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The Gospel of Will Smith

'Seven Pounds' is about a man searching for salvation. The man who plays him is searching, too.

Allison Samuels
From the magazine issue dated Dec 8, 2008

Will Smith has been experimenting with the bittersweet side of life in his last few films. A down-on-his-luck and out-of-work father ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), a man faced with the end of the world ("I Am Legend") and an alcoholic superhero trying to get his life back on track ("Hancock"). Not exactly the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This month Smith takes on another somber role in the film "Seven Pounds,'' where he plays a man desperate for redemption after he makes one tragic mistake that ruins the lives of seven people. The film also stars Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and Connor Cruise, the son of his good friend Tom Cruise (and Nicole Kidman). Smith talked to NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels.

SAMUELS: " Seven Pounds " is pretty haunting. Why take on a character like that?
SMITH: Usually with the films that I make there are ideas that I connect to, but lately I've been dealing with the bittersweet in life because it feels more natural. You don't ever get it really the way you want in life. That really fascinates me. As an actor there are certain parts of a character that you create, and you train yourself to have those reactions and then it becomes hard to stop them when the role is over. You have to retrain yourself. My character in this film is like hot grits. You know you can't shake them off and when you do, it hurts.

Is your life bittersweet?
Not really, but I love the origins of a story and have always been intrigued with the idea of trauma—emotional trauma and loss. Life is all about death and rebirth and how do we manage to deal with those things when they happen. And not just death in terms of life. You know when you lose your job or your house—that's a death of something that is a part of your life. How do you manage that? What do you do the next day after it happens? How do you go on? With these characters, they've all experienced traumas that have changed their lives. I like that this film shows you the options in life for redemption and finding yourself again.

But you must draw on something for the turmoil you show in the film.
I guess in some ways I think about my grandmother, who died from a stroke a few years ago. I never cried about it and always adopted the attitude that she was in a better place, that it was for the best because of the stroke and how ill she was. I'm sure I drew on that because it gave me permission to feel things that you don't normally or I don't normally like to show. I guess it's healing in that way.

Are you worried the audience won ' t join you on this kind of bleak journey?
That's why we've been going to different cities around the country to promote the movie. It's given me a chance to talk to the people and see what they want and what they need. I visited hospitals and other places just to reconnect and hope to do it more before the films. That's one way to stay in sync with my fans.

Your love interest in " Seven Pounds " is Rosario Dawson. Why doesn ' t Hollywood make more African-American love stories?
Hollywood sees green as in dollars, and that's just the bottom line. You have to show them you can make money with your story no matter what color the characters are. Martin Scorsese has proven to Hollywood he can make Italian-American stories that bring in the money, and that's what Hollywood wants to hear. Every time an executive greenlights a film, he's putting his job and his future on the line. I don't think Hollywood is racist, but I do think they work with what they know. And since many of the top studios or people who greenlight features are not familiar with our stories, it's just much easier to go with what they know and not delve into what they don't. I think that's where my responsibility comes in as someone who can make a difference, because I can get my films made and choose the people I want in those films and the stories I want to tell. It really comes down to that. We have to tell our own stories, really.

The school that you and your wife, Jada, opened this year in Calabasas, Calif., the New Village Academy, has gotten a lot of attention, particularly rumors that Scientology will be taught there. Did that upset you?
It was just important to me to put something out there to help kids understand that it all starts right there—in that classroom and with those teachers. I want to be a part of kids figuring out that it is a new time in America and they can be a part of it. I take my citizenship very seriously, and one part of that is service. My grandmother taught me that, and I was happy that President-elect Obama talked about it so much on the campaign trail. Part of the reason the country is where we are now is because many of us aren't doing our part. We need to get back to the help-your-neighbor concept that's just disappeared in the last eight years.

There are also rumors about you being a Scientologist. Jada has spoken about you two studying many religions, including Scientology. So are you a Scientologist?
I love the nature of humanity's search for meaning. For me I'm certain about my relationship with the model of perfection of human life that's laid out with the life of Jesus Christ. I'm certain of that. So I'm at home and not fearful when I sit in a mosque or a synagogue or a Buddhist temple, the same way that I'm home in the Church of Scientology. I like anywhere people are searching for the truth, and I respect their path and I'm intrigued by their path. I think when you are certain in and of what you believe in, you can open your mind to seeing the ways of others. I'm not bothered when someone says "Allah" because they're talking about God—we are talking about the same person. I was in India recently and my hotel was near the Taj Mahal. Five times a day there would be a call for prayer, and it was the most beautiful thing. I was lying in my bed thinking, no matter what your religion is, it would be great to have that reminder five times a day to remember your Lord and savior.

So you ' re not a Scientologist?
No, but when people are afraid of religion they have to go back and get in touch with the Good Book. Fear of other religions means you're questioning your own understanding, and that's just not where I am.

You were raised Baptist, right?
Yes, but I grew up in a neighborhood with all religions, and so I'm very used to studying and being around different faiths. So it doesn't bother me to look into different religions. My grandmother raised me to be a do-gooder in the church, that it was about doing what you can to help your community. So whatever religion does that— Jewish, Muslim, Scientology—it's cool because the end result is the same.

You and Tom Cruise are good friends. What is it about him that makes you guys so close?
Tom is one of the most open, honest and helpful people I've met in Hollywood, or really anywhere. I mean, how many people in his position would want me to win, want me to be a bigger and better movie star? Few people in this business want me to win like that. I was so used to competition between other artists that I just didn't get him at first. And then Tom just broke it down to me and said, Will, we are not competing, so don't think that way. That blew my mind because that is not how this business works at all.

No one else gave you that kind of support in all your years in the business?
Well, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby reached out and really helped me back in the day, but they were older. Tom is my age, so I really felt there would be some competition between us, but he looks over my scripts and everything. When I did "I Am Legend," I sent him the script, and he sent me back four hours of notes and changes. He did more work on "I Am Legend" than I did. Now we're looking at some projects to work on together because we have that basic understanding of each other.

You talked a lot about what Tom has done for you. What do you do for him?
Well, I hooked Connor up! It's just to have someone who knows what you're dealing with and being able to talk to them and get good advice and know that they mean you the best. I think now I'm mature enough to know how important it is to bounce things off the wall to someone who knows exactly where I'm coming from.