By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Will Smith has been entertaining audiences for more than three decades. First, as a rap star. Then as the cross-over star of TV’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” And subsequently as one of the most bankable movie stars in the world, portraying characters in a variety of genres. He most recently played the Genii in Disney’s live-action remake “Aladdin,” which has earned more than $1 billion worldwide at the box office to date.
As an action hero, the Philadelphia-born actor has fought countless baddies onscreen, but in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” he faces his most formidable opponent yet—his younger self.
Thanks to remarkable state-of-the-art digital effects, the still-youthful looking 51-year-old squares off against a digitally created version of his younger self (23, to be exact) in the action thriller. Smith plays a retired sniper named Henry who suddenly becomes a target from the very government that has employed him for decades. What better way to kill the country’s most deadly assassin than to send a younger, stronger, meaner replica to do the dirty deed? Junior (a very realistic looking digital copy of Smith) has been raised by Clay (Clive Owen) the head of a top-secret black ops unit who has decided that Henry has gotten a little soft and too retrospective about the dark deeds he’s done in his “old age.”
Smith, who has appeared in successful blockbuster franchises including “Bad Boys” and “Men in Black,” as well as earned two Oscar nominations for his dramatic performances in “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” spoke about tackling his toughest onscreen opponent yet, and working with Oscar-winning filmmaker Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi”).
Q: When you read this script the first time what made you say “I’m in?”
Smith: I loved the philosophical idea that we all plant the seeds of our own destruction. We are our own worst enemy. We make choices and we make decisions in our lives that set things in motion that we can’t blame other people for. It’s the battle with trying to overcome our karma. I just thought it was a really clever and creative way to say that we are the architects of our ultimate rise or fall and to be able to do that in this way is a big part of why I love science because you can put those things on really wild visual landscapes.
Q: What do you think about the computer-generated younger version of yourself?
Smith: People don’t completely understand the depth of what (the visual effects people) attempted and accomplished here. Junior is not “de-aged.” It’s not my face and they smoothed out my face to make it look younger. It’s a 100-percent digital human in the same way that the tiger in “The Life of Pi” is. It’s a one hundred percent digital interpretation, a digital character. It’s the first digital human, so it’s actually a spectacular thing to be able to make people feel emotion in that way capturing the youthful eyes. That’s the one thing for me that was so amazing. It was the hardest part that me and Ang (Lee) were talking about. You can’t fake innocence. I was trying to explain in an interview the other day that as a young actor it is easier to play older but older, it’s difficult to impossible to play younger. Once you know some stuff, it’s in your eyes. It’s in your cells once you know some stuff. So, to try to have eyes that unknown like sex. Once you’ve had sex, you walk different. It’s in your back, you know? So, (the visual effects team’s) job in creating a digital human was to be able to sell that innocence and that youth and be able to see a digital human in that way. I think (they) have done spectacular work.
Q: How did you play yourself both as a youth and older?
Smith: The great thing that Ang did even before we even met, he had gone through my filmography and grabbed things. He grabbed “Fresh Prince.” He grabbed “Six Degrees of Separation,” and there was “Bad Boys” and “Independence Day.” He grabbed the scenes and was sort of walking me though moments. He would look and say, “I like very much what you have done in this moment here in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ In ‘Bad Boys,’ this one was good but don’t ever do this.” So, we sort of created a language from my old characters and the moments that he was trying to capture.
It’s funny. There’s a thing before you learn how to act. There’s a powerful thing you have from not knowing and it’s really difficult to recapture that not knowing. He found these honest moments in some of my early work but I would say, of all the things that was the most difficult part. It almost felt like learning how to do some bad acting because there is an honesty before you actually learn where the light is and you learn how to stand and you learn that makes people clap for movie stars in the theater. Letting go of all of that stuff was really difficult.
Q: Scenes like the motorcycle chase scene has both Henry and Junior in them. What was the particular challenge of having both you as a younger man and as yourself now in a scene like that? Also, are all the digital shots just Junior, or are there some of them you as well?
Smith: Because everyone is looking at the Junior character, they don’t realize there are full digital old Henry shots in the film also so there are moments where full-frame close-up shots are old, it’s hard to say “old” Will, “young” Will, “young” me/”old” me, but there are full digital shots of “old” Will/”old” Henry in the film also. That’s when you can tell if it works—when people are not thinking about it.
Q: The movie was shot at 120 frames-per-second. Does that make everything crystal clear?
Smith: It’s so crystal clear that the actors couldn’t wear makeup because when the camera moves in, you can see makeup on our faces. So, I had to drink a lot of water. (He laughs.) I couldn’t afford a break-out.
Q: What went through your mind when you first saw the movie with Junior on screen?
Smith: It was really crazy. The first time I saw it, it was chilling almost. It was a little scary. The first thing I saw was one of my favorite shots in the whole movie—when Henry flips Junior over in the catacombs and then puts the light up onto Junior’s face. That was one of the first completed shots I saw. It was a little bit surreal, a little bit weird. Then I started getting excited about all of the possibilities like a young Will Smith/young Marlon Brando movie that could get made. It could get made while I’m at home, which could be great.
It’s a full 23-year-old digital version of myself and my mind just started to go wild about what you’d be able to do. Even the how the action sequences were done. Normally, in an action sequence you can’t just punch somebody in the face so you take a shot and you go behind (he demonstrates) the actor and the actor goes “Ahhh.” If you miss you move the camera and keep going. Now, what they were able to do with this technology, you do the scene, you do the swing then they take the fist and actually put it on the face of the digital character and bend the face and throw the sweat and all of that. So, when you’re seeing those shots now, where we are used to seeing misses with sound and blur, now you’re seeing full shots in the same way in MMA.
