Will Smith loves football. While making The Karate Kid in Beijing six years ago, he flew home to Los Angeles each weekend to watch his oldest son play for his high school team. Smith did this, he says, “not because I’m a good parent. Friday night lights are ecstasy for me.”
So starring in Concussion wasn’t an easy decision. The film is based on the true story of how Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, discovered a degenerative brain disease seen primarily in pro football players and concluded that it was caused by repeated blows to the head. The movie dramatizes the fallout, and depicts the National Football League threatening, intimidating, and attempting to discredit the doctor and his new wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). That’s tough material for a football junkie, but Smith concluded that fatherhood trumped fandom. “As a parent, the responsibility to bring this information to light was overwhelming,” he says. “I almost couldn’t say no.”
To transform into the Nigerian-born Omalu, Smith spent months mastering the doctor’s demonstrative hand gestures and singular voice. “It’s the accent of a man who loves what he does so much, he almost sings what he says,” says writer/director Peter Landesman (Parkland).
The actor, who knows something about playing real-life heroes after portraying Mohammed Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali, got so good at the specific way Omalu rounds his words and pitches his voice into the higher register, he was able to fool Omalu’s family and friends with his accent. He even tricked the doctor’s wife — for a moment. “It worked, for about eight seconds,” says Smith. But ultimately for comprehension reasons, Smith took Omalu’s accent and made it his own, settling it into a register that wasn’t as extreme as Omalu’s actual voice. “I didn’t want to distract people,” says Smith, adding that the doctor forgave him for not going with an exact impression.
To complete the look, Smith pinned back his ears and added a widow’s peak to his hairline. The transformation worked. “I could walk down the street in Pittsburgh and people didn’t recognize me,” Smith says.
Concussion will premiere at AFI FEST on Nov. 10 and debuts in theaters on Dec. 25.