For Will Smith, Breaking Point Leads to ‘King Richard’
Will Smith wouldn’t seem like an obvious candidate for a midlife crisis. Very successful, very popular, tirelessly sunny.
But Smith, who stars in the upcoming drama “King Richard” as Richard Williams, father and coach to Venus and Serena Williams, is re-emerging after a long period of self-reflection. The 53-year-old, he writes in his new memoir, has been meditating, participating in ayahuasca festivities and generally asking himself a lot of questions — about his childhood and his choices as a father, husband, and movie star.
What prompted Smith to self-inquiry?
“My family started hating me,” he says with a laugh. “Everything was going well and everyone was so miserable. I thought, ‘Maybe I should take a look at this.'”
“From a spiritual point of view, I began to hit the ceiling of what material pursuits could achieve. I climbed a great many mountains and began to realize the carrot on the stick of material success,” Smith continues. “I guess I’m starting to hope there was something else because if successful movies were all there was, I would have been a mess.”
With more than $4 billion at the box office, Smith is one of the films’ biggest draws and most natural-looking showrunners. But in Smith’s blockbuster life, he is no longer interested in pretending to be superhuman. The King Richard movie, to be released by Warner Bros. Friday in theaters and on HBO Max, is part of a new trend for the actor. His performance is a sensitive and emotional portrait of a father who directs all his pain into love for his family. This resulted in the best reviews about Smith’s career. Smith, who has been nominated twice for an Academy Award (“Ali”, “The Pursuit of Happiness”), is widely considered the favorite to win his first Academy Award.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t have the maturity and life experience to find subtle colors and textures,” Smith said in a recent interview. “Richard Williams is a man who is hard to love. But he is a man who is hard to love because of the cruelty of his love. He has been so brutally treated and disrespected and ignored. When you hit that trigger, there is a volcano of mischief out there. His family has become his oasis.”
“King Richard,” directed by Reinaldo Marcos Green, is an intimate scene of a Williams tennis captain and an accurate portrait of their father’s coach, often portrayed as a paranoid. It is an approved view of the Williams family; Esha Price, one of the three half-sisters of Venus and Serena, is a producer. It depicts them as a tightly knit family whose accomplishments, from Compton to Center Court, have come from their determination and unity.
Aunjanue Ellis plays Oracene Price, their mother. (Bryce and Williams divorced in 2002.) “King Richard” may be the hottest about Richard, but Ellis’ performance is also marked in the way that Ellis honors the lesser known but no less formative father of Serena and Venus.
“She’s one of a long line of black women I know personally who carry the weight of the world with a smile, or no grin, on their shoulders,” says Ellis. “Mothers are like her, in general, what they do in the life of their children is inseparable. They are their children’s coach, but at the same time they have to cook and clean, they have to style their hair, they have to sew tennis clothes for them. She loved this family very much.
For Smith, the role of Richard Williams has many echoes of his father. In Smith’s new autobiography, “Will,” he penned with personal growth author Mark Manson, Smith describes his father lovingly but also as a heavy drinker and militaristic. He remembers, when he was 9 years old, seeing his father beating his mother, an incident that left Smith, he wrote, feeling like a “coward” for not defending her. Smith describes how intimidated he got into the show business. Much later, when his father was elderly and confined to a wheelchair, Smith remembers feeling a rush to push him down a ladder.
These confessions are a far cry from the cheerful personality that Smith has long embodied. Also featured on a star-studded book tour, with Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay and others, Smith remains a great artist. But now he expresses more weakness in his therapeutic journey for the whole world to witness.
“As I am excavating myself and being poor in exposure to myself, I see my ability to understand others, and my ability as an actor to increase,” Smith says. “My personal journey into the depths of the joys and traumas of the past certainly helps me expand and build a larger emotional toolbox that will allow me to portray more complex characters in the years to come.”
This year Smith released Emancipation with director Antoine Fuqua, a true story about a severely tortured enslaved man who frees himself from a Southern plantation and joins the Union army in the 1860s. The film, which will be distributed by Apple, pulled production from Georgia after the state passed restrictive voting laws.
At Smith, Green, the director of “Monsters and Men” and “Joe Bell,” found a “restricted” actor.
“I was meeting a charged Will at a time in his career who had something to prove to himself,” Green says. “He’s looking for someone who doesn’t just say yes to him. Maybe he’s surrounded by people who tell him a lot.”
This included talking to Smith about using prosthetics on his face to look like Williams. Williams, himself, was not on set. Instead, the filmmakers relied on Isha Price as a contact with the Williams family. Serena and Venus are executive producers of the film and attended the premiere of the latest film at the AFI Film Fest in Los Angeles.
The Smith family has been in the spotlight for years. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook series “Red Table Talk” offered a very candid look at their relationship and family life, with children Jaden, 23, Willow, 21, and Trey, 29, Smith’s son from his first marriage to Sherry Zampino. Most of their young lives were in front of the camera – Jaden made his debut with his father in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and Willow in “I Am Legend”.
In an emotional episode of Smith’s YouTube series “The Best Shape in My Life”—in which he chronicles his efforts to get into better shape both physically and mentally—Smith reads chapters of his memoirs to his children, sharing their joys and sorrows about how they were raised. .
“If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s that I got my kids to take over and take control of their lives so early,” Smith says. Freedom. But at a very young age, they were independent regarding their thoughts and opinions.”
Smith’s personal development is ongoing, but his turn toward outspokenness may always be. In his YouTube series, he said, “At this point in my life, authenticity is much stronger for me than obscurity.”
“It has become the focus of my life to be able to use what I collected in the first 50 years, and begin to distribute it in the next 50,” Smith says.
Follow AP Film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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