Introducing the Real Will Smith

You can’t blame Smith if he’s confident he knows the best way to tell a story: The man is a natural raconteur. Between takes, I watched as he recalled with his assistants the time, while filming Concussion in Pittsburgh, that they all attempted to make it to an evening showing of Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer, also directed by Fuqua. The driver of the car, a dreadlocked friend named Scoty with a Trinidadian accent to match, had missed the exit—forcing them to take a 22-minute loop in order to turn around. Then, he missed it again. “What’s the point of going to the movies if you miss the trailers?” Smith yelled out, prompting Scoty to throw their vehicle in reverse and back up on the freeway until they got to the exit. Smith told the story at least three times as additional people joined the circle—each new rendition featuring new details, new animated gestures, and an even more refined take on Scoty’s accent—until his staff and security were all giggling with glee.

This November, when his memoir, Will, hits bookshelves, the world will receive the most unvarnished version to date of Smith’s own story. He had wanted to write a book for a few years by the time his team reached out to Mark Manson, author of the mega best seller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, while Smith was filming 2019’s Gemini Man. “An hour later, I’m on his private jet,” Manson recalled, adding that the entire experience still seems surreal: “Pieces of my brain were splattered against the wall.”

The two spent a few days on the Cayman Islands, getting to know each other and brainstorming. “I’ve spent my whole career hiding my true self from the world,” Manson said Smith told him. “I want this book to show people who I really am.” Later, Smith explained to me that he “just really wanted to totally destroy the clinging to ‘Will Smith,’ trying to separate the image of Will Smith from who I actually am.” By the last day of their trip, Manson presented a rough chapter outline. “Hell yeah, hell yeah!” he said Smith exclaimed, running around the room in excitement. “This is it!”

Smith’s story starts in Wynnefield, the middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia where his parents moved the family when he was two years old. “For a young Black family in the 1970s, this was as ‘American Dream’ as you could get,” he writes of the tightly clustered brick row houses. In the book, he discusses what he describes as one of the defining experiences of his life: at the age of nine, watching as his father punched his mother in the side of the head. It was not the only violence Smith saw his father inflict while growing up, but this particular incident, he writes, “has defined who I am today.” His brother jumped up, trying to intervene. His sister fled, hiding in her bedroom. Smith remembers freezing, too scared to do anything. Smith never discussed the violence with his father, who championed his son’s career until he died in 2016. “My father tormented me. And he was also one of the greatest men I’ve ever known,” Smith writes, noting that his father was the one who instilled in him his sense of loyalty and perfectionism. “He was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and also one of my greatest sources of pain.”

For decades, Smith has seen himself as a coward. His desire to please people, to entertain the crowd, and to make us all laugh, he explains, is rooted, at least in part, in the belief that if he kept everyone—his father, his classmates, his fans—smiling, they wouldn’t lash out with violence at him or the people he loved. If he could keep making his mother proud through his accomplishments, he reasoned, perhaps she would forgive his childhood inaction. “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien annihilating M.C., the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction—a carefully crafted and honed character—designed to protect myself,” he writes. Later he says, “Comedy defuses all negativity. It is impossible to be angry, hateful, or violent when you’re doubled over laughing.”

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