By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In his long and illustrious acting career, superstar Will Smith has done it all onscreen. He’s played the greatest boxer of all time in “Ali.” He’s battled aliens as a no-nonsense government agent in the “Men in Black” franchise. He’s pursued “Happyness” as a down-on-his luck dad. And, of course, he was the fish-out-of-water rapper in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Yet, at 50, Smith was daunted at the prospect of playing the Genie in Disney’s remake of its 1992 animated musical, which starred the late Robin Williams (who gave voice to the wish-granting blue guy). Smith explains during a press conference promoting the all-new “Aladdin” remake that right before taking on the role, he had just emerged from a self-imposed two-year sabbatical to rediscover himself. Getting back in the saddle of moviemaking, as well as the prospect of following in the footsteps of Williams, who had delivered such an iconic performance as the Genie, presented some nail-biting challenges for the Philadelphia native.
But, Smith signed on, and he now says he’s glad he did.
The new “Aladdin” musical spectacle is directed by “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’” Guy Ritchie, who also co-wrote it. The film combines live-action with state-of-the-art CGI to create a whole new world of Middle-Eastern flavored fantasy for the whole family.
Smith plays the Genii, who emerges from a long exile inside his magical lamp when a young street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) finds it in a cave. Duty-bound to grant three wishes to whoever possesses the lamp, the Genie and Aladdin embark on an exciting adventure together. Aladdin’s first wish is to exit the cave without the dangerous and conniving Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who has sent him on the dangerous expedition in the first place, seeing him. Aladdin asks the Genie to make him a prince so he can gain access to a castle where a beautiful girl he previously met at the marketplace resides. He thinks she is a handmaiden to the princess, but he’s in for a surprise.
Meantime, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is perturbed by her father, the king’s, plans to marry her off to a prince. The feisty young royal feels she’s fully capable of succeeding her father to the throne someday but, you know, patriarchy. Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” TV series) and London-born Scott (2017’s “Power Rangers”) play the star-crossed lovers who sing and dance their way through various adventures. This quasi-live action version includes all the classic songs from the original “Aladdin,” including “A Whole New World,” “A Friend Like Me” and “Arabian Nights,” plus a new girl-power power-ballad called “Speechless,” which is sure to get an Oscar nod next year.
Smith points out that none of his scenes as the Genie are actually him on set. Rather, those shots of him are extremely convincing computer animation of his visage and movements. The actor only appears onscreen live as a mariner who, at the beginning, recounts the exciting Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin to his two children, as well as appears later.
The two-time Oscar nominee (“Ali,” “Pursuit of Happyness”) talked about playing the Genie, a character that has drawn some criticism for having blue skin because Smith is African-American, even though the character was blue in the 1992 film. He also revealed how excited he was to star in his first Disney film and what it was like getting into character via the songs.
Q: What was it like playing the Genie?
Smith: A lot of people don’t recognize this, but the Genie is 100 percent CGI. People look at it and they think it’s my face—blue—and my body, but the Genie is 100 percent CGI. There’s none of me in the Genie. The work (animation/effect) was so good that they don’t even get credit for it. What happened, and what was great for me, is that I would just be on set and we’d run the scenes and I’d improv on set for scenes that wouldn’t necessarily be in the movie. Then, we would do the first round—the CGI work—and then we’d go again and we’d work it. Then, Guy (Ritchie) watched the whole movie and I had another chance to go back and play with lines and make adjustments because they were going to create it anyway. So, for me, there was tons of improve. We got to the point where Guy would let anybody throw it out there and it would become a fun thing on set to try and find that.
Q: What was it like being in your first Disney film?
Smith: The Disney magic is real. This is my first Disney movie. And there’s something that Walt Disney did in the core of these stories that is something that shocks the inner-child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment. So, for me, coming into this, it first started with fear. (He laughs.) Definitely started with fear. What Robin Williams did with this character was he just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie. So, I started off fearful, but then when I got with the music, it just started waking up that fun, childlike, silly part of me. This was the most joyful experience of my career.
Q: Was there any one particular song that resonated with you the most?
Smith: The song that got me over the hump was “Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it and, literally, 30 minutes in the studio I started to play with it and found it in that 94-96 bpm range. We were playing around in there. I think it ultimately was a little bit faster than that, but that 94-96 bpm range is in old school hip hop, so I grabbed The Honeydrippers’ (1973 song) “Impeach the President,” which is a really classic old-school hip hop break beat. I had him throw that breakbeat under there and I messed with that. I met with Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” under “Friend Like Me,” and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m home. I’m home.” And then I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was really born in my mind.
Q: What did you think of working with Guy Ritchie?
Smith: It’s a really beautiful approach that he has. I heard an idea in (Paulo Coelho’s novel) ‘The Alchemist,” about a shepherd leading from behind, and that’s a really beautiful approach that Guy takes. It’s like the first five or six takes, he doesn’t say anything. He just watches, and he just let you do what you’re going to do, and he sees what are everybody’s choices are naturally, and he watches. Everybody gets excited and we’re playing and we feel like we’re making it, and then he comes in and just gently starts to guide everybody back towards what he wants. He’s wildly collaborative and open and it’s a rare combination to be that open and that definitive at the same time. It’s a very difficult thing to do. He has mastered that very well.
Q: Did you keep anything from set?
Smith: I always like to keep a little piece of wardrobe. For me, for whatever reason, the wardrobe has a great value, so I tucked the turban (I wore) on the way out.
Q: What are you now looking to do with your career? You’ve got a serious sci-fi movie “Gemini Man” coming out soon, directed by Ang Lee.
Smith: Yeah. I took a couple of years off; I guess I had sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things that I could create in my career. I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family and I kind of got to a point where I had a bit of a collapse of my life and creations. So, I took a couple of years off essentially to study and journey, spiritually.
“Aladdin” was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing. What I’ve discovered is everything starts with, “What am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents and can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscience?”
“Aladdin” checks all of those boxes. I love the idea of Genie. One of the things that I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles, right? The Genie also has these spectacular powers but he’s shackled. He is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. That’s sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. But then, in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom where I’m getting free of Will Smith and I’m getting more comfortable being me. “Aladdin” was that first step back out.
In terms of (Ang Lee’s) “Gemini Man,” we’re not going to talk about that yet, but just the ideas of that and there’s some deep concepts in that. It’s just about my beliefs. I’m going out into the world and have a big, big voice. People look and people listen and I just want to make sure I’m saying things that improve and contribute to people’s life, growth, joy and evolution.
Q: How important was it to you to preserve the authenticity of the story of “Aladdin” from a cultural standpoint?
Smith: It is critically important to be able to pull stories, colors, textures and tastes from around the world. In this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity (is important). It will be a critical part of turning our connectivity because we have more connectivity than ever, but transitioning that connectivity into harmony is going to be really critical. These kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful global service. So, it was critical and important to me. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East also. So, this (movie), particularly, was a critically important in that way. The ultimate compliment you can get from the actor’s point of view is, “We were transported to the time and place,” and that’s what happened when we walked on that set.
When you walked through, I was wowed by the textures of the walls, the stairs—all of that. You could go up and go out onto the rooftop and it was a powerful way to transport the actors into the emotions and the smells of the time and place.
Q: If you had a Genie, what three wishes would you want granted?
Smith: I would have a one wish and my one wish would be a divine understanding. That’s the thing that I’ve been finding. I just turned 50 (last September). That lack of understanding and confusion is the mother of fear and violence, so I would absolutely wish for divine understanding to be shared with all. I think that understanding is the seed of peace.