DALLAS—“Stop looking at the porn,” Will Smith jokingly admonishes as he steps inside the hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton.
He takes long strides across the room. His smile is wide. His laugh is booming. He shakes my hand like he’s a corporate CEO and we’ve just closed on a million-dollar deal.
He was here just two years ago, promoting his Oscar-nominated “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and little seems to have changed: This is a guy very conscious of his power to instantly win over whoever is in his midst.
(Oh, and just for the record: I was checking my e-mail when Smith walked into the room, not trolling for porn.)
Except once the laptop is tucked away and the interview begins, a different side of the actor is revealed. For the first time in recent memory, the world’s biggest movie star—a man whose least commercially successfully effort of the past six years, “Bad Boys II,” managed to gross $273 million worldwide—seems to be a little worried about his latest project.
“It’s definitely patience-trying,” Smith acknowledges of “Seven Pounds,” an unexpectedly somber drama that opens nationwide Friday. “This is a movie that totally banks on the fact that you trust the filmmakers. It tries my patience ... but I would say that I was fairly certain that people will be able to get through (it).”
Directed by Gabriele Muccino, with whom Smith also made “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Seven Pounds” unfolds in extremely (some might argue maddeningly) elliptical fashion; it takes more than an hour before we have even the vaguest inkling of what is actually happening.
Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent—or at least that’s what he appears to do for a living—who takes a special interest in the cases of a seemingly unrelated group of people, including Rosario Dawson as a woman with a deadly heart condition and Woody Harrelson as a blind telemarketer.
Clearly Ben is harboring some sort of secret. Whether audiences will still be paying attention by the time the grand revelation takes place, however, remains open to debate. It’s a very strange choice for an actor who talks often about “studying patterns” and who says that he’s forever looking “for the No. 1 answer”—those rare commercial projects that bridge race, gender and nationality in their appeal.
“There’s a picture in my mind of who I want to be,” Smith says, “and ‘Seven Pounds’—no matter how difficult it is to sell—is in line with the aggressive left turn that I feel like I need to make artistically.”
A guy whose last films, “Hancock” and “I Am Legend,” had a combined worldwide gross of $1 billion feels the need to make an aggressive left turn?
“I just turned 40,” Smith explains. “I don’t want people to feel like they know what I’m going to do. That’s not fun; that’s not exciting. If you know what something is, there’s no reason to look (at it).
“What we were trying to do with ‘I Am Legend’—and I think we did a very good job with it—was to do both things. There are ideas and concepts, and there’s a real performance at the center of it. But you also have the bells and whistles of the blockbuster film.”
As is fairly evident, Smith loves to talk about the entertainment industry and how he works to sustain his lofty place within it. He believes that the key to his success is that he personally travels to other countries to promote his films there. (“Movie stars are not made in America. Movie stars are made when you can pull $20 million out of Brazil, or when you can do $48 million in Japan.”)
But, of late, the pattern that interests him the most is one he has noticed about the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time.
“One of the patterns in the top 10 is that there’s no comedy. I don’t know exactly why, but when people really love something, it’s dramatic. Ten out of the top-10 movies of all time are special effects. Nine of the top 10 are special effects with creatures. Eight of the top 10 are special effects with creatures and a love story ... When you look at the Academy Awards, it’s historical figures and mental illness. The patterns are undeniable.”
The chances that “Seven Pounds” will emerge as the stuff of box-office or Oscar legend, however, are looking slim. The studio has labored hard to keep the central premise of the film under wraps. (In the 24 hours preceding my interview with Smith, I received calls from three publicists, insisting that I didn’t ask a certain question that might result in the secret being ruined.) But the Internet has been rife with spoiler-ridden blog posts that have relentlessly mocked the film.
This month, a reviewer for the New York Post wrote that it “should be more accurately titled ‘Seven Hundred Pounds of Schmaltz’.” The film has not been mentioned in any of the year-end critics’ awards selections, and last week it failed to secure any Golden Globe nominations.
Smith is comfortable with the potentially negative responses, and in fact thinks that they’re essential for keeping his career in high gear. “If everybody loves it, you’re not in the right spot, but if everybody hates it, you’re not in the right spot,” he says.
As for the question of whether it could prove to be his worst career move since “The Legend of Bagger Vance” in 2000:
“Talk to me in three months,” the actor says, laughing.