In pursuit of perfection

Meeting Will Smith in person is akin to meeting the characters he’s played on the big screen — he is as funny as detective Mike Lowry from Bad Boys, as much of a ladies man as Alex Hitchens from Hitch and as tall as Dell Spooner in I, Robot.

But his latest big screen venture — The Pursuit of Happyness — is different from the blockbuster fare Smith usually goes for. And for his role as the real-life rags-to-riches millionaire Chris Gardner, Smith has been honoured with an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Though he’s up against the likes of Forest Whitaker — who looks a sure win for the award — Smith gets a chance to demonstrate his versatility. Plus, he’s the best non-citizen ambassador South Africa has in the United States.

In The Pursuit of Happyness you play Chris Gardner, who ends up having to live on the streets with his kid. Have you ever been through anything like that?

I made a lot of money when I was 18 or 19, but then the IRS took a lot of my stuff and I was broke because I kinda forgot to pay my taxes. I was alone, a young teenager by myself, I can’t imagine that happening with a family.

When you’re by yourself you can put a back-pack on and bike across Europe with no money, but when you have a child you’re responsible for, that’s just hell. So now I pay my taxes — early!

It’s not the usual blockbuster fare you do. Did you have to take a pay cut?

When you make a film like this, it’s a little less than half. You know, you try to make it for a good price. There’s an artistic endeavour that is beyond money. Like with Ali, I would pay to make Ali and that’s how I felt about this one. The director, Gabriele Muccino, sees me in the same way (Ali director) Michael Mann did. When they look at me, I’m glass and they can look right through, and they can see when I’m trying to make a move or do a trick or something like that. I would say that these are definitely my two best performances. It all comes down to the relationship with the director.

Whose idea was it to cast your own son, Jaden, as your son in the film?

It was his, actually. I was reading the script one night and he asked me what I was doing. He said: ”Tell me some of the scenes,” and I told him some, and he said: ”I could do that, Daddy.”

How was working with a seven-year-old on set, even if he was your own?

Fortunately, Jada handled all of the parenting during the movie. She was there every day while we were shooting, so any issues that came up, Jada dealt with. So I could stay focused on being Chris Gardner.

Jaden actually ended up teaching me. Just watching him perform, he has this wonderful natural ability. And I had become mechanical, like I have tricks and I have things that I do that win. And he turned to me one day on the set and he laughed and I said: ”What are you laughing at.” He said: ”You just do the same thing every take, Daddy.”

I started watching him, and he doesn’t care about continuity, that the sun is going down or the production needs to move, or anything. He’s living in the moment every single time and I really developed that style based on watching him.

When Chris heard you’d be playing him, he had some reservations at first. Did you have any?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, anytime you’re going to play someone’s life, it’s not a movie for that family, it’s not some cool Hollywood story that you get a great name and do press, that kind of thing. It’s their life, you know, it’s their legacy, and once you put it out, you can never take it back. That’s something that I don’t take lightly. It’s easier to do your stuff, but when someone else trusts you intrinsically with their name and their child’s name and their experiences, that’s a huge responsibility.

You have quite strong ties to South Africa. What is it about the country that you like so much?

Yeah, we actually found a house in South Africa, and then 9/11 happened and we were, like, being Americans, it was a time to be home. But it’s time to visit Madiba soon …

I just love South Africa. I had such a beautiful experience there and I wanted to share that with my kids. There’s a magic there that I wanted my family to experience.

And what was it like being able to announce Tsotsi as the 2006 Oscar winner for best foreign language film?

That was great, that was beautiful, that was perfection there … to be able to announce that. Gavin Hood was really excited. Actually, we have a project we’re looking at to potentially do together. I think he’s great. I think he’s a good guy, too.

What makes you happy?

Working on this with my son was huge for me. That’s been the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. To be able to wake up every day and go to work with my son, that makes me happy.

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