And his decision to play Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, in the forthcoming biopic “King Richard”? “I have a 19-year-old daughter who is trying to make her way in the world, so I feel like my life has totally prepared me for this role,” he said.
The project represents the first time the actor has worked with a black director (Reinaldo Marcus Green) and, counting this film with Lee, the second time in two years he’s worked with a director of color. He said he was drawn to the story because of the tennis coach’s unshakable confidence. While he may not have raised his own kids with the level of confidence that Williams did — “he never doubted that he was creating the No. 1 and No. 2 tennis players of all time,” Smith said — he takes pride in the effort he and Jada have put in. “There was a lot of work that went into orchestrating their childhood,” he said.
Talk turned to another sports-related biopic, the 2001 “Ali,” which Smith said was one of his favorite films, as well as “the most difficult performance I’ve ever given.” There was the obvious physical requirement of learning not just how to box, but how to box like Ali, all while playing one of the most recognizable humans who ever lived (a task not so different from what the special-effects folks on “Gemini Man” had to contend with in creating a young Will Smith).
Smith connected to Ali’s swagger, although perhaps not for the reasons one might expect. “I felt like I could relate to when Ali would say, ‘I am the greatest,’ that he was saying it because he really felt like he wasn’t. That you have to keep saying it to yourself because you’re trying to prove it to yourself.”
As for Lee, he has a soft spot for “Six Degrees of Separation,” the 1993 adaptation of the play that Smith, then 25, starred in alongside Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Ian McKellen. Though Smith was criticized for avoiding a kiss his gay character delivers in the stage version, Lee took a wider view.
“He didn’t have that persona yet, of Will Smith being Will Smith, carrying big movies,” Lee said. “But there’s something quite precious about how he is in that movie. It’s a dramatic piece, with many great actors around him, and he shines.”