Will Smith is on an award tour. He launched one of the most popular Instagram pages of all time, is back to rapping fierce rhymes (including a remix of Jaden Smith’s “Icon”), and traveling around the world while vlogging about his experiences and the inspiring lessons he’s learned over the years. There are even talks of Bad Boys for Life getting a release date in 2020 and a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot with a female lead.
With 30 years in showbiz and a developing intimate look into his personal life, there’s plenty for Smith to discuss. And luckily, he’s ready to tell all. The 49-year-old legend sat down with Rap Radar‘s Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller for a rare in-depth interview about his life, available via Tidal above. The hosts traveled to Budapest to meet with Smith to talk about his movie career, winning the first Grammy Award for rap, Fresh Prince, and his thoughts on some of hip-hop’s biggest rappers.
“When I started, the only way to be a movie star was through distance and mystery and mystique,” Smith said, which is different from today’s “friendship model” in which fans want to feel like artists are their friends. In this model, it’s important to tell the truth, because “if you don’t, TMZ is going to,” he joked.
Smith is well aware of his position within the celebrity world. “I haven’t maintained my authenticity per se. I’ve maintained the character of Will Smith…[who] signs every autograph, is always happy, and wants to see the fans and that’s not actually authentic. I do want to slap somebody every once in a while.”
In fact, he already has. Smith recalled the 2012 incident when a reporter tried to kiss him during an interview, and Smith reacted by slapping him across the face. That night, Smith came home to 10 urgent messages from JAY-Z, which Smith said was rare. Smith called him back, and he said (recollected in a pretty funny JAY-Z impression): “I just saw the video of you slapping the dude in Russia, I just want you to know you’ll never make a better piece of entertainment. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Me and B, we got a show tonight, but we thinking about canceling and just staying in and just watching you slap this dude.”
Smith admits he’s now allowing himself the space to lean into his authenticity (or, in his words, “I’m granting myself the freedom to not give a fuck when I don’t give a fuck”). Part of that sounds like it’s in the music he’s cooking up. It’s still an extremely shadowy project, but he described one record he’s working on called “The Mountaintop.” “The idea is… I’ve been to the top of money, I’ve had all the sex that I’ve ever wanted, I’ve had all of the adoration,” he said. “I’ve been to the top of all those material world mountains and nothing makes you happy other than being useful to others. That’s it. That’s the only thing that ever will satisfy that thing, is that what you’re doing is useful.”
Even though Smith is now looking to dominate the rap scene once again, he’s still also one of the great actors of our times, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Airwas his first role, the trampoline that thrust him into the position that would eventually give us Men in Black and Independence Day. “I had no idea [the show] was going to have that kind of impact,” he said, perhaps especially because the beginning was rough.
“When we started the show, there was a lot of hate around the idea of rap [and] the hip-hop culture in primetime,” he recalled.
It would be hard to talk to Smith about Fresh Prince and not bring up what may be the most famous moment on that show: the scene in which Smith unloads on Uncle Phil after his dad walks out on him once again on the episode “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.” The internet myth is that the scene was ad-libbed and Smith was transposing his own experience growing up without a dad. But that’s just the kind of lie the internet is great at spreading: Smith in fact had a close relationship with his father, who died recently. The truth is Smith did dig into his own experience in order to make that scene as emotional as it is: his acting experience.
“Behind the scenes of that, James Avery [actor who played Uncle Phil] was relentless on me to elevate. He wouldn’t give me a damn inch. Everything I said, everything I did, for James Avery it was like, ‘Nope, not good enough. You have this position, look where you are, look what you are blessed with. I’m sorry but I’m not accepting anything other than absolute, committed perfection,’” Smith said. He looked up to Avery as the ideal actor, but during the filming of this crucial scene, Smith kept messing up his lines. Avery calmed him down by telling him to relax and act off of him, and only him. Smith got it together (obviously), and at the end of the scene, when the two actors hug, Avery whispered to Smith: “That’s fucking acting right there.”
“I was using him: I wanted him to want me, I wanted him to approve of me, so in that scene I was transferring that energy onto James Avery,” Smith said.
When it comes to music, Smith showed loved for Drake, fellow Philly native Meek Mill, and Kanye West, even despite ‘Ye’s recent controversial remarks. He sees Drake as the rapper who “has had the most interesting success in the last four or five years,” particularly because he’s been able to sustain the success in the midst of social media, which Smith calls “a burn.”
Smith had kind words for Meek Mill, particularly in regards to his work with criminal justice reform and converting his experience in prison to swift action. “I love the position that he has found himself in, that he’s embracing,” Smith said. “Historically for the African American male, the road that he’s traveled has a beautiful historical pattern to it that is imbuing him with massive amount of power right now. He’s educating himself, and he’s taking a position in the world that I think is going to be be life-changing for him.”
“He has my full support. I want to see him win,” Smith added.
On a similar note, Smith added that “in 2018, what makes a great emcee is the same thing that makes someone a great father, a great husband, a great politician, a great human being. It is your commitment to your personal evolution, your personal growth for the purpose of assisting others.”
“That’s what I love about Kanye right now. He’s willing to take the smash down in order to push ideas,” he added. “He’s making people think, even in the twisted, backhanded success of Donald Trump.”
Smith also touched on his personal life, including his father passing within one day of Trump being elected, his mindset on the new administration, and of course, his marriage to Jada Pinkett Smith and how parenting has challenged him.
Check out the interview video above. The audio can be found below, and both are on Tidal.