Brash, brainy – and box-office gold
There’s a Rubik’s cube on the coffee table, not a metre from where Will Smith sits relaxing in the fifth-floor living room of his riverfront home in New York. The one-time teen star, who started his career as a rap artist, then became an actor and movie producer and is now practically a one-man entertainment industry, has a simple philosophy: “I can do it.”
Smith, 38, is talking about the cube, but that’s also the way he looks at pretty much everything. From his dad, he says, he learnt to look for patterns in life, and puzzle out how to make them work in his favour. From his mother he learnt the value of knowledge, even though he left formal education after high school. And from somewhere, Smith discovered an unshakable belief that he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
So far, he has. At age 12, he began performing rap music at parties in his home city of Philadelphia. By the time he was 20, his upbeat lyrics had translated into seven Billboard hits and won him a Grammy.
At 21, Smith moved to Hollywood and landed a starring role on the hit TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, then went on to pursue his dream of becoming a movie star. Films such as Independence Day, Enemy of the State and Ali, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, proved that, yes, Will Smith can do it.
Smith is married to musician and actress Jada Pinkett Smith and is the father of three children – Willard III, 13 (from his first marriage), Jaden, 8, and Willow, 6. To keep fit, he runs – perhaps the perfect pastime for a man who can never seem to slow down. Wearing jogging pants and large diamond studs in his ears, he sat down with Reader’s Digest to talk about his family, fame and fortune, as well as The Pursuit of Happyness (which, by the way, is the title of his new movie).
RD: You grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s. What was your neighbourhood like?
Smith: It was probably 50% Jewish. One neighbourhood over were all the pretty little Muslim girls. Mine was a Baptist household, and I went to a Catholic school. I was surrounded by different religions.
RD: What was your experience growing up black in this neighbourhood?
Smith: My school was 90% white, but 90% of the kids I played with were black. So I got the best of both worlds. I think that is where my comedy developed. In black neighbourhoods, everybody appreciated comedy about real life. In the white community, fantasy was funnier. I started looking for the jokes that were equally hilarious across the board, for totally different reasons.
RD: Is it true that at one point you were planning to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)?
Smith: My mother, who worked for the School Board of Philadelphia, had a friend who was MIT’s admissions officer. I had pretty good high school marks and they needed black kids, so I probably could have got in. But I had no intention of going to university.
RD: Because you got a record deal?
Smith: My first record came out while I was a senior in high school, which is dangerous. Life is too good.
RD: So what did you say your parents?
Smith: I told my parents I wanted to rap. They said, “Rap?” My mother, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon, thought university was the only way. My father could kind of see doing something differently. We agreed that I would take a year making music, and if it did not work out, I would go to university. That year, we won the first Grammy given to a rap artist.
RD: How did your mother react?
Smith: She backed up a little bit. I sent her a 300E Mercedes, and she was cool.