Will Smith has Found the Magic Formula

Will 'Hancock' continue Will Smith's winning knack for picking blockbusters?

February 12, 2009, 12:10 PM

June 29, 2008— -- The biggest star on the planet is sucking his thumb.

"Damn," Will Smith says on the set of Hancock, trying to shake the pain of a thumbnail that split in two as he was thrown through a mock wall. "All these crazy stunts we're doing, and this is how I get hurt. I didn't see that coming."

Which is strange for Smith, who is nothing if not calculating.

For all the on-screen charisma that has made him a Hollywood ATM, Smith is, at his core, a statistician with social skills. He breaks down the films he's considering into sub-categories — are there enough special effects, a love story? — to calculate their commercial or Oscar viability. Most Mondays, he pores over box office reports the way sports nuts read box scores, even when he doesn't have a movie in theaters.

That knack for cinematic algebra makes studios the kind of money once reserved for white men named Tom.

All of which makes his recent career choices a bit of a puzzle. Where once Smith saved the world from aliens with a grin and laser gun, lately he has been, well, surly.

On Wednesday, he opens Hancock, a superhero story about a crime fighter who loves his whiskey, hates his job and doesn't mind chucking children a few hundred feet in the air. Think Superman as a hobo on a bender.

Before that, he anchored I Am Legend, an apocalyptic drama in which he played one of New York's last survivors. While the movie was a smash, it took some fans aback with its gloomy tone and a scene in which Smith is forced to kill his dog bare-handed.

But Smith says it's time to break out and find real success. Seriously.

"I don't feel like there's anything I can't do, no movie I can't make," he says. "I feel like the next 10 years are going to be my sweet spot."

That's a frightening prospect, considering that the guy has two Oscar nominations and has eclipsed Tom Hanks and close friend Tom Cruise as the most bankable man in the industry.

And, if Hancock does as well as projected, he'll become the first actor in Hollywood history with eight straight movies to rake in more than $100 million.

"He's one of the last true leading men," says Alex Proyas, who directed him in I, Robot. "There's a connection he has with audiences who will see him in anything he does. I don't quite know how you explain that kind of magic."

Smith does it with integers.

"I study patterns," he says. "Nine out of the top 10 biggest movies of all times have special effects; eight out of 10 have creatures in them; seven out of 10 have a love story. So if you want a hit, you might want to throw those in the mix. I just study patterns and try to stand where lightning strikes."

That would make Smith the key on Hollywood's kite. Since 2002, he has been flop-less; his lowest-grossing movie was Bad Boys II, a critically assailed film that still brought in $138 million.

But don't be fooled, analysts say, into thinking of Smith as just a popcorn star.

Consider The Pursuit of Happyness, a dark, 21/2-hour drama Smith describes as "a black guy trying to get a job." The movie was meant more to give Sony Pictures a fall prestige film than stuff its coffers. It grossed $163 million — and earned Smith an Academy Award nomination.

"The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend don't get the credit they deserve," says Brandon Gray of ticket-sales tracker Box Office Mojo. "Both of those movies broke radically from his usual roles and still did big business. He can safely lay claim to being the only true movie star out there right now."

That doesn't mean Smith is bulletproof, Gray says. He says that Legend "might have left a sour taste, particularly the dog scene. Hancock will be a test if there was some residue left over. Even if a movie is a tremendous hit, it can have a negative effect on a star."

Smith has been taking more knocks than usual, primarily for his ties to Cruise and speculation that he has converted to Scientology.

But Smith, who was raised Baptist and says he remains Christian (he co-founded the non-denominational Christian church Living Waters in San Fernando Valley), takes such gossip about as seriously as he does marauding space creatures.

"You have to let that roll off you," he says. "There's a natural narcotic my brain must pump, because negativity doesn't last. It's strange to play a guy like Hancock, who can't find something to feel good about. That's the opposite of who I am."

To prepare for the role, he watched W.C. Fields and All in the Family. "W.C. Fields was hilarious being mean to kids. And Archie Bunker was a jerk, but he was hilarious," he says.

"I've got this theory that as long as your characters are harmless, or in pain, they can be funny. Even when they're mean to kids."

He has applied part of that theory to parenting his children, Willow, 7, and Jaden, 9, whom he had with wife Jada Pinkett, and Smith's son from his first marriage, Trey, 15.

"The kids can do anything they want, as long as Daddy thinks it's funny," he says. "And artistically, that's where you need to be, too. You have to find the humor in things."

Still, he's bothered by how the entertainment media handle Cruise's faith. "That's painful for me to see. I've met very few people committed to goodness the way Tom is. We disagree on a lot of things. … But even with different faiths and different beliefs, at the end of the day, goodness is goodness."

Their relationship has sparked a friendly rivalry between the two, though Smith says it's not a box office battle.

Instead, they see who can sign autographs longer.

"It's hard to beat that dude," Smith says. "He has another gear. He did 21/2 hours in France for Mission: Impossible on the red carpet. Now when I go to France, people will say, 'You know, Tom was out here for 21/2 hours.' "

Smith, though, could not be far behind. Back on the set of Hancock, he and friend Jamie Foxx are watching a video replay of a stunt in which Smith is whipped down Hollywood Boulevard along a cable 40 feet above ground, then plunges to the ground like a bungee jumper.

"Man, you are crazy," Foxx says, shaking his head at the replay "You couldn't get me …"

He turns to Smith, but the star has bolted from his chair toward a throng of tourists who have spotted him behind the barricades. He spends 20 minutes in the group, offering signatures and high-fives while the crowd breaks into the theme from his TV hit The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

"It doesn't matter how many movies I've made, they'll always remember me best for the show," he says. "When you're on TV, people are allowing you into their homes. I knew when that show took off that I could accomplish whatever I wanted in this business."

It's a work ethic born of a blue-collar upbringing in West Philadelphia, where dad Willard ran a refrigeration company and mom Caroline was a member of the school board. He considered applying to MIT for a career in engineering before opting for entertainment.

But he credits his first girlfriend for the drive for fame. After learning she cheated on him, Smith vowed he'd never again let someone make him feel inadequate.

"When I was doing Ali, I realized that he kept saying, 'I'm the greatest, I'm pretty,' to make himself believe it," Smith says. "He doesn't believe it, but he was dealing with racism. He was reacting to pain and rejection. He said it so much that he started to believe it. That's what I've tried to do for myself."

Hancock co-star Charlize Theron considers Smith's spell on fans almost cult-like. "He's making them drink the Kool-Aid," she says. But, she's quick to add, "He really is that guy. He really is that energetic. He really loves people. He loves life. He doesn't take it for granted. He goes through life like a steamroller."

Sometimes, a headstrong steamroller.

"He has thought out every scene, every word in the screenplay, and he has a theory about all of them," says Hancock director Peter Berg. "He's scary smart. He plays chess. He taught us all how to solve the Rubik's Cube (a skill he learned for Happyness), though he's still the only guy who can do it."

And Smith stands his ground if he thinks a scene doesn't add up, either for laughs for action.

"It's rare that a decision is made in Will's world until all identifiable options have been discussed," Berg says. "He can mentally exhaust you. There were times I had to say, 'Will, I'm going home. I don't have the strength to battle you anymore.' But his instincts are usually right."

Correction, Smith says. It's not all instinct.

"I think of the universe as this big, master computer," he says. "The keyboard is inside each of us. I have a keyboard inside of me. I just have to figure out what to type, learn the code, to make the things happen that I want."

Contributing: Donna Freydkin