DALLAS -- In his new drama The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith - playing a single father who ends up homeless and penniless on the streets of San Francisco - does something only the very greatest actors are able to do: He cries convincingly.
The scene comes two-thirds of the way through the film, as Smith's Chris Gardner cowers in a locked San Francisco subway system restroom, cradling his sleeping son (played by Smith's real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre). This bathroom is their final refuge, after getting kicked out of an apartment and a dingy hotel room. Smith plays Gardner as the perpetual optimist. But the marvel of the performance is how the actor shows us the anxiety building in Gardner's face and muscles - it's an exquisite study of a man getting crushed beneath the tremendous weight that is the modern rat race. When the tears finally fall, it's both inconceivable and terrifying - like watching an invincible superhero bow down in defeat to his arch-nemesis.
"There were moments on this movie where [director] Gabriele Muccino told me, 'Don't pose for my camera,' " Smith explains. "He said to me, 'You're making faces. You're trying to make me believe that you're hurt.' ... Then he would tell me, 'I want you to go away and take some time and come back hurt for real.' "
Ingratiating and eager-to-please in person, Smith likes to give credit to his directors. He says Muccino pushed him harder than anyone since Michael Mann on Ali, and he says it was Mann who basically taught him what it meant to be a "real" actor. But that modesty belies Smith's obvious ambition and hard work: He has approached stardom with the exactitude and discipline that mathematicians apply to solving the most complex proofs.
"I study patterns," he acknowledges. "I am a student of universal patterns. And things happen the same way over and over again. I'm not the first actor."
And with his humane, understated work in The Pursuit of Happyness, which seems guaranteed to earn him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination, Smith takes the next logical step forward - straight into the front ranks of American actors. The man who began his career as a lightweight rapper - and who went on to become a sitcom star, an action-movie hero and one of the most instantly recognizable human beings on the planet - has delivered what might be the best male performance of the year.
In person, Smith appears as he does on the big screen - tall, lean and broad through the shoulders. When he greets you, it's with that familiar mile-wide smile that betrays more than a glint of mischief. Even his oddly shaped ears seem an essential component of the Smith package. All told, it's a look that allows him to effectively play both sides of the fence: In his comic performances, he also comes off as eminently seductive; in his action-movie roles, he seems approachably human - a slightly crooked specimen.
But is this act of his - so earnest, so charming, so quick to laugh - for real? Could anyone possibly be so darned "nice"?
"When people see me, they smile," Smith says. "I've been with a lot of actors and basketball players and famous, famous people - and the way that people smile when they look at me is different. ... What that feeling does for my heart, I wouldn't trade that for anything."
OK, so clearly he's a lot more likable than, say, Russell Crowe. But to achieve true superstar status, you also need to be an expert manager of your own brand. And that process, Smith says, began as far back as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Working with executive producer Quincy Jones, Smith was struck by Jones' far-ranging travels and his friendships with world figures. A few years later, when he went to London to promote his first big action film, Bad Boys, Smith says he realized the importance of thinking beyond the American market.
"I went. And then I went back the next year - the grosses on the next film leaped," he says. "I realized how, just by making an appearance in a market, you can increase the grosses tenfold on a movie. So with every new movie, we try to break a new market: Germany, France, Japan, Russia."
He needed a flop
Smith's approach to his own career has been so methodical that he's able to look upon his one major flop - Barry Sonnenfeld's nearly unwatchable science-fiction, action comedy Wild, Wild West - as a positive experience.
"You ruin your pattern if you don't flop a movie," he says. "Wild, Wild West wasn't a mistake. It's an absolute necessity to have made that movie. ... You absolutely need it. There's a certain amount of humility that gets created - and then people can root for you again. Mike Tyson wasn't as large as he was until he got knocked out by Buster Douglas. Then the legend could be created."
Which brings us to another legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, whom Smith incarnated with such ferocious conviction in Mann's 2001 biopic - and for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Smith says he had to prove that he was capable of more than just blowing up aliens and saving the universe. He lobbied hard for the part and spent months bulking up for it. He regards the film as the major turning point in his career.
"I entered into Ali terrified," he says. What you see on the screen "is not my own confidence. It's my confidence in Michael Mann. I trusted him. It wasn't until I sat and watched the movie with Muhammad Ali himself that I said, 'That was good. Now I know how to do this.' "
Except the five years since Ali haven't been especially notable for Will Smith. He has made commercially successful films that didn't stretch him creatively: a sequel to Men in Black, a sequel to Bad Boys, the romantic comedy Hitch and the sci-fi thriller I, Robot.
A true story
The Pursuit of Happyness arrives just in the nick of time to stir interest in Smith's dramatic abilities. The film, which he also helped to produce, has been in development since 2003, when Smith's producing partner (and childhood friend) James Lassiter saw a segment about the real-life Chris Gardner on ABC's 20/20. Gardner was a medical-supply salesman scraping by in San Francisco, who entered into a highly competitive, if not especially lucrative, stock broker internship at Dean Witter. Before the internship was over, Gardner's wife left him, and he got kicked out of his apartment because he couldn't pay the rent.
Written by Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) and directed by Muccino (the Italian version of The Last Kiss), the film is a familiar, up-by-your-bootstraps inspirational drama. But the movie takes risks that pay off, starting with the casting of Smith's own 8-year-old son, Jaden, to play Gardner's son, Christopher. The younger Smith gives one of the least-affected child performances in recent memory, and the sense of intimacy and tenderness between father and son is often heart-piercing.
"Jada [Pinkett Smith, his wife] and I don't really believe in nepotism," says Smith, insisting that young Jaden earned the part on his own merits. "We'll show you where the door is, and we'll even open it up a bit for you - but you gotta get through it on your own. It was Jaden's idea [to audition]. I was reading the script one night, and he said, 'Tell me the story, Daddy.' He said, 'I can do that.' So the next week, Jada put him in the audition. ... Gabriele Muccino fell in love with him. In his thick Italian accent, he said, 'Will, I must have your baby.' "
The proud father acknowledges that The Pursuit of Happyness is an extremely effective tear-jerker and that his own performance is probably the best thing he's ever done.
After all, Smith wouldn't be a superstar if he didn't know how to take the pulse of his own career.
"I made Wild, Wild West," he says, laughing. "I know the difference between a hit and a flop."