“In my mind, I’ve always been an A-list Hollywood superstar. Y’all just didn’t know yet.”—Will Smith
American actor Will Smith has established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood. His films have garnered critical and commercial successes, including nominations for five Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards. In total, his work has earned him four victories at Grammy Awards. In April 2007, Newsweek called him “the most powerful actor in Hollywood”.
“When I moved into acting that was the first time I started applying skill to my talents,” Smith said. “You know, I look at skill and talent separately. You’re born with talent and there are certain things that you just do naturally. You were gifted with a talent and you have it. But skill is acquired through discipline.”
He added, “I’m having more life experiences. They enable me to connect to different, more complex, deeper human emotions. As an artist, I am my tool and my life experience is my well so as I have more life experiences. I want to be able to courageously go forward to find those new things and deliver those new ideas.”
On his 52nd birthday, we revisit some of the finest performances in Will Smith’s film career as a celebration of one of the top contemporary talents.
Will Smith’s 10 best films:
10. Hitch (Andy Tennant – 2005)
Smith primarily starred in action films during this period but he ventured into the genre of light romantic comedy with Hitch and the result was a huge commercial success. He steals the show as Hitch, a professional “love doctor” who tries his best to help his client Albert Brennaman (Kevin James) in the romance department.
While speaking about his co-star, Smith said, “Kevin James created all of his own dance moves – I will not take responsibility for any of those. But like I was saying, he has a real Jackie Gleeson kinda thing.”
9. Bad Boys (Michael Bay – 1995)
Smith and director Michael Bay teamed up when both men were rising up in their respective careers (the actor had received critical acclaim for Six Degrees of Separation). Smith partnered with Martin Lawrence in this buddy cop film and their on-screen chemistry was wonderful.
The film was successful enough to become Smith’s first franchise film. Bad Boys II opened in 2003, and a third instalment, Bad Boys For Life, came out this year.
“I had dinner with Will and after five minutes of talking, he got the job,” co-star Martin Lawrence recalled. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
8. Concussion (Peter Landesman – 2015)
Based on true events, Smith stars as Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu publishes a paper that reveals the adverse effects of head injuries that occur in professional football, incurring the wrath of NFL as well as his superiors. For his performance, Smith earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
“When I sat down to meet with [Dr. Bennet Omalu, I was like, ‘Please say something to make me not take this movie'”, Smith said. “I have two sons – my oldest [Trey] was a big-time football player. I was concerned about him breaking his leg – but my greatest concern when he was playing was a spinal injury.
“There was not one conversation about long-term neurological repercussions. How could I possibly be a parent and have four years of football and have no information? For me, as a parent, I just felt I had to make this movie.”
7. Enemy of the State (Tony Scott – 1998)
This Tony Scott action-thriller features Smith as Robert Clayton Dean, a mild-mannered lawyer who finds himself in the middle of a government conspiracy when he discovers a disc capturing the murder of a U.S. Congressman on tape. Enemy of the State was one of Smith’s biggest action hits but it also prepared him for the dramatic performances he would do in the future.
“No one will leave any table today without saying Will is so much fun,” said Regina King, who plays Smith’s wife in the movie. “He takes things as they come. I asked him if he ever had a bad day.”
“Lots of actors try to manufacture that sweetness. Will has the real deal,” director Tony Scott added.
6. I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence – 2007)
Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, this 2007 post-apocalyptic film stars Smith as U.S. Army virologist Robert Neville who is the only human left in New York after a virus (designed to cure cancer) kills almost everyone on the planet. With his dog by his side, Smith traverses the dystopian world and also descends to the depths of his own loneliness.
Smith said, “When I was preparing for I Am Legend, my character was a virologist so I had an opportunity in my preparation for the role to go to the CDC, and there was a basic foundational comprehension of viruses and viral pathogens that I developed and it really changed my life and how I looked at the world.”
5. Six Degrees of Separation (Fred Schepisi – 1994)
A film adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Six Degrees of Separation, Smith is fantastic as a grifter who convinces a rich NYC couple that he’s Sidney Poitier’s son. Prior to this role, Smith was primarily known for his work in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but his performance made people acknowledge him as a film star of considerable talent.
Smith said, “It is a really dangerous place when you get good at [method acting]. But once I had that experience, I was like, No more method acting. I was spending—for Six Degrees, I wanted to perform well so badly that I was spending six and seven and eight days in character before shooting, and you have to be careful with that.”
4. Independence Day (Rolland Emmerich – 1996)
Roland Emmerich’s alien invasion epic Independence Day was Smith’s first blockbuster, grossing over $300 million in the U.S. alone. Smith plays Capt. Steven Hiller, a Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter pilot who leads the fight against an alien invasion. Independence Day established Smith as a major box office attraction and made him an international film star.
Emmerich recalled, “Will Smith’s role was not written as black; his ethnicity was not mentioned, so the studio assumed we wanted to hire a white guy. But we set our sights on Will very early. There is no one more American than Will Smith. The studio had a problem with it as he was mainly known for sitcom, but they came round to it.”
3. Men In Black (Barry Sonnenfeld – 1997)
Based on artist Lowell Cunningham’s popular comic-book series, Men In Black was another ’90s film about aliens which Smith starred in and which also was a huge box office hit. Teaming up with Tommy Lee Jones, the duo investigate the curious cases of alien refugees on Earth as agents of a secret organisation. Smith’s humorous nature is weirdly synchronous to Jones’ serious persona, creating one of the most memorable acting partnerships of that time.
“The way I recall it is that Barry wasn’t really a sci-fi guy,” roboticist and designer Mark Setrakian revealed. “In fact, the whole production didn’t really have a strong feeling for sci-fi, or for aliens. I mean, my specific role at [lead designer] Rick Baker’s was to do mechanics.
“I was really involved with creating the motion and bringing life to the puppets, and a couple characters.”
2. Ali (Michael Mann – 2001)
Smith is almost unrecognisable in Michael Man’s 2001 biopic as the famed boxer Muhammad Ali.
The film follows Ali’s career from the moment that he gains the world heavyweight championship over Sonny Liston to his regaining of that belt ten years later against George Foreman. Smith received a Golden Globe nomination as well as his very first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
“[Michael Mann] said, ‘We’re going to find the greatest trainers in the world to teach you how to fight,'” Smith recalled. “We’re going to understand every second of Muhammad Ali’s life. We’re going to understand what he ate… how he viewed the world… how his mother felt about him, how his father felt about him.”
1. The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino – 2006)
Based on the real-life story of American entrepreneur Chris Gardner, Smith’s portrayal of Gardner is truly moving.
The film chronicles the struggle in Chris’ life as he struggles to take care of his son (played by Jaden Smith), sleeping in the bathroom of subway stations and competing for an unpaid internship at a prestigious firm all at the same time. For his performance, Smith received Best Actor nominations for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award.
“I saw the 20-20 piece [on ABC-TV ] on Chris’ life,” Smith recalled. “The power of the story blew me away. There was a look in his eyes, a confidence and a strength after having travelled that journey.
“He personified the American Dream. It felt to me that the reason that America has been successful in this world is based on the idea that Chris Gardner is possible.”