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On Will Smith's Seemingly Strategic Aversion To Controversial Roles...

by Adam Thompson
May 30, 2013 2:33 PM
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Will Smith 6 degrees of Separation

Editor's note: Worthy of a revisit a year later, in light of new discussion over Will Smith's seemingly fading star, and the choices he's made in recent years, including the latest, After Earth, out in theaters tomorrow.

As anticipation for Quentin Tarantino’s visionary “Southern,” Django Unchained, nears a fever pitch, my thoughts have turned to the man who was initially approached to essay the role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx – and what his ultimate refusal of such a controversial role means on a macro level.

With a filmography stretching back to 1992 (anyone remember Where the Day Takes You?), Will Smith has transformed himself from hip-hop pioneer to global megastar, arguably one of a few actors, black or white, who can guarantee a top opening weekend for any movie in which he stars. Forget Black Hollywood’s A-List – Will Smith is a star in any solar system.

What’s surprising then is the lack of “risky” roles in Mister Smith’s nevertheless glorious resume. The nineteen films he’s starred in have grossed a total of almost six billion dollars, but only one of them – to my mind, at least – can be considered controversial. Six Degrees of Separation (photo above) based on a John Guare play – itself based on the antics of real-life con man David Hampton (with whom I share a birthday) – introduced Smith as a serious dramatic actor who could sink his teeth into a nuanced role. Stockard Channing got the Oscar nod but it was “Big Willie” who stole the show.

Despite the opportunity, Smith refused to kiss (in character) another man (fellow thespian Anthony Michael Hall).  Instead, the two actors were filmed at an angle that implied a kiss. Smith’s reasoning, later blasted by Sir Ian McKellen as “the disease” of homophobia, was that his kissing another man would “gross out” his fans. Smith wasn’t the first actor to “go gay” for a major film role (think Al Pacino in Cruising); in fact, playing a homosexual while being straight nowadays can actually up one’s acting cred  – you’re welcome, Jake Gyllenhaal. (It should also be noted that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the duo behind Independence Day, specifically cited Six Degrees as the reason they picked Smith for the breakout role of Capt. Steven Hiller.)

But I digress. This is not an examination of heterosexual actors navigating gay roles but rather a question about Smith’s avoidance of roles that could perhaps violate an image or persona held by fans, media and perhaps the Hollywood machine. Breaking from type, from an ain’t-broke formula that puts asses in seats, is a tightrope walk for any actor associated with a certain breed of character. Perennial hero Henry Fonda took a chance when he signed on to play – gasp! – bad guy Frank in Sergio Leone’s epic western, Once Upon a Time in the West. The gamble paid off, however, resulting in a performance that’s every bit as powerful as his Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

The same could be said for 2002’s Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Denzel has played baddies before – his performance in A Soldier’s Story is chilling – but he’d grown comfortable, if you will, playing real and fictional good guys in movies like Cry Freedom and The Preacher’s Wife. Alonzo Harris, a role Bruce Willis turned down, allowed Washington to tap into his dark side and burn up the screen in Training Day, a type departure that netted him the elusive Best Actor Oscar and expanded the possibilities of how he could be utilized by studio execs. (think Safe House, or any other film where he coaches up a rising white actor). Halle “uglied” herself up and worked at a discount to help bring Monster’s Ball to life. Baring her soul, and so much more, Berry breathed life into a role other well-known black actresses had turned down – and struck gold.

I’m not saying Mister Smith or any other actor has to play it grimy for accolades, but it’s a shame that the star of Pursuit of Happyness hasn’t at least tried to take on more risky roles. Besides Six Degrees, the only other “controversial” movie I could even point to would be Ali, and even then only with regard to past issues of race in America and concerns about historical accuracy. All the great actors have played against type, showing the range that the truly talented chameleons are blessed with. If Smith counts himself among them, I implore him to consider going in a direction opposite that of a Hancock or Robert Neville or Agent J. In other words, don’t turn down another Django!

It’s not lost on me that black actors have more to lose if a risky role doesn’t sell – although Will Smith is hardly typical. So I put the question to those here on S&A: Do you think an actor of Smith’s prestige can benefit from riskier, edgier roles? What about lesser-known, lesser-paid – but no less capable – actors such as Anthony Mackie and Viola Davis?


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  • Mox | June 9, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    Why is that people equate controversy with quality? Will buck the trend and refused to take a subordinate, poorly written role to participate in Oscar category fraud. Just what does "taking risks" mean anyway? Will has demos tested range in Seven Pounds, Ali and TOPH two fat eyes OscR noms. As mentioned before, we don't ask the same of Pitt, Clooney, Bradley Cooper etc...

  • Phil | September 14, 2013 2:33 AM

    They are not even in the same league Mox, I have watched a few of Wills films and he has come a long way from fresh Prince and gets better and better in 'almost' every outing. Whereas I have never heard of Bradley Cooper.

  • Justin Jordan | June 5, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    Tamabay, I've learned so much from reading this article and these comments: acting techniques (Meisner), classic movies (like Magnolia–Tom Cruise won me over here), lead actors vs. character actors, the suspension of disbelief (thanks Eflowone). I just had my own mini film course!

    The greatest learning however, and comment, is that Will Smith (and his team of agents/mentors) brilliantly mapped out his career and made it happen. Who does this? How many people anywhere set a goal of being the biggest draw in Hollywood, at a time when there were few AA big draws (Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes?), and makes it happen?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 5, 2013 6:36 PM

    Eddie had a similar gameplan, although I don't know that it was as well defined as Will's. Although -- and this is not to take a shot -- it's always easier after the fact to exclaim, "I came. I saw. I conquered." Many people go into entertainment, the arts, sports, entrepreneurship, etc., with a gameplan and come up empty. Maybe they didn't believe or work hard enough, but there are so many factors involved in success -- and failure. But above all, perseverance is key.

