The M Interview: Concussion confession
Will Smith says he 'asked every question he could' to avoid playing doctor in American football movie
The self-proclaimed "psychotically driven" Will Smith has achieved everything he has wished for.
His notable achievements: back-to-back box-office blockbusters, awards for his performances and acclaim for his early music career.
But not an Oscar, even though he's been nominated twice, for Ali (2001) and The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006).
The 47-year-old was definitely a contender this year with his Golden Globe-nominated performance in the drama Concussion.
But with the Academy Awards nominations excluding every actor of colour for the second year in a row, he recently announced that he is supporting his actress-wife Jada Pinkett Smith's boycott of the Feb 28 ceremony.
The hand-wringing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is led by a black woman, has already begun, but the problem is more systemic than that.
In an industry where mostly white men are the gatekeepers and green-lighters of movies, a more fundamental change in thinking is required.
Smith should be in the room, along with other boycotters like director Spike Lee, to make a statement in person instead of being invisible.
Well before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy erupted, we met Smith at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills last November to discuss Concussion, which is currently showing here. Smith talked about making a change in his life.
The charismatic US actor and father of three was as high-energy as ever, joking around till he talked about turning a corner in his life.
He said: "I'm making a transition in my life and in my career that is not completely clear to me yet. But with making a film like Concussion, I feel more useful. I'm looking forward to challenging myself and thinking of my material more as a contribution."
REAL LIFE: Will Smith plays Dr Bennet Omalu (left) in Concussion. PHOTO: AFP
Concussion is the story of Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian doctor played by Smith, who discovers through performing autopsies of American football players that they are afflicted by a disorder he dubs chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is brought about by being repeatedly concussed in the head over decades of play.
Unfortunately, diagnosis is not possible till after death, so the violent behaviour, manic episodes and subsequent suicides of many of the players were glossed over by the National Football League (NFL). It tried to suppress Dr Omalu's findings, almost destroying his career.
Smith almost did not take the part as he did not want to be known as "the guy that made the football-can-be-bad-for-your-health movie".
Also, his eldest son Trey, 24, played football for four years and he has been a fan his whole life, so Smith was deeply conflicted.
"I met with (director) Peter Landesman, who's an investigative journalist, so he was bulletproof. I was asking every question I could ask, to not have to be the person to make this movie," Smith recalls.
Then there was the meeting with Dr Omalu.
"I was so compelled by his story that for me the hope that I had was to deliver this man's story to the world.
"It was much more about a man who had been treated wrongly because he was telling the truth. So I was much more compelled on that side."
And Smith's eyes were opened to the fact that spinal injury and broken limbs were not the only things to worry about when his son played the game.
"I had no idea that long-term brain damage was an issue with football. I had no idea that repetitive head trauma can cause brain damage. So my hope is that people just have the information. Everybody is going to make the decision that they need to make, but you have to have the information."
He has not heard from the NFL, but he has "talked to NFL players who are asking to see the movie".
"The science is irrefutable at this point and the movie acts as a compilation more than a revelation. Everyone can see it all together in one place. I think that the NFL and everyone involved is going to come to the table now to not resist but to begin to try to solve the problem."
Will Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu and Alec Baldwin is Dr. Julian Bailes in Concussion. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
To prepare for the role, Smith watched five autopsies.
"I didn't want to just have seen one, I wanted to try to actually get to a place where I was comfortable with the process. I really connected with Omalu's spirituality in that process."
But in his own career, Smith is prone to self-doubt on occasion.
"I'm always feeling way short of where I want to be in terms of how I want to be able to say something. I don't consider myself smart or intelligent in that way. I consider myself a fighter. And that I keep grinding. And I am going to figure it out even with whatever I may lack on that side."
There is less doubt when it comes to his almost 20-year marriage.
On how the celebrity couple keep their long - in Hollywood terms, that is - union going, he said: "We just stay completely committed to burning away the things that we desire that are unrealistic.
"We got together with this really romantic idea of what it was going to be and it ain't that. So we climb and grow and we are both willing to say, 'Okay, I thought one thing and it's not true, let's find what is true.'"