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Will Smith Talks About 'I Am Legend'

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Will Smith in I Am Legend

Will Smith in I Am Legend.

© Warner Bros Pictures

I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence describes Robert Matheson’s critically acclaimed novel as “the quintessential story of one man against the world”. The latest film version of Matheson’s book finds Will Smith in the role of Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist who's somehow immune to a virus that destroyed mankind. Desperate for contact with anyone who managed to survive, Neville spends his days sending out radio messages hoping for some kind of a response. But Neville’s not entirely alone… The ‘Infected’ are wandering the earth and Neville believes using his own blood as a vaccine might reverse the affects of the virus.

Will Smith Press Conference

How was shooting in New York City?
"Shooting in New York, especially something on this level, is difficult. I would say that percentage-wise, it’s the most amounts of middle fingers I’ve ever received in my career. I was like, ‘I’m used to people liking me. When I come [laughs] to town it’s fun, so I thought ‘Middle fingers?’ I was starting to think ‘f-you’ was my name.’

[Laughing] We shut down six blocks of Fifth Avenue on a Monday morning. That was probably poor logistics, which was poor planning. You realize that you have never actually seen an empty shot of New York. When we were doing it, it’s chilling to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. There is never an opportunity to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. At 2 o’clock in the morning on Sunday you can’t walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. What happened is that it just created such a creepy energy. There are iconic buildings, there is a shot in the movie with the UN, there is Broadway, and it puts such an eerie, icky, kind of feeling on the movie when you see those shots. Logistically, it was a nightmare, but it absolutely created something that you can’t do with green screen, and you can’t do shooting another city instead of New York."

What about the loneliness of your character, Robert Neville, and the madness he begins to feel? Basically, you are acting for the first half of the movie by yourself.
"It was such a wonderful exploration of myself. What happens is that you get in a situation where you don’t have people to create the stimulus for you to respond to. What happens is that you start creating the stimulus and the response. There is a connection with yourself, where your mind starts to drift so, in those types of situations, that you learn about yourself things you would never even imagination.

In order to prepare for that we sat with former POWs and we sat with people who had been in solitary confinement. That was the framework for creating the idea. They said, ‘The first thing is a schedule. You will not survive in solitary if you don’t schedule everything.’ We talked to Geronimo ji-Jaga, formerly Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panthers, and he was in solitary for over three months. He said that you plan things like cleaning your nails. You will take two hours, which you have to because it’s on the schedule, which you have to just clean your nails. He said that he spent about six weeks and he trained roaches to bring him food. I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my God.’ The idea of where your mind goes to defend itself. Either he really did train the roaches, which is huge, or his mind needed that to survive. Either way, you put that on camera and it’s genius.

For me that was the thing, to be able to get into the mental space where whatever the truth was for Robert Neville didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered is what he saw and what he believed. How many people picked up on the mannequin shot at the end with the little turn of the head? You saw that? There are probably like six or seven of those in the movie. It was such a great exploration of what happens to the human mind that is trying to defend itself. For me, I’m a better actor for having had to create both sides of the scene with no dialogue."

You’ve had a passion for I Am Legend since you were going to do it with director Michael Bay. Why has Neville stayed with you for the past twelve or thirteen years? Finally, the grey hair you have in the film, was that a special effect or the real Will Smith?
"That was a special effect. We had the world’s best grey hair people come in from -- uh, they were uh, from Europe."

On the first one, Robert Neville staying with me this long… I think with movies I am really connecting to the Joseph Campbell idea of the collective unconscious. There are things that we all dream. There are things that each one of us has thought, that connect to life, death, and sex. There are things that are beyond language. To me, this is one of those concepts. Times that you have been on the freeway many times and wished that everybody were dead. [Laughing] There have been times where things have gone and you just wish you were by yourself. You don’t need any of these a--holes. You just want to be by yourself. That, coupled with that separation from people, being ripped away from people, being separated, connected with the dark and unknown of the dark. It’s how we would fair against whatever is in that unknown is a really primal idea. I couldn’t always articulate it like that, but I’ve loved this concept. It connects to ideas that a four year old can understand."

Page 2: More on the Grey Hair, Religion, Working with His Daughter, and Disasters

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