  • Daniel Delago | June 5, 2013 5:58 AMReply

    'After Earth' is one of the worst summer blockbusters I've had to sit through in years. Will Smith fans will go see it out of loyalty. Maybe it's good when a box office star gets a reality check. He came up with the original concept for the film. He wants his son, Jaden to follow in his footsteps. He and his wife are producers of the film. This is when an actor needs to take a look in the mirror and realize it is time to get back to more edgier, dramatic roles.

  • CareyCarey | June 7, 2013 7:09 AM

    "Just to see"

    Okay, that's understandable.

    When I look at the big picture, there's a maturation period that's different for all of us. Not only in life in general is that true, but every occupation/endeavor/relationship must be considered in all it's complexities. In respect to a father and son relationship, it's easy for us to suggest what they should or shouldn't do. However, we don't bare the burden of consequences.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 7, 2013 12:37 AM

    I just wish he should star in more movies without his father, and become accustomed to working on projects in which Will may have no involvement. Just to see.

  • CareyCarey | June 5, 2013 11:53 PM

    Good analogy Adam, but I don't see the parallel? Are you implying Will is doing something wrong or that Jaden has failed or he's floundering? Personally, I don't believe either is true. And really, going along with your analogy, isn't Jaden making a name for himself with his father's assistance?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 5, 2013 6:40 PM

    Oh, the game is grimey, indeed. No parent, pro or no, should leave a child actor to the machine unsupervised. I just meant that the boy should be on his own in making a name. Like...

    You have someone who's swimming the English Channel. They're not out there alone. They're being followed and observed -- and saved if need be -- by a boat full of helpers.

    I'm saying that Will needs to jump out of the water and just mind his son from the boat. Let Jaden do his own swimming. If he fatigues or pulls up with a cramp, snatch him out of the water.

  • CareyCarey | June 5, 2013 11:53 AM

    "Why do you say that, Thomas?" ~ Adam

    If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander, Adam *smirk* so what did you mean --> "he should let his son be on his own".

    Jaden is 14 and Will is his father so work with me.

    Will Smith has been in the music and film business since his teenage years. So, without question he has seen and experienced all the sharks, usurpers, pimps, hustlers and boogiemen who love preying on the young and unknowing. And, we've all seen the mugshots of child actors who may not have had proper guidance. So, understanding Will's job as a father, leaves me to question your comment.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 5, 2013 11:10 AM

    I think he should let his son be on his own.

  • A. Fiasco | June 3, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    I agree that Will could definitely use some risky roles in his repetoire, but I definitely think he was right to pass on Django. It wasn't a complex enough role, if you ask me. And being in a controversial film just for the sake of controversy isn't really worth it. He was smart for not taking it.

  • Donella | June 5, 2013 8:39 AM

    It was a crap, dead-end role, extraordinarily underwritten. The lack of any recognition from any organization during award season for that role confirms what many of us already knew when we read it.

  • Thomas Rideout | May 31, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    When are you going to realize that the role in Django, deserved to passed up!!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 31, 2013 11:20 PM

    Why do you say that, Thomas?

  • Juwan Dickerson | May 31, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    My wife and I were just speaking about Will Smith career and his role in Six Degrees of Separation and I was explaining to her about how his portrayal as a gay character led to his role in Independence Day and his later stardom although I had always thought that he actually did kiss Anthony Hall.

    I do wish that Will Smith would take on more diverse roles especially now since he's older, and may not be the biggest money bringer in terms of box office these days. The billion dollar comic book movie blockbusters now rule that and names like Nolan, Whedon, and Abrams all directors, are the ones putting the butts in the seats.

    Some of Will Smiths best roles has been those smaller dramatic roles although they haven't brought in the most money. But we all know that the Fresh Prince isn't hurting for money he can afford the risk. And heck Django made a ton of money no shade on Jaimie Foxx but if Will Smith would have taken it, it probably would have been a billion dollar blockbuster.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 31, 2013 11:39 PM

    I think "Independence Day" was already in production when "Bad Boys" was released.

  • Donella | May 31, 2013 10:03 PM

    I always thought Will Smith's role in Bad Boys led to Independence Day because it was the first movie showing Smith bulked up and performing in action sequences. Previous to that, he was kind of slender and seemed more of a prankster.

  • Everette | May 31, 2013 3:22 AMReply

    Why should Smith be taking on edgy roles? Do we ask the same question about Pitt, Cruise, and the like? Smith has often said one of the reasons that he became a success was that he mapped out a plan after 6 degrees and that include trying to get roles in big budget sci-fi films that were sure to draw an audience. Most people did not go to see Independence Day because of Smith, but they left impressed with him. Therefore, I see him playing the same card with his son. You mention Berry, but was her role in Monsters Ball really necessary. What A-list black male actors are in Hollywood, beyond Smith and Washington. There are some on the come-up, but until he falls off the list there is no reason to even present a diatribe such as this.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 31, 2013 11:23 PM

    @Donella: That would've been my second Cruise example. The scene with Jason Robards is a masterclass.

  • Donella | May 31, 2013 9:59 PM

    I'd grown tired of Tom Cruise's cocky, action-adventure roles, but his performance in Magnolia was amazing in that the audience experienced the full range of possible human emotion in through his character.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 31, 2013 4:59 PM

    I don't know about "the like," but Pitt and Cruise have both taken on edgy, risky roles in their careers -- with varying results. For a Pitt example, see "Twelve Monkeys" (a role that earned him an Oscar nod). For Cruise, see "Collateral."

  • FactChecker | May 31, 2013 1:18 AMReply

    I'm not what you'd call a Will Smith fan. I've only, purposely, seen two movies that he's ever been in: 'Happyness' and '6 Degrees', as I'm not much of an action moviegoing gal. He's made enough money, now, that if he were ever worried about taking risks, he shouldn't be, anymore.

    I definitely don't view him as an "artist," but more of a money machine. He had a plan when he came to Hollywood and it's worked -- and certainly continues to work, worldwide -- but I think, here, in the states, his star has definitely faded. REAL artists take risks, regardless of race.

