NEW YORK - In his late teens, Will Smith was so busy recording such happy hip-hop as "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson" that he didn't make it to college. Yet training for the role of the champ in the film bio Ali, opening Dec. 25, required an immersion year of graduate study.
Director Michael Mann "set me a challenging curriculum," explains Smith, 33, chugging cranberry juice during an epic day of meet-the-press at a Manhattan hotel.
"Weight training. Islamic studies. Dialect training. Boxing. U.S. history."
During his 12 months at the Muhammad Ali College of Cultural Knowledge, Smith bulked up his string-bean frame to hulk proportions. To his supple 185 pounds he added 35 pounds of rock-hard muscle.
"The way Michael broke it down was this," Smith recalls. "He said, 'You will undergo Ali's physical training. Once you understand the physical, Ali's mental and emotional dimensions will develop. And once the mental and emotional aspects develop, you will understand the strength of Ali's spirituality.' "
Still, the actor worried. Though both he and Ali are charismatic men who wear their self-confidence jauntily ("and we're both major momma's boys"), how could Smith project himself into the boxer's spirit?
Not only did Ali fight in the ring; by refusing to serve in Vietnam the practicing Muslim also fought to exercise his antiwar sentiments, even if it meant being convicted of draft evasion and surrendering his championship belt for four years during his prime.
"Why should I go drop bombs and bullets on the brown people of Vietnam," Ali demanded in 1966, "while so-called Negro people in Louisville are being treated like dogs?"
"I sort of knew everyone said Ali was a hero but I didn't fully understand why," Smith muses. "The '60s are a mystery to us kids of the '90s."
Transforming his physique was the first step in Smith's metamorphosis from the light comedian of Men in Black to the acting heavyweight of Ali, the movie getting him talked about as an Oscar contender.
But so what if Smith becomes the first African American since Sidney Poitier in 1963 to take best-actor honors? And conversely, so what if the odds gods, a famously fickle bunch, favor Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind?
More important than awards is that Ali - which was made with the blessing of its subject - marks both a most timely revisiting of the '60s and an irrevocable passage in the life of the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince. At some point between a previous chat in October 2000 and this December afternoon, Smith acquired dimensions that have nothing to do with body but something to do with soul.
His wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (who has a role in the film as the boxer's first spouse, Sonji), puts it best. "The process of making the film has fundamentally changed Will. Now he knows what he needs to be doing and who he needs to be."
And to think that Smith spent the better part of a decade ducking this project as if he were in the ring with Ali himself.
Smith first heard his name in conjunction with that of the ex-heavyweight champ in 1992. "I knew Ali's daughter Maryum from Philadelphia," says Smith, who grew up in the Wynnefield section, not far from where the champ's second wife, Khalilah, settled after their 1977 divorce. By the '90s, Maryum was an aspiring musician, and Smith a PG-rated rapper and TV star of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
"So, Maryum would watch my show with her father and say, 'Daddy, that's the man who needs to play you.' "
Smith didn't take it too seriously. Though Ali would say to reporters that the jug-eared performer was ideal casting as himself, at the time the actor's ambitions were considerably more modest. In 1993, Smith was happy to land a supporting role in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America.
"Cut to 1995, and I hear that there's a script for Ali," Smith recalls. "I also hear that it's four hours long, spanning from his childhood in Louisville to his bout with Parkinson's today."
That year, Smith's success in the blockbuster Bad Boys made him bankable - in an action film. Back-to-back-to-back hits in Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Enemy of the State (1998) solidified his position as the fourth-biggest draw in America.
Still, he turned down the proposed bio for years, he says, "both out of respect for the champ and out of sheer terror at being the guy who ruined the Muhammad Ali story."
Even so, Ali was announced as Smith's follow-up to Wild Wild West (1999). But the disappointing box office of Barry Sonnenfeld's action comedy, coupled with the failure of another boxing biopic, The Hurricane, that year, dimmed Ali's prospects. (Sonnenfeld had hoped to make it, and got as far as taking a pass at the script and scouting Philadelphia locations.)
"I told Barry I was petrified," Smith says. "I didn't think I was ready."
The critical success of Mann's The Insider in 1999 led producer Jon Peters to offer the Ali script, still not yet green-lighted, to the acclaimed filmmaker.
From the perspectives of cost and narrative, Mann, creator of Miami Vice and director of The Last of the Mohicans, had a hard time getting his head around a four-hour epic.
"Then I focused on the decade that Ali became Ali," Mann says. Framing the picture with Ali's 1964 victory over Sonny Liston and his 1974 win over George Foreman, Mann could in between dramatize the pugilist's epochal bout with the U.S. government.
