Will Smith at ease with ‘Focus,’ movie career

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First Posted: 3/3/2015

After 25 years as an actor, Will Smith has done everything from saving the world from aliens (“Independence Day,” “Men In Black”) to playing a professional dating coach (“Hitch”) to battling zombies (“I Am Legend”), androids (“I Robot”) and Joe Frazier (“Ali.”)

But “Focus,” his latest film, marks a turning point for the Philadelphia native.

“I think I’m coming into a different time in my career,” said Smith, 46. “I’ve always been the goofy kid. Growing up, I always enjoyed the comedic aspect of relating to women. On camera, it was always the funny take on (relationships).

“But this is one of the first times in my career that (I had to deliver) just steamy, full-on man-ness and emotion,” he said. “It’s funny because it’s actually an uncomfortable space for me. My natural instinct is always, when you get a moment that’s really serious, (to make) the joke. So to be constantly pulled away from that and to live in the seriousness and the sexiness of the moment was a little uncomfortable for me.”

Smith doesn’t look uncomfortable in “Focus,” a sleek action thriller from “Crazy, Stupid, Love” writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a seasoned grifter who, while in the midst of a long con involving a billionaire race car owner, runs into former flame Jess Barrett (“Wolf of Wall Street’s” Margot Robbie), on the opposing side of the same swindle.

Nicky is bewitched, bothered and bewildered by Jess, who’s more than happy to throw the veteran con artist off his game.

Smith said his chemistry with Robbie was “pretty much instantaneous.” On the way to an audition with Smith, the actress lost her luggage and walked into the reading wearing a pajama top and ripped shorts.

“Her hair wasn’t done and no makeup, nothing,” Smith said. “So my first thing was, `Oh, she doesn’t want this job.’ But we started talking, and we started working, and all of a sudden, whatever she clicked into, it was just one of those moments…it was magic.”

Smith said he was shocked at how easily Robbie was able to riff with him on his ad-libs.

“I was ad-libbing because I’ll go off the script every once in a while so that’s a big test, if (an actress) can go off the script and go with (me).

“So in the middle of the audition, I went offscript and she ad-libbed, `You’re such a d—k.’

“I’m Will Smith! You don’t say that! But it was absolute, complete fearlessness and comfort. You can’t create chemistry. You either have it or you don’t. When she walked in there, it was really palpable.”

On the surface, it seems Smith has much in common with his “Focus” character, a smoothie whose self-confidence knows no bounds. But the actor insists he doesn’t always feel like the coolest dude in the room.

“It’s actually nerve-wracking for me sometimes to walk into a new space but my experience is if I just let myself go, it’s a lot easier than having the voices go, `Oh my God, `Focus’ may not be as good as `Enemy of the State,” he said. “Rather than letting all those things come in, I like to leap.”

Smith worked with consultant Apollo Robbins to perfect various sleight-of-hand maneuvers. When Robbins suggested Smith walk into a store and steal something, the actor shot the idea down quickly.

“I was like, `Dude, everybody knows who I am.’ So he said, `Wear a mask.’ I said, `So you want a 6-2 black dude to put on a mask, walk into a store and steal?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, ‘No, man!’

While “Focus” is a slick thriller with plenty of visual razzle-dazzle, Smith believes there’s a solid message under the sheen.

“At the center of the film, there’s this idea that lying and loving don’t go together. So until we are willing to show that we have warts and are scared… until we’re willing to let it all go and be authentic, then we actually can’t have the very thing that we’re doing it for, which is the love and connection with other human beings.”

The son of refrigeration engineer Willard Carroll Smith, Sr. and Philadelphia school board administrator Caroline Bright, Smith grew up in West Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood.

As a youngster, he said he was always getting into trouble for his wicked sense of humor.

“As a kid, well, I’ve always been a jokester,” he said. “I was always doing something or setting up a prank or being silly when I should have been paying attention…. That is my general disposition on life. When something happens, the first thing in my mind is “What’s funny about it?”

In the ‘90s, Smith founded the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with his childhood pal Jeffrey Townes. After a series of hits and a successful run on the TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Smith graduated to movies.

Since “Six Degrees of Separation” in 1993, Smith has turned out, with the exception of “Wild Wild West,” one massive hit after another.

Smith’s winning streak came to a screeching halt in 2013 when the pricey sci-fi actioner “After Earth” bombed at the box-office.

Smith said even though the film’s failure was devastating, he is grateful for the lessons learned.

“After the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind,” he said. “I was like, “Oh whoa, I’m still alive. I still am me even though the movie didn’t open at number one. I still can get hired for another movie.”

“ It is such a huge relief for me not to care whether or not `Focus’ is number one or number ten at the box office. I’ve already gained everything that I could have possibly hoped for by meeting the people that I met [on the film] and from the creation of what we’ve done together.”

Up next for Smith are a trio of movies, including “Concussion,” a look at American football players who suffer from major head injuries, “Suicide Squad,” an actioner about a secret government agency that recruits imprisoned supervillains to pull off dangerous black ops missions; and “The American Can,” a drama based on the true story of a man who, post-Hurricane Katrina, risked his life to save 244 people trapped in an apartment building.

“Things are really good,” says Smith. “I’m having a good time now. I’m feeling myself making a shift and a transition in my life…I’m anxious to see where things go. But it’s a really great time to be me.”