CHICAGO - Will Smith might be considered an expert on the subject of happiness, and not just because he’s starring in a new movie called “The Pursuit of Happyness.” He also comes across as the planet’s most well-adjusted superstar - and one of the more inquisitive ones.
“I’ve been reading a lot about what is happiness, and I feel Aristotle had the best idea,” the 38-year-old actor said while seated in the stately wood-paneled McCormick Room atop Tribune Tower. “He broke it down in the Nicomachean Ethics. Like for me it feels directly and inexorably connected to self-esteem.
“So I always explain it as: Think of yourself as two people, and one of them is inside of you, and he’s a scorekeeper. And he keeps score of your idea of the world. ... And when you have a conflict with your scorekeeper, that’s unhappiness. Happiness is being completely in sync” - he slapped his palms together - “with your own perception of goodness.”
He spoke in clear, crisp tones, his pacing deliberate not out of pretension but precision. His mind, his eyes, his whole body appeared to be engaged in the subject matter at hand. His attire, of course, was impeccable, a GQ-ready suit-vest-boots combination in chocolate shades that complemented the room’s wood tones. All that was missing was the pipe.
He’s as tall as you might expect but less beefy; he has shed his “Ali” bulk and looks fit for running. He hasn’t, however, shed that boyish spark that made him the king of 4th of July weekend (with such hits as “Independence Day” and “Men in Black”) and just about any other time of the year, but there’s an added weight to his presence, if not his body.
That gravitas may be the most startling aspect of his performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which opens Dec. 15. He plays a salesman trying to lift himself and his 5-year-old son out of deep poverty by earning a widely coveted position as a stockbroker. If Smith has a knock against him, it’s for being too ingratiating with audiences, but neither he nor the character he portrays - Chris Gardner, an actual guy - ask for your sympathy even when you wouldn’t blame him for seeking some love.
Smith’s performance has such a calm, solid center that when his eyes well up toward the end of the movie, the moment packs more of an emotional wallop than all of his triumphant whooping in “Independence Day.”
Chicago-based screenwriter Steven Conrad (“The Weather Man”) said he was excited to craft “Pursuit” with Smith in mind because the actor (and producer) just seemed ready to pop, thanks to a combination of factors.
“I think it’s maturity meets power,” Conrad said. “He’s a powerful guy. His light shines really brightly, and it’s not even totally a force-of-personality thing. It’s the machine works, the brain works.”
Smith certainly donned his thinking cap when it came to translating Gardner’s story to the screen. He and the other producers were drawn to Gardner through his 2003 appearance on “20/20,” in which he movingly described camping out in a San Francisco subway bathroom with his son (an infant in real life) before turning his life around. Gardner currently is president of the Chicago-based brokerage firm Gardner Rich & Co.
When it came time to choose a director, Smith threw out an unconventional choice: Gabriele Muccino, the Italian director of “The Last Kiss” (not the Zach Braff remake) and “Remember Me, My Love,” both films admired by the actor.
“He didn’t really speak English, and I went and talked to him, and he said one thing, and I was like, `This is the dude,’” Smith recalled. “He said, `Even if you don’t hire me for this film, I don’t think you should hire an American, because Americans don’t understand the American dream.’ I was like, `Wow.’ It really took a minute for me to think about it and process it, the idea that this is the only country in the world where Chris Gardner could exist.”
The word “idea” crops up often in conversation with Smith, and he emphasizes it each time. Ideas drive him, and he appreciates that the movie has a big one at its center; it takes its title from a Declaration of Independence line that is misspelled on a day-care center wall, much to Gardner’s annoyance.
“I believe the world moves on ideas,” Smith said. “America is great because it is the most sound governmental idea that has ever existed: All men are created equal, and everyone should have the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is such a sound idea, and I believe that my job is to create images that illuminate ideas that create something in human beings to do good things.”
