Will Smith defied Hollywood expectations and became an international superstar. Now, in ''The Pursuit of Happyness,'' he turns his image upside down -- with a little help from his son, Jaden

By Neil Drumming
January 05, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Will and Jaden Smith Photograph by Sheryl Nields

It’s a Friday afternoon at a family-style restaurant outside Baltimore. The place is nearly empty and, apart from a burly bodyguard named Mike posted at the door, nothing remotely glamorous would appear to be taking place. Even Will Smith is hunched as unassumingly as possible over a cup of coffee. The conversation has turned to his friendship and rivalry with Tom Cruise, and the actor, ordinarily a perpetual-motion machine, starts answering questions slowly, feeling his way as he tends to do when addressing delicate matters like race, religion, or, apparently, close friends who suffer grand public image crises.

”We never talk about competition,” says Smith, 38, who’s in town visiting with his wife’s family for Thanksgiving. ”But we mark ourselves off of each other. Movie stars are becoming extinct, and Tom and I are helping one another.” It’s jarring to hear Smith refer to himself as a movie star. For the past hour or so, he’s been effortlessly affable and grounded. With a drab olive sweatshirt drowning his surprisingly lanky frame and his short-cropped hair uniformly flecked with silver, he’s more like a gabby favorite cousin than one of the planet’s biggest box office draws.

”His wedding was world news,” he continues, and seems poised to launch into the inevitable defense of Cruise’s privacy. ”I love that, but I’m jealous.”

Wait a minute. Jealous?

”I am sooooo jealous of him right now!” Suddenly, Smith is roaring like a kid who just lost at Mario Kart. ”World news! Iraq and Tom. I’m like, Dude, you’re beating on me right now!”

Unlike others in his stratosphere who sue tabloids and bristle at paparazzi, Smith has no problem being known and beloved around the world. He’s just tired of being known for one thing. ”For 80 percent of my career,” he says, ”it’s been the hip-hop persona. That dude from Men in Black is almost indistinguishable from the Fresh Prince.” In his latest film, The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith sidelines his signature bravado to play Chris Gardner, a real-life salesman and single father who, before finding fortune as a stockbroker, struggled just to feed and house his young son, who’s played by Smith’s own son Jaden, now 8. Back in the ’80s, Gardner and his boy spent a year sleeping in shelters and train station restrooms in San Francisco while he pursued a lowly internship at a brokerage house. Gardner’s gamble eventually paid off — a good omen for Smith, because taking the part was a risk all its own. When the actor’s name first came up in meetings, Gardner was ambivalent: ”Honestly, I was like, ‘Will Smith? Man, I don’t know.’ He had just never done anything like this. You think of Will, and you think of aliens, spacecraft, lots of violence, guns, fast cars. Come on!” Which is precisely why Smith pursued Happyness. ”I’ve turned a corner,” he says, insisting the role is not an isolated departure, but the beginning of a move away from his ”safety zone.”

In addition to being safe, that zone happened to be stacked high with cash. Between 1996 and 2004, Smith headed up so many summer blockbusters that the month of July was just presumed to belong to him. He scored with Independence Day, Bad Boys II, Men in Black I and II, and I, Robot. Even when he turned in a half-baked performance, he cleaned up at the box office. ”I got cocky,” says Smith of the ”failure” Wild Wild West (which grossed $114 million). ”I was at the point where if we just called it Big Willie Weekend and put it out on July 4th, then it’s done. Hang it up. It’s a wrap.”

During that period, a peculiar thing happened: Smith became a bankable star not just in the States, but all over the world, gaining admission to a private club generally restricted to white guys named Tom. It was a level of stardom no black man had ever attained — or was ever expected to.

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