Murphy’s Law dictates that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. But then there’s Will Smith’s Law, which stipulates that even if everything goes wrong, through sheer force of personality, things can also go right.
“You have command over your future,” the actor said. “You have command over your situation.”
This is the operating principle of Friday’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in which Smith allows himself to be pummeled over and over, not by boxers or aliens or robots, but by cold hard math. As Chris Gardner, Smith owes $650 in back taxes. He owes $1,200 in unpaid parking tickets. He’s overdue on two months’ worth of rent and daycare, the latter of which runs $150 a month. His seemingly only friend owes him $14 but won’t pay up. Gardner can’t even afford a $17 cab ride and has to run away from the taxi driver. At this point in his life, Chris Gardner only has $21.33 to his name.
But there’s something even more staggering about the character’s situation: Chris Gardner isn’t a fictional character but a real-life person who was homeless for nearly a year while trying to make a better life for himself and his young son by interning at a stock-brokerage firm in San Francisco. And yet, despite all this adversity, Gardner is now the CEO of his own multimillion-dollar brokerage firm — a true rags-to-riches story.
A few things were changed for the movie: instead of receiving a small stipend for his work, Smith’s Gardner goes unpaid; instead of his son being an infant, he’s a few years older, so they can interact more. Played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden, the boy helps provide much of the humor and lightness throughout the movie. And taking a lesson from his son, Will gives one of the most personal performances of his career, avoiding his usual go-to moves — “all the Will-isms, the things I do to make the audience laugh or smile or cry.”
“I know how to make a $100 million movie,” Smith said. “I know how to do it, the hero’s journey, the special effects, the creatures, the love story. But I’ve had so many roadblocks to the truth of the characters I was playing, because I know what they need to do to be likeable, and I’ve trained myself to illuminate the things that are likeable about me and hide and protect the things that are less likeable. They had to beat that out of me.”
The film’s director, Gabriele Muccino, insisted that Will find new ways to express himself. The actor recalled Muccino telling him, ” ‘What we’re not going to do is the same face you made in “Men in Black.” ‘ I felt like, ‘I’m Allen Iverson in the acting world, how are you not going to let me do my cross hook?’ But Gabriele said, ‘Don’t pose for the camera. You’re making faces like you’re hurt. You come back when you’re hurt for real.’ ”
When Will was struggling with one particular scene, Muccino came to give him notes — but didn’t give Jaden any. Noticing that, Jaden then told his dad that he was still doing the same thing, take after take. “I was a little offended by that,” Will said, “but he couldn’t figure out how I was reading the same thing the same way, and he’s like, ‘That’s not real.’ You know how kids are — if he wants to get up and walk, he gets up and walks, and the cameraman just has to follow him. Jaden had to break me out of my mechanical space.”
Just as Jaden served as inspiration for Will, Chris Gardner’s actual son inspired his dad to pull himself out of poverty. “It ain’t about stuff,” Gardner said. “Stuff is overrated. You get oversaturated with stuff and you’re still not happy, so then what do you do? What was I struggling for ultimately? To be there for my child. That’s timeless. To be in a place I felt passionately about. It’s got nothing to do with money and everything to do with not quitting.”
Not quitting in the face of adversity, sure — but what if the cards are already stacked against you? It’s never stated outright, but racism could easily have been portrayed as the villain in Gardner’s tale. “That’s something Chris and I seriously connected on,” Smith said. “There’s no hint to any racism. I’m sure there may have been, but if you acknowledge it, you give it power over you. Call it arrogance or naiveté, but if you’re trying to create something, it’s much more powerful to know that you will not be denied. Whatever’s out there, you’re running over it. So I’m not talking about ‘the white man’ or how there were no spots left in that college. We’re not acknowledging none of that, period. I’m going to that college, period. I could be president of the United States. I could fly the space shuttle. Period. That’s where it starts.”
“The biggest ‘ism’ I ever had to deal with was place-ism,” Gardner said. “I was trying to pursue a career on Wall Street. I’m not from a politically connected family. I didn’t go to college. I had no money of my own. Who’s going to do business with you? That’s place-ism, not racism, and that can affect anybody. But you know what? I’m not a sociologist — it’s just my personal opinion — but I think sometimes racism is convenient. ‘Oh, I can’t do that, I’m black.’ ‘They won’t let me, I’m black.’ It makes it easy to quit.”
“Chris Gardner laid down in a bathroom with his only child, which could be the ultimate parental failure,” Smith said. “But the next morning, he woke up, he bathed his son in the sink and he went to work. You can’t do that if there’s a possibility it might not work out. Barack Obama calls it ‘the audacity of hope.’ That’s designed into the fiber of this country. You’ve got to believe that it’s only a matter of time that you get what you’re designed to do. That is the essence of the power of self.”
Throughout Gardner’s story, Smith’s narration explains chunks of his life by saying, “This part of my life is called … ‘being stupid,’ ” or, “This part of my life is called … ‘running.’ ” This part of Smith’s life, then, should be called “Will power.”
“I never had the feeling from people that I’m getting from this,” Smith said. “This film is touching people. I’ve just never had that experience before.” And if he gets nominated for any awards? “That’s just gravy for me,” he said. “When you take on someone’s life story and they’re still living and standing there on the set watching you, it’s not like there’s going to be a second shot. There’s one chance for the world to know Chris Gardner’s story, and if I do it wrong? But Chris looked at me with tears in his eyes when he saw it, so I knew, whatever comes — box office, Oscars — that’s gravy. I already got my meat and potatoes.”
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