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Will Smith Talks About "The Pursuit of Happyness"

Will Smith Learned a Lot By Working with His Son Jaden in "Pursuit of Happyness"

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Will Smith Talks About

Will Smith stars in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

© Columbia Pictures
Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a down on his luck father who accepts an unpaid intern position at a prestigious stock brokerage firm in hopes of giving his son a better life, in the dramatic film The Pursuit of Happyness (yes, that's spelled wrong on purpose). Despite having to spend nights in a homeless shelter with his 5-year-old son (played by Smith's real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), Chris never falters in his determination to do everything in his power to make sure his son knows how much he's loved. Based on true events, The Pursuit of Happyness is a real rags-to-riches story and one that Smith feels is really the embodiment of the American dream.

Tackling Chris Gardner’s True Story and Keeping It Real: Smith had to be willing to be unsympathetic as Gardner, and that was a difficult bridge for him to cross as an actor. “I’m at such a different place in my life right now. The opportunity to work with Jaden… It’s really been the series: Michael Mann opened my mind to a completely different way of working and creating, and it’s grown through this process now with Gabriele Muccino. The last little spark coming from Jaden.

I connected with Chris Gardner. We looked in one another’s eyes. I said, ‘I’m going to learn your story and I’m going to tell your story.’ And he said, ‘Just tell the truth.’ I went and found the truth. I have so many roadblocks, emotional roadblocks to the truth of characters because I know what a character needs to do to be likeable. My son has just developed me to a space where I’m starting to understand and starting to be more comfortable with the idea that the things that you don’t do well are the things that are really going to help people. It’s new for me and I haven’t completely figured out how to articulate all the things that are in my mind, but I’m excited right now about the connection between the things that I believe and now being able to find a way to illustrate those beliefs in my artistry.”

Will Smith on Chris Gardner’s Struggle: “I’ve been referring to a film called What the Bleep [Do We Know!?]. It’s about quantum physics. You’ve heard the old phrase: if a tree falls in the forest, nobody’s there, blah blah blah? The idea is that you have command over what your future, what your situation is. That you internally and with your spirit or however you want to put it, the Tao or Muslim Allah or Jesus - whatever that universal force is that you connect to - you, in sync with that force, have command to will your future. And in What the Bleep it talks about the idea that objects exist if you acknowledge they exist. That was something that Chris and I seriously connected on.

In the film, there’s no hint to any racism. That was something specifically that Chris spoke about. He said, ‘Well, sure, there may have been racism but the belief that if you acknowledge it, you give it power over you.’ You can call it arrogance, you call it naiveté. You call it whatever you want, but I truly believe in a situation where you are hoping to create something, it is a much more powerful space to know that you will not be denied. Whatever’s out there, you’re running over it. So we’re not even going to spend [any] time talking about the white man or, ‘They don’t have no spots left in this college so I’m going to apply somewhere.’ We’re not acknowledging [any] of that. ‘I’m going to that college, period.’”

Smith continued, “I’ve always called it naiveté with me that a few years ago I said that I honestly, truly believed that I could be the President of the United States. Now, there were probably political experts that laughed. But put me on a lie detector test right now and I absolutely, positively believe that I could be the President of the United States. I absolutely, positively believe I could fly the space shuttle. Period. And that’s where it starts. Chris Gardner laid down in a bathroom with his only child, seemingly the ultimate parental failure. The next morning, he woke up, he bathed his son in the sink and he went to work. You can’t do that if there’s a possibility this might not work out. You can’t do that. You have got to believe that it’s already a done deal. It’s just a matter of time before you get what you’re designing. To me…Barack Obama called it the audacity of hope. That’s designed into the fiber of this country. This country’s the only place that Chris Gardner could exist. I’m getting excited but to me, that is the essence of the power of this film.”

The Appeal of This Rags-to-Riches Story: Smith first fell in love with the idea of making a movie based on Gardner’s story after watching Gardner on 20/20. “When I saw that 20/20 piece,” said Smith, “Chris Gardner walks through and retraces the steps. There is a segment where he goes into the actual bathroom that he slept in with his son. I was like, ‘I’m making that movie.’ Then eventually I met with Chris. He was actually writing the book while we were shooting the movie. He would be on the set three, four days a week and every week he’d give me 10 pages, just run me through some of the ideas.

He was extremely helpful all through the process. We would do takes. If something’s not feeling right, I would go away with Chris for an hour, just have him talk me through it. Try to get me mentally into the space of the moment, what he connected to.

He’s extremely thoughtful. He’s a lot like I felt like when I met Nelson Mandela. To have survived the things that he’s survived and still have a big belly laugh… There’s always going to be the scar tissue of traumatic experiences, but he’s so peaceful walking through it. It was an extremely valuable resource to have him there and have him walking me through the scenes and taking me through San Francisco and Oakland.

Page 2: Will Smith on Working with Jaden, Chris Gardner, and the Status of I Am Legend

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