An endearing performer

PLAYING FATHER TO HIS REAL SON: The Pursuit of Happyness  

FACE-TO-FACE From the comic to the serious, Will Smith does his roles with ease. In `The Pursuit of Happyness,' he proves his emotional range.

He took on boxers such as `George Foreman' in `Ali' and comically partnered Tommy Lee Jones in their effort to protect New York from evil aliens in `The Men in Black' and its sequel. He also made an enjoyable "date doctor" in `Hitch.' Now Will Smith displays his emotional range in `The Pursuit of Happyness,' as a family man, with a son, struggling to make ends meet. He gets ample support from son Jaden who plays the reel role. Excerpts from the interview: Did you really succeed at the Rubick's Cube? Oh yes. Do we have one? Hold on. I'll get one in here. I'll do it at the end for you... Like if the character is supposed to know how to do the Rubick's Cube, I need to know how to do it for real rather than acting like it... How did you train yourself? I' d say probably six days of two hour lessons, and then probably 48 hours of practice by myself, and then I was able to do it. Did you ever comment on Jaden's performance on the set? I am very obsessive. I see things in my mind. It's really difficult to let people do them their own way, especially when it 's my son and I want to teach him and show him the way... And one day probably the third day of shooting (director) Gabriele saw me whispering something to Jaden about his performance, and he said, "Hey!" He said, (Speaking like Gabriele) "You have to worry about your own performance. Let me worry about Jaden." He said, "You have done nothing great yet. Nothing." (Laughs) I trusted Gabriele. You know, he has children close to Jaden's age, so he understands and Gabriele is really gentle, because Jaden is extremely sensitive... So it was a testament to Gabriele that I was able to let go and just let Gabriele have him. Has Jaden acted before this and were you part of that process in any way? He actually did a couple of appearances on a TV show. We produce a TV show called `All of Us,' so he did two or three episodes [for it]. And for the most part it's just been in the house, and we shoot for his big brother's birthday every year. We were shooting a short called `The Traytricks,' so they were superheroes and Jaden would be the bad guy... we did all that kind of stuff. How was your relationship with Jaden on the set... was it one of a co-star or a real dad? Well fortunately it was a father/son relationship, right? So I got to play the father and I didn't feel like I was ignoring him, you know? I was very clear that I couldn't give notes on his performance, so between `action' and `cut' I got to feel good about being his father... Did Jaden ever get upset on the sets and what can you tell us about how he approached his role? Yeah, we talked about it. Because Jaden is so sensitive there was a little concern, you know. We knew it had to be the right team of people... Jaden internalises everything. So we were very focused on making absolutely certain that he was going to be in good hands... Gabriele said he had seen three-hundred children and he really wanted Jaden, and he called and said, (Gabriele voice) "I must have your baby!!" (laughs)... He (Jaden) is gifted in that he can look at somebody and you tell him a story and he absolutely feels it. He's not acting like he's sad he really is he really knows how to transport himself to emotional spaces... the thing that was most amazing to me was his freedom. I see adults that have been in the business for years [but when the] lights and camera come on, something happens... [you have] performance anxiety when those lights come on. And there just wasn't a single way where this kid was fazed or affected at all by the camera or people, [or] the hoopla... If somebody dropped something during the take, he looked to see what it was and kept going and spoke his lines, and if somebody drops something while I'm performing, [I say] "Damn it! Come on, you guys, you're throwing me off... " he absolutely changed the way I perform. How was it for you to have your son witnessing your work? Was there any fallout of this in your real life relationship? : No, that was fun for Jaden. When Gabriele would come in [during] a scene and give me notes, but not [to] Jaden... he was loving that. So it was great for our relationship. It actually was great for his self-confidence also... What does this film mean to you and how do you think it has impacted people's lives? You know, it's definitely a difficult transition and there's a weight to... what can you do? And the thing that's scary is you realise that it's not about money... [money can't fix these problems]... I was talking to Reverend Cecil Williams, who runs Glide Memorial, and we actually shot there, in his church. And he was saying that the biggest issue that he has is people aren't hanging onto anything, right? Like the idea that Chris Gardner came in there hanging onto this idea of what he wanted to be... I heard someone say that the greatest poverty is the poverty of ideas. Chris Gardner [the real-life character he portrays] was rich with ideas. He was rich with a picture and rich with a dream of who he wanted to be... . It was beautiful to be there and it's sort of bitter-sweet, because for [the] moment that the movie is [playing] you bring light and people have purpose... and it gave that purpose and injected that inspiration... (Courtesy Sony Pictures )