Will Smith Talks About “The Pursuit of Happyness”
In this 2006 critically-acclaimed drama, Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a down on his luck father who accepts an unpaid intern position at a prestigious stock brokerage firm in hopes of giving his son a better life. Despite having to spend nights in a homeless shelter with his 5-year-old son (played by Smith’s real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), Chris never falters in his determination to do everything in his power to make sure his son knows how much he’s loved. Based on true events, “The Pursuit of Happyness” (yes, that’s spelled wrong on purpose) is a real rags-to-riches story and one that Smith feels is really the embodiment of the American dream.
On Tackling Chris Gardner’s True Story and Keeping It Real
Smith had to be willing to be unsympathetic as Gardner, and that was a difficult bridge for him to cross as an actor. “I’m at such a different place in my life right now. The opportunity to work with Jaden — It’s really been the series: Michael Mann opened my mind to a completely different way of working and creating, and it’s grown through this process now with Gabriele Muccino. The last little spark coming from Jaden.
I connected with Chris Gardner. We looked in one another’s eyes. I said, “I’m going to learn your story and I’m going to tell your story.” And he said, ‘Just tell the truth.’ I went and found the truth. I have so many roadblocks, emotional roadblocks to the truth of characters because I know what a character needs to do to be likable. My son has just developed me to a space where I’m starting to understand and starting to be more comfortable with the idea that the things that you don’t do well are the things that are really going to help people. It’s new for me and I haven’t completely figured out how to articulate all the things that are in my mind, but I’m excited right now about the connection between the things that I believe and now being able to find a way to illustrate those beliefs in my artistry.”
Will Smith on Chris Gardner’s Struggle
“I’ve been referring to a film called “What the Bleep [Do We Know!?]”. It’s about quantum physics. You’ve heard the old phrase: if a tree falls in the forest, nobody’s there, blah blah blah? The idea is that you have command over what your future, what your situation is. That you internally and with your spirit or however you want to put it, the Tao or Muslim Allah or Jesus — whatever that universal force is that you connect to — you, in sync with that force, have command to will your future. And in “What the Bleep” it talks about the idea that objects exist if you acknowledge they exist. That was something that Chris and I seriously connected on.
In the film, there’s no hint to any racism. That was something specifically that Chris spoke about. He said, ‘Well, sure, there may have been racism but the belief that if you acknowledge it, you give it power over you.’ You can call it arrogance, you call it naiveté. You call it whatever you want, but I truly believe in a situation where you are hoping to create something, it is a much more powerful space to know that you will not be denied. Whatever’s out there, you’re running over it. So we’re not even going to spend [any] time talking about the white man or, ‘They don’t have no spots left in this college so I’m going to apply somewhere.’ We’re not acknowledging [any] of that. ‘I’m going to that college, period.'”
Smith continued, “I’ve always called it naiveté with me that a few years ago I said that I honestly, truly believed that I could be the President of the United States. Now, there were probably political experts that laughed. But put me on a lie detector test right now and I absolutely, positively believe that I could be the President of the United States. I absolutely, positively believe I could fly the space shuttle. Period. And that’s where it starts. Chris Gardner laid down in a bathroom with his only child, seemingly the ultimate parental failure. The next morning, he woke up, he bathed his son in the sink and he went to work. You can’t do that if there’s a possibility this might not work out. You can’t do that. You have got to believe that it’s already a done deal. It’s just a matter of time before you get what you’re designing. To me — Barack Obama called it the audacity of hope. That’s designed into the fiber of this country. This country’s the only place that Chris Gardner could exist. I’m getting excited but to me, that is the essence of the power of this film.”
On the Appeal of This Rags-to-Riches Story
Smith first fell in love with the idea of making a movie based on Gardner’s story after watching Gardner on “20/20”. “When I saw that “20/20” piece, said Smith, “Chris Gardner walks through and retraces the steps. There is a segment where he goes into the actual bathroom that he slept in with his son. I was like, ‘I’m making that movie.’ Then eventually I met with Chris. He was actually writing the book while we were shooting the movie. He would be on the set three, four days a week and every week he’d give me 10 pages, just run me through some of the ideas.
He was extremely helpful all through the process. We would do takes. If something’s not feeling right, I would go away with Chris for an hour, just have him talk me through it. Try to get me mentally into the space of the moment, what he connected to.