    That's why audiences LOVE Denzel, and why he has two Oscars, to Will's NONE. ... Smith has become incredibly one note, and the dog and pony show of trying to help his kid's career, and constantly talking about them, and his marriage to Jada, etc., has become his Tom Cruise jumping on the couch Oprah moment. It's TOO much. The more I learn about his crazy family and how they're raising those two untalented minions Jaden and Willow, the less I like him as an actor.

    You don't get respect -- from your audience or Hollywood -- for not taking risks.
    Tom Hanks took a HUGE risk playing a homosexual in Philadelphia and look at the deep, interesting, career he's had. ..."Philadelphia" and "Six Degrees" came out the same year -- 1993. He won best Oscar that year for "Philadelphia" AND his second for "Forrest Gump." ...He may win a Tony this year for "Lucky Guy." And, like Denzel, he's made a far greater impact, on celluloid, that generations of filmlovers will remember, than Smith. Oh, and his films have grossed billions overseas too.

    Perhaps what's most disappointing about Smith is that he seems to be wasting his power and influence in Hollywood. ...I'm not saying that ALL black people, once they've made it, have an obligation to give back -- a relative term -- within the industry, but it was nice to see Denzel direct and produce "The Great Debaters." It was great when Winfrey produced "Brewester Place." And, of course, no other black filmmaker has done as much as Spike Lee to advance the careers of blacks before, and behind the scenes, in cinema. ...Would be nice if Smith would do something too.

  • K | May 30, 2013 11:27 PMReply

    I also don't think it's a big deal to not "take risks". Why should you have to do what everyone thinks you have to do? Risky, edgy what does it all mean anyway? Sex, drugs, bad guy? So what. He is accessible, and has charisma. The only thing he needs to do is get his kids out of our faces, and hire some black film directors and writers to helm whatever movie he wants to star in.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 31, 2013 4:52 PM

    I'll agree with you on one condition: If he doesn't have to take on riskier or edgier roles -- which don't necessarily entail sex, drugs or being the bad guy -- then he doesn't have to hire black directors or writers for his projects. Or get his kids out of our faces. lol

  • K | May 30, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    I don't understand how anyone can think Will Smith's star is fading. He is arguably one of the biggest movie stars on planet earth. Whatever genre he is in, regardless if his character is the same, will be successful because of his name. Whether or not he is or isn't as big as used to be doesn't change the fact that he's still a bigger box office draw than most actors.

  • amira smith | May 30, 2013 11:12 PMReply

    I really enjoy the comments here. A lot of good offerings on the subject. I feel when it comes to Will Smith it may not be an aversion to risky roles, but just always wanting to bring a certain level of pure energy to the world through entertainment. We already know from his music career that he refuses to put out work that he may feel less than proud of in any regard. He refused to cuss on record in hip-hop music. If that isn't integrity, I don't know what is! I knew he turned down Django not because of controversy or being 'scared' of the role (I honestly don't think Will Smith is big on fear), but in Quentin Tarantino's words in an interview, they couldn't get it to a place where Will got all he wanted from it. It's nice to know part of what he wanted was Django killing Candy.

  • Orville | May 30, 2013 5:33 PMReply

    I think it all depends, for a black male actor who is high profile as Will Smith it still seems as though it is a risk. It does seem in Hollywood a lot of straight male actors take on gay roles because they want to win an Oscar or get critical acclaim. Look at Michael Douglas and Matt Damon their gay film about Liberace was over hyped by the media. The acting was decent but the paucity of sexual scenes between the two men was disappointing. Douglas and Damon briefly kissed and had a tame sex scene really not a big deal.

    The press are still a bit homophobic, in the sense that you don't see openly gay actors taking on gay film roles. I don't see Zachary Quinto or Matt Bomer playing a gay film role and I doubt they would be praised by the media either if they did.

    I think the high profile black male actors like Will Smith or Denzel Washington are hesitant to take on a gay role because of their brand. Smith and Washington have a very heterosexual brand.

    Although lower profile black male actors like Anthony Mackie have taken on a gay role in the film Brother to Brother and that was actually Mackie's first breakthrough as an actor.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 30, 2013 7:26 PM

    I don't know there was a great amount of full-on sexual intercourse between Liberace and Scott Thorson in real life. But I could be wrong. In any case, Liberace transcends homosexuality. He was just a force of nature.

  • Maurice Emel | May 30, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Will Smith is a person who knows exactly what he wants and he set a blueprint for himself years ago that he has stuck to it and it's worked for him, I can't knock him for knowing what he wants, getting it and succeeding at it. He has publicly stated that when he started acting he wanted to be the biggest movie star there was so he modeled himself on the biggest at that time (Tom Hanks) and chose the most successful genre (Sci-fi). That's what he does, that's what he sticks to. In regards to other actors like Halle Berry, she's made it her goal to "ugly" herself up in roles so that she wasn't known as the "pretty girl" in too many films (she's done this since Jungle Fever, Charlize does the same). As for Ali, Smith didn't want to do that role and only gave in after Muhammad Ali personally called him and said "I think you should do this movie". He also turned down the role of Neo in the Matrix b/c he said "he'd would've just messed that movie up" so the guy knows his range and he turned down Django not b/c it was controversial but b/c the Schultz character was the real star and Will wanted Django to kill Candy, and QT wouldn't give in. So at the end of the day I think Will should be given credit for having a good game plan, sticking to it, and knowing the limits of his talent.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 30, 2013 7:32 PM

    Yeah, I think the "ugly" roles are for people who were pegged for their looks or came from a modeling background. The former is true of Brad Pitt who did all he could to break out and away from "Thelma & Louise." The latter is true of Berry and Theron, both of whom started with modeling and pageantry but wanted to be taken seriously as actors.

