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Still Fresh

Andrew Dickens interviews Will Smith

Still Fresh

Will Smith beams out a smile like an affable lighthouse. It’s a smile that should be sent to war zones to broker peace. We hard-nosed journalists are immune to the dark arts of publicity, piercing the veneer of promotion with the sword of scepticism, yet this would disarm even the biggest cynic. There’s no doubt: Will Smith is the most charming man on Earth.

And the good news is that, after a four year gap, that smile is back on the big screen – in 3D. It’s thanks to Men In Black 3, which sees Agent J (Smith) go back in time to save Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) by finding the 1969 Agent K, played by Josh Brolin. It is, as you’ll see when you watch it, masterful casting...

Did you remove Josh Brolin’s innards and get Tommy Lee Jones to climb inside his skin? It’s uncanny.

[Laughs] What’s amazing is, and I guess it’s the ultimate compliment, that you don’t notice it. If you just watch the performance, how he’s walking, how he’s locking his arms like Tommy does. His face, all those gestures and mannerisms. It’s brilliant.

Both of those guys have a reputation for being a bit serious – is it true?

Josh is not serious at all. Tommy appears to be serious, but is very silly. It’s just the public persona. He doesn’t exactly love interviews [laughs].

It’s been a while since we saw you on screen – why?

Well, we did Karate Kid. Willow’s doing her music and whipping her hair, Jaden’s got a TV show. And daddy’s been sort of producing at home. But everyone’s really ready for daddy to go back to work now [laughs].

Did you get nervous being back in front of the camera? Any rust?

There was a little rust there, but no nerves as an actor. It was more nervous in the sense of ‘Do people remember the franchise as fondly as we do?’ You never can tell. You never know as a fighter when it’s one fight too many.

Are there any famous people you genuinely suspect of being aliens?

There’s a couple of people who are really questionable, but I’m pretty certain Marlon Brando was an alien. I just look at his work and what he was able to do, and it’s like there’s not another person like him.

So he didn’t die…

He just went home.

They’ll be doing space tourist flights soon – have you got a ticket?

You know, I’m going to let them work the kinks out first. You don’t want to download the first version of the software for your computer [laughs].

Is this the start of you doing more films?

Yeah, I’ll probably take a nice little 10-year run. I’m 43 right now. Well, I’m 42 or 43 – I’m never quite sure. I don’t pay attention. I’ll Google myself when I get upstairs [laughs]. But I figure 50 is when you get to the limit of running, jumping and shooting in movies – when you start to get the old-man run. That’s the kiss of death, when you run and people can tell your knees hurt. Cos right now I still got two or three takes when I can give you a good 23-year-old looking sprint. But then the fourth take, I’m like that middle-aged fighter, and by the eighth take the stuntman has to do it [laughs].

You’ve had different periods in your career. The critically acclaimed stuff, Fresh Prince, the annual ‘Will Smith Weekend’ blockbuster…

Big Willy Weekend! Big Willy Weekend! Fourth of July.

Have you got a fondness for any time in particular?

I think the transition from Fresh Prince into movies was the best time. When I was doing music, doing Fresh Prince during the winter and doing a movie in the summer. So Summertime would be released and I’d have a No1 single, then Fresh Prince would break the top 10, and then Independence Day. You know? And then next summer was music, television show, Men In Black. That period was pretty much as good as I’ll ever need it to be.

If you could neuralyze the planet, which career moment of yours would you have them forget?

There’s a couple of things you’d like to flash away, but my experience has been that all of those things have led to where I am today. And as I sit here today, this is the greatest experience of my life. I’m happier now than I have ever been. I wouldn’t change a thing. You change one thing, you change everything. You see, that’s some deep quantum stuff I’m throwing on you.

You’re getting into flapping butterflies…

Butterflies and dinosaurs and stuff.

Do people still ask you about the Fresh Prince?

More than anything. I think television has the effect of creating almost a friendship with people. When they’re in their underwear and you come into their house every Monday night. With fans of movies, there’s a certain space that they give you. As a television star, people are infuriated when you don’t sign an autograph. “Buddy, we were just hangin’ out together.”

Does it annoy you that people keep coming back to it?

Oh no. Listen, anything that makes them keep coming back, I will do that [laughs]. Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton, gave me the best advice on Fresh Prince. We were deciding on names for the characters and he pulled me aside and said, “Dude, name your character Will Smith, because people are going to call you that for the rest of your life.” And it’s so true, when we go out together everybody’s saying ‘Will, Will’ and ‘Carlton, Carlton’ [laughs].

He should have called himself Alfonso.

He called himself Alfonso on a show he had done with Ricky Schroder earlier in his career, because he had thought that he’d never do a bigger show.

What’s the strangest rumour you’ve ever heard about yourself?

