The Fresh Prince on taking his punches, making love and sparring with Michael Mann
by Veronica Mixon | December 21, 2001
It was fate that one of the hottest young Hollywood actors would play one of the most recognized sports heroes on the planet. Will Smith's film career, which began with the movie Six Degrees of Separation, springboarded from the success of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and his platinum status as the clean-cut rapper from Philadelphia.
So, it wasn't too surprising that his third film, Independence Day, became a megahit in 1996. Smith then sealed his superstardom with Men in Black, Wild Wild West and Enemy of the State. And now he's knocking out critics with his portrayal of the Great One Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's Ali.
Smith recently sat down to show off his new physique and talk lovingly about his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, and how he learned to be a "quiet" Ali.
You've still got your fighter's body.
[Spreads his arms so we can see it within his tight turtleneck sweater.] I caught a fish the other day, and it was this big!
We hear Muhammad Ali came into the room while you were rehearsing the "I am the greatest!" speech.
Ah, man! We were at the production office--Michael [Mann], Jamie [Foxx] and me--Jamie was standing there looking at the paradox. I'm saying [imitates Ali's voice], "Who let this bum in here?" I'm goin' at him. He always loved me to berate him as himself. That was very weird.
Why is Ali's life story still so important?
There are so many different facets, but I think for the younger generation, what we tried to capture is the importance and the simplicity of his devotion to God. And that he was willing to sacrifice everything--his career, money, his relationships, everything--because of his divine belief. I think the message that aspect of his life sends is, Don't make it difficult.
You went to great lengths to make the fight scenes look real.
We decided early on that we wanted the boxing to be authentic, and the only way to do that was to really hit each other. So, from the first day in the training camp with Darryl Foster, we decided this is not a movie training camp. There are no actors here. We're fighters, so we fight. I was like, "Wow! Michael Mann and Darryl are crazy." We had a pact that there was nothing too valuable to sacrifice for the authenticity of this film.
How many hits did you get?
Whew! Michael laid out the syllabus for becoming Ali, and the first thing was the physical. I trained for about three months on the technical, and from then we fought. Then every Thursday was fight day. You'd train all week, and you knew who you'd fight on Thursday.
I'd study their style "Terminator-like"--look at the fighter, break them down and attack. There were some rough days. I got hit every day, and you remember the bad ones. The Joe Fraser day was the worst! Every shot in the film where it looks like someone got hit, someone got hit!
Besides getting the crap beat out of you, what was the hardest thing about the role?
I guess the most difficult thing to capture outside of the boxing was what Michael called the "quiet" Ali. We just couldn't find any tape of that man quiet. [Laughs.] We had a wonderful assist from Leon Gast [director of the documentary When We Were Kings], and he put together 17 minutes.
We have 100 hours of Ali and only about 17 minutes of Ali being quiet. What we discovered is that when he's on, he's on--but when he's off, he is completely off! From those 17 minutes, we were able to create the other layer of Ali, which was the most difficult for me.
Was this a dream role?
I always felt I understood Muhammad Ali. I actually turned the film down for years out of respect for him and for the pure stark terror of being the guy that messed up the Ali story. I just didn't want to be that dude. The connection I felt--and feel--with Ali is spiritual and comedic.
I understand the ability of saying something that might sound a little harsh, but you put the joke on the end of it, which makes it easier for people to digest. I can relate to his appreciation of femininity. Anyone who has met Ali knows he loves women, but in a nonpredatory sense that is really rare. It's more an emotional appreciation than a lusty, doglike appreciation.
Let's talk about the love scenes. They're the most graphic you've ever done.
It was great to do my big love scene with my wife, because she always does love scenes in her movies. She'd tell me things, like one time we were kissing and she whispered in my ear, "Don't make your mouth that big." She said it because if you shoot a close-up of a kiss, your mouth is 12 feet wide on the screen. She said, "Keep your mouth smaller, or you'll look like a whale!"
Did you give her any advice back?
No. I was really silly that day because, you know, we've had a lot of practice. It was just a great opportunity to have 18 hours with my wife--no kids and in bed!
Are you still trying to prove yourself as a dramatic actor?
You know, you can't go into it with that point of view. For me, it was really about telling the story properly. The thing that was most in my mind was, Please don't mess up Ali's story. I knew I'd have to see some brother who loves boxing on the street, and he'd say, "You messed up the Muhammad Ali story!"
But you're so popular. Were you really that worried?
I called Denzel [Washington], because I was trying to get a sense of what it is like to play that level of a figure in the black community, and he was honest. He said, "Man, it gets really rough with black folks! God bless you, and make sure you do it right."
You've always had a lot of self-confidence. Where does that come from?
I guess I've never really tried to trace it. I refer to it as a wonderful delusional quality. If you don't tell yourself you can't do it, it becomes so much easier.
Do you ever panic?
I panic, but that's the best motivation.
Jada has said the one room in the house that's yours is the studio. Do you have a gym now?
I didn't create a full gym. I have a heavy bag, a treadmill and a speed bag.
So, you're no Arnold?
[Laughs.] The thing I realized, working on this film and training like a professional athlete, is that your mind functions more efficiently and more effectively when you're in good physical condition. You need less sleep, your body will function better whenever when you have those bad days--when you eat cheesecake and all those things you shouldn't.
Wait a minute. I heard you never have a bad day.
I've had a bad day eating, for sure. I'm a junk-food junkie!
You traveled to Africa for this movie. Any lasting memories of your visit?
The entire African experience has profoundly adjusted my point of view of the world and my spiritual and physical responsibilities. I was with Nelson Mandela and his wife in South Africa. When Michael and I were in Mozambique, we met with them. I said, "It's a head trip living in the majority. [Laughs.] It feels great to be in a country where if Michael Mann and I get in a fight, when the police come, they're going to shoot him!".