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How Fresh Can He Get?

Will Smith, the actor soon to be formerly known as 'Fresh Prince,' takes to the sky. Prepare to eat dust.

May 12, 1996|David Kronke | David Kronke is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's a typically balmy Southern California day, but try figuring that out inside a nominally air-conditioned trailer amid the maze of industrial warehouses on the sweltering Sony lot. Outside in the heat, a few gray-skinned life forms with oversized latex skulls (looking approximately as distended and distressing as a normal, human-sized skull might feel during a bad hangover) slip themselves gingerly into the back of a golf cart and are motored off into the distance.

"I'd love to be on a golf course right now," says Will Smith with a sigh, who has only a book of golf anecdotes on a nearby coffee table to assuage that particular itch. Instead, Smith is awaiting a call to the set of the science-fiction action comedy "Men in Black" that may or may not come, resigning himself to watching a TV featuring Maury Povich's nattering head interviewing a guy so stupid he attempted to rob a shop wearing a bag on his head, only he forgot to cut eyeholes into it--the store's video camera shows him bumping into a display and falling down. The studio audience enthusiastically applauds the aspiring criminal's idiocy.

Smith laughs heartily, something he does a lot. Even under these dire conditions--of the six hours he's been sitting around today, he figures, he's worked 40 minutes, during which nothing actually got shot--Smith's laugh comes easily. The star and ersatz namesake of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"--the NBC situation comedy that calls it quits May 27 after six seasons (the cast and crew celebrated by engaging NBC head Warren Littlefield, in expensive network-honcho garb, in a food fight)--has a talent for making everyone around him feel welcome. At the conclusion of one season, he even invited the cast of the series to join him on vacation.

"There's 50 aliens in this shot, and everything has to line up properly, and there's guys walking on the ceiling, and guys levitating, all this stuff in one shot--and dialogue," Smith explains patiently. "So it's like shooting and shooting and shooting. It may take us two days to get 15 seconds of what's going to be in the movie.

"It's difficult, because I'm energetic," he says, somewhat redundantly. "What's good with the television show is that it moves. You're always doing something. Sometimes it moves too fast, which creatively can be as difficult. You can't perfect the moment. But this film moves waaay slow. You might shoot 30 seconds a day, and on a good day, a minute. Two and three hours between when you shoot. It's tough to keep the energy up."

It may not be wise to be wasting Smith's time. Last year's "Bad Boys," coming after the critical acclaim for his performance in "Six Degrees of Separation," confirmed how much his star power could radiate from the multiplex screen; now, the summer behemoth known as "Independence Day" is looming on the horizon. That science-fiction epic, in which aliens ignore most established rules of good neighborly conduct and flat-out pulverize our planet (as Smith explains, "We don't save the world, we save what's left of the world"), is roundly expected to be one of the season's blockbusters, if not the year's biggest smash, period.

"I'm a huge science-fiction fan, I've always loved the genre," Smith says. "Growing up, I started early with 'The X-Men' and 'Ultraman.' 'Ultraman' was hard-core, but you could see the zippers on the backs of the guys' costumes."

Still, back-to-back science-fiction movies for a guy known predominantly for comedy is the sort of career decision that generally provokes agents into pulling out 15% of their hair. Smith explains the choice by evoking the ultimate intangible: "Men in Black's" executive producer, Steven Spielberg.

"I said, 'I just did an alien movie'; he said, 'Nah, this one's different,' " Smith says, momentarily letting the irony of Spielberg's apparent dismissal of Smith's upcoming mega-hit linger in the room (in "Independence Day," Smith's character blurts, "I can't wait to kick E.T.'s ass"). "Are you going to tell Steven Spielberg no?"

Claiming to be one who doesn't pay much attention to box-office hype, Smith nonetheless allows that "ID4," as it's referred to in its advertising, is certainly an event. "What's great about it is it's an ensemble cast," he says. "There's so many great actors in this film, so many little, intricate stories going on, you're gonna like something. The cast was so well chosen.

"There's never one scene with all the members of the cast, but we got one scene with about 80%," he continues. "I just looked around and it was myself, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Robert Loggia, Judd Hirsch, Adam Baldwin--a bunch of us, I was looking around, thinking, 'Man, this is hard-core,' being in the same room with this much talent. It's like being in the game with Michael Jordan--you automatically bring your own game up to the next level. That's how it felt. I wanted to be worthy of being in that scene."

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