"If there's been a movie in my career that I could say changed my life, it's Seven Pounds," Will Smith says through the patented smile that perpetually lights up his face. Like it or not, Smith's been part of our lives for two decades now, ever since "Parents Just Don't Understand" ruled MTV back in '88, yet his face still glows with the same boyish charm it did then. He has boundless energy today and bubbles with enthusiasm — even for strangers — which couldn't be more different than the suicidal basket case he plays in his latest movie, the one he just said changed his life.
"I read somewhere, a mountain climber, he set his mind on climbing Everest," Smith continues, beginning to explain how this "change" collided with his sense that maybe he couldn't handle being, as the media calls him, "the biggest movie star in the world." "He climbed and got to the top, and realized he couldn't breathe. The only thought he had was, 'How can I get down off of here?'" Smith pauses, his mouth forms the smile that threatens to swallow the whole Four Seasons conference room, and then he adds, "it's this weird thing you wish for. You go and fight to get there, and there's this discomfort that sets in. It's really been this last year and a half that's been scary and frustrating for me."
And then Seven Pounds happened, a human mystery about redemption co-starring Rosario Dawson and directed — like The Pursuit of Happyness — by Gabriele Muccino. The script had driven everyone involved to become part of the production, but Smith didn't anticipate that making the movie would help him come to grips with the dizzy place his work had landed him. "I had an epiphany after working on Seven Pounds," he explains. "I realized that part of the feeling I was having was that I was looking at myself, my life and my future, too much around these movies. After Seven Pounds, I [realized] how much more I wanted to be, and how much more I want to do — the idea of living in service to humanity as opposed to living in service to the commerce of my movies. That explosion [in my head] just totally washed away that scary, uncomfortable feeling. No matter how people look at me, as a movie star or not, I want to be remembered as a man who cared about people and dedicated his life to making the world better."
After Seven Pounds wrapped and Smith began to understand the impact the movie had had on him, he also began to understand why he had taken the role in the first place. Sure, he's telling you he wants to serve humanity and be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to making the world better, but he's not talking about making only artful message movies either. "With Seven Pounds, I wasn't attracted to it because there was a fantastic one-liner that I could easily sell around the world. I was attracted to Seven Pounds because there were ideas, there were emotions, there were parts of this character I was hiding myself from. I took Seven Pounds almost as a self-examination, for self-exploration.
"Jada [Pinkett-Smith, his wife] said something to me a few months into shooting," he continues. "'It's funny how you're trying to reject this character because you are him. The reason you're so nice and fight so hard to be upbeat is because you're at war with that guy inside you.'"
Smith laughs. "I was like, 'Damn deep, lady.'"
Smith doesn't elaborate on what his wife knew to be inside him, but let's try to understand her observation through the character of Ben Thomas in Seven Pounds, a selfish man broken by a terrible tragedy he was involved in and who now realizes the way to redemption is through seven acts of random charity. Nobody has ever accused Smith of being a bad man; in fact, he's often referred to as one of the nicest actors in Hollywood; but he obviously thinks there's something inside himself he needs to beat by relentlessly living the life of a man he respects.
Pinkett-Smith's observation became an integral chapter in Smith's epiphany. "That was when I realized the projects I was choosing, everything had to be cheery in the end or it emotionally hurt me," he says. He had become a happy-ending junkie. "So now my sensibilities are becoming a little less delicate, and I'm able to venture out into the world of emotional and artistic ambiguity that strikes me as more authentic — even as it terrifies me." His grandmother, he explains, raised him to always believe that, no matter how scary life got, there was someone in a higher place on his side. "To play a character who doesn't necessarily believe that, who feels like he has to fix it, that God made a mistake, who carries that emotional weight is a terrifying place for me."
Seven Pounds also comes on the heels of another event that has left Smith feeling freer than he's ever been before: the 2008 presidential election. "Barack being elected did something, left me crying uncontrollably," he says. "It so validated something I believe in America. As a black man in America, I've never been allowed to say, 'I don't think America's a racist nation. I think racist people live here, but I don't see America as a racist nation.' Barack being elected so validated something inside me that I can now say aloud." Smith even uses the word "unleashed" to describe how he feels.
Obama's historic election can be attributed to a very specific sociological phenomenon, according to Smith, and he's hoping to take what he learned from his part in it and apply it to a new business investment in the United Arab Emirates — part of his Seven Pounds-inspired attempt to make that difference in his work. "I truly believe a large part of why Barack is in office is due to MTV," he says. "What MTV did is lay conduit between the inner-city and the suburbs and American kids and the world. You can't tell 15-year-old kids lies about black people; they know it's not true. But their parents and grandparents, you could feed them anything you wanted to because they didn't have the connectivity. What MTV was able to create by connecting kids of all races, creeds, and colors was a release of the fear that exists when you don't know. So for me, in my mind, the deal we're making in the UAE is going to lay that artistic conduit between the West and the Muslim world."
That's right, Smith isn't just the biggest movie star in the world — he's also going to bring peace to the Middle East. What's crazy is if you sit down with him long enough, you believe he has it in him.
Seven Pounds opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 19.Cole Haddon is film writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]