In Seven Pounds, Will Smith, Hollywood's most reliable investment, plays an IRS agent determined to repay a mystery debt he feels he owes the world by miraculously changing the lives of seven deserving strangers. It's a labyrinthine, non-linear story that keeps you guessing until the third act about what drove his character to such extremes, as well as about what his ultimate goal truly is. I sat down with him recently to discuss the genuinely moving (and at times, heart-wrenching) movie and the profound effect it had on his own life. Here's the first part of that conversation...
Cole Haddon: You've managed to become the biggest movie star in the world. How does the view look from way up there?
Will Smith: I read [about] a mountain climber ... [who] set his mind on climbing Everest. "I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it" ... and he got to the top and realized he couldn't breathe. And the only thought that he had was, "How the hell can I get down off of here as fast as I can?" It's like this weird thing that kicks in your mind like, be careful what you wish for, you know? You go and you fight to get there, but there's this discomfort that sets in. It's really the last probably year-and-a-half that have been kind of scary and a little bit frustrating for me.
CH: How are you dealing with it?
WS: I had an epiphany after working on Seven Pounds. I realized that part of that feeling was that I was looking at my life, and I was looking at myself and my future too much around these movies. And after Seven Pounds, I just had this huge epiphany of how much more I want to be, how much more I want to do, and the idea of living in service to humanity versus living in service to the commerce of my movies. And that explosion [in my head] just totally washed away that sort of scary uncomfortable feeling. It's like, however people look at me as a movie star or not, I want to be remembered as a man who cared about people and dedicated his life to making the world better. With that, I went from thinking of myself in this high place to "Damn, I've got so much to do, I need to get to work." And that's so much better a place for me, emotionally.
CH: Does that mean we should expect a lot more message movies from you?
WS: Well, not message movies. It's like with Seven Pounds. I was attracted to Seven Pounds not because there was a fantastic one-liner that I could sell around the world very easily, you know? I was attracted to Seven Pounds because there were ideas. There were emotions. There were parts of this character that I was hiding myself from. I took Seven Pounds almost as self-examination -- as a self-exploration. [My wife] Jada said something to me a few months ago. She said, "You know, it's funny how much you're rejecting this character." She was like, "You know that you are Ben, right?" I said, "What?" She said, "The reason you're so nice, and the reason you fight so hard to be up tone, is because you're at war with that guy inside of you." I was like, "Daaammmn, deep lady!" It's like the projects I was choosing, everything had to be okay in the end or it emotionally hurt me, right? So now my sensibilities are becoming slightly less delicate, and I may be able to venture out a little bit more into the world of emotional and artistic ambiguity in a way that strikes me as more authentic -- but it's terrifying for me! As a child growing up ... my grandmother made sure I knew God is going to make everything okay. So, however scary you get, however bad life is, just know that there's somebody in a high place that's on your side. So, to play a character who doesn't necessarily believe that -- to feel like he has to fix it, [that] God made a mistake and it's his responsibility to fix it -- is a terrifying space for me emotionally and artistically.
CH: So Seven Pounds did all this to you?
WS: Yeah, you know. If there's been a movie in my career that I would say changed my life, it's Seven Pounds.
CH: So, not Independence Day?
WS: Not Independence Day. But when I punched that alien and said, "Welcome to Earth," that was a huge moment, you know [laughs]?