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GQ India’s November cover featuring Will Smith went Live

Willard Carroll Smith Jr. is an American actor, rapper, and film producer popularly known as Will Smith. Smith has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards, and has won four Grammy Awards.In an interview with GQ, Smith has spoken about his new memoir and his upcoming projects that look forward to tackling racial themes. The interview throws light on his equation with Tom cruise, working on Men in Black Franchise, relatively late career embrace of social media and much more!

An excerpt from GQ India’s November 2021 issue:

Unvarnished

By Wesley Lowery

Photographs by Renell Medrano

Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu

It has been a long, miserable day by the time Will Smith makes his way through the Louisiana mud past hundreds of extras.Nothing has been easy about the making of Emancipation, an Apple TV+ project that tells the story of “Whipped Peter,” the Black man whose tattered back is depicted in one of the most famous photos of an enslaved American. “I’ve always avoided making films about slavery,” Smith had told me about an hour earlier as we sat in a production trailer. “In the early part of my career… I didn’t want to show Black people in that light. I wanted to be a superhero. So I wanted to depict Black excellence alongside my white counterparts. I wanted to play roles that you would give to Tom Cruise. And the first time I considered it was Django. But I didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance.” Emancipation is different. It would be a disservice to think of it as a “slavery movie,” Smith explained to me.

Once we settled in for a conversation, Smith told me that his aim now is “strictly to tell stories that help people figure out how to be happy here.” He continued: “The idea is I spent the first half of my life gathering, gathering, gathering, and now the second half of my life is going to be giving it all away.” That means making movies like King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and due in theaters this November, in which Smith portrays Richard Williams, the eccentric, hard-nosed father of Venus and Serena. In the grand Smith tradition, it’s an inspiring story of triumph over adversity that contains an affecting character study. The irascible Williams trained both daughters with balls collected from the tennis clubs he couldn’t get into, and protected them from the grind of tennis and the media in a way that makes him look like a prophet of the current moment in which athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles prioritize their agency and mental health. Smith plays him as a crotchety, unbending, but fiercely loving parent. “My dad was and still is way before his time,” Serena Williams told me in an email. “You see, when someone is different—when they don’t act or look how a person assumed they would—the first reaction is often fear. They think, How do we break them? My dad anticipated that, but he would not allow himself or his family to be broken.”

Smith’s portrayal, Serena added, was so convincing that there were moments she had to remind herself that it wasn’t actually her father on the screen. “Richard Williams is a lot like my father,” Smith explained to me. “So when I first read [the script], I understood what it’s like to want your kids to succeed. I had done it a little bit with my kids. I understood what it was to try to mold a young mind, how it’s different with sons than it is with daughters.”

This November, when his memoir, Will, hits bookshelves, the world will receive the most unvarnished version to date of Smith’s own story. Smith’s story starts in Wynnefield, the middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia where his parents moved the family when he was two years old. In the book, he discusses what he describes as one of the defining experiences of his life: at the age of nine, watching as his father punched his mother in the side of the head. It was not the only violence Smith saw his father inflict while growing up, but this particular incident, he writes, “has defined who I am today.” His brother jumped up, trying to intervene. His sister fled, hiding in her bedroom. Smith remembers freezing, too scared to do anything. Smith never discussed the violence with his father, who championed his son’s career until he died in 2016. “My father tormented me. And he was also one of the greatest men I’ve ever known,” Smith writes, noting that his father was the one who instilled in him his sense of loyalty and perfectionism. “He was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and also one of my greatest sources of pain.”

For decades, Smith has seen himself as a coward. His desire to please people, to entertain the crowd, and to make us all laugh, he explains, is rooted, at least in part, in the belief that if he kept everyone—his father, his classmates, his fans—smiling, they wouldn’t lash out with violence at him or the people he loved. If he could keep making his mother proud through his accomplishments, he reasoned, perhaps she would forgive his childhood inaction. “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien annihilating M.C., the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction—a carefully crafted and honed character—designed to protect myself,” he writes. Later he says, “Comedy defuses all negativity. It is impossible to be angry, hateful, or violent when you’re doubled over laughing.”

Most clearly, though, the book provides a detailed accounting of Smith’s deliberate effort to become the biggest movie star in the world. “I wanted to do what Eddie Murphy was doing. I wanted to make people feel how I felt the first time I saw Star Wars,” Smith writes. “I wanted to be Eddie Murphy in Star Wars.”

What soon followed was one of the most commercially successful runs in the history of cinema: Smith’s eight consecutive films grossing over $100 million each at the domestic box office is a record, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Smith’s nemesis for years was Tom Cruise, “the only person who was sustaining a movie career beyond what I could figure out.” After Bad Boys and Independence Day in 1995 and 1996, respectively, Steven Spielberg called, hoping to cast Smith in an upcoming project about a secret police force that works to conceal the existence of extraterrestrials. Smith was skeptical—he’d already done the cop thing, and the alien thing. But Spielberg persisted, and the resulting project was Men in Black, a major pillar of the Smith cinematic canon.