From 1967 to 1971, while Ali fought not to fight in Vietnam, he fought to fight in the ring, and was denied until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft evasion.
Scaling down the picture made it easier to sell to Smith.
"Once I had that perspective of a decade in Ali's life, I could offer Will a program that would help him build the consciousness that was Ali," says Mann, not merely a director but a character-builder.
"Will wasn't totally committed until I detailed how I got Daniel Day-Lewis into character for Mohicans and Crowe for Insider." (After submitting to Mann's mental and physical course work, both actors earned well-deserved Oscar nominations.)
But, Mann says, even after stripping the story to fighting trim, "the movie's minimum cost was still north of where the studio wanted to be."
"It took time to get the studio to commit," says the circumspect Smith. There were intense weeks of negotiation that neither side will comment on. At the end, Mann had a $105 million budget, and Sony Pictures had guarantees from its filmmaker and star that they would pay for overruns.
For months, Pinkett Smith watched her husband train. As the demitasse of a woman observed her super-sized spouse lace himself into Ali's shoes, she noticed that the physical transformation was having psychological effects. It occurred to her that he might be preparing for something bigger than a movie role. And then she began to see Muhammad Ali in a new light. "I think it takes the energy and heart of a boxer to fight social injustice," she reflects.
By all accounts, the epiphany came in Africa. In May the production went to Mozambique to re-create the 1974 Ali-Foreman Zairean "Rumble in the Jungle."
"When we went to the mother country, we were profoundly touched," says comedian-actor Jamie Foxx, a knockout in the film as Ali's cornerman Bundini Brown. Foxx begins a sentence he does not complete: "To see your people still enslaved. . . . "
"Will had a deep diaspora connection to his homeland," Mann says, putting it in personal terms. "Like a Jew in Israel."
"In Africa, he got connected to how the human spirit can inspire," says Pinkett Smith.
Her husband agrees. "Working on the film in general but specifically the African trip" altered him. "I felt God there. As though God is everywhere but lives in Africa. . . .
"Time spent with Ali and Nelson Mandela made me realize I'd be doing a disservice to myself, my family and my creator to squander my gifts," Smith avows.
"I can't imagine that God has blessed me with my talents just in order to earn money. In Africa I came to the realization that I want the world to be a greater place because I'm here."
As to how that might happen, Smith is coy.
"I'm waiting for my inspiration of direction."
His costar Foxx is blunter: "The experience of the film enabled Will to see injustice and politics through Ali's eyes. And that American politics might be even dirtier than those in Hollywood."
The comedian appreciates how both Ali and Smith "use humor to say something serious." (Malcolm X observed something similar about Ali's quality of mind: "One forgets that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate the clown.")
Foxx claims to have seen Smith's directional signal.
"He wants to be president. Really."
Smith for president and Foxx for press secretary? "That's right," Foxx says. "I told Will, 'When you do become a politician, hire me to keep them off your back.' "
Mann completed his fine edit of Ali, rated R for some language and brief violence, right about Sept. 11.
"I had questions about whether Ali's Muslim faith and his war-resister stance would work in a changed, charged climate," the director admits.
"But we had a preview in Long Beach [Calif.] two weeks later, and I was encouraged that the audience had the appropriate reaction. The country that was attacked in 2001 had been enlarged and transformed by Ali in the '60s and '70s."
Pinkett Smith and her husband, the parents of three (a boy and a girl of their own and what she calls her "bonus son" from Smith's first marriage), are idealists, as the efforts of the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation attest. In Philadelphia, the foundation supports Family Care Solutions, which supports day-care services for single mothers, and the 29th Street Community Service Center. "Will and Jada are discussing supporting a school in Philadelphia, but it's still in the planning stages," says Karen Evans, the foundation's executive director.
But they are also pragmatic. The Smiths are a two-franchise family now, with the forthcoming Men in Black sequel for him and The Matrix sequels for her.
"But let's put it this way," Pinkett Smith reflects with a hearty laugh. "After Ali, Men in Black is not a challenge."
"I'm glad I took Ali," she says. "I'm glad I shared it with him." For her, there were two epiphanies.
Smith and Mann are reputed to be the two supreme perfectionists in Hollywood. But Mann is more exacting, Pinkett Smith reckons. "Will's working with him has enabled him to perfect his perfectionism."
The real joy, though, was watching her husband struggle to internalize Ali's values.
"You have to be a special type of person to live in the culture we live in and give up everything for what you believe.
"That is profound."