I make it a point not to respond to rumours. I had a run-in with a rumour; that was tough. I’m in Philadelphia and a guy comes up to me and says, “Hey Will, I heard you bought that penthouse across the street.” I said, “Er, no, I didn’t.” And he said, “Yeah, you did. It’s on the cover of the Metro.” And I said, “I don’t care if it’s in the Bible. If Jesus said it, it’s not true.” So he said, “Oh, I get it, security reasons.” I said, “No, no, not security reasons. I’ve never been in that building. I don’t care what the newspaper said. I didn’t buy it.” He said, “OK, Will, I get it, your privacy…” “NO! NO! It’s not about privacy.” And I had this awful realisation: I am the least reliable source for information about my life. So I’m chasing this dude going “No, no, dude, I didn’t buy that…” And there is nothing I can say to make him believe me. So I’ve chosen the ‘no comment’ position [laughs].

Are there any rumours you’d like to start yourself?

I think that’s the way to do it. We should start a good one right now [laughs].

Love affair with Tommy Lee Jones?

Yeah, me and Tommy got caught in a love triangle. No, that’s pretty nasty. That’ll make people throw up in their mouth. We’ll circle back to that later.

With the fame, can you have a ‘normal’ life?

In Los Angeles it’s easier, there are private places people respect. When I go home to Philly, people give me space. But otherwise it’s pretty difficult.

In Philadelphia it’s probably a case of ‘Oh god, he’s here again’.

[Laughs] Yeah! ‘I remember he stole a swing out my back yard.’

That could be the rumour. Is that why famous people tend to…

Hang out? Absolutely. You know, it’s become a really aggressive celebrity culture. I’ve never been a part of all that. I don’t call the damned paparazzi. There’s always been almost a respectful relationship. Pretty much the past eight months is the first time it’s gotten to the point where I couldn’t just say, ‘Hey guys, thanks, but I’m just chillin’’. But there’s this ravenous beast to be fed now, with the internet.

So, do you worry about Willow and Jaden going into that world?

No, they were born into that world. They’re on the internet all the time, so they know the game. They know where to go, what to say. They’re far more savvy. Of course there are gonna be things that are hurtful and self-esteem issues, like we all have, but I grew up in a neighbourhood where I saw a guy get shot and take nine bullets to the chest, so Hollywood is a far safer experience than where I grew up!

What do people expect of you? Are you expected to be Mr Fun?

Yeah. It’s like people expect a personal greeting, and again that’s because of television. I’ve hung with a lot of actors, but with me people are particularly offended when I don’t give a joke or a ‘Hey, how are you?’. The Fresh Prince is really what they’re expecting.

Do they throw Apache on the decks as soon as you walk near a dance floor?

Oh my god! It’s like ‘Go Will!’ It’s an absolute atrocity if one of our records comes on and I don’t rap [laughs]. ‘I can’t believe you let Jiggy go by and you didn’t say a word!’

Talking of that, here’s a lyric quiz for you…

Oh jeez. I hope they’re not mine!

Afraid so. “That’s right, yo and I’m in the flow, so pump up the volume along with the tempo…”

[Mutters rap under his breath] Gah, I almost got that. No clue!

The next words are “I want everybody...”

[Mutters again] Oh, that’s Boom, right? Boom Shake The Room. Goodness.

“On your mark, ready, set, let’s go…”

Dance floor pro! I know that one. “Dance floor pro, I know you know, I go psycho when my new joint hit, just can’t sit, gotta get jiggy wit it.”

Na na na na na na na. Very good. “Don’t get me wrong, Chi-town got it goin’ on, and New York is the city that we know don’t sleep…”

I know that one, I know that one! “And we all know that LA and Philly stay jiggy, but on the sneak, Miami bringin’ heat for real.” Phew! I’m giving myself a headache. It’s all still in there somewhere!

“I’m the quickest as they is, did I say I’m the slickest they is. So if you barking up the wrong tree we comin’, don’t be startin’ nothin’…”

I know that one. [Hesitates] “Me and my partner gonna test your chest. Loveless? Can’t stand the heat then get out the Wild Wild West.” I got this, I’m good at this!

“She turn around to see what you beeping at. It’s like the summer’s a natural ‘afrodisiac’..”

Oh, I know, that one’s easy! “Like the summer’s a natural ‘afrodisiac’. And with a pen and pad I compose this rhyme, to hit you and get you equipped for the summertime… “

Do you have a new album coming out soon?

No, no way. Now, Jay-Z is performing in Philly on 1 September. And he called me the other day and said that it would be great if me and Jeff opened for him. We’re considering that. I gotta take the next 30 days and see if I can remember my lyrics [laughs].

OK, before we go, what about that rumour you’re going to start?

It needs to probably be sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll. Um, I’ve been having an affair with Lady Gaga on the set of Men In Black 3.

Aren’t you worried about her being an alien?

Oh no. For sure, that’s what makes it so special [laughs].

Men In Black 3 is at cinemas nationwide from 25 May