Those three movies alone made Smith a top box-office draw across the world and an unprecedented type of star: a Black actor whom white and global audiences loved. After the hugely popular Men in Black and Bad Boys sequels, Smith branched out into apocalyptic sci-fi with I, Robot, costarring Bridget Moynahan. A few years later, when Moynahan’s relationship with Tom Brady ended—only for her to soon learn that she was pregnant with their child, prompting a tabloid frenzy—Smith reached out to his former costar. “He was the first person to pick up the phone and say come over, let’s talk,” Moynahan told me. “And for somebody like that to make room in his life was impressive.… I’m sure I am not unique. He is that person.”

“That’s what my life is for,” Smith explained to me a few days after I spoke with Moynahan. “That was the thing even with Tom [Cruise]. Tom and I became friends in the middle of his public difficulties. That’s when I want to be there. If everything is great, call somebody else. Call me when you need help. I love it. I love being the 2 a.m. emergency phone call.”

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe Will as a happy book. It’s at turns comedic and inspirational. But even though he’d gotten everything he’d set out for—the Grammy and global fame, a beautiful and successful wife, children who are themselves superstars—Smith still wasn’t happy. His movies weren’t reaching the same mountaintops as Independence Day and Men in Black. And his single-minded pursuit of stardom had left many of his closest relationships battered and bruised.

“Throughout the years, I would always call Denzel. He’s a real sage. I was probably 48 or something like that and I called Denzel. He said, ‘Listen. You’ve got to think of it as the funky 40. Everybody’s 40s are funky.’ He said, ‘But just wait till you hit the fuck-it 50s,’ ” Smith told me. “He said, ‘Just bear with your 40s.’ I stopped and I was like, ‘The funky 40s and the fuck-it 50s.’ And that’s exactly what happened. It just became the fuck-it 50s, and I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.” Many of those things are detailed in the book, and others he’s still keeping close to the vest. “Some things are for GQ articles and some things are not,” he told me.

Smith’s relatively late career embrace of social media is another storytelling experiment. He’s become one of the internet’s buzziest celebrities, offering fans and followers a glimpse of him on set, embracing weird memes, and shooting TikToks and video clips specifically engineered to go viral. Smith started shooting some of his videos on his iPhone, as opposed to professional camera equipment. He took cues from Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, who impressed him with the way they’d share behind-the-scenes moments from their movie shoots—something that would have been unthinkable in the Hollywood that Smith had come up in.

“They were doing unheard of stuff, posting pictures from the set. You can’t post pictures from the set a year before the movie comes out—Oh, shit, yes you can,” Smith recalled thinking. “I just saw how they invited people into the process in a way that I thought you weren’t allowed to do.”

Smith’s foray into social media also comes at a time when he and Jada have become Hollywood’s most transparent and vulnerable couple. Red Table Talk, the Facebook show hosted by Pinkett Smith, is the closest thing the digital age has to the role Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil once played on broadcast television—a place for difficult, messy conversations about love, sex, drugs, and everything else, often featuring their daughter, Willow, and Jada’s mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris. Smith himself has appeared on the show, most notably for a frank discussion with Jada about a period of non-monogamy in their marriage.

Throughout the draft that I’d read, Smith had dropped in foreshadowing tidbits about marital acrimony. Jada, her husband writes, hadn’t wanted a traditional wedding ceremony but gave in to his pressure: “This would be the first of many compromises Jada would make over the years that painfully negated her own values.” Years later, Smith persuaded her to move into a massive 256-acre compound that she was dead set against purchasing. “Nothing good comes from spending your hard-earned money on a ‘family home’ that your wife doesn’t want,” Smith writes. “You are putting a down payment on discord and for years you will be paying off a mortgage of misery. Or, worse.” At one point, she turned down an opportunity for her band to open for Guns N’ Roses so that Smith could continue shooting The Pursuit of Happyness. Things reached a breaking point by Jada’s 40th birthday, in 2011. Will had spent three years planning

a private family-and-friends dinner in Santa Fe, where he screened a documentary he’d commissioned that chronicled her life and traced her family’s lineage back to slavery (and in which he tracked down a descendant of the white family who once owned Jada’s ancestors.)

When they got back to the hotel suite that night, Jada was nearly silent. “That was the most disgusting display of ego I have ever seen in my life,” Smith recalls his wife telling him. The two began fighting so loudly that a 10-year-old Willow, with whom they were sharing the suite, emerged crying with her hands over her ears, begging them to stop. “Our marriage wasn’t working,” Smith writes. “We could no longer pretend. We were both miserable and clearly something had to change.”

At some point, their relationship stopped being monogamous. “Jada never believed in conventional marriage.… Jada had family members that had an unconventional relationship. So she grew up in a way that was very different than how I grew up. There were significant endless discussions about, what is relational perfection? What is the perfect way to interact as a couple? And for the large part of our relationship, monogamy was what we chose, not thinking of monogamy as the only relational perfection,” Smith told me. “We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison. And I don’t suggest our road for anybody. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms that we’ve given one another and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.”

For decades, Will Smith has been gracious to every interviewer. He gives you 90

minutes after agreeing to an hour. And then when he’s done, he walks outside to take

photos with every fan, smiling for each and every one. But Will? The real Will, not the character he’s been playing for our benefit? He gets to say no to the 100th selfie of the day. He gets to keep some things private, even when he knows your story would be better with just a few more details. “The major difference is I tell the truth, even when people don’t like it,” Smith told me. “And Will Smith doesn’t.”

Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist.

Credits-GQ Global Issue – November 2021 

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