By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Over the course of his long career, megastar Will Smith has fought off aliens (“Independence Day,” the “Men in Black” films), stepped into a ring as boxing legend Muhammad Ali (“Ali”), played a magical golf caddy (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”) and starred in a TV series (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). But rarely has the action comedy star been called on to do a romantic scene in a movie.
That changes with his new heist film, “Focus,” in which he sizzles on screen with Aussie beauty Margot Robbie. In the high stakes drama, he plays Nicky, a con man, who takes Robbie’s Jess Barrett under his wing and teaches her how to pickpocket properly, among other things. He doesn’t, however, count on falling in love with his pupil, so complications ensue.
The 46-year-old actor is facing his own high stakes moment with the release “Focus,” directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. His last big budget studio movie, 2013’s sci-fi epic “After Earth,” sputtered at the box office. The experience forced the Philadelphia native to re-examine his approach to his work.
“I had to shift from goal-orientation, which made me crazy for a lot of years, to path-orientation, and into this moment right now and enjoying this moment,” he recalled during a recent press conference.
The multitalented Smith began as a rapper in the late ‘80s. Then he became a TV star with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and then took off as a movie star, who could be counted on almost every summer to have a No. 1 hit at the box office. He was known as “Mr. July” in Hollywood.[private]
With “Focus,” the actor, who is married to “Gotham” star Jada Pinkett Smith with whom he has two children, and a son from a previous relationship, decided just to enjoy the experience, and not fret too much about box office figures.
The slick, high-stakes comedy starts out in New Orleans, where Nicky and his crew of thieves are snatching watches, wallets, jewelry—whatever they can get their hands on—at a Super Bowl-type game. Once they tally up the ill-gotten gains—nearly $2 million—Nicky takes his gal pal (Robbie, who starred in “Wolf of Wall Street”) to the event, where they meet a high-roller in one of the skyboxes, where an tense double-or-nothing bet escalates, and Nicky appears poised to lose it all. When he realizes how his feelings for Robbie’s Jess may affect his ability to do his job, he ditches her. But the two reunite three years later in Buenos Aires, where they are working separate con jobs on the same mark. Old feelings are stirred, but can lying and loving co-exist?
To prepare for his role, Smith and his co-stars spent time with a real former con artist Apollo Robbins (a.k.a. “The Gentleman Thief”), who taught them some sleight-of-hand tricks.
Q: What did learn from Apollo that you have applied to your personal life?
Smith: I guess for me the huge take away from this film and we’re starting to talk about is how everything is perception. How reality almost does not matter at all. When you’re talking to a person, it only matters what they perceive. You need them to perceive you as a loving husband; you don’t necessarily need to be one. It’s always a good road if you actually are one.
Q: We’ve seen you do dramatic parts and action comedies, but we don’t get to see you do sexy that much as you do here.
Smith: (quips) Once you go black, you never go back.
Q: Were you comfortable doing the love scenes with Margot Robbie? Do you two have love scenes in “Suicide Squad,” your next movie together?
Smith: We’ll put some in, just to have them. I’m coming into a different time in my career; I’ve always been the goofy kid. Growing up, I always enjoyed the comedic aspect of relating to women. Even though on camera, it was always the funny take on it. This is one of the first times in my career that it was just steamy, full-on man-ness and emotion. It’s funny because it’s actually an uncomfortable space for me. My natural instinct is always when you set a moment in that way and it’s really serious, that’s the perfect time for the joke. To be constantly pulled away from that and live in the seriousness and sexiness of the moment was a little uncomfortable for me.
Q: How did you like shooting the betting scene in the skybox?
Smith: That scene is probably going to be the signature scene of this movie. It’s just so clever. That was a part of the beauty of what Apollo brought to the film. We say the word “con,” but it’s so far beyond con. It’s a deep and powerful perception of how the human mind works. It’s human behavior and those ideas are just so intriguing and exciting. As an actor, there’s one scene going on, so you’re playing one scene, but there’s another scene that’s the real scene going on and then beneath that is the audience is getting played in the scene at the same time. It was such a cool opportunity to be able to do that. It’s an honor to be in a scene like that.
Q: You’ve always been known for being confident and self-assured. Where does that confidence come from?
Smith: I think it’s the opposite. When I was doing “Ali,” and it was the first time that I realized that I would say (as Ali), “I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest!” When we talked, he told me it was because how much like the greatest he didn’t feel. It was almost a mantra for him. That’s sort of a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve-wracking for me sometimes to walk into a new space but my experience is if I just let myself go, it’s a lot easier than letting the voices go, “Oh my God! ‘Focus’ may not be as good as ‘Enemy of the State.’” Rather than letting all those things come in, I like to leap.
Q: Is there a fine line between being a con artist and an actor?
Smith: Part of what was exciting for me about taking this role is how everybody is running a con. Every single person here is running a con. We’ve done our hair, chose our clothes. Everyone wants to be perceived a certain way to gain the things that they have decided that they want in their life. At the center of the film, there’s this idea that lying and loving don’t go together so until we are willing to show that we have warts and to show that we are scared and show that we are not all the things that we are working so hard to be perceived as. So, until we’re willing to let it all go and be authentic, then you actually can’t have the very thing that you’re doing it for, which is the love and connection with other human beings. For me, that was the exciting par: the oh-my-God, everything’s-a-con moment.
Q: Do you feel that you have a lot riding on this film in light of what happened with “After Earth?”
Smith: For me, this film really marks a transition in my life and emotionally in my career. After the failure of “After Earth,” a thing got broken in my mind. I was like, “Oh, whoa, I’m still alive. I still am me even though the movie didn’t open number one. I still can get hired for another movie.” All of those things in my mind, my entire Mr. July, Big Willie Weekend, number one eight weeks in a row, all of that got collapsed and I realized I still was a good person. It is a huge relief for me to not care whether “Focus” is number one or number 10 at the box office. I’ve already gained everything that I could have possibly hoped for by meeting the people that I met and from the creation of what we’ve done together is just painting. I’m going to paint, and some paintings are going be fantastic and others are not going be so good. But I no longer measure the quality of myself on whether or not someone else thinks what I painted is beautiful.
Q: You’ve got “Concussion, ” in which you play a doctor who brings to light the long term effects of brain injuries sustained by athletes, coming up. What was it like shooting that film?
Smith: Yeah, it’s coming out at Christmas. We shot in Pittsburgh. It was really nice with all of the families who would come to the set two or three times a week to visit. It was a really profound experience.[/private]