Will Smith Is Done Trying to Be Perfect

Will Smith’s superpoweras a performer — as a movie star — has always been his radiating charisma. Who else could have credibly portrayed Muhammad Ali, the most charismatic man ever? In “King Richard,” Smith transmutes that gift into something subtler but just as powerful in his portrayal of Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena. (Smith, as he was eager to acknowledge, was supported in the film by Saniyya Sidney as Venus, Demi Singleton as Serena and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother and Williams’s wife at the time, Oracene Price.) Richard Williams, as embodied by Smith, is a man who has been physically bowed but not beaten. He has a limp from a racist attack as a child; his carriage is tense, a little unsure, as if always on alert for a sucker punch. He’s someone who has spent time beneath the underdog. And yet when it comes to Williams’s daughters and his dreams for them of tennis greatness, Smith invests his character with his trademark on-screen self-assurance. That Smith, who is 53 and who this autumn published a searching memoir, “Will,” was able to express those disparate traits so effectively is something he attributes to the work, precipitated by that book, that he has lately put into himself. “I wouldn’t have been able to play Richard Williams in this way,” Smith says, “before I had examined my life and understood so many aspects of my childhood and how that affected the decisions I made as a parent.”

There’s a key scene in “King Richard” in which Richard Williams talks about getting beaten up by a gang of white men as a child and seeing his father run away rather than help him. Not wanting to repeat that act of cowardice is ostensibly what drove his behavior toward his daughters. In your book, you write about seeing your dad hit your mom and how the cowardice that you felt for not intervening subsequently drove your own behaviors. When it came time to play Richard Williams, had you made any links between those situations? Absolutely. As an actor, you’re trying to find the aspects of the character that you most innately understand. So I could relate to Richard Williams similarly as I related to my father. I could relate to both their senses of disrespect. They felt unsupported and disrespected, and that was central for both of them. I started finding all those parallels, and also what happened is I got better as an actor during that time. I was organizing my memoir while I was working on “King Richard.” These two things have gone together. My ability as an actor expanded in the last 18 months. It’s one of the most exponential jumps in emotional comprehension that I’ve ever had.

Good acting can be such an intangible thing. What are you looking at as evidence of improvement? At the core, acting is what can you comprehend emotionally. And when you comprehend it emotionally, do you understand it enough to feel it and create interesting behavior around it? So something like Richard Williams’s walk: Now, you can mimic someone’s walk and look authentic. It’s a completely different thing when you know why the person is hunching over versus the stand-up-comedian version of it just mimicking it. Understanding that was the leap that happened: When you know why Richard Williams’s left leg hurts, what happened with the spike that got driven through it, that, as an actor, is the 90 percent of the iceberg that’s below the surface. When you’ve programmed it deeply, those things have corresponding vibrations for the audience that they don’t even realize.

Richard Williams with his daughters, Venus (left) and Serena, in 1991 in Compton, Calif.Credit…Paul Harris/Online USA/Getty Images
Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton (left) as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in the film “King Richard.”Credit…Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

What does your walk say about you? Ha! I guess if you were to psychoanalyze my walk from eight years ago, it’d be two things: My walk is really fast, and it’s high. I’m trying to create a joyful persona, and it’s because a long time ago I realized how you enter a space is going to determine how the space reacts to you. So my walk is joyful, but it’s also somewhat performative and pre-emptive. It’s like, I don’t want somebody to feel like they have to punch me in my face. I want to walk into a room and get as many friends as quickly as possible.

You said “eight years ago.” Does your walk say something different now? At this point in my life, I’m comfortable in my body. I’m OK with things not being perfect. I don’t have to look right. My mind isn’t drifting to what people are thinking when I walk in anymore. It’s much less performative and conscious.

Being a parent and a husband involves its own kind of performance. How did you think about those identities for Richard Williams, and how might they be different from how you, Will Smith, perform them? Richard Williams wants to gain respect, but he’s not trying to gain approval. There was a part of me, when I started, that desperately craved the approval of the world. That bleeds into everything. I wanted my children to align themselves to obtain the approval of the world. Richard Williams: very different. He was training his kids that they would most likely be getting brutalized by the world, and you don’t need their approval, but you’re going to have their respect. Which made him much more insular, and his push for the security of the family was of a higher value than the presentation of the family to the world. That was a serious difference between our parenting.

Throughout your career, you’ve been strategic about your choice of roles. For a long time you picked what you were doing based on the goal of wanting to be the biggest movie star in the world. What’s your plan now? And how did “King Richard” fit into it? Strategizing about being the biggest movie star in the world — that is all completely over. I realized that in order to enjoy my time here and in order to be helpful, it’s much more about self-examination. I want to take roles where I get to look at myself, where I get to look at my family, I get to look at ideas that are important to me. Everything in my life is more centered on spiritual growth and elevation. So, for example, one of the most important things to me during this process is, I want to make sure that Aunjanue Ellis and Saniyya and Demi are elevated and the world sees their work. I’m not looking for people to clap for me. I have two young actresses that this is their first time around on this level. I want them to feel loved and protected. I want Aunjanue to get her flowers. That is where my attention is in this process versus my attention being on box office or awards. I have as close to zero self-interest in that area as could possibly be.

Sidney, Singleton and Smith at a press event at Wimbledon on Nov. 17.Credit…Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

What was the idea that Richard Williams represented that was important to you? Aunjanue referred to Richard and Oracene: She said that they were co-conspirators in this crazy dream. To me, everybody wants to have a crazy dream. You have to have fun with the absolute insanity of what you want to create in your life, unify your family around it and go for it. That’s the fun of life. We can’t all expect to hit it how the Williams family hit it, but I’m loving shining light on the idea of a family going for it.

You’ve also got a new Disney+ documentary series about the planet Earth. What’s an idea from that series that’s got you jazzed? I’m starting to see how science and spirituality are kind of the same thing. Religion and science, definitely at a subatomic level — that is all the definition of God, right? Everybody’s looking for the same thing. I grew up in a very religious household; my grandmother was all the way Jesus’ homegirl. My mind has always been scientific. I’m starting to see how those things fuse together. When I go and stand next to a volcano and I feel the pounding of that bass shaking my body — the fear that I feel and the awe of nature is deeply spiritual. The exploration for me is relating to nature scientifically but also, like with the volcano, spiritually.

You sound so intentional about everything. Do you ever do stuff just for fun? Almost never. It might be something I’ll have to start to let go of. I’ve been letting go of outcomes. I used to be wildly goal- and target-oriented. But my intention is still really firm. My life is pretty structured. I’m always up from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. reading and meditating on specific things or dreams and ideas that I want to put into the world. I’m very organized in that way. I guess the illusion of control settles my mind. I hope.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Brian Cox about the filthy rich, Dr. Becky about the ultimate goal of parenting and Tiffany Haddish about God’s sense of humor.

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