  • JL | May 30, 2013 3:48 PMReply

    No disrespect to Mr. Smith...but I don't think he's capable of doing a risky role. He's not there in his craft yet. He's tried with roles like Hancock and LEGEND to add depth but what happens is that he ends up doing just a bit too much. I just don't think he's able to get there. He's not trained in bringing those nuances up that "risky" roles require.

  • j | May 30, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Going gay doens't count and anymore as far taking on risky roles because its widely accepted .So even if will smith were to do another gay role now .It would be considered the norm and will smith would still be in his lane.Will smith is just as relevent as actors who step out and do such roles as gay.Gay is the new band wagon everyone is jumping on.

  • donnadara | May 30, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    You say visionary, I say offensive. Maybe he had some personal reasons for turning down Django. People are not universally happy about this film.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 30, 2013 7:37 PM

    I knew many would be offended before the movie ever opened. I used "visionary" because, love it or hate it, Tarantino's style is that of an auteur -- a filmmaking with a unique vision(s) and a unique style all his/her own.

    When you're watching a QT film, you know it from frame one. I didn't use the word to imply that it would somehow advance filmmaking -- he did that with "Pulp Fiction" -- or heal any old wounds.

    Not picking on you, just seeking to clarify. :)

  • Mel | June 12, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    maybe he knows he doesn't have the chops to bring something more nuanced to the screen, so he sticks to what he knows he can do adequately.

    Honestly, I think he's a great 'figure' (funny, big smile, charismatic, etc), but I haven't truly enjoyed a performance of his in years. I see serious, serious gaps in his performances. Even in films I enjoy like "I am Legend".

  • Ysaye | June 12, 2012 4:07 PMReply

    Maybe for him, and based upon his own standards, what roles he chooses to play in are "risky". Who are we to determine what he considers under that label. What is risky to him? I enjoy what he does in terms of work. One could suggest that teaming up with another Black actor in a starring role would be risky. After all, I have yet to see him in a role/film that challenges our notions of a Black man as a leading man opposite another Black man going head to head. Usually its a white/Black pairing, and that is a dull and overused formula. I'd like to see him in a film with Denzel, Idris, Jamie, but has that happened? A kiss is worthless unless it has meaning. Just because it tittilates the desires and senses in some to see two men kiss doesn't make it "risky" in my book. And what if it is? He has every right to draw the line for himself.

  • juliette | June 12, 2012 2:57 PMReply

    I always enjoy these discussions - one of the reasons S&A is a favored site. That said, I understand the exhaustion Black actors and actresses must feel at having to "represent the race " constantly - it's the same one I feel at my job. But nobody writes about it......

  • WOW | June 12, 2012 4:58 PM

    nobody writes about it..? They are called "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" and "The 44th POTUS"

  • Kim Casper | June 12, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    We usually speculate just why an actor does or does not do something, so I leave a universe of room for Will Smith to fill in the reasons he may avoid playing a "riskier" role. There have been some hip hop folks who did not want to play being good, since they viewed that as risky to their image..... When it comes to Will, I think it may be possible with the huge success he has and the knowledge of what it took to get him there, that he may just have to feel where HE wants to go, internally. He may be concerned about his image but hey, like your article said, he did do "Six Degrees" -which I just happened to watch two nights ago again- and I did notice that the kiss was implied but it worked well. Choosing to do certain roles may be more personal than one thinks. We can only hope he doesn't hesitate because of us. That he trusts our trust in him to go all out; this we hope for.

  • EflowOne | June 12, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    As I read the chain of comments regarding "Will Smith's Seemingly Strategic Aversion.....", I offer that one's conclusions about an actor's character portrayal are predicated on whether one can relinquish the real-life person and see the character the actor depicts in the film. Two things are essential in this regard. First, the viewer must engage "the willing suspension of disbelief". Second, and most important, the real-life person/actor must become the character so as to disengage what ever it is the viewer assumes to know about the real-life person/actor. In more than fifty years of viewing films, live theater, and television, domestic and international, it is an uncommon event.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 13, 2012 9:20 AM

    I have to agree.

  • Nutella | June 12, 2012 2:06 PMReply

    How many times are we gonna say that Will Smith himself said the role wasn't right for him and that Keanue Reeves did a better job than he could have at the time! So his is that a mishap?

    As far as actor go I think Chiwetel Ejiofor is one hell of an actor! Plays a drag queen in kinky boots then turns around an plays the most ruthless gangster in 4 Brothers. Very underrated in my opinion along with Anthony Mackie!

  • Donella | June 13, 2012 5:48 PM

    And the smoothest villain ever in Serenity and the most heartbreaking compassionate hotelier in Dirty Pretty Things. Chiwetol is an absolute dream of an actor.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 12, 2012 6:23 PM

    Agreed -- two times!

  • Lauren | June 12, 2012 10:44 AMReply

    @Marie- I agree there seems to be a fair skinned strategy at play for females for romantic roles in "general audience" features-just as there seems to be a dark skinned strategy for males in similar films. We come in all shades so why are top black actors so uniform in complexion? And if I'm gonna' go there-average looking? Where's the black Brad Pitt?!!! I see him round the way all the time but never on screen in a "general audience" movie. Things that make you go hmmm....

  • Snooky | June 12, 2012 6:27 AMReply

    The real question here is not why doesn't Will Smith choose to do more controversial, challenging roles, the real question is whether he is an actor anyway. Just being a likable non-offending personality to a broader audience doesn't make him an actor. It makes him a bankable personality that brings in money for the studios. I like the guy but I don't really consider him a real actor. Does anyone remember The Legend of Vagger Bance ? He is a Hollywood money maker now that makes his investors profitable while real actors like Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright, and Anthony Mackey act but don't make the big money or get the recognition. Can you imagine The Fresh Prince of Bel Air playing the lead in Hotel Rawanda? This is not a diss on Will. He has come a long way since leaving Philadelphia. He is cashing in while his age and career formula still work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Time will take care of it all, actor or not.

