Will Smith tells Michele Manelis his new film is so gruelling that his wife never wants to see it again
It seems there are two sides to Will Smith's career. There's Hollywood's biggest star and action hero, loved by all, who regularly saves the world in blockbuster fare like Independence Day and Men in Black. And there's the traumatised, pained actor we've seen in darker movies like The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, or even Hancock.
Now, in Seven Pounds, he takes serious and maudlin to new depths of despair. He may be the biggest-earning star in Hollywood, but it seems that this two time Oscar-nominated actor is still searching for his gold statue.
Reuniting Smith with the director of The Pursuit of Happyness, Gabriele Muccino, Seven Pounds is not an easy story to follow. Going in, we know that Smith plays a mysterious Inland Revenue agent who has done something terrible in the past and wants to redeem himself.
"'Seven pounds' is a Shakespearean reference to a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh. And in this role, I'm replacing seven pounds," Smith says, sitting in his Beverly Hills hotel room.
Smith calls it his "man-cry". "This movie makes it okay for men to cry," he explains. "I lost some weight for the role because it was important I looked like I had the weight of the world. When my face sinks in a little bit, I look more pained." Seven Pounds is an emotionally gruelling experience for both Smith and the audience - and not entirely enjoyable or easy to digest.
"I'm definitely concerned about putting people off. With Seven Pounds it's probably the most I've ever pushed the audience in my career. I am way out on a limb. This is generally not the type of film that you even try to get a mass audience to go to. So, for me it's definitely something that I'm paying very, very close attention to. I have teenagers in my house and even the little kids are sending me a very clear message - 'Hey, let's lighten it up!'
"Even my wife [Jada Pinkett Smith] said to me after the screening, 'I swear to God above, I will never see this movie again. That's it."'
Seven Pounds also stars Rosario Dawson, as Smith's love interest. This marks Smith's first substantial love scene on the big screen, with the exception of Ali with his real-life wife, which, of course, is not the same thing.
Dawson laughs, "He was really trying to avoid our sex scene the whole way through. It got to the point where I said to him, 'Dude, I did bathe today. There's no problem.' He was shaking in my arms. It was very sweet to see Big Willie in a position where he was not feeling on top. In fact, he asked for Jada to be there!"
Defending his manhood, Smith retorts, "Hey, hold it! I didn't have no problem with it. I just wanted to be respectful. And actually Jada pulled me aside and said, 'You better stop it right now and go in and show 'em how you put it down. Don't have people looking at me crazy!"'
Hopefully, Smith's quest for life's dark side is out of his system for a while. "Oh, that's for sure. I'm ready for a big comedy. What's Will Ferrell's next movie? We need to do it together!" he laughs.
Although he recently turned 40, the ever-youthful Smith isn't showing it. "It was funny. Turning 40 never even registered in my mind. It was just another birthday, but what really hit me was when my son turned 16. One morning I'm sitting in the passenger seat while he's driving to school. Wrecked me. All of those ideas came to me - 'Oh my God - I'm 40 and I'm getting old!' It's like all of those things exploded in my head when I was sitting there watching
my son drive to school. It was so strange, the moments that illuminate those things," he says.
But Smith has other things on his mind away from his day job and family life. Now that he's missed the boat on becoming America's first black president (a declaration he made a few years ago), the second most famous black man in America says, "I have no doubt I could still become president one day, especially now." Like many Americans, the Smith household threw a huge party to celebrate Barack Obama's win.
"I felt like there was some part of me that was validated. There are racist people who live here but before Obama won the presidency I wasn't allowed to say that out loud because people would be like, 'Oh yeah, of course for you! Mr Hollywood!"'
For now, he will have to settle playing the president onscreen. "I will definitely play Obama when he's out of office in eight years," he says, and points to his ears, "Look, it's perfect. Barack all the way."
Who: Will Smith
Born: September 25 1968, Philadelphia
Key roles: Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), Wild Wild West (1999), Ali (2001), I, Robot (2004), Shark Tale (2004), Hitch (2005), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), I Am Legend (2007), Hancock (2008)
Latest: Seven Pounds, opening this weekend at cinemas