December 2001
Toe to Toe with the Chosen One : An Interview with Will Smith

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Toe to Toe with the Chosen One : An Interview with Will Smith

In the last ten years, no other person has captured the hearts of television, music, and film fans more than Will Smith. Achieving success on all levels isn’t enough for the “The Fresh Prince”. Not since making his debut in “Six degrees of Separation” has Smith tackled a dramatic role. While he made financial benchmarks with “Independence Day” and “Men in Black”, there has always been questions regarding his acting skills in the drama department. “Ali” will put those questions to rest as Smith challenged himself physically and emotionally to play the role of “The Greatest”. In an interview with, Smith talks about the side of Muhammad Ali no one knows and his new view on life.

WM: How do you think American’s will feel about this movie?

WS: I’m not in anticipation as to how the movie will be received. It’s a relief to be finished. The film was really grueling. I’ve been to my physical, emotional, and spiritual ends to create this interpretation. My hope is that people will get from the film what I got from it. The experience and having the opportunity to dissect and to understand the greatness of Muhammad Ali is to be able to ingest some of that greatness; and the simple complexity of Muhammad Ali is something we could all use. I hope that people could feel the connection with his spirituality and the simple nature with his belief in God. A lot of us say we believe in God but this film really depicts the strength and his profound nature of his belief in God and that is one of the biggest elements I walked away with.

WM: Can you talk about the first time you met Ali?

WS: The first time I met Ali, I was like everyone else. You’re meeting a biblical figure. You’re meeting someone that legends are made of. There are all these stories. Everyone has an Ali story. I met him 7 years ago, and he was aware that I had turned down the script to play him then. I didn’t know how he was going to respond. I walked up to him and said “Champ, pleasure to meet you” and Ali said, “Man, you’re almost pretty enough to play me”. That was our first meeting. We’ve been going back and forth for seven years with “Who’s the prettiest?”

WM: Was there a danger of sanitizing him?

WS: Quite the contrary. His family absolutely positively did not want the sanitized “hallmark card” version of this story. Muhammad Ali is and has always been a man of the truth. There were moments in the script that dealt with his wives. I asked about the authenticity of it and if there was any one point he wanted me to make. He said everything you know and act out is true and to do it with conviction.

WM: Were you prepared for the physical challenge of the role?

WS: A huge part of why I took this film is that Michael Mann laid out essentially what he called the course syllabus for becoming Muhammad Ali and the first step in that course syllabus was the physical challenge. We trained for a good year before we actually started shooting. Understanding the physical nature of Muhammad Ali developed in my body and being in the ring fighting would lead into the mental and emotional side of Muhammad Ali.

WM: How do you think the Muslim religion and its closeness to Muhammad Ali will play to the audience post Sept.11?

WS: I believe this film depicts Muhammad Ali as the ultimate patriot. The forefathers of the country were essentially a militia. Our American flag was designed as an anti-imperialist symbol against Great Britain. The freedom of speech that we have in this country is specifically designed in order to be incumbent upon Americans to stand in the face of what someone might perceive as an egregious injustice and say no, wait a minute, stop, why are we in Vietnam. Explain to me what we are doing in Vietnam. That is ultimately patriotic and I believe this film depicts Muhammad Ali in that patriotic sense.

WM: Can you clear up the stuff that’s in the magazines in which in you talk about your counterparts in the industry?

WS: I’ve been horribly misquoted. I act silly at times. I would do a print interview and I would make a joke; and if someone writes it, you can’t read the humor behind it. For example, it was written falsely that I was taunting my Hollywood competition. That’s not the way it came out. What I said was that all of the scripts I get now are the ones that Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks turn down and I’m getting sloppy thirds and fourths on the scripts. My dream one day is for you to ask Tom Cruise the same question you asked me like “What’s it like to get a script after Will Smith?” I have nothing but ultimate respect for Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and I’m excited that people can put me in their league.

WM: What do you hope people will walk away with from this film?

WS: The central driving force of Muhammad Ali or the thing I linked unto is concept, desire, and the necessity for truth. Ali’s willingness to live with whatever his God sets forth makes him comfortable. If he were supposed to be rich, he’d be rich or vice-versa. There’s such magic with his relationship with God. That’s the central factor the younger generation should come away with. The level of his commitment and his ability to deal with life is based on his relationship with God.

WM: Do you feel this is your best work?

WS: At 33 years old, I have peaked. I can’t imagine doing anything else. The connection that Michael and I had and the mental link that we were able to create was great, along with the desire that I had to depict this hero accurately. I can’t imagine all of those things lined up the way they lined did. Some people are just born to do certain things. Michael Jordan was born to play basketball. Nature designed him for that. I feel this role put me at the mountaintop.