  • darkamethyst | June 17, 2012 6:15 AM

    Although Eflowone eloquently expressed his view of what good acting is, I don't agree with the opinion. We all FEEL we know Smith from his prior career as a music artist and his appearances on talk shows. Other actors make less public appearances, so the similarities between them and the characters they play are less noticeable. It's the actor's job to inhabit the role or have the role inhabit him. Both are acceptable as there are different types of actors, lead actors and character actors. Some work from the inside out while others work from the outside in. Both types are required within one movie.

    End of the day, people are just hating. The only thing that matters is whether or not he is choosing vehicles that will help him grow. Yes, an actor must challenge him or herself, but the decision of what challenges to confront must be made from his own internal inquiry. This inquiry ensures that the actor is willing to delve into the dark places and bright heights that is required to play the role. I actually don't think Smith is right for Django. I'm sure it looked good on paper to Tarantino and his Producers, but it was a smart choice by Smith and a blessing to them all that he turned it down. That script is amazing but it does not suit him. It seems like it's tailor made for Jamie Fox's talents and inner paradoxes. And what do you mean by 'Smith is a movies star but not an actor.' I've heard the example made too many times that he admitted he was mouthing the other person's lines before he said his own. But isn't that really close to an exercise used while studying Meisner technique. Even if he didn't know it, that's what he was doing, and that was a stop along the way of his development. Smith showed emotional depth and flexibility in a number of films; I am Legend, 7 Pounds, Pursuit of Happyness. To say he is a movie star and not an actor is ridiculous. You are merely making the distinction between art and commerce. He is both things. He went to work everyday on set and did the work just like everybody else. So what if he doesn't change his voice. I never heard Sydney Poitier change his voice for a role. At least Smith tried it for Ali. Denzel rarely successfully changes his voice. Did you see his rendition of Steve Biko in Cry Freedom? He had the spirit of the man, but not the best South African accent. Morgan Freeman made me believe he was Mandela in Invictus, but I would hesitate to say he mastered the voice. The voice is not as important as the spirit of the character. Smith has grown with each role and carried many successful films. Chiwitel, Cheadle and Wright are great actors, but Smith is actually able to do some things they can't do, especially when it comes to comedy and action. Much like Tom Hanks and Jim Carey, Smith can handle serious and comedic roles. Only Cheadle has shown the ability to handle a similar comedy. Wright and Chiwitel have comedic ability but it's a different brand of timing, wit and tone. That was best displayed in their roles together in Top Dog Underdog, which had an absurdists feel in a way. The overall point is that roles suit different abilities and types, and the actor must search himself to see if the role can fit inside their vessel. But to say that Smith is not an actor is ridiculous. He has made great choices FOR HIMSELF. Of course what he turns down becomes serendipitous for others. That's what it means to be on top, to be the king, having a lot of good choices. His trash becomes another's treasure. That is a wisdom and wealth not fear. (Btw Mackie does not belong in this list at all. No offense to him. He's talented and solid and he may get to their league one day, but I just don't see the same hard work and dedication in his work that I do in the other great actors that have been mentioned here.)

  • noel | June 13, 2012 5:02 AM

    Marie, you wrapped it up by saying smith is a movie star. Well put. Couldn't agree more.

  • Mel | June 12, 2012 4:53 PM

    I agree with both points presented in this mini discussion> Will is a great comedic actor and is light on the acting chops, so he's obviously not going to have the a resume that equals a tour de force, dramatic 'thespian' or whatever. Just like someone like DDL would probably never have the charisma to make something like "Wild Wild West" successful.

    This is all true, but questioning whether DDL has an Irish blog questioning his acting choices is a bit tougher for me to digest. DDL has TONS of blogs dissecting his performances and truly arguing whether he can be called this generations Rober DeNiro. Just like I've seen many 'mainstream' blogs castigate Smith for this new onslaught of sequels he has planned (MIB3, I am Legend 2, etc). Maybe DDL isn't going to get as much specific attention for his ethnicity, but he's also part of the Hollywood majority in terms of his skin color, sooo...why would we think it would be the same?

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 1:27 PM

    A matter of opinion I suppose. Personally I enjoyed Will's performances in "Happyness" and "Ali" more than anything I've ever seen Mackie do, who seems one-note to me. To each his own.... . YES! Say it LOUD and Say it RIGHT! And Lauren's comment (below) is really on target... ending with--> "I mean, is there an Irish blog somewhere questioning the dearth of comedic choices of Daniel Day Lewis?" . Period... nuff said!

  • Lauren | June 12, 2012 10:21 AM

    @Snooky- " Can you imagine The Fresh Prince of Bel Air playing the lead in Hotel Rawanda?" Can anyone imagine Anthony Mackey, (who always looks cranky to me) Don Cheadle, (great actor-not cute...sorry!) or the serious Mr Wright playing the Fresh Prince? I think this post- and not your comment, is yet another example of the exhausting expectations some black folks have for black actors; whether it be aimed at Viola Davis for playing a maid or Will Smith's successful application of his abilities. I mean, is there an Irish blog somewhere questioning the dearth of comedic choices of Daniel Day Lewis?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 12, 2012 10:02 AM

    Great points from you and Marie! This is why I wrote the article. I wanted discussion by others to expand my own understanding of the subject at hand (although I would personally like to see Will Smith in more challenging if not risky or edgy roles, because I think he could actually succeed).

  • Marie | June 12, 2012 9:23 AM

    @Snooky—I agree. I characterize Smith as a personality more than an actor. I don't think he creates an individual character the way Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis and others do. He looks and sounds the same in almost every role. I find him to be watchable and affable but certainly not to be considered along with the greats despite his Oscar noms (none of which I thought were deserved.) His performance in Ali was dreadful but then again, so was the film. Each actor approaches their careers with certain goals. Jonny Depp wanted to be a great actor, Tom Cruise and Will Smith wanted to be movie stars. Those two goals require different approaches which is why we saw Smith hanging out with Cruise and not Depp. My bigger complaint with Smith is less his choice of roles than the continued lightening of his female co-stars' complexions. He went from Regina King to Sallie Richardson to Eve Mendes to Charlize Theron. It disappoints me that in his position he doesn't fight to get more black actresses playing opposite him. Lift as you rise.

