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Interview: Will Smith

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Will Smith needs no introduction – from his days as the Fresh Prince to I am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness, Hancock and Men In Black via Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (not to mention a few Grammy wins), he hasn’t been far from our television and cinema screens for the last three decades.

Now he’s starring in Focus, a sexy new con artist rom-com from the directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love, alongside The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie (you can read our interview with her here.)

Ahead of its UK release on the 27th February I caught up with Will to talk about Focus, his electrifying on-screen chemistry with co-star Robbie, being drawn to playing characters with “dubious morals”, and about his recent recording sessions with Kanye West.

It was the possibility of working with the director/writer combo of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra that sparked Will’s initial interest and subsequent involvement in the film. He says: “I love the work of John and Glenn; they did Crazy, Stupid, Love and I love that film, and when I read Focus it was so interesting because it’s so many different kinds of movies. They completely ignore genre, so it’s a heist film but then there will be bizarre comedy for a while and then it’s really serious and it’s great action and then there’s a wonderful love story at the centre of the film. I just love how many different styles and flavours that they would demand of the actors.”

Making the film was hugely fun (“it’s like this real great family”) and this was partially created by the directors’ openness with improv: “they create a set where everyone’s involved, so, they get what they want and you’re rolling and they’ll let anyone yell out a line,” says Will. “If it’s funny they’ll be like “yeah, yeah Margot say that.” It was a little awkward for me in the love scene but other than that… “Will, Will, Will put your leg up.” Like man, I have done this before!”

For Will, Focus had a “little bit of a different tonal quality.” As he says, “It’s not straightforward funny, it’s like it’s dead serious and then they [the directors] manage to figure out how the situation makes it funny.

“I’m from the American sit-com school so for me you don’t not have to make people guess whether or not it’s funny, you go really hard at it.”

His character, Nicky, the film’s successful con-man protagonist, has questionable morals - a character trait that Will has often been drawn to in his roles: “I guess I like the concept of dubious morals, I always like to play in that area… those are the types of roles that I’m pushing more towards.

“With the character in Focus, his issue is he is committed to lying. Morally he’s made a decision that, being a liar is the only way that he can survive.”

Will praises his Focus co-star Margot and her strong on-set instincts: “The thing about Margot is that she is absolutely certain of who she wants to be and what she wants to do… she’s also absolutely certain of who she wants you to be and what she wants you to do too, so that was fun. In a scene she was like “no, not like this… do it like…” you know I have made a couple of movies Margot”, Will laughs. “90% of the time, if something doesn’t feel right to her in a scene, it’s correct, her instincts are really brilliant. It was really fun working with someone with that level of instincts, that was so different from my own.”

The on-screen chemistry between Will and Margots’ characters is, in many scenes, electrifying, but the success of their pairing came as a surprise to them both: “When Margot came to read for the role, she didn’t think there was any chance that she was going to get it because of how different we are… I’m 46 and Margot was 23 when we did it so it seemed like it wouldn’t work in that way. I’m from Philly and she’s from Australia… but for some reason it just worked perfectly.”

Famous ‘theatrical thief’ Apollo Robbins was responsible for teaching Will and Margot the sleight-of-hand, pick-pocketing tricks that their con-artist characters showcase within the movie. Will recalls a memorable experience he had with his expert pick-pocketing teacher: “I went to Vegas with Apollo, which is a different way to go to Vegas… first of all because no one actually allows you to go in anywhere with Apollo. He wanted me to walk into a store and he said “pick something up, put it in your pocket and walk out” and what you realise is, it takes such courage to even try to. What I learnt with the character is that it’s also a thrill, it’s like jumping out of an aeroplane, it’s like being that close to someone turning around and saying “what’re you doing?!”, that is a serious, addictive kind of thrill.”

As a two-time Academy Award nominee, four-time Golden Globe nominee, star and producer of multiple blockbuster films and four-time Grammy Award winner, a lot is expected of Will by audiences and fans worldwide. Will admits that the self-imposed pressure of “always trying to top what you did last time” dominated a lot of his career, but “I’ve stopped doing that. I was in a really competitive place for a large part of my career and it stopped being fun, and now I’ve sort of settled into a place emotionally where I just want to create, I want to be with great people, I want to have fun and not concern myself with the outcome of the movie: less goal-oriented and more path-oriented.”

Another pressure Will feels, as an actor, is the pressure to look good. He talks about how his wife Jada Pinkett Smith told him to get in better shape for his Focus role: “Jada found out that Margot was doing the movie and we went on the internet and looked to see pictures of Margot and she looked at Margot and said, “you better get in the gym, do not embarrass me on camera… get yourself together’.”

Fans have a lot to look forward to in the near-future, with Will starring as Deadshot in the DC Comics Suicide Squad, in which he reunites with Margot, which he’s looking forward to. Unfortunately, Will didn’t have many details to disclose about the project: “He [director David Ayer] only sends you your character’s stuff, so you don’t know what’s going on with the other characters... I think he wants it to come alive on-set.”

As well as this Will will also be starring in the sports drama Concussion, alongside Academy Award nominated Alec Baldwin and recent BAFTA nominee Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Films aren’t all that Will’s got on his plate, though - he’s also recently been in the studio with Kanye West: “I went in the studio with Kanye a couple of times just exploring,” he says. “I have thoughts and I have ideas and I have things that I wanna say but artistically and poetically I can’t get them to come out of my pen. So if Kanye has his way I will definitely do some recording this year.”

We can’t wait.

Focus is released in UK cinemas on 27th February.




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