The aliens in Independence Day and Men In Black don't scare WILL SMITH - but Gene Hackman does. Did Hollywood's most confident actor finally meet his match
in Enemy Of The State? Words: Nigel Floyd
WILL T0 SUGGEED
'YOU KNOW WHAT I'VE FOUND,’ SAYS WILL SMITH, WHEN asked about being recognised in public. ‘I just realised on this trip that when my ears are covered up. people don‘t recognise me. My ears is what makes people recognise me. Even from the back.‘ He swivels on his chair to give me the rear view. ‘I gotta get some Velcro or something.‘ he concludes. pinning his sticky—out ears flat against his head.
Yet what is striking about Smith‘s good humoured self-
mockery is that. far from being about modesty. it is further
indication of his supreme self-confidence. Dressed in black
baggy jeans and T—shirt. the handsome. six foot—plus actor
exudes charm and charisma from every pore. taking possession of the room the minute he sets foot in it.
So his ears stick out a little. Why should he worry‘.’ He‘s just been paid $14 million to star opposite Gene Hackman in Tony Scott‘s techno thriller Iz‘nemy ()f The State: he‘s married to beautiful actress Jada Pinkett. with whom he‘s just had a child. Jaden; and his rap career has been revitalist by his film work. Added to that are future movie projects including his first romantic lead. opposite Whitney Houston: a possible re—make of A Star Is Born: and a bio- pic about the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Muhammed Ali.
Smith has never made a secret of. still less apologised f‘or. his boundless ambition. ‘My ace in the hole.‘ he told Premiere magazine. ’is my dangerously obsessive drive . . . I‘m a terminator. I absolutely. positively will not stop until I win.‘
Asked whether he‘ll expect the same level of
commitment from his sons Jaden and Trey —- the latter by his first wife. actress Sheree Zampino — Smith drives home the point with a motivational speech. 'My thing is that I encourage anyone around me to do the best that they can do. Whatever it is. unless you‘re dead. then you haven‘t done all that you can do to succeed. So let‘s push it to that point — not that you feel like you‘re gonna die. but you know you‘re gonna die. Let‘s get right to that point. then I‘m comfortable with you stopping.‘
The son of a strict ex—military father and a mother who worked for the school board. Smith grew up with his three siblings in a middle—class West Philadelphia suburb. A born joker and irrepressible show-off. he started rapping at parties at the age of twelve. and never looked back. Having turned down a scholarship to go to MIT. Smith became one half of rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince. creating Grammy award—winning singles and platinum-selling albums such as ‘Parents Just Don‘t Understand‘ and Big Willie Sty/e. Then. despite never having acted before. he took the lead role in an NBC sitcom. Fresh I’rinee ()f Bel-Air. that ran successfully for six years.
The odd speeding ticket and brush with the tax man aside. it was all plain sailing for Smith. who then segued smoothly into feature films. An ensemble piece called Where The Day Takes You was followed by his critically acclaimed role in Sir Degrees ()f‘Se/nu'atiim. as a bi-sexual hustler who cons some rich
'As a black actor, once you have any levelof success, you are locked into Hollywood for life.’ Will Smith
white folks into believing that he‘s the son of Sidney Poitier. But Smith‘s big break came in the Jerry Bruckheimer produced action-comedy Bad Boys. which established him as the pretender to Eddie Murphy‘s tarnished throne. Then. just to cap it all. he saved the Earth from aliens. twice — in Roland Emmerich‘s Independence Day and Barry Sonnenfeld‘s Men In Black.
So is there nothing that scares Big Will‘.’ Enemy 0/ The State producer Jerry Bruckheimer thinks there is. ‘If you ask Will about his first couple of days with Hackman. that fear in his eyes is real. Gene is a very intimidating actor. because he‘s so prepared and he‘s so good. and he‘s got all these gold statues in his living room. He‘s ready to go to work: he has everything memorised. and his first take is as good as his tenth. And Will knows that reputation. The first scene where we put them together Will‘s eyes are wide as saucers.‘
Smith willingly concedes the point. but not without putting his own positive spin on it: ‘You do not want to step into a scene with "()scar award-winning actors“ Gene Hackman and Jon Voight and be unprepared. It‘s just real easy to look stupid standing next to those guys. So I was slightly intimidated by it. but that energy pushed me to work harder.
‘lt was somewhat of a daunting task. stepping up to that pace. With Men In Blaek and NH. those films had aliens. explosions. comedy. drama — just about everything you could squeeze into a movie to make it successful. So if Men In Blaek didn‘t work. people wouldn‘t say it was because of Will — there was a thousand other reasons before you got to me. Whereas with a film like [Enemy ()f The State. I‘m the first reason. If it doesn‘t work. it‘s because the audience isn‘t moved by my performance. or isn‘t emotionally connected to my character.‘
Not that Smith is asking for any favours. On the contrary. he believes that. as a black actor in Hollywood. his career is more secure than that of comparable white actors. ‘Actors like myself. l)enzel Washington. Larry Fishburne. Samuel Jackson — for the most part we are entrenched in Hollywood] he says. 'As a black actor. once you have any level of success. you are loeked into Hollywood for life. But you take someone like Chris ()‘Donnell. or even Leonardo DiCaprio. there are a thousand guys. just waiting for that little slip. that one little half—an-inch of room to pounce on that position. Also. with black actors. and actors of ethnicity — Antonio Banderas. for example — there‘s a complete community of people who support your films. or your music. just because you‘re Latin or black.‘
Not that Smith is even slightly complacent. ‘When things go well. the law of averages says. sooner or later something‘s not gonna work. But that just makes me want to work harder. concentrate more. focus more — to try to avoid that inevitable mis-step.‘
Enemy Of The State opens on Boxing Day. See review. page 38.
17 Dec 1998—7 Jan 1999 THE LIST 29