He feels that way about his work now. He feels that way about his starring gig on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” his ‘90s sitcom that traded on his family-friendly rapper persona. Someone recently told him that his dying mother wanted to watch only “The Fresh Prince” while in the hospital; Smith lives for such revelations.
“What those images created for that woman gives me that feeling of happiness,” Smith said, “that I’m making something in the world, I’m producing something in the world, that there’s a blip, however small the blip is on the universal wave chart, that I am making a positive blip.”
He derives even more happiness when he is at work and he attains what he calls “acting nirvana.” Smith’s own son with wife/actress Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden, plays Chris Gardner’s son onscreen, and when the father and child spend that night in the subway bathroom, it’s the movie’s most heartbreaking scene - and the one that filled the actor with the most happiness.
“As an actor you look to be transported, and you actually forget for however a brief moment - you actually convince yourself that you’re in a situation, you’re there, you’re in a moment,” he said. “And that happened to me in that scene. A lot of that was because it was my son. I was actually laying down in this bathroom with my son, my real-life son, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine how that would feel. You just know it’s going to connect (with audiences) because it was so natural, so pure.”
Working with Jaden, he said, felt like “cheating” because he didn’t have to establish a relationship or learn to project the proper emotions when, say, they’re running across a busy street and he reaches back to grab the boy’s hand.
The actor’s father, who sold refrigeration equipment and ice to supermarkets and still lives in Philadelphia, informed his performance as well.
“The body movement I chose was my father,” Smith said. “Hunched over a little bit, the slower more deliberate talk when he’s around black people, and then a very specific uptone, faster speech pattern around white people. My father was bi-dialectal. That was always interesting to me that he had the business way he talked, and when he came home, everything came down a notch, a little slower, a little more drawl, different words, more ebonic-ly driven.” He laughed.
Talking with Smith, watching him interact on Michigan Avenue with admirers who don’t hesitate to approach him despite a cluster of handlers, seeing him engage with the framed Jeff MacNelly editorial cartoons upstairs and the inspirational quotes etched into the Tribune Tower’s lobby, you can’t help but come away thinking that this is a man very comfortable with who he is.
“It’s no surprise that he seems contented,” Conrad said. “He just is a guy who looks around the room and figures it out. He was exceptional to work with and for. He was deeply respectful and had a real good sense of propriety and strength. He was the coolest.” Pause. “He really is. I’ll sound like a (jerk) if you print that, but it’s just true, and I’m not going to not say it.”
Let’s get back to that scorekeeper of his. Smith said he was most out of sync with it - and thus unhappy - when his first marriage, to Sheree Zampino, was falling apart in the mid-‘90s. “It was because my scorekeeper was screaming, `You don’t believe in divorce! You don’t believe in divorce!’” he said.
And when were he and his scorekeeper most aligned?
“Probably in the last six or seven weeks, I’ve been happier than I’ve ever been based on Jada and I finding a new stride and new connection in our relationship,” he said. “I haven’t been unhappy ever in my marriage, but everybody has the ups and downs, and I would say we are at the highest peak we’ve ever been now, which adds to my happiness because I feel like I am the best husband I’ve ever been.”
Many would say his acting has followed the same trajectory. Thirteen years after he first showcased his dramatic chops in “Six Degrees of Separation” and five years after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Ali,” Smith has given a performance that could transform his image from charismatic movie star to acting heavyweight. But that doesn’t mean he’s overly impressed with his latest accomplishment.
Which is actually harder, a dramatic role like this or performing in a romantic comedy or action movie? “Well, comedy is harder than anything,” he said. “There’s nothing as hard as comedy. With drama if your dog dies, your dog dying is emotional everywhere in the world. But there’s a joke that’ll be hilarious in Chicago, and people won’t get it in New York.”
Still, you’re more likely to get nominated for an Oscar for “The Pursuit of Happyness” than “Hitch.”
“Yes,” he laughed. “Yeah, that’s true.”