  • Helluva | June 12, 2012 6:42 AM

    A matter of opinion I suppose. Personally I enjoyed Will's performances in "Happyness" and "Ali" more than anything I've ever seen Mackie do, who seems one-note to me. To each his own...

  • noel | June 12, 2012 5:40 AMReply

    Tambay not sure the pov you write, a concerned fan or viewer? Ultimately for me, smith can keep choosing projects he wants to be in as he wishes. Am actually never bothered by the choices of any these actors because at the end, I choose which of their films I want to pay to watch. Not the typical die-hard fan.

  • noel | June 13, 2012 4:57 AM

    Thanks for correction helluva. Adam thanks for feedback and apologies for mistaking your article with tambay's. Well, I think smith is more or less a businessman than an artiste. I maybe wrong but looking at his choices for his kids, it sort of reflect on his choices too.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 12, 2012 9:59 AM

    I did... more out of curiosity than concern.

  • Helluva | June 12, 2012 6:47 AM

    Tambay didn't write this piece...

  • Skinnamoncoast | June 11, 2012 11:41 PMReply

    I think it's a valid question, but some actors are "stay in your lane" kind of folks and it works for them. Some actors are about "the work" and others are about the "box office"-no harm in either I guess. Regarding Halle-hmm...hers was a calculated move to play that role in Monster's Ball--and in my opinion she gave Hollywood the stereotype they wanted-I don't blame other actresses for not feeling comfortable with that. And Will was young when he did Six Degrees--he kissed David Letterman (yuck) on the mouth on his show, so clearly he's past the "disease" of homophobia LOL! For me, Will Smith is not the kind of actor I'm itching to see do a deep, dark role-but would appreciate the effort if he did.

  • Jason Gilmore | June 11, 2012 11:36 PMReply

    I'm not mad at Will's choices for the most part. He hasn't embarrassed us (with the exception of Bagger Vance, which most people never saw) and everyone has a different mission (i.e. there would've been no Shaft or Black Caesar if Poitier didn't pave the way). I'm just mystified that he has yet to work with a black director. Not even at the beginning of his film career. Not one. Name ONE other black actor who's even B-level that you can say that about. This deliberate omission is odd to me, and, in my opinion, a bigger red flag than his largely escapist acting choices.

  • Akimbo | June 12, 2012 2:35 PM

    I know he worked with black directors on "Fresh Prince," and he produces content created/directed/written by black people, but it is interesting that he's yet to do so on one of his own projects. It's important to note that it's been a loooong time since Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock have worked with black directors, too. Martin Lawrence went 16 years between Boomerang and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins. I think if any black director is going to work with Will, it's going to be an action-helmer. I will be stunned stupid if he ever works with Spike Lee.

  • Donella | June 12, 2012 10:58 AM

    That is strange, indeed, now that I think about it. He did produce The Secret Life of Bees on which Gina Price-Blythewood was director. But that's as close as it comes. Bizarre. Wonder what's going on with that? Will?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 12, 2012 9:57 AM

    Interesting point, Jason. Very interesting.

  • Helluva | June 12, 2012 6:46 AM

    I agree, that IS the bigger issue. Always wondered what "Ali" might've been had he & Spike worked together.

    As far as controversial roles, has Brad Pitt done any such roles since he became a mega-star?

  • LeonRaymond | June 11, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    And to come back to Will Smith , I don't feel his career path has been a bad one at all, building a strong box office step by step and by having block busters at the same time has worked for him but here's the thing, in his production company he has from what I am told 5 very controversial scripts on his desk 3 of them he's about to sign off on that were groomed for him. So I think his next strategic move will be to go for those award winning roles at the same time he has a huge blockbuster in the market so he won't be hurt. Smart move in my book !!!!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 11, 2012 10:36 PM

    If that's true then I'm all in. I want the brother's continued success; it's good for everybody all around, really. The article wasn't an indictment, per se. I don't think "the industry" or mainstream (read: white) fans would penalize him for making a U-turn -- nor would we; I just hope HE knows that.

  • LeonRaymond | June 11, 2012 8:51 PMReply

    Orville is so far off, I remember having just missed Denzel at an open rehearsal session uptown in Washington Heights, he came there to see an actor putting together a theater group of Latino actors and actresses and walked in on the surprised , and stayed and gave everybody of his time and efforts. And even got on the small stage and wanted to be involved in one of the scenes, when he left all those actors were so hyped beyond imagine. He gave of his time and every one was so worried about taking up his time that they said he went over to wall and took the clock down and told them stop looking at the clock and lets just get down. I think your referring to that Denzel that is on another Planet existing in another time zone and is his evil twin and if they ever meet all humanity will disappear. Is that the one you mean!!!

  • Donella | June 11, 2012 8:41 PMReply

    Adam, the role of Django was not written as controversial. Rather, that role was written as weak.

  • noel | June 12, 2012 4:27 AM

    Curious to know what role did idris elba bypass in django unchained cause am sure he very much wanted to play the django and wasn't offered it.

  • Donella | June 11, 2012 9:25 PM

    Other actors besides Will Smith who bypassed this movie include: Kurt Russell, Jonah Hill, Kevin Costner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, and Michael K. Williams. I would hate to see The Weinstein Company retaliate against them for choosing other projects, but that would indicate more about the integrity of the Weinsteins than that the actors.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 11, 2012 9:00 PM

    Just to clarify, my "controversy threshold" is rather high. I personally don't consider "Django" or any other Tarantino movie controversial. I watched 'Human Centipede" and thought, "What's the fuss?" But some people do allow a film's content -- if labeled "controversial" -- to sway their decision of whether or not to see it (such as in 'The Last Temptation of Christ"), and that can have consequences for (some) actors.

