Aladdin star Will Smith talks Robin Williams and bringing a hip-hop flavor to Genie
Will Smith has tackled almost every genre of entertainment, but he’s never been a big, blue magical being who lives in a lamp — until now.
Stepping into the role of the Genie in Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin, Smith tells EW he wanted to both pay homage to the late Robin Williams’ Genie from the iconic 1992 animated Aladdin film, but also bring his own signature comedy to the role (and yes, he will be blue in the film).
Read on to see how Smith answered all our burning questions about the Genie, a role that he says all his previous work has led him to.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you feel about taking on the role of Genie, especially after Robin Williams?
WILL SMITH: I produced The Karate Kid with my son Jaden, so whenever you’re doing things that are iconic, it’s always terrifying. The question is always, where was there meat left on the bone, and with the Robin Williams character, Robin didn’t leave a lot of meat on the bone. For me, the first aspect was it was live action, so that meant it would look and feel really different, so I was encouraged by that. And secondarily, after I watched the movie a few times, I saw where Robin Williams infused the character with a timeless version of himself, so I said to myself, “What if I just infuse the character with a timeless version of myself?” And then that opened up for me… hip-hop, it opened up fashion. Because the Genie is timeless, you get to really say and do anything so I started to feel confident that I could deliver something that was an homage to Robin Willians but was musically different and just the flavor of the character would be different enough and unique enough that it would be in a different lane versus trying to compete.
A Disney executive had described the Genie as “part Fresh Prince, part Hitch.”
That was the thing I latched onto with Robin Williams. What made the Genie special is that even though he was in a period piece, the Genie had been forward and backwards in time, so because the Genie knew all things from all time, the references and the way that he spoke and the energy that he brought to the character was of a specific era of Robin Williams. I wanted to do that and I really picked that period, the 1990 to 1996 period of what people most remember of the arc that I had created and tried to build a character that lived in that time and space, so it felt nostalgic but also new.
Robin’s version of the Genie very much incorporated his style of comedy and stand-up, his talent for impressions. What kind of comedy did you want to bring to your Genie?
There’s a little bit less mimicking — there’s a James Brown piece that we do but a little bit less mimicking. The thing that will be the major addition from me playing the Genie is the hip-hop base. I think that’ll be fun for people. I think it’ll stand out as unique even in the Disney world. There hasn’t been a lot of that hip-hop flavor in Disney history!
Speaking of songs, Guy mentioned there’s a few new songs but which one was your favorite to see reimagined in this?
It’s hard to beat “Friend Like Me.” That was the first song I recorded. It’s funny, I recorded it on a day that we weren’t even scheduled. It was the first meeting, I came in and I was just meeting everybody, my deal wasn’t even all the way done but I was like, “I think I’m really considering this,” and I went in and met the guys doing music and we recorded “Friend Like Me.” So it was just hand and glove. It fit so perfectly that we all really got inspired about the idea of me being Genie after listening to two hours’ of work in the studio with no preparation.
Were you surprised when you heard Guy Ritchie was doing this film? What does he uniquely bring to the tale of Aladdin?
When you think timeless Disney classic, you’re not really thinking Guy Ritchie, but that’s a part of what makes it special. He brings a beautiful edge to the look and feel and the reimagining of Aladdin. Even casting — the way that he wanted to cast, everything had a little bit more flavor. He was pushing the envelope while maintaining that nostalgic Disney beauty with the action sequences and the music background. He’s giving you real current edgy flavor while delivering the fun and the beauty and the emotion, and also the comedy. I think that’s the thing people will be surprised [about] —that just where [Ritchie’s] sense of humor lies is a really unique way into Aladdin, the types of things that he thinks are funny, the way he thinks about the character of Aladdin as a real street guy… he’s thinking of Aladdin in those terms, so the aspects of the comedy is coming from a uniquely Ritchian space.
What did you and Mena discuss about capturing Genie and Aladdin’s beautiful friendship. What does Mena Massoud bring to his version of Aladdin?
What’s great about Mena, as I was talking to him on set, is that he has no idea what’s about to happen to him. He has no clue what’s about to happen to him with this movie, the signature he’s about to put on a generation. He’s really humble, takes his craft seriously, he’s fun to be around. Most of my scenes were with him and we found a great comedic energy together. He’s a great dude on and off camera.
The relationship with Aladdin and Princess Jasmine carries the emotional weight of the movie, so I was focusing on just making sure that the comedic dynamics stayed between Aladdin and Genie. When you’re working with actors, you never know whether or not you’ll have that comedic energy, and I’ve been really blessed throughout my career. I’ve had some spectacular costars in the creation of that comedic energy. Martin Lawrence is very different from Tommy Lee Jones, but we were able to find those comedic dynamics, and I think when people look back on what Mena and I were able to create with Genie and Aladdin, I think it will hold its own in cinema history.
I saw a glimpse of the Cave of Wonders scene, the moment we get to meet the Genie in this film. What were you keeping in mind for this particular scene?
I think for that scene, the important thing for me was to make my signature early, so I wanted to make sure that scene captured the comedy, a little bit of the dramatic flavor that was coming, the fun, the music, so we focused really hard on making the introduction to the Genie as iconic as the original introduction, paying an homage to the original but also quickly getting the new signature on to our reimagining of it.
You’ve done so many films and, of course, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but what did you get a chance to do in this that you haven’t done before?
I got to do everything I know how to do in this movie. I got to act and it was comedy and beautiful dramatic scenes, I got to sing, I got to rap, I got to dance, I got to do action sequences — it was everything that I’ve trained and learned how to do over the last 30 years of entertainment and I got to it use all in playing the Genie.
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Aladdin (2019 movie)