Two years ago, Will Smith endured the worst fate known to any reigning Hollywood movie star, and the biggest blow of his career: A massive, stinking flop.
After Earth was not just a major money-loser for the man Forbes once dubbed the most bankable star in the galaxy. Tanking stateside, panned by critics, and packed with alienating subliminal Scientology teachings, the $130 million-budgeted sci-fier directed by M. Night Shyamalan grossed only $60 million domestically and failed to make son and co-star Jaden the heir apparent to the family blockbuster business, much as Papa Smith tried.
The outwardly ever-affable Fresh Prince, also a producer on After Earth, took it hard. “After the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind,” he said Sunday while promoting his first starring vehicle since then, the heist crime drama Focus.
In the film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love., I Love You Phillip Morris), Smith stars as Nicky Spurgeon, a charming but emotionally damaged career con artist whose game is thrown off when a gorgeous young femme fatale joins his multi-million dollar operation.
Focus was originally meant to star Ficarra and Requa’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart also came and went through the cast’s revolving door. Smith finally boarded just before After Earth detonated at the box office, and The Wolf of Wall Street’s alluring discovery Margot Robbie landed opposite him.
Smith started rethinking his patented brand of pattern-seeking career science even before After Earth opened. What scares you the most? he was asked during the film’s press tour. “The movie opening at no. 2,” he joked, kidding-not kidding. “"It's been an absolute necessity that the movie be a blockbuster, but I think I'm going to start moving out of that and finding more danger in my artistic choices.”So when the After Earth dust settled, Smith started getting jiggy with recharting his course. He officially bowed out of Fox’s Independence Day sequel, and bailed on doing another sci-fi pic, Brilliance. He landed a prominent lead in Sony’s NFL concussion drama then signed on to a surefire ensemble hit in WB’s comic book blockbuster Suicide Squad alongside Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, and Robbie. The sting of After Earth started to fade.
“I was like, oh, wow—I’m still alive. I still am me, even though the movie didn’t open no. 1. Wait, I can still get hired on another movie! All of those things in my mind and my entire ‘Mr. July,’ ‘Big Willie Weekend’ ‘no. 1,’ ‘8 in a row’—all of those things got collapsed and I realized I still was a good person,” he said.
This self-audit of sorts led Smith down a road of re-examining his identity and being, he explained further, invoking a few L. Ron Hubbard-esque concepts. (Smith has publicly denied any official association with Scientology.)
“When I went into Focus I completely released the concept of goal-orientation and got into path-orientation—this moment, this second, these people, this interaction,” said Smith, who insists he no longer cares about his own box office cachet. “And it is a huge relief for me to not care whether or not Focus is no. 1 or no. 10 at the box office. I’ve already gained everything I could have possibly hoped for by meeting the people and the creation of what we did together. “
Smith may be managing box office expectations for when Focus opens February 27 against the Olivia Wilde-fronted The Lazarus Effect, from horror hitmaker Jason Blum. The role conceived for the cool, tortured Hey Girl magnetism of Ryan Gosling isn’t a natural fit for Smith, who admitted to finding the “full-on, steamy grown man-ness” uncomfortable.
But the modestly-scaled Focus is still such a Will Smith Vehicle—certainly by default, for lack of any selling point bigger than Will Smith—that Warner Bros. held its press junket without the directors present (they’re in Santa Fe shooting their adaptation of Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle, with Tina Fey). Hollywood will be watching to see if Smith, whose films have grossed $6.6 billion to date with an average domestic box office haul of $130 million each, can still work magic playing it slick in a moderately sexy grifter drama for grown-ups.
Curiously, for all of Smith’s displays of newfound confidence, Focus is about deceiving others. “I’m feeling fantastic!” was the first thing Smith shouted to journalists Sunday in L.A., before revealing that he does not, in fact, always feel so fantastic.
“Doing Ali was the first time that I realized [Muhammad Ali] would say ‘I’m the greatest’ because of how much the greatest he didn’t feel,” he said. “It was almost a mantra for himself, and that’s sort of a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve-wracking for me sometimes to walk into a new space. But if I just let myself go it’s a whole lot easier, rather than letting the voices—like, ‘Oh my god, Focus may not be good as Enemy of the State’—come in. I like to leap.”
“The huge takeaway from this film is how everything is about perception,” he continued. “Reality almost does not matter at all. When you’re talking to a person it only matters what they are,” he said. For example?
“That you need them to perceive you as a loving husband,” the married father of three volunteered, not helping the tabloid rumors that there's trouble in paradise at the Smith fortress. “You don’t necessarily need to be one, although that’s a good road if you actually are one. But what people are perceiving will dictate what their life and what your interaction is.”
“Everybody’s running a con. Every single person in here is running a con—we’ve chosen our clothes, we’ve done our hair. Everyone wants to be perceived a certain way to gain the things they have decided are the things they want in their life,” he explained.
“[Focus] is about the idea that lying and loving don’t go together. Until we’re willing to show we have warts and are scared and are not all the things we’re working so hard to be perceived as—until we’re willing to let it all go and be authentic—you can’t actually have the very thing you’re doing it for, which is love and connection with other human beings.”