He’s extremely thoughtful. He’s a lot like I felt like when I met Nelson Mandela. To have survived the things that he’s survived and still have a big belly laugh. There’s always going to be the scar tissue of traumatic experiences, but he’s so peaceful walking through it. It was an extremely valuable resource to have him there and have him walking me through the scenes and taking me through San Francisco and Oakland.”
On Chris Gardner’s Reaction to “The Pursuit of Happyness”
Smith recalls, “When he watched the movie, I sat behind him when he watched the movie, which is the most gut-wrenching thing you could ever do is make a story about somebody’s life and then sit in the theater with him while they’re watching it. With Chris and with Ali, I’m not doing that anymore. Someone trusted you with their life story. It’s their family. It’s their experiences and it’s not like there’s going to be a second shot at it. It’s one time, and you’ll find that most people don’t even want to put the stuff out. It’s hard enough for them to even talk about it, let alone hand it to somebody to do what they want to do with it on the screen.
They have to love it. It’s a complete failure if the movie makes X amount of 100s of millions of dollars and awards and all of that, and Chris doesn’t like it, it’s a failure. He turned around after the film. I’m sitting there and my heart is jumping and he looked and he said, ‘I can’t even talk to you right now.’ He got up and walked out. I was like, ‘Well, what the hell does that mean?’ But then we really went outside and he was crying. He just thanked me for the service to his family and he’s forever indebted for bringing his story [to the big screen]. And for me, it was a win from that point, so all of this is gravy time now.”
On Working Opposite His Young Son
The elder Smith credits the younger one with helping him make it through particularly difficult scenes. “I was struggling with a scene. Seven, eight times [Gabriele Muccino] was coming up and giving me notes. With a particularly difficult scene I was struggling and Jaden said to me, ‘Psst, you just do the same thing every take, Daddy.’ And I was like, you know, I was a little offended by that. But what he was saying was that innately he couldn’t understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time. He was feeling like, ‘Well, that’s not real. I thought we were supposed to be trying to make this real.’
I started watching him and you know how kids are. If he decides he wants to get up and walk, he’ll get up and walk. The cameraman will just follow him. But I had my blocking; I knew my left leg was forward. I knew that I was saying it with my left hand every time so in order for them to make the edit, I would do it with my left hand every time. He broke me out of a mechanical space. I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous, insane, obsessiveness for practice and preparation. My father used to say all the time, ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ So if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready. That is how I run my life. ‘Just stay ready.’ Stay in shape and then you don’t have to rush to train before the movie starts. I’ll show you my abs later because I’m in shape. But that idea, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. So I had this preparation, I had this performance, I’ve seen it in my mind and I know I’m going to go out there and deliver this performance that way that I want to do it.
Gabriele told me one day, he said, ‘Don’t pose for my camera.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’re posing for my camera. I don’t want you to pose for my camera.’ He said, ‘You’re making faces like you are hurt. We will shut down, you go away, you come back when you hurt for real.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ He and Michael Mann are the two directors that I’ve worked with that know all my tricks. They can see right through me and all of the Will-isms and the things that I know how to do to make the audience laugh or smile or cry. I know all of those things and they beat those things out of me. It’s interesting. It’s scary for me right now because I’m moving into a space where I just have no idea what’s going to happen when I’m going into these scenes. I’m living in the moments. I’m shooting “I Am Legend” right now and I’m excited about the possibilities of finding that artistic space.”
In a crucial scene in the film, Smith’s eyes get red but he doesn’t shed any tears. Asked if that was a Will-ism Smith said, “No, no, that is all authentic. Gabriele Muccino did a brilliant job of beating me away from my go-to moves. It’s like I felt like I’m thinking, ‘I’m Allen Iverson in the acting world. How you gonna not let me do my crossover?’ He was like, ‘Nope, that’s not in this movie. You’re going to find other things. You’re Chris Gardner so you’re going to create in a different way. You’re going to find different things and however long we have to shoot until you discover it, that’s how long we’re going to shoot. But what we’re not going to do is the same face you made with K at the end of “Men in Black”.'”
On the 2007 Post-Apocalyptic Film “I Am Legend”
“I’m working on “I Am Legend” right now. We’re kind of breaking form a little bit. I’m interested to see how people react to it. We’ve designed something completely aggressive and new and different. We’re sneaking a small art film character drama into the middle of a big summer blockbuster, so we’ll see how it works out.”