  • misha | June 11, 2012 7:04 PMReply

    Umm....I'm no big Will Smith fan but maybe just maybe he turned down this role because there was no payoff in "starring" in this "controversial" film? He'd essentially be the side kick in a film where he's playing the title character and why on earth would Hollywood's no.1 leading man agree to such a thing?

  • mstradford | June 11, 2012 6:46 PMReply

    Interesting article, but I think your definition of 'controversial' bears discussion. I would contend that it was controversial for Will to play 'Ali', for Will to star as a secret agent in the 1800's western 'The Wild Wild West', that it was controversial for him to turn his nice guy image on its ear when he played the surly superhero in 'Hancock', and almost the only person onscreen in 'I, Am Legend'. Granted all four films were commercially minded, but not traditionally safe choices, in the same way that, say, Adam Sandler and until recently, Matthew McConaughey films have been: cookie cutter genre films that found a formula and stuck to it.

    It seems that he looks for stories that audiences would enjoy and roles that would require him to stretch. Because he (thus far) hasn't gone as extreme as perhaps you think he should, doesn't negate the fact that he's made some challenging interesting choices. Aside from Clooney, Pitt and Cruise, there aren't many A list actors painting from as broad a palette.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 11, 2012 7:28 PM

    Well put!

  • Lauren | June 11, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    I'm not worried about Will and he's for sure not worried about my thoughts about his roles...Lol!

  • Moionfire | June 11, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    I don't think Will Smith cares. He is a rapper turned actor. I think he does movies because of the money and entertainment aspect. Not because he views acting as an art. There are many actors like him. That said, "Ali" proved that he could be a serious actor if he wanted to.

  • Moionfire | June 13, 2012 1:33 AM

    @ Troy. My point is that Will Smith doesn't seem like one who does acting for art sake. I wasn't saying there is anything wrong with being a musician and going into acting. My point is that this wasn't his life/career mission in the same vein as say Denzel, Anthony Mackie, Forrest Whitticker etc who went to acting school and from the get go went into acting.

  • troy | June 12, 2012 1:33 PM

    As opposed to a waiter turned actor. Actors dont want to be paid. He has done way more acting than rapping. Maybe he acted his way through his rap career. Everybody should only have one job for the rest of their lives.

  • Ava | June 11, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    Will Smith the actor is pretty much like the Fresh Prince the rapper. Has anyone known the Fresh Prince of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince fame to ever make a controversial song? He prided himself back then on making songs that avoiding cursing and could be enjoyed by kids in front of parents and grandparents. I think this may be simply who he is. We as artists may believe that not taking great personal and artistic risk is anathema to what it means to be an artist but, it appears to be pretty consistent with who he is or at least how he appears to represent himself.

  • Big Willy | June 11, 2012 5:24 PM

    Nope -

  • maja | June 11, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    You mean to tell me that a good movie is a controversial one???!!! seriously???

  • Orville | June 11, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    The author didn't mention it but there is an issue of homophobia in the black community that needs to be addressed. I think in the early 1990s Will Smith worried about what black homophobes would think. Will should have kissed Anthony Michael Hall in Six Degrees Separation because that's what was required of his character.

    Lets be honest how many black male actors that are high profile willing to take on a gay film role? I can't think of anyone other than Wesley Snipes in the drag film back in 1995. A lot of white male actors don't seem to have a problem taking no a gay role like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, ect.

    I think if more black male actors should take on gay film roles.

    I would love for more black actors to take on complex LGBT roles to show their range and talents.

    Will Smith is the most successful black actor of ALL TIME and he's still only 43 years old! Will's personality I think helped him reach the top of Hollywood he's the non threatening black man.
    People need to remember when Six Degrees of Separation came out Will was only 24 years of age he was very young. I think Will has a brand and his brand is all about making money and not rocking the boat. But what about Pursuit of Happyness I felt in that role Will really showed his range as an actor and he did get an Oscar nomination for that role.

    Denzel Washington is an amazing actor but he has an arrogance to him and I heard he has a nasty attitude beyond the camera and public eye. Washington has been relegated to second tier status in his movies he now is paired with young white actors like Ryan Reynolds. The studios aren't confident that Denzel can have hits on his own and reach a white and international audience by himself anymore.

  • ScriptTease | May 30, 2013 5:23 PM

    Do we have a demand for gay film, and if so why not use LGBT actors? Just because a black actor is not interesting in playing a LGBT role does not mean they are homophobes. I personally do not want to go see LL Cool J (with his fine self) play a role where he is romantically involved with whoever the man is. I personally don't want to go to the Movies and see LL Cool J (again, with his fine self), moving heaven and earth to be with and do whatever it takes to make sure is white female love interest don't fall off her pedestal. I do not want to see it, and I do not care what it makes me out to be.

  • Jay | June 11, 2012 5:41 PM

    I have to agree with Darkan and Nadine. I've worked on two Denzel pictures and he was extremely gracious. His behaviour was an exemplary; a true professional and gentleman.

  • Nadine | June 11, 2012 5:00 PM

    Skimmed quickly... but I couldn't let that Denzel thing go... Denzel is one of the kindest, most encouraging men in the game. I'm sorry if you had a terrible experience with him (although it seems to be more hearsay that you are describing). I'm reading Darkan's response to you and has had pretty much the same experiences with DW. It is not a coincidence. Try giving DW another chance. Maybe he had jet lag, a bad day, etc... but Denzel is a good man... angelic even, to any and everyone... but he is human. Also, he is really one of the few, of his generation, to still headline studio movies.

