Will Smith took over Wednesday’s Red Table Talk and, spoiler alert, neither Chris Rock nor “the slap” are discussed. Instead, the actor sat down with his three children — Trey Smith, Jaden Smith and Willow Smith — to talk about the importance of his new film Emancipation.
“It was rugged,” Will said on the Facebook Watch show, typically hosted by wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, his mother-in-law, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and Willow. “This is not a slave movie, this is a freedom movie.”
“We had some calls while you were shooting and I was very concerned,” Willow admitted.
“As the years have gone on, I’ve gotten more and more locked into these characters for longer periods of time. It’s just the weight of this story, the weight of these experiences, the quality of the actors. It was emotionally, it was physically, it was spiritually taxing,” Will declared.
Willow admitted she had reservations about her famous father “making a slave movie.”
“Well, you know originally I was considering doing Django [Unchained],” Will recalled of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film. “We had a family meeting and we all talked about [it.]”
“Yes, yes, yes” Willow remembered.
“I wasn’t all the way in, but one of the main reasons why I wasn’t was the looks on your faces ’cause you knew what that would mean,” Will said, explaining how his “characters seep back into” the Smith household. Will previously said he passed on Django Unchained as he “couldn’t connect to violence being the answer” in the Tarantino’s story. The role ultimately went to Jamie Foxx.
Emancipation isn’t without its grueling scenes. Will said he was called the n-word “a hundred times a day by very good actors.” The Apple Originals film also stars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa.
“It’s rough, it twists your mind up,” he explained. In the film, Will plays Peter, the real-life slave who escapes a Louisiana plantation to join the Union Army. The movie is based on the iconic 1863 photo known as “Whipped Peter” that shows the soldier’s scarred back. On RTT, Will recalled an intense moment during pre-production when he got stuck in a neck chain.
“So they put it on, I’m standing there and he goes to take it off and it doesn’t work. So it’s locked on and my heart jumps and I’m like, ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no,'” Will said. “My heart is pounding and I’m like, ‘Will, do not freak.'”
Will thought to himself, “I’m Will Smith,” explaining there were “people running around” looking for the keys.
“I’m still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have that stuff on, barefoot and nobody cared,” Will continued, agreeing with Willow who likened the situation to physical and emotional claustrophobia.
“Really dehumanizing,” Will said. “I hadn’t been able to articulate why, but I felt embarrassed. I was embarrassed while I was standing there and I was waiting. It was emasculating, dehumanizing, all of that.”
Will went on to share that “the only other time in my career” he got “lost and went too far” with a character was shooting the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation in which he played a con artist.
“I wouldn’t say I went too far with Peter, I just lost track of how far I went,” Will added. “I got twisted up in there a little bit.”
“You go into a state and when you go one click too far, Will Smith disappears and what happens is, psychologically, you go farther and father into Peter and you don’t realize that you are slipping away. And then it’s over, and you go back, and you look for you and you’re gone. It’s a hard thing to explain, right?” Will told his kids. (Read into that how you will, but no, Will was not filming Emancipation when he stormed the Oscars stage and hit Rock.)
“So what happens is you play these characters, and when you play them long enough it’s like moving to another country and speaking another language. If you speak the other language long enough, you’ll start to lose your native tongue,” he added.
Will told his kids it’s “critical” for their “generation to see this movie and to understand the foundations of this story and what it means in this country.”
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