So, it was really a great new way to do the action. You do all these different variations and the stunt men can do full takes and we can do full takes and they will be able to make the most visceral version of it when they get all of those assets in to post production. So, in terms of action, I’m really excited about the use of this technology in the future.
Q: With all the franchises and sequels and re-makes today, will “Gemini Man” be the underdog?
Smith: Absolutely, definitely in the new world, it’s a whole lot safer from a financial standpoint to make a “Part 3” of something than it is to do something brand new from the ground up. That’s what we were all excited about with this, to push the envelope to get people to go to movie theaters to see something that you can’t see at home.
Q: In the film, audiences find out the backstory of both the young and older Henry character. Can you talk about the way they were raised making them the men they became?
Smith: That was one of the major discussions we were having in terms of nature vs. nurture and how, if you are genetically identical, how much does your life experience effect the things that you say and do and feel? We were trying to draw as big as difference as possible between the characters. Henry grew up in a frugal household and had a tougher upbringing whereas Junior had the perfect upbringing with Clive’s character. In Clive’s character’s pursuit of the perfect human he was trying to lay out the perfect experience for young Junior. So, it was all the right schools and he was only allowed to read the right books and he was only allowed to experience the best of what the nurturing aspects of a home should be. So, in drawing those distinctions, it was interesting that it still came down to two men who had taken these gifts that they had and turned them into things that were going to create nightmares and a horrible end to this experience.
Q: You mentioned that you and Ang watched old videos of you together. How was that experience? Was it fun or embarrassing, maybe?
Smith: Was re-watching all my original work fun? No. Not with Ang Lee on the edge of his chair watching everything I’ve ever done and breaking it down and describing it. So, I wouldn’t say that was fun. But, it terms of being in a film school environment, it was fantastic. I grew as an actor and a human for the time I was able to spend with such an incredible artist as Ang Lee.
Q: You like science fiction, so what was the sci-fi movie that really hooked you?
Smith: “Star Wars” was the movie when I was growing up that absolutely stunned me. After “Star Wars” ended, I couldn’t believe that they could make me feel like that with a story and with these characters. I think career-wise, the things that I’ve been chasing are “Star Wars” and (Michael Jackson’s) “Thriller.” Those are the two pieces of entertainment that I’ve always been hoping to make something that matches for others how I felt when I experienced those.
Q: What if we could really clone human beings? If someone died, you could recreate them and wouldn’t have to grieve the loss. How do you feel about that?
Smith: I think we all have the human quest to overcome our pain. So, we’re all trying to figure out how to eliminate suffering from our lives and there was an interest phrase I heard the other day: poisoned honey. We reach for poisoned honey a lot in order to overcome our pain and suffering. When I think about cloning—and we talked about it a lot on this movie—it’s one of those scientific reaches that I think we’ve already gone down the road but there are things about cloning that we don’t know yet that we’re going to find out. My opining is that cloning would ultimately pan out to be poisoned honey. It would be a reach that could potentially come back and bite you in a way that we are probably not considering fully.
Q: Your co-star Clive Owen says he never regards the characters he’s played , including the one he plays in “Gemini Man,” as bad guys. Rather, you’re playing flawed characters, and you try to find the best way in to express that character. He also called you the “best version of a major movie star” in terms of your acting skills, discipline and focus.
Smith: In terms of playing a bad guy, I’ve never played a character that’s really a bad guy in that sense, but there is no such thing as a bad guy. Nobody wakes up and says, “I want to be a bad guy today.” In the person’s mind, they’re doing good. They’re doing right. Nobody wants to be bad. Clive’s character was 100 percent right, in his own mind.
Q: How did you go back and forth between Henry and Junior every day and do you have any advice to your 23-year-old self?
Smith: What Ang did that was really great. What makes someone an actor’s director is when they understand how to create circumstances for you to achieve the psychological and emotional space that they are looking for. So, Ang was really good about separating Henry from Junior in the schedule. You get lathered up into Henry and if the shift is too abrupt, it’s hard to get your mind around it.
Q: What would be your advice for your younger self?
Smith: My younger self was wildly and insanely aggressive. At 23-years-old, I was naïve and ambitious and aggressive. There is a power to naiveté. There is a power that I’m actually trying to get back in my life right now. I would be asking my 23-year-old self for advice. He made some good-ass decisions. I wouldn’t have done it that way but he made some good calls. So, for me, just in the last couple of years I’ve been feeling trapped by the success that I’ve had and the decisions I’ve made have been smaller trying to protect Will Smith. So, on my 50th birthday, I jumped out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon trying to get back to that youthful, fearless space. I would be interviewing him rather than trying to give him advice.
Q: You’ve been making action movies for a long time, but have you thought about what you want to do as you get older? What kinds of films do you want to do?
Smith: I can be jumping off buildings into my 100s. No, I think more than just the transition in roles, I turned 51 last week, and I’m experiencing a transition in my life. More than ever I’m seeing my role in the world as a role of service. In my younger days, it was ambition. I wanted to win. I wanted to put points on the board. Now, I’m going to a position in my life where the main question I ask myself before I do anything is, “How is this of service to the human family?” So, I’ll be making more and more decisions in my life. I love science fiction. I love filmmaking. I wanted to (do this press conference here at L.A.’s offices of) YouTube as an outreach for me to a new generation, the next generation of artists and filmmakers. I’m just trying to figure out how to make everything I do conscious and thought out and is some justifiable service to the human family.