  • Darkan | June 11, 2012 4:27 PM

    Sorry Orville, gonna have to disagree with you on some of these points.
    1."I can't think of anyone other than Wesley Snipes in the drag film back in 1995."
    When Wesley did To Wong Foo along with Patrick Swayze, it definitely hurt his career. He did not make a tremendous noise at the box office as a LEAD until Blade. Coincidence? I think not. Most of his fanbase at that time were women and young adult males who appreciated him as a MACHO lead. Cuba Gooding went the same route with Boat Trip and look how that worked for him. Like I said... A LOT of people do not want to see a MACHO MASCULINE man dress in drag or kiss another man to prove that they are "brave" or "tolerant".
    2."A lot of white male actors don't seem to have a problem taking no a gay role like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, ect"
    Absolutely, they can do it all day and get accolades for it and then play lead but black men in cinema barely even get to play as full romantic leading men. That fight is still a major battle. Most of the black men who have portrayed gay characters rarely ever get to play leading men after doing it. Their fanbase disappears afterwards. Look what happened to Mathew St Patrick on "Six Feet Under". Sad.
    3."I would love for more black actors to take on complex LGBT roles to show their range and talents."
    Why do a lot of people push this as being a challenge for an actor to show their range and talents? I've never understood that one. Who made LGBT roles as the barometer for an artist to stretch themselves? So playing a rape victim or a murderer isn't an artistic stretch? SMH.
    4. "Will Smith is the most successful black actor of ALL TIME and he's still only 43 years old! Will's personality I think helped him reach the top of Hollywood he's the non threatening black man."
    So what? Tom Hanks is one of Hollywood's most successful white actors of all time and people consider him non-threatening.
    5. "Denzel Washington is an amazing actor but he has an arrogance to him and I heard he has a nasty attitude beyond the camera and public eye."
    Met Denzel 3 times and he has always been loving, cordial and respectful to me and I was a "nobody". Are you speaking from personal experience or work? I would understand that he has to be VERY careful of who he works with and how he works with people as people feel that they know what's best for your career better than yourself.
    6."Washington has been relegated to second tier status in his movies he now is paired with young white actors like Ryan Reynolds. The studios aren't confident that Denzel can have hits on his own and reach a white and international audience by himself anymore."
    Not true, Denzel is still a moneymaking, box office, green lighting and A-List star. His films have made money whereas someone like Ryan Reynolds has have most of his latest films flop. They put Ryan with Denzel so that his energy and star power rubs off on Ryan. Same with Chris Pine. Also, he's the lead in Robert Zemeckis's new film and it was just him on the poster of Safehouse so that point you made is invalid.
    Anyway much respect to you brother. I just had to post my disagreements.

  • C | June 11, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    It's all about timing. Reginald's right: nothing wrong with strategy. Actually, one might call it necessary in today's Hollywood. But to give one opinion on your last question- It's definitely time to see Viola Davis in an edgier role- the right one, of course. She doesn't want to scare away all the fans she's made from Eat, Pray, Love or The Help. But Anthony Mackie is a tricky one. I love his work and his plight so far (Check him out in this month's O Magazine). I would love to keep seeing him expand his range which he is more than capable of doing, but I want him around for the long haul too which requires some of Will Smith's good guy strategy. Let's just see what he decides and support him regardless.

  • Darkan | June 11, 2012 7:46 PM

    @ Orville, way to go bro. You didn't answer any of my points and the first thing you want to scream is homophobia. Why is it that anyone who disagrees with the homosexual agenda is labeled homophobic? When do people have a right to voice their opinion about what they want to see and don't want to see in films? So I guess you're not a real actor until you play gay? Absurd! Once again what does playing a gay role have to do with having "RANGE"? I don't care for white romantic comedies, does that make white/comedy-romantic phobic? SMH.

  • Orville | June 11, 2012 6:43 PM

    @Darkan you kind of proved my argument SOME black people ARE homophobic and they don't want to see black men in gay roles. This is the REASON black actors don't go places they play it safe most of them and do not take a chance at having a range. Eddie Murphy does dumb ghetto comedies ditto for Martin Lawrence. Samuel L Jackson does action flicks, Denzel does the same thing. Now, it is time for the young black male actors to take on gay film roles like Anthony Mackie. Mackie is the ONLY young black male actor I am impressed with.
    There is more to gay black men then just appearing in drag movies. You fail to mention Tyler Perry though he's a black gay man and his Madea movies are huge box office hits. Everyone knows Tyler Perry is a homosexual it is well known and he hasn't lost his audience.
    So I think it would be good for Will Smith to think about taking on another gay role if he wants that OSCAR. The Academy loves actors taking on gay film roles Sean Penn and Phillip Seymore Hoffman recently won Oscars for their work as gay men Harvey Milk and Truman Capote.

    The reason I would love to see Will Smith kissing another man in a movie is the black gay MALE experience needs more representation in cinema. You mention Matthew St. Patrick but he's not a star and he obviously doesn't have range. However, Anthony Mackie took on a role in a gay film Brother to Brother and had intense sex scenes with another man. Mackie got a lot of praise for Brother to Brother and he is still working and doing well!

    As for Denzel he is a star I am not disputing this but you would be BLIND to not realize the reasons Ryan Reynolds was his costar for his last movie. If you look at Denzel's recent film history he is paired with young white men because his star is FADING. Hollywood blockbuster films need to reach a white audience and international audience. Since Denzel is old he's like fifty five or something his movies need young, attractive, white male costars to reach a young white male audience.

  • Darkan | June 11, 2012 2:42 PMReply

    What people always fail to understand is that Will Smith WOULD NOT be the superstar he is if he did "brave roles" or took chances. He is the superstar he is primarily due to his hard work ethic, personality and choice of roles. We must remember that not EVERYONE wants to see their favorite celebrity do crazy type or "risky" roles. He's done fine by my sight.

  • Laura | June 11, 2012 7:06 PM

    I agree.

  • M | June 11, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    It's important to point out that Will Smith has since said he regrets not going through with the kiss and that it was an immature decision.

  • blcknewyork | September 11, 2013 6:39 AM

    If a heterosexual male does not want to kiss another man why does that make him homophobic?

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