis: Yeah. The flip side – and I don’t want to be flippant about it. We obviously can’t solve the problem, as you mentioned, in a two-minute conversation about it. But the flip side to the drama that these young men in Philadelphia are facing now is that you got out and obviously have done remarkably well, domestically and internationally.

And I must tell you, when I saw the – and this isn’t kissing up to you, I just want to be honest about this – when I first saw the trailer for “I Am Legend,” the first thought I had, as I said to you early, was here come Will again, trying to save the world. But the second thought I had was, as the trailer kept popping up, “I Am Legend,” “I Am Legend,” “I Am Legend,” I thought about you, and that you were on this path to becoming a legend yourself in this business.

So when I see Will Smith saying, “I Am Legend,” I’m thinking, this is Will Smith. I am legend. You are really becoming an iconic figure. What do you make of that?

Smith: It’s what my grandmother told me I had to do. I was sitting with Tyrese a couple weeks ago, just coming off “The Transformers” with him, just about the business and just really, he and I get on the same wavelength so I could be of some assistance, if I can. And there’s a concept that I don’t want to be an icon. I want to be an idea. I want to represent an idea.

I want to represent possibilities. I want to represent magic, right, that you’re in a universe, and two plus two equals four. Two plus two only equals four if you accept that two plus two equals four. Two plus two is going to be what I want it to be. And there’s a redemptive power that making a choice has, rather than feeling like you’re at effect to all the things that are happening.

Make a choice. Like you just decide what it’s going to be, who you’re going to be, how you’re going to do it. Just decide, and then from that point, the universe is going to get out your way. It’s water; it wants to move and go around stuff. So for me, I want to represent possibilities. I want to represent the idea that you really can make what you want.

One of my favorite books is “The Alchemist,” Paulo Coelho, and I just believe that. I believe that I can create whatever I want to create. If I can put my head on it right, study it, learn the patterns, and – it’s hard to put into words, it’s real metaphysical, esoteric nonsense, but I feel very strongly that we are who we choose to be.

Tavis: First of all, that’s not mumbo-jumbo. It makes sense, number one. Number two, I think sales of “The Alchemist” just went up. (Laughter) Whatever that book is, sales just went up on right about now. If that happens, I’m going to call you and say, “Will, I wasn’t lying. It really went up.”

Smith: No, it’s great. It’s a quick read, too.

Tavis: If you can spell “Alchemist.” (Laughter) That’s a good Scrabble word, alchemist, yeah.

Smith: No, but the alchemist – like I consider myself an alchemist. An alchemist is basically a mystical chemist, right? And one of the great feats that alchemists used to do is they would take lead – just take a chunk of lead – and they could turn lead into gold, right? So the symbolism –

Tavis: That sounds like a good hustle. (Laughter) When I leave here, get me some lead.

Smith: I’m gonna get me some lead.

Tavis: Exactly.

Smith: But I so connected to symbolically being able to turn lead into gold. My grandmother used to say, “Life give you a lemon, you go ahead and make lemonade.” To me, that’s alchemy; that’s the same concept behind “The Alchemist.”

Tavis: I’m with you on the alchemy part. The last question I think I have time to ask, maybe the last question, is whether or not you –

Smith: Now who gonna make you leave? This your place.

Tavis: Well if you say I gotta leave, I gotta leave. (Laughter) Because you are the most powerful man in Hollywood. If you say I gotta go, I gotta. If you don’t say I gotta go, then I can stay, I guess.

The one part I am curious about, though, is whether or not you’re right about the fact, respectfully, that Will Smith represents possibility, and here’s what I mean by that. A lot of these folk around town, let’s be honest about it, can’t hold the names of three or four Black folk in their head at the same time. Ain’t but a couple of y’all who they interested in at any one point in time.

Smith: Absolutely.

Tavis: Ain’t 55 Negros all making blockbuster movies at one time. (Laughter)

Smith: Right.

Tavis: You get selected, you get selected, whatever, and this is who we working with for the next couple years. You’ve broken through that, obviously, but I raise that only because whether or not it really does represent –

Smith: Except I don’t like the idea of selected. I don’t think I was selected.

Tavis: Okay.

Smith: I demanded my position.

Tavis: I respect that. I respect that. Somebody has to choose to work with you, though. If they decided to shut you out, what would you do? If nobody’s distributing and nobody’s – so I get your point. You’re talent is awesome.

Smith: Then we’ll start a distributor, we’ll – (laughter) you know what I mean? Listen.

Tavis: All right.

Smith: Listen.

Tavis: Here’s the question I’m getting to.

Smith: You talk to the Van Peebles; they’ll tell you how to do it. Listen.

Tavis: You right about that.

Smith: Melvin and Mario, they know how to do it.

Tavis: The question I’m really getting to is whether or not there is something special and unique about you that everybody can’t emulate.

Smith: I have this discussion with friends of mine all the time. The only thing that I can see – and you can never really look at yourself – the only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill, right? I will run.

Tavis: You will not be out-worked.

Smith: I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, right, there’s two things. You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?

So let’s go back to the question about what if people block me out. It’s going to be two options. I’m going to get back in, or I’m going to be dead, right? It’s, like, you’re not going to out-work me. It’s such a simple, basic concept. It’s the guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the guy that just gets that loose ball. Oh, and he got that – oh, he got that, oh, okay, he got two. He got – ooh, god, he’s a hustler, he grabbed that one.

That was going to be out of bounds, but he saved it. Back in. It’s like the commodity that I see the majority of people who aren’t getting the places they want or aren’t achieving the things that they want in this business is strictly based on hustle. It’s strictly based on being out-worked; it’s strictly based on missing crucial opportunities.

I say all the time if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.

Tavis: Get ready, I’m with you. That’s why he is fast becoming a legend, and whether he likes it or not, an icon and an idea, and that is why I will make a bold prediction here: “I Am Legend” is going to make some money this weekend. (Laughter)

Smith: I hope so.

Tavis: Domestically and internationally. I got it right now. Will Smith, good to see you, man.

Smith: Thank you, baby. Good seeing you.

Tavis: Appreciate you, I love you much. “I Am Legend,” starring Will Smith, go check it out. You don’t need me to tell you that, though.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm