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I Am Legend - Will Smith interview

Will Smith in I Am Legend

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WILL Smith talks about the pressure of opening a film such as I Am Legend when the focus of the action is almost solely on him, preparing for such a lonely, isolated role and why New York City replaced Los Angeles as the setting for the story to unfold.

He also discusses working with his daughter, Willow, on the film, the appeal of trauma giving birth to new stories and why being in peak physical condition is important to every aspect of his life…

Q. You’ve just enjoyed the biggest opening ever for a December movie in the US. Do you feel any pressure leading up to the release of a film like this or is it all a thrill?
Will Smith: There was definitely pressure this time. I think that the combination of the amount of work we put into this film and the way that we decided to do it – we essentially employed a different spirit behind making this film that you usually don’t have in filmmaking. The approach that we took to it, we all took artistic leaps when making this film. But then there was the added element of it just being me on camera for the first hour of the film. I took it that if this film was rejected, people were actually rejecting me more than not liking a film. So it was a huge relief for me on Sunday night when we got the numbers.

Q. How much inspiration did you draw from the other movies [The Omega Man and The Last Man On Earth]?
Will Smith: We looked at it as sort of a combination of the source material and Omega Man. So we felt that all the previous incarnations of the film were genre – they were specific to action or specific to horror. What we were trying to do was to completely remove genre; so let’s look at the psychological deterioration of the character and let’s make the small art film version of this movie and then put all of the other elements – the blockbuster packaging – around it. We were just very specific to never say that to anybody at Warner Bros!

Q. Why relocate the story from LA to New York?
Will Smith: A city can change what the story is when you’re reading a script. It really depends on the energy that you’re trying to capture and what you’re trying to say. New York empty is as haunting an image as you can imagine. You don’t realise that you have never actually seen a New York street empty and I think Francis [Lawrence] does a brilliant job that the first five or six images that start the film. I’ve seen the film now on three continents and in five different languages and the second those images come up, the audience just goes dead silent. There’s something about the iconic images of New York being deserted that immediately jolts you into the film. So I think that it was a wise decision that Akiva [Goldsman] made. New York was perfect for this film and I cannot imagine where else you’d do it. It almost seems like Los Angeles could have ruined what was created. I don’t even know where you would get that feeling in Los Angeles.

Q. How did you prepare for tackling the scenes of isolation and getting into the right frame of mind?
Will Smith: As an actor you always look for the in to the character – what is the thing that makes it click in your mind? We did research with people that had been in solitary confinement and the two things that came out were that everything has to be scheduled. Even if it’s I’m going to clean my nails from 9 to 9.45, and then from 9.45 to 10.30 I’m going to look at the ceiling. You actually go through and you create the schedule. The big thing for me was that you give life to everything. Anything that’s around you, you give life to – even if it’s a glass.

Your mind, in order to defend itself starts to give life to inanimate objects. When that happens it solves the problem of stimulus and response because literally if you’re by yourself you lose the element of stimulus and response. Somebody asks a question, you give a response; somebody pushes you, you punch them in the nose – or “hey man, that’s not right, don’t do that”. So, when you lose the stimulus and response, what I connected to is that you actually create all the stimulus and response. I had pages of written dialogue that was going on in my head that would give life in the scene. I would hear a glass ask me: “What time is it?” So, what happens in the scene when the glass asks you what time it is, I would have to respond to myself: “Don’t respond, don’t tell it what time it is, you know it’s a glass, don’t listen to him.”

It’s just silence on screen but it gives all of these weird machinations and these little things life in the scene. It was working out to about two pages of internal stuff per scene but it kept giving wonderful, wonderful outbursts.

Q. This is the fifth time you’ve saved the world. What about those kinds of roles appeals to you?
Will Smith: Well it’s funny that people think I’ve saved the world and yet everybody’s dead [laughs]. On this occasion, Robert Neville failed miserably! As far as my attraction to these kind of roles… Star Wars just really spun me out as a child. I couldn’t believe that someone created that. It’s like: “Where do you even pull Jabba The Hut from? Where does that even come from?” So I’ve always been inspired… I love science fiction movies and I’ve been chasing Star Wars my entire career.

Q. Can you talk about the casting of your daugher Willow for a key scene? And how did she cope with such a terrifying scene?
Will Smith: Willow doesn’t care! [Laughs] She’s the type of child… we were in the house one night and I heard the footsteps get up out of the bed and I thought she was getting something to drink, so went back to sleep. It was about 3am. But she came in and woke me up, saying: “Daddy…” I said: “Yes baby?” She said: “I watch the movies by myself….” To which I replied: “Oh, that’s good, baby…” But she then says: “I like Sixth Sense!” [Laughs]. She went down by herself, got the DVD at 2am, and watched Sixth Sense. She has no fear of discomfort with this kind of thing at all. And it was a great as a parent also to be able to work with your child in what you do. It was beautiful all around.

Q. You obviously have to keep in shape for these kind of roles. But do you secretly long to let the belly go?
Will Smith: I feel like everything in your life begins with physical conditioning. I love eating sweets and stuff like that but I feel like the quality of my parenting is based on my physical conditioning; the quality of my relationship with my wife, the quality of all the interactions I have in my life start with being in great physical condition. Akiva and I were just talking today about how doing a junket is actually a physical, athletic event. In the past 11 days, we’ve flown to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, new York, London, Madrid, Paris, London… so, to me, you can’t do that if you’re not in good physical condition. I just believe that it’s the beginning of finding the happiness and the things that I desire in my life. But also when the ladies go “whhoooo”, that turns me on a little bit! I like that [laughs].

Q. With The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend you seem to be moving away from comedy. Are you actively looking for roles outside of your comfort zone? And what’s happening with the music, is that on the backburner for now?
Will Smith: I’m absolutely looking for things that are different. I feel that I’ve been successful with films that are territory that I can’t return to. I feel like the success of Men In Black was based on that time and my age at that point. I feel that if I don’t advance and expand that people will reject the work that I do. I’ve also gotten intrigued with the idea and the relationship of trauma and story – the trauma as the beginning of all of our existence. As we all sit here, we are who we are… we can all think back to that one thing that happened that developed a big section of who we are.

Akiva and I have been talking about that for the past two years and it has exploded in my mind as a beautiful way to start designing characters and designing stories around a central trauma. So it leads slightly to a more dramatic type of film. Another film that Akiva and I have been working on comes out in July next year called Hancock and it’s about an alcoholic superhero. It’s sort of a dark comedy but it takes that same idea and starts with a trauma and builds the story and the character out of trauma.

I probably won’t create any new music but I will be on tour with my old music…. not my old music, my classic songs later this year!

Q. There’s a leadership issue in the film concerning a presidential decision to close off NYC. In real life there’s another presidential election coming up, so how will you be voting? What sort of qualities will you be looking for?
Will Smith: I love Baraq O’Bama. I love what he stands for. I think it’s a beautiful time for America to make a statement of change to the world and to ourselves. So, my wife and I are going to support Baraq.

Q. Who are your own legends in real life? And where does David Beckham, your friend, fit in?
Will Smith: I’m very partial to Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. As for Beckham, he absolutely has legend potential. But I think we’re all too young to be legends yet. Give us 15 or 20 years and then decide.

b>Read our review of I Am Legend

b>Read our interview with Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman