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July 2004
I, Robot: An Interview with Will Smith

By Todd Gilchrist

I, Robot: An Interview with Will Smith

In recent years, Will Smith's name has become synonymous with summer blockbusters, having conquered the season with such films as "Men in Black", "Independence Day", and "Bad Boys 2". "I, Robot" puts Smith in a slightly different position, giving him as much emotional acting to do as his usual physical regimen, and contextualizes the whole affair in an intellectually compelling story inspired by no less than the great-grandfather of science fiction Isaac Asimov. Smith recently sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss his latest role, and psychology of the summer blockbuster, and exploring new territories in his career after saving the world time and again.

What's your favorite catchphrase from all of your movies?

WS: Oh, man. Wow. I try to get something memorable in all of them. I guess the one that people say back to me the most is, 'You know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look good.' To Tommy Lee Jones. That one went over well.

Because this is a slightly different kind of role than those you've played in the past, what made you want to do "I, Robot"?

WS: I loved the blend of genres, you know? It's a mystery, which is supposed to clash with an action movie. Mystery and action, they kind of don't blend well because the pace of a mystery is a little slower, and you've kind of got to discover things, and then there is the action movie element that I love that is not really overdone. The action sequences go on as long as they're supposed to go on, and then right after that you're into the drama of it, and I think that there's just so many different things going on in this film and very, very rarely do you get an opportunity in an action movie to tell the story of a little girl dying and how that affected you, and take six minutes of screen time to tell the story. And I just loved the idea, the gamble of making this kind of movie, because it's actually a small art film that is masquerading as a big summer blockbuster. You know like the interrogation scene of Sonny, I was looking at that scene last night like, you can't compare that to anything. There's no other movie where you have that level of emotion and connection with somebody interrogating, a detective interrogating a robot, without it being silly. I love the film and hope that people can connect to it.

Your nude scene in the film got a huge reaction from the audiences at the screeningsŠ Do you think there was a 'point' to it?

WS: Oh, absolutely. And that's what I loved about being able to make this movie and work with the people that I worked with. My character suffers from a psychological condition called survivor's guilt. You know, someone has experienced and accident and you have survivor's guilt. I sent the script to a group of psychologists and asked them to tell me what would this character's behavior be, and they said paranoia was one of the things. So he left the shower door open, no curtain, with the gun hanging over the thing and they said he would never be able to wash his hair because he wouldn't close his eyes in the shower. So it was those type of things, but I mean, you probably have got to have a degree in psychology to pick all of that out of it, but it gives it a certain level of reality when you know that that much thought went into it, and even if you don't it's just kind of a cool naked guy.

What's you training and workout regimen like?

WS: Oh I train at lunch or after work, three, four, five times a week. It's kind of a game that I play with myself. At the end of the day everybody is tired, and everybody is going home, I need to know that I am the one person that is going to the gym. It's just that I need that mindset because I've been successful financially, it's easy to get lazy, and then once you start to slip physically, you're going to start to slip mentally and then inevitably you're going to slip creatively, so I start with my body and my mind and it keeps my creativityŠ

Alan [Tudyk] said you would actually tell him what to eat and not eat.

WS: Yeah, generally when I'm at that peak training, when I know I've got to have my shirt off, it's hard for me to watch other people eat stuff that they're not supposed to eat, so I think it's not oppressive, you know, I was just suggesting that he wouldn't want to eat the Krispy Kreme for breakfast.

Does Jada feel pressure to keep up with your workout routine?

WS: She just needs to keep up, you know? Jada's not going out like that. She watched the scene last night, and went right to the gym this morning. She was like 'nope, you're not catching me out there'.

Doesn't she still have her "Matrix" training to fall back on?

WS: Oh yeah, but it's easy to slip out of shape though. She watched the thing last night, and she went right to the gym first thing this morning. We call the younger guys that might try to come and get Jada, we call them Thundercats, and the girls that would be trying to come see me, we call them Thunderkittens. So Jada was like, 'all them Thunderkittens got to see my man last night. I've got to go get it together'.

Describe the juggling act between being an actor, producer, and musician.

WS: It's definitely difficult. What happens is as an actor there comes a point when I'm not the producer any more, and I have a producing partner who will have to continue the producing, but I produce up until the first day of shooting, and then on the first day of shooting I become an actor. Now my partner has to argue with me as him the producer and me the actor because I can't wear both hats because as an actor, if I want two extra days to shoot the scene, I need two extra days to shoot the scene, and the producer needs to work that out. I can't think to myself as an actor, 'well, you know we've got to get it, and we've only got one day in that space, so we've got to get it.' I'm not thinking that. As an actor I need my space and I need my freedom, which inevitably conflicts with the production.

Were the special effects more difficult to work with this time than in past films?

WS: Well, they will put a tennis ball or something there. Somebody actually as joke, they started printing out robot faces, so they would just tack a robot face up there. Really, the thing that they need is the eye line, they just need you to be looking at the right place that eventually the eyes will be. It would have been impossible in a scene like the interrogation scene, because that scene is so much about the interaction, and fortunately Alan Tudyk, who played Sonny, we had the opportunity to actually play out a scene, work a scene and rehearse a scene and do it like actors. It was like the process that they did for Gollum on "The Lord of the Rings". There was actually a person there in a green suit and then they just replaced the person. Even the fighting scenes, in the fighting scenes there was no [other person], and we worked the scene out with stunt men, so I did it and I learned all of the moves where everybody would be, and learned all of that stuff, and then I'm doing it by myself. If you see that, it would be the perfect tabloid videotape that Will Smith has lost his damn mind. I'm by myself [gesturing] and it just looks bizarre.

Doesn't that reduce the possibility of getting hurt?

WS: The thing that's crazy is that you actually hurt yourself more when there is no one there, because what happens is when you throw a punch, you need the contact to stop your shoulder from popping out, and a lot of times you get hyperextensions in the elbows and all of that stuff so you actually hurt yourself more when you're not actually making contact with anything because you have to throw it and then you have to stop it yourself also.

Are you much of a technophile, or do you prefer vintage gadgets and clothing like your character?

WS: No, I am strictly the future. I need every single gadget that I could possibly have. I need the latest Panther or Jaguar, whatever the latest thing is, the newest IPOD, I can't have the old one, all of that stuff. I need to have everything. I need all of the latest gadgets. There's a music program called Reason that connects to another music program called ProTools, and I have an album coming out for Christmas, and I just recorded my first single from inception, creating the music, laying the vocals, everything in a hotel room, and mixed it on my laptop on a plane flying back to L.A. and it's just insane to me. I burned a CD, so I have a CD of the record, of everything in my laptop, and that it's come to that point is just beautiful to me.

What kind of laptop do you have?

WS: The G4. The titanium.

Do you ever get tired of doing these big summer blockbusters?

WS: Well my son just told me he saw the movie about two weeks ago and he said 'whoa, dad, I loved that! But, uh, don't save the world any more'.

What's next for you?

WS: I just did a film called "The Last First Kiss" with Eva Mendes that's a romantic comedy, a completely different change of pace, and it's hilarious. It's really, really funny. If people buy the romance, it's big huge hit, but the comedy is ridiculous.

What was it like working with Alex Proyas?

WS: The great thing with Alex is that his strong point will be the things that people are going to love in the audience, but that studios are going to be dying, is that he wants to make art films. He's committed to the artistry of the film period, and there's a difficult thing when you're spending a hundred million dollars to make a movie where people are saying, 'hey fella, give me something conventional,' and Alex at every turn wants to make something special. Sitting watching "I, Robot" last night that was the thing I really loved about it. It's like, you don't sit in that movie and say 'I know what's about to happen.' Very rarely in a summer blockbuster can you not predict what the next scene is, and with this movie, Alex's strong point is he pushes the envelope everywhere, just to take six minutes for that interrogation scene, just the pace, it's an art film pace, it's not action, summer blockbuster pace, and I think that's what makes him special, and whatever he wants to make I will make it with him.

