Test of Will

Hollywood's most bankable action star takes on a psychological drama - just because he can

By Rebecca DiLiberto
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Will Smith isn't as confident as you'd think.

After telling Barbara Walters recently he believed he could be president, Smith admitted that sometimes his bravado is just a front. "I learned something doing Muhammad Ali," he said in an interview, promoting his movie "Seven Pounds," which opens today.

"I realized that the reason he always said he was the greatest was because he didn't think he was the greatest, right? He actually felt bad about himself. You know, he wanted to feel like he was attractive but the world told him that he wasn't so he started shouting that he was! Louder than anybody else. And it's actually not from pure confidence, it's from a lack of confidence, right?"

In a Beverly Hills hotel suite, Smith lacked anything but confidence. His easy carriage and instantly familiar conversation style made him seem more like an old friend than the world's most bankable movie star. He wore a blue cashmere sweater and button-down combo more suited to Sunday dinner with the in-laws than a press blitz, and when he was hungry, he nibbled off a small plate haphazardly piled with guacamole and chips from the communal buffet, not a carb-free superplatter ordered especially for him from room service.

"Seven Pounds" is a psychological melodrama directed by Gabriele Muccino, who also directed "The Pursuit of Happyness," the 2006 film that garnered Smith an Oscar nomination. In "Seven Pounds," Smith plays Ben, a depressed IRS agent with an inflated sense of moral responsibility and a hair shirt of self-hatred. The film charts his macabre and emotional voyage of self-discovery, rendering Smith almost unrecognizable via slouchy posture, nervous countenance, and ill-fitting suit. It is the sort of movie an action star signs on to in order to prove he can act.

Not that Smith has anything to prove. "Will has everything," said Muccino in a separate interview. "He just has to be pushed. He has to be shaken up, and the rest comes by itself."

After the success of "Happyness," "the studio kind of trusted us," Muccino said. For their "Seven Pounds" collaboration, "we were left in total freedom, like in a little world. . . . On this project, we felt we had to go for it. No hitting the brakes, no shortcuts, just go for it and see what happens," he said.

Smith described "Seven Pounds" as "the only film I've taken purely as an artistic endeavor of self-exploration."

"The choice was strictly about, I want to explore this area and share what I find with the world," he said.

In discussing the film, Smith repeatedly brought up the subject of trauma, and he was eager to connect his own experiences with those of his character. "I realized I have a block on traumatic events in my life . . . Like, I don't feel them," he said, his smile intense and a little uncomfortable. "Right, like my grandmother died, my favorite person ever, and I never cried, right? There's almost sort of a blank spot in my memory."

Smith's character uses his own trauma as the focus of his life rather than sublimating it. Ben couldn't be more different from Smith. But Smith had no problem slipping into Ben's skin, admiring the character's drive to positively affect - OK, engineer - the fates of others.

"I viewed Ben as a genius when I started this movie. . . . He's God's engineer! And like, midway through the movie I remember I was sitting there one day, and I looked over at Gabriele, and I said, 'Ben is crazy!' He said, 'Certifiable.' "

Laughing, Smith said, "He had tricked me to be in it - I mean, as an actor, that's what you want to be! But I was like, oh my God, I had the revelation of how ridiculous and impossible it is to un-ring a bell . . . but the way that loss and rebirth work, the way that death and rebirth work, is it's not backward to birth, it's forward to new birth. You have to go through death to get to the new birth . . . you can't go backward from winter back around to spring, you gotta go through the winter.

"Whether you lost your job, your car, your house, no matter what . . . the way that nature works is, the spring is coming! It's never been any other way."

After finding what he called the "romantic" view of Ben, Smith said he felt he was able to inhabit him multi-dimensionally. Smith spoke with people who had been affected by traumas related to what Ben was going through. Smith described the process of getting comfortable in a character's skin through research as "kind of like a sneeze. So imagine a sneeze that won't come, right? And that feeling - you're trying to get it, you're trying to get it - that's what research is like. You're trying to understand the character . . . And then you got it, and then you feel it, and you understand it, and it washes over you."

Smith's approach to nailing a character - hard work, persistence and belief - is pretty much the same as his approach to achieving his personal goals.

"Anything that I desire, anything that I want, I say it out loud and I say it as confidently as possible. And I don't allow myself to embrace whatever the quote-unquote 'reality' is. Who cares what the reality is? Just say it! And that's what I tell my kids all the time. Just say it! If you were going to get into a ring, and you're gonna fight Mike Tyson, don't be talking about how you can't win, even if you can't, just say you're gonna kick his [expletive]!"

With this, Smith exploded into laughter. Even if he's not really sure he could be the president, he knows he could certainly play him.

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