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RoboHero

As Will Smith Again Springs Into Action, He Sees a Gentler Future -- for Himself

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page N01

NEW YORK

Something smells great. It's not me. It's certainly not the crowded sidewalks of SoHo on a Saturday afternoon. It's probably Will Smith, though it's possible there's a spiced candle burning somewhere in this sunny suite of rooms on the sixth floor of the Mercer. Or perhaps the tony hotel (so tony they won't even let you order a drink in the lobby without a room number first) is having an exotic man scent piped in through the vents.

I believe in science fiction and espionage and obvious plot twists, and so does Will Smith, and therefore the scent could be a secret mist, designed to turn contrarian reporters pliant. (And it's spreading: "They are so beautiful," sighs a 20th Century Fox publicist downstairs, smitten beyond her job requirement, having seen Smith and his wife of six years, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, simply walk across the lobby and into the elevator earlier in the day.)



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Upstairs, Will Smith, who is 6 feet 2 and retains the best results of his Oscar-nominated "Ali" workouts three years ago, relaxes on a sofa by himself. He wears a tight black T-shirt, deep indigo Diesel jeans and a new pair of butterscotch leather Timberlands. Whenever he shifts around, there is another faint waft of something unbearably handsome and not quite musky.

Reporter mind-paralysis sets in. Smith talks about Paulo Coelho's book, "The Alchemist," a self-help fable of pursuing your dreams that has sold 20 million copies, a "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for the yoga-mat-slung-over-the-shoulder set: " 'The Alchemist' -- that's me. I am Santiago," Smith says. "That book so illustrates something that I've felt innately my whole life. It's better to die chasing your dreams than to live a comfortable life that is" -- and on he goes, like a page-a-day inspirational calendar.

The notebook says: "alchemist / dreams / what smells so good?"

I forget to ask.

You might forget too, within the whole banal construct: the celebrity movie star everybody likes; the interview; the hotel suite (in which the movie star is not intending to sleep tonight; this is always understood at such events); the references to things like "The Alchemist"; the offered beverage; the big mid-summer movie, crammed with special effects, that cost a lot to make ("I, Robot," $105 million, opening Friday); and this odd vibe of nervous promotional energy emitting from the studio that paid to make it, ergo the exactly one hour of face-to-face access with the star.

I arrive with a pound and a half of computer printouts in my satchel of all the stories ever written about Will Smith longer than 1,500 words, in which nobody has ever said a bad thing about Will Smith and Will Smith has never said anything bad about anyone or complained about the drudgery of being famous. He seems to have a temperament graced by God or something else, leaving him incapable of rant.

The worst thing anyone ever says alludes to his appeal to the mainstream -- Smith as the black action hero who broke through the showbiz laws of superstardom that would elevate a black man only to eventually destroy him. The worst thing anyone ever says about Will Smith is that he ascended by becoming the black man whom white moviegoers really, really like. Same goes for his recording career, churning out hip-hop hits manufactured with the broadest appeal (choosing to sing about his love for his child), thereby drawing the scorn of Eminem and other potty mouths. He is the only $20-million-per-picture man in the world who lives apparently unhounded by rumors, gossip, wildly religious impulses, or manic foible.

He will always be the kid from Philadelphia who went to Catholic school and then a magnet high school, and passed up an MIT scholarship so he could record, with DJ Jazzy Jeff, two albums of PG-rated hip-hop songs in the late '80s. Then he starred in one of those unconventional-family sitcoms where things always work out ("The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"), and moved on to action movies that demonstrated his rare ability to outperform his computer-generated co-stars.

Smith has become a millionaire many times over on the whole idea of being good, nice, marketable. His success says: It can still work this way, America. It's urban, it's Capra, it's tentacled aliens who talk jive. It has come to define Will Smith as a U.S. export:

"You can be penalized for being American," he says, like this is a news flash, having been razzed a time or two while making the scene at Cannes this year. "I'm Mr. America, everywhere in the world, I'm a black dude who's become a big movie star in America. Even if there are things that America does that I don't agree with or be more than happy to debate, I'm absolutely penalized, as all Americans are, for the actions of our government."

Back in his "Gettin' Jiggy With It" rise to fame in the 1990s, Smith told an interviewer that he could be president, if he put his mind to it.

"That's different than saying I want to be president," he says now. "I don't want to be president. That is not a good job. The level of American apathy makes it hard to do anything. Back in the day . . . there was a real desire for the common man to understand what the hell was going on, a desire to do what had to be done. Now, with the situation in Iraq, I have friends that I argue with on a daily basis, people that formulate an opinion just with no information. It's tough because people say, 'Are you for or against the war in Iraq?' and I say, 'Wow, that's a big question.' I've never been to Iraq. I don't know any Iraqis. I don't know any Americans that have ever been to Iraq. All I know is what's on CNN, and is that enough for me to make a decision?"

The studios usually release his movies on the Fourth of July, or near it. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "Big Willie Weekend," bringing us "Independence Day," "Men in Black," "Bad Boys II," "Wild Wild West," "Men in Black II." Things blow up or get torn up -- the White House, the New York subway system -- and Smith says something funny. Often there's a hit song to go with it. And the more he talks -- about Iraq, about celebrityhood, about life -- the less he says, which is correct behavior in the Big Willie universe: Play the middle. Stay jiggy.

Mainstream Rebel

Smith has been famous more than half his life -- he'll turn 36 in September -- and says he has three or four action movies left in him, and then he can no longer be that kind of Will Smith anymore. In the eight months it took to film "I, Robot" (every scene with a robot had to be filmed four different ways, for some technical reason known to the people whose computer mice painstakingly clicked together most of the movie's visual effects), Smith began to feel that inexorable ibuprofen ache of age.