Have you conceived the idea of a sequel for the film if it succeeds?

WS: I guess, but Alex is not really a 'sequel' kind of guy. That's kind of part of the artistry of it, so if he sees something that would be a reasonable sequel, I would do it.

How much connection do you maintain with Jeff Townes (Jazzy Jeff) and Philadelphia?

WS: Jeff was out here about a week ago, and we still spend time together. I was in Philly about a month ago, hanging out with him, so we have plenty of contact.

Going forward with different projects, would you be willing to do other nude scenes, such as for art films or dramatic projects?

WS: It's interesting, because America is the only place that it's really a big deal. Aqctually, the scene in this movie was full frontal nudity, but they had to digitally removeŠ (laughs) Yeah, it was the most expensive CGI shot in the movie, but for an American audienceŠ I saw, what was it, "The Bad Lieutenant" with Harvey Keitel? I will never be that good an actor. I just will never be that good an actor, where it's like I looked at that scene and Harvey Keitel is just standing there butt naked, and it's almost like the attitude is like, 'yeah. Look at this here.' I'll never be that good an actor.

What about touring?

WS: I'll be doing the "I, Robot" tour, and I'll be performing on the tour. I'm performing in Moscow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, there's six, Paris, and somewhere else.

Was there any direct homage being paid with the choice of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" in the film's opening scene since you sampled it for "Wild Wild West?"

WS: Yeah, well, Stevie Wonder is a musical genius, and I love Stevie, and it just seemed perfect for this character and then that particular song, you know, "Superstition" seemed to fit perfectly. It seemed like the type of song that this character would really relate to. I just love Stevie so I listen to Stevie all the time. My favorite Stevie Wonder song is "Lately" and I listen to Stevie probably a good fifteen songs a month, and generally for scenes when I prepare, if there's emotional scenes or really dramatic scenes, it's almost always Stevie Wonder music that I use to get myself interested.

What took you so long to choose to do a romantic comedy?

WS: That's a good question. Why did it take me so long? I think part of it was I had a bit of a mental block against on screen romance. I just couldn't get comfortable. You know, you're doing a scene and you're kissing, kissing, kissing, and then they say 'cut,' and you can't just snatch off when they say 'cut,' you know? Because you really have to let your mind go to that space where 'I'm in love with this person.' That's what you do, you hypnotize yourself into believing those scenes and the emotions and all of that and I guess part of it was not being good enough of an actor to draw those lines well, like for example, on "Six Degrees of Separation", that's probably the most lost in character that I have ever been. Just I lost my mind in love with Stockard Channing, and I was like, 'dude, you have got to get your shit together,' and I couldn't shake the character and I was like 'wow.' I think part of it, I never actually intellectualized it at the time, but I think part of that was my feeling comfortable that I had not created my skills as an actor enough to draw the line properly.

Was there ever a version of the script or the film that developed a romantic relationship between you and Bridget Moynahan?

WS: There was never a pass on the script. We talked about it, but in science fiction, it's like 'ugh!' Science fiction fans don't kind of take to that, and then there's the issue of the black guy and the white girl, in American movies, and it just seemed like it could have taken all of the focus, kind of like how the nude scenes just kind of take over (laughs). We were trying not to have something that would take away that focus.

Alex Proyas mentioned he liked the idea of casting an African-American actor as the lead in a movie that is in a way a metaphor for race.

WS: There's so many little things in this film, the comments that are made, that just skate by that when you go back and look, but what's really great is it was sort of the road map of slavery, and what we talked about was if there was a part two, robots essentially came to be used in the way that slaves were used, and then what happens in the movie is there is a fight for the freedom. So then they get the freedom, and the part two could potentially be that now that they're free, now it's time that they're brought into society with their own space, and now they are their own people, per se. So there are lots of interesting concepts and things, I mean none of those decisions have been made, but there is a wonderful commentary to be found, like 'it's a human thing. You wouldn't understand,' to have the black character, the main character is essentially racist. He's 'robophobic'.

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