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The Prince Who Would Be King

After 'Independence Day' and 'Men in Black,' Will Smith can do most anything he wants. And what is that? Everything.

November 08, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

The thing to understand about Will Smith is this: The man couldn't get down and funky if he tried. He knows this about himself. He's OK with it.

"My music is really polished, really clean," he says, sitting at his breakfast table. "But while I'm making it I feel like: 'This is grungy. I'm coming with the funk!' [Here his head starts bobbing to imaginary grooves.] Then when I listen to it against the sound that I thought I was making--like J.Z. or Puffy or Biggy--then it's like, 'You know, my music sounds . . . different.' "

The other thing to understand about Will Smith is that, believe it or not, he's just handed you the key to his being. Not just the funk-deficit part (which you already knew about if you've been paying attention). It's also the cheerful way he cops to it. You've got to love a guy with that much straight-ahead guileless charm. No airs. He's just Will.

But look more closely. See the art of it? It's the way he can laugh at himself, come on as self-effacing and down-to-earth as Clark Kent, when all the while he expects you to see that he's really Superman.

Think about it: The guy is a rap star--same job title as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Ice Pick . . . whatever rhyming street tough scowls from the cover of Vibe this month. An air of menace is currency in that gig, generally speaking. But Smith has never menaced anybody--his first name is Willard, after all. He's sitting here in his dining room this hazy morn, not an hour's drive from where the Notorious B.I.G. got capped, and he's flying into the face of rap convention wearing a screwy Alfred E. Neuman smile.

Yeah, he's just Will. But implicit in the way he can goof on himself for not making the funkster grade is his offhand assumption that he doesn't have to. He's Will. And ordinary rules don't apply.


Before breakfast, Smith has spent some time in his studio behind the garage of his hacienda-style home, listening to some tracks he'd laid down, letting the music seep under his skin before he completes the songs. They're for some future album, but this isn't his priority right now.

He's in the midst of filming "Wild, Wild West," the movie adaptation of the old television series, with Smith, 30, starring in the role originated by Robert Conrad. And he's promoting "Enemy of the State," an action thriller co-starring Gene Hackman set to be released Nov. 20. Both films are risky ventures for Smith. Though he's surrounded by heavyweight acting talent, he clearly is out front in a way he has not been before, and in "Enemy" he plays a more mature character than his audience is used to seeing him play.

From the day he first gained widespread public notice as a young rapper from Philadelphia, the Will Smith persona has remained pretty consistent. With his first major rap hit with DJ Jazzy Jeff, the playful "Parents Just Don't Understand" in 1988, he did more than anyone to make rap music safe for suburbia. His being cool rather than funky was a plus--no one could find it threatening.

On NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" he even poked fun at himself in the mini-video that opened every episode. On the show he was like Bugs Bunny--an affable smarty-pants who never lost his cool while driving everybody else (Elmer Fudds, all) absolutely daffy. No one could beat him. At anything. And he made it all look so easy.

Smith beefed up and did grown-up things like shoot guns and fly jets in his subsequent movie roles, but at heart he was still the Fresh Prince.

Director Tony Scott was worried initially about how the audience would react to Smith in a suit, tie and suspenders in "Enemy" and whether fans were ready to see him in a film that--for all its action and humor--nevertheless has serious overtones. Tom Cruise had been considered for the role early on.

"It was a concern," Scott says, "that the audience might just want to see Will Smith in 'Men in Black.' "

Scott fretted about it right up until the film was tested in Phoenix, and he saw that audiences had no trouble accepting him. "It was the best screening Jerry [Bruckheimer] and I have ever had," says Scott, who has worked with the producer four times previously. "Not one of the crowd commented on that. It surprised me."

Not Smith.

Like the characters he plays, he has overwhelming faith that he can do whatever he sets his mind to.

How confident is he?

Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed him in "Men in Black," says that when he finishes "Wild, Wild West" next June he will go directly into pre-production for a film about the life of Muhammad Ali, in which Smith will star. Smith plans to play the boxer from a young man to his ill and bloated later years. "I want to do the 'Raging Bull' thing and gain 30 pounds," he says.

This is the sort of role a seasoned actor attempts when he's going after an Oscar. No one expects it from an easygoing rap-star-turned-TV-comedian-turned-matinee-idol. Which is a big reason why Smith is doing it.

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