Published on December 15, 2007
n Lisnaree Vichitsorasatra
Blame it on Will Smith's growing brood of kids. He's shedding his own juvenile humour and getting serious. He's into storytelling now.
"I, Robot" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" marked the beginning of the American film star's loss of youthful innocence. The wit that elevated "Men in Black" is now playing second fiddle to serious moviemaking.
He's a producer himself now, too, with Overbrook Entertainment, and with his lead role in the new "I Am Legend" - a remake of 1971's "The Omega Man" with Charlton Heston - the Fresh Prince is getting dark.
"I'm connecting more to the things that make people enjoy stories, and it tends to be more dramatic-leaning than action or comedy or any of the other genres," Smith said at a Hong Kong press conference last week.
Adapted from Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name, "I Am Legend" deals with a scientist named Robert Neville stranded on Manhattan as the apparently sole survivor after a virus that he helped create wipes out humanity.
Producer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman crafted the script as a character-piece that relies heavily on Smith's acting.
"The movie," added director Francis Lawrence, "is about hope, the struggle in the face of so much loss and trauma. The hope is represented in his journey. We didn't use any tricks in terms of light and colour."
There are several heart-wrenching scenes. As Neville, Smith's only companion is a dog called Sam. The dialogue between them in an otherwise nearly silent film is filled with warmth, making Neville's overwhelming loneliness all the more acute.
Sam gave Smith the first of several links to Neville.
"I had a dog when I was little and she got hit by a car," he said. "My heart was broken, and I never connected to another dog again until I made this movie."
Abbey, the German shepherd that "plays" Sam, is "so smart", he said. "I fell in love with her and I begged the trainer to let me have her, but she already had a happy family so she had to go home."
There's more emotional stretching in scenes with mannequins that Neville sets up in a bid to maintain his sanity. Nevertheless, Neville drifts toward madness, while Smith had to do everything he could to appear normal.
"As an actor, the worst thing you can do is 'play' crazy. What makes something crazy is that it's normal." He seized a bottle of water and started talking to it heatedly as if it were another person.
"You take an object and you give it natural human traits."
While shooting some scenes with the mannequins, people took their places off-camera to make it easier for Smith to seem as though he was talking to a real person. Just the same, he does some serious crying over one female mannequin.
His favourite scene, he said, is what he called "the haunted house", when Sam runs into a dark building. It's filled with lurching victims of the virus who have mutated into evil creatures - "dark seekers" was the Harry Potter-like term used at the Hong Kong promotion - and Neville struggles to decide whether to go after his dog.
At one point in the sequence, the screen is completely dark, but "I Am Legend" is all about hope. While Neville searches frantically for a way to kill off the virus before it kills him, he keeps to a strict daily schedule - another way to stay sane - and even plays golf. It's one of Smith's off-screen passions.
"The only person I've ever been around whose job I envy is Tiger Woods," he said. "In a second I'd give up everything to be Tiger Woods. I want to play golf so bad, and I stink. Golf is the only thing that I enjoy as much as my job."
In any story about the last man on earth, the subject of God is bound to come up, and Neville has a go at playing God. Quizzed about the big question in life, Smith plays it safe.
"I absolutely believe there are universal hidden powers. There is something beyond what we know. I was raised in a Christian household. I studied Islam for my role in 'Ali'. My wife and I have looked into Buddhism and Hinduism. We pray and we try to get in touch with whatever that hidden power is, to find the connection."
Will Smith is a production line of movie-heroes, and in life he craves to actually be one. In the meantime he's got lots more celluloid heroics lined up. He also has an ambition to play an Egyptian pharaoh, something that may not be too far from his own self-image.
Getting confessional at one point with a story about a teenage sweetheart who cheated on him, he admitted to always wanting to be best at everything so that people will always stand by him.
"There was this look that my grandmother always gave me when I was growing up," he said, "a look in her eyes that said how much she loved me. I need my wife and the women in my life to look at me like that. I just want the women in my world to think that I am a real king."
The writer gets up close and personal with Will Smith on http://blog.nationmultimedia.com/lisnaree.