[INTERVIEW] Will Smith discovers a renewed sense of self with ‘ALADDIN’

Will Smith and Mena Massoud in ALADDIN. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

We all know and love Will Smith as a captivating, compelling superstar. As a titan in the recording industry (who had a decades long reign over the Billboard charts), and an acclaimed movie star (who has brought in millions of dollars world-wide), his skyrocketing career was stratospheric. However, that meteoric rise triggered a bout of self-reflection – one that caused him to take stock of what’s really important with the projects he chooses.

Playing the Genie in director Guy Ritchie’s live-action spin on the Disney classic ALADDIN was something that could satiate Smith’s career demands along with being something he could see reflecting the good he felt called to put out into the world. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, Smith shared that the offer came at an interesting time, during a moment of uncertainty in his career.

I hit a ceiling. I had a bit of a collapse with my life and creations so I took a couple of years off to study and journey spiritually. ALADDIN was my first back in, seeing if my heart was still in this kind of performing. Everything starts with “What am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents? Can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscious?” ALADDIN checks all of those boxes.

He connected with the role as he too felt enslaved by his superstar persona that he was looking to break free from in which to evolve.

I relate to Genie in that he has shackles. He has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. He’s a prisoner of his spiritual fate. That’s how I felt with Will Smith. I was shackled by Will Smith. In these last couple of years, I just started finding my freedom, getting free of Will Smith and getting comfortable being me. It’s about my beliefs. I have a big voice and people listen. I just want to make sure I’m saying things that improve and contribute to people’s growth, joy and evolution.

To say Will Smith felt challenged to fill the slippers left open by Robin Williams did in the original animated film was an understatement.

What Robin Williams did with this character, he didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie. So I started out fearful. But then, I got with the music and it started waking up that fun, childlike, silly part of me.

But it was messing around with Smith’s first love of music that gave him the throughline to the character he needed.

The song that got me over the hump was “Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio the first day and I wanted to play with it. Finding that 94/ 96 BPM range, we played around in there, which is also in range with hip hop. I grabbed The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” a classic breakbeat, and had them throw that under there. I messed with Eric. B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” under “Friend Like Me,” and I was like, “Oh my god! I’m home!” The Genie was really born from the music.

Songwriter Alan Menken elucidated,

I liken myself to an architect building a house. And Will can throw a helluva house party.

Smith discovered that Jamal Sims’ choreography played a major function in this new iteration.

It was the vortex of everything – from the wardrobe, to the set design, to things our characters would and wouldn’t do. Everything fell on Jamal to make it come together in a dance sequence. He captured all that stuff. He made it into something that looks hot.

Another key ingredient for finding success with his character was being able to improvise.

Because the Genie – and a lot of people don’t even recognize this – he is 100% CGI. I would be on set and we’d run the scenes. I would improv on set, because I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be in the movie. Then when we did the first round, then we could work it [in]. We could play with lines and make adjustments.

The enigmatic performer enjoyed the collaborative approach that Ritchie took with him and the rest of the cast.

I heard an idea in The Alchemist about a shepherd leading from behind. That’s a beautiful approach Guy takes. The first 5 or 6 takes, he doesn’t say anything – he just watches. And then he comes in and guides it back towards what he wants. He’s wildly collaborative and open – and that’s a rare combination to be that open and definitive. He has mastered that well.

An important function of the live-action version of ALADDIN was spent on keeping culture heritage in-tact. Smith explained,

I think it’s critically important to pull stories, colors, textures and tastes from around the world. In this particular time, that kind of inclusion and diversity will be critical in turning our connectivity into harmony. These kinds of interactions in these types of movies are of global service.

The former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air took a little bit of his character home with him once shooting wrapped.

I try to always keep a little piece of the wardrobe. I tucked a turban on the way out.

But it’s his one wish of which everyone should be mindful.

I would have one wish: divine understanding to be shared with all. It’s the seeds of peace. That’s what I’ve been finding since turning 50 this year. That lack of understanding, and confusion, is the mother of fear and violence.

ALADDIN opens on May 24.

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