"I started messing up my knee a little bit, my back started hurting. It was taking me a couple more takes to get the stunts," he says, "And I was like, oh my God, it's started. 'I, Robot' will be the movie that I look back and remember that this is where I started getting old. It gave me the wake-up call of, Uh-oh, you're not 19 or 20 anymore. If you injure yourself you gotta ice it, take care of yourself properly."

In this movie, even more than his others, Smith is thrown about, beaten, falls, rolls, dangles. He is singed by flame, thrown from a car. He staggers, he bleeds, but always he sasses.

"I, Robot," directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") and based on the mid-20th-century futuristic musings of writer Isaac Asimov, is set in Chicago in the year 2035. Smith plays Detective Dell Spooner, who is called in to investigate the mysterious suicide of a robotics scientist who designed the elegant NS-5, the newest model of polite, efficient, humanoid household help. In this Asimovian future, people own robots the way they own microwaves, regardless of class or income level. (We never learn how much the NS-5 retails for, although Spooner's sweet-potato-pie-baking inner city grandmother has to get hers by winning a robot lottery.)

At heart, Smith's character is a bit of Luddite, living old-school in an old apartment with a circa-2000 stereo, ordering Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers from an antique Converse dealer, and harboring apparently outdated suspicions of technology, especially society's dependence on robots to do work. His paranoia takes over when the prime suspect in the scientist's murder turns out to be an NS-5, who insists on having a name and an identity -- Sonny -- and is in clear violation of Asimov's first law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

By the end of the movie, the entire line of NS-5s has formed an evil army, having followed Asimovian logic to its farthest conclusion: The humans are a danger to themselves, therefore the robots deduce that they must kill them in order to protect them.

"I read [some of Asimov's short stories] after the script was presented," Smith says. "It's always great when you create a film from literature, because the groundwork is laid. So all your work is character work and you don't find yourself in the middle of the film and something doesn't make sense. You have a really solid intellectual foundation."

Smith considers the movie to be much darker than his usual fare. "I, Robot" is another of those future pictures where the future is not doom, gloom and nuclear smog. Instead, it's the lifestyles and apparent whittling of the Bill of Rights that get creepy. As in "Minority Report" and "A.I.," the future looks relatively clean, a mix of old and new and a strict aesthetic allegiance to Banana Republic and the Apple Store. People take mass transit or drive electric cars. ("I don't think so," Smith says. "If history teaches us anything, it's that something apocalyptic is going to have to happen before we change. We're not going to switch to electric cars until 70 percent of us can't breathe anymore.")

The bad news about all of these sunshiney futures is the right to privacy: Computers, and the corporations and governments who control them, keep tabs on everyone. In "Minority Report," Tom Cruise couldn't board the Washington Metro without a retina scan, so he had to have his eyeballs torn out and replaced to avoid detection. In "I, Robot," Americans seem to fully trust corporate dominance. Everyone, that is, but Will Smith, in the particular way that Will Smith plays the antihero within strictly defined limits of the mainstream.

A Major Change

Having vanquished the robot army, Smith now finds himself making a movie without, he swears, a single explosion or special effect. It's a romantic comedy due next year, "The Last First Kiss," co-starring Eva Mendes, "and I'm telling everybody it was almost sad to get paid for this one. You mean I don't have to run? I don't have to jump? I don't have to shoot? Nothing blows up? I don't have to do any of that. I get to talk. I get to actually play a scene. It's just so not work for me."

Smith is also working on a new album, which he hopes to release this year. (His last, 2002's "Born to Reign," continued a gradual sales slide from the heyday of 1997's "Big Willie Style.") "I make records in hotel rooms now," says the man who travels with four iPods -- two with his favorite music, one with audio books, and one with songs he's presently putting together. "I come from an era when it took three people on a big, huge mixing board to just mix the record. And now one person can do it. I have four songs I recorded in a hotel room, using a laptop, a microphone and a keyboard this big, mixed it and everything and burned it onto a CD. Done."

It turns out this was the future. Not Asimov, not robots. Entertainment was the future -- flatter TVs, bigger budgets for movies, cutting albums in boutique hotels. Will Smith movies -- glib and huge, opening wide -- were the future. Celebrities were the future, but on this phenomenon, Smith detects a ray of optimism: "In America, the thing that creates and sustains celebrity, the thing that creates and sustains America, is the same thing -- it's hope. The concept, however untrue it may be for some people, that all men are created equal is some powerful [bleep]. And I think that's part of the power of American celebrity. I think our culture thrives on that ability to feel like you're nobody, you are nothing, you own nothing, and the next day you could win the lottery, be on a reality TV show, and it's something within your power, however realistic. You just have to see that hope maintained through Paris Hilton."

And here he bursts into his signature, booming laugh.

But what about the next future? When the year 2035 actually does roll around, Smith will turn 67. It's entirely likely Smith will still be doing exactly what he does now, battling whatever menace science fiction can cook up for him, while rapping love songs in his spare time to his grandchildren.

But Smith hopes it turns out a little different. He doesn't want to still be running and jumping and creaking through progressively anemic blockbusters. The torso is the first thing to go. It makes it harder to watch Harrison Ford wave a gun and chase criminals down the street, having seen paparazzi photos of Ford, shirtless, with Calista Flockhart at the beach. "I just feel like I have to knock these action movies out now, because I do not want to be that old dude runnin'," Smith says. "You know the old dude runnin'?"

We do know the old dude runnin'. Will, baby, don't be that guy.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company