SAN FRANCISCO — In “Gemini Man,” Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a supernaturally gifted assassin, as well as his clone, Junior, who besides looking exactly like a young Will Smith, circa “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” is out to murder him. Before filming began, the director Ang Lee curated a collection of clips from the early years of Smith’s three-decades-long filmography, including scenes from “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Men in Black,” and reviewed them with the actor, like a football coach running game tape.
“Ang basically went, ‘This is fantastic, but this one, don’t ever do that again,’” Smith said. “‘What you did there? I don’t want to see that in my movie.’”
Playing a young Will Smith at 51, the actor said, is a lot tougher than playing an older Will Smith at, say, 16. “You can’t fake innocence,” he said. “You can’t unknow things. When Will Ferrell plays a younger character, he knows how to get around his life experiences and understanding, he knows how to put this nothingness behind his eyes. But that’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Lee chimed in, “It’s not like, O.K., act less good.”
Smith and Lee were in a suite at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco, talking about how the two came together to make “Gemini Man.” Opening Oct. 11, the film is a technological marvel: 4K resolution, shot in 3-D, with the much higher frame rate (120 frames per second, versus the usual 24) Lee employed in his 2016 war picture, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” to mixed reviews. (Some critics found the hyper-realistic effect uncinematic.) Smith insisted that Junior was not a “de-aged” version of himself, but a “100-percent fully digital character” that any actor could “drive.” Albeit perhaps not as well as him? “Well, we hope not,” he laughs.
The two kept the tone light, even when the conversation turned to serious topics, like Lee’s initial experiences as an Asian director in Hollywood (“I figured, hell, if I can direct Emma Thompson with my broken English, I can do anything”) and #OscarsSoWhite. In person, Smith explodes into a room; Ang Lee, well, doesn’t. But after directing actors from Heath Ledger (“Brokeback Mountain”) to Chow Yun-fat (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Lee knows what he wants out of a film and his cast and crew, and Smith clearly defers to him.
“My father was in the military,” Smith said, “and one thing he would always say to me was ‘If two people are in charge, everybody dies.’ Then he would say, ‘So am I in charge, or are you?’ For me, there’s a certain amount of surrender that you have to give if you really want to be a successful actor.”
The film began at Disney two decades ago, with assorted directors (Tony Scott, Curtis Hanson) and actors (Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt) attached at various points. But the filmmakers had to wait for the technology to catch up to what they wanted to put onscreen. Lee loves all this technological stuff, and believes the film’s high frame rate, and resultant immersive feel, is the wave of the future. “Ang is working with $100,000 cameras and the 3-D and trying to get the focal points, and I’m like,” and here, Smith pulls out his cellphone and mimes taking a goofy selfie with Lee. “I felt like a 9-year-old on that set.”
Paradoxically, they’re the opposite off set: Smith is an avid user of Instagram, with more than 38 million followers, and geeks out over advancements like the “three-camera thing” on his recently purchased iPhone 11. Lee “can barely do email on my iPad,” he said.
In addition to compelling Smith to review scenes of his younger self, the film also made him consider his life from the perspective of Henry, an amiable working stiff who just wants to retire after a career of good and faithful murders. Not that Smith is looking to retire, but after years as king of the summer movie (his films have grossed more than $8 billion worldwide), the actor has made peace with the fact that he’s no longer the guaranteed hitmaker he once was. This summer’s “Aladdin,” in which he played the genie, was a billion-dollar smash and “Suicide Squad” in 2016 scored well, but “Concussion,” the year before, couldn’t break $50 million.
“We all get that opportunity, in our 40s or 50s, where you can either make the change, or you doom yourself to a lifetime steeped in your mistakes,” he said. “I’ve definitely felt that over the last five or six years, trying to make that transition from that youthful desire of ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world,’ to doing something that has a little bit more value beyond my ego.”
Even if he is feeling his years, in person, the “old” Will Smith doesn’t look all that different from Junior. “I knew there was going to be a photo shoot, so I sauced it up a little bit,” he admitted. But the sorts of stunts he used to do without blinking in “Bad Boys” and “Independence Day” now give him pause. “Definitely on this movie, I was so happy that Junior was C.G.I.,” he said. “My back and knees don’t feel like the young Will Smith, I’ll tell you that much.”
Lately, many of Smith’s decisions have come with an eye toward his family. When asked about his boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards amid the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, he said, “Well, my wife took the stand first. And as a good husband, I supported her decision, which turned out to be correct, and the Oscars responded well and aggressively over the next couple of years.”
And his decision to play Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, in the forthcoming biopic “King Richard”? “I have a 19-year-old daughter who is trying to make her way in the world, so I feel like my life has totally prepared me for this role,” he said.
The project represents the first time the actor has worked with a black director (Reinaldo Marcus Green) and, counting this film with Lee, the second time in two years he’s worked with a director of color. He said he was drawn to the story because of the tennis coach’s unshakable confidence. While he may not have raised his own kids with the level of confidence that Williams did — “he never doubted that he was creating the No. 1 and No. 2 tennis players of all time,” Smith said — he takes pride in the effort he and Jada have put in. “There was a lot of work that went into orchestrating their childhood,” he said.
Talk turned to another sports-related biopic, the 2001 “Ali,” which Smith said was one of his favorite films, as well as “the most difficult performance I’ve ever given.” There was the obvious physical requirement of learning not just how to box, but how to box like Ali, all while playing one of the most recognizable humans who ever lived (a task not so different from what the special-effects folks on “Gemini Man” had to contend with in creating a young Will Smith).
Smith connected to Ali’s swagger, although perhaps not for the reasons one might expect. “I felt like I could relate to when Ali would say, ‘I am the greatest,’ that he was saying it because he really felt like he wasn’t. That you have to keep saying it to yourself because you’re trying to prove it to yourself.”
As for Lee, he has a soft spot for “Six Degrees of Separation,” the 1993 adaptation of the play that Smith, then 25, starred in alongside Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Ian McKellen. Though Smith was criticized for avoiding a kiss his gay character delivers in the stage version, Lee took a wider view.
“He didn’t have that persona yet, of Will Smith being Will Smith, carrying big movies,” Lee said. “But there’s something quite precious about how he is in that movie. It’s a dramatic piece, with many great actors around him, and he shines.”
After their interview, the two rushed across the street to the Moscone Center to make a midday appearance at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. There, among the tech bros and assorted dreamers, Smith and Lee chatted up their movie, with Lee extolling the virtues of his vision of cinema while simultaneously asking for patience with it. (“Give us some time,” he said, “we’ll get there.”) Smith served as the sole judge when four wannabe tech titans were given 40 seconds each to explain why their start-up idea was the best. Smith was in his element, joking with the nervous contenders and charming attendees at the standing-room-only event, most of whom flooded out of the hall once Lee and Smith left.
After “Gemini Man,” Smith will play a suave supersleuth (who turns into a pigeon) in the animated “Spies in Disguise,” due in December, then reunite with Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys for Life” and star as the New York City crime boss Nicky Barnes in the biopic “The Council.” But despite having about a half dozen films in various stages of production, he insisted that he’d been trying to take it easy, or at least easier.
“Definitely, at this point in my life and career, I’m trying to do less,” he said. “I’m trying to cultivate a taste for stillness.”
And how’s that going?
“It’s not going well,” he admitted. “Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
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