An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Will Smith says he crafted a joyful image to cover the pain of the past

Will Smith looks back on his life in the memoir, <em>Will</em>. "Those difficulties and those traumas and the mental anguish that I had to overcome was a big part of me growing into the person I am today," he says.
Lorenzo Agius
Penguin Random House
Will Smith looks back on his life in the memoir, Will. "Those difficulties and those traumas and the mental anguish that I had to overcome was a big part of me growing into the person I am today," he says.

The world knows Will Smith as a musician, a comedian and blockbuster movie star — perhaps even the most bankable star in the world. But in his new memoir, called Will, Smith explores another identity, one that has fueled his unwavering work ethic: that of a coward.

Smith says that when he was 9, he stood by, watching helplessly as his father beat his mother. It was a moment that shaped his identity.

"I couldn't shake the idea that I had failed my mother and I was somehow unworthy of love and care because of my cowardice," he says. "And that [was] the beginnings of wanting to overachieve and wanting to create and wanting to win and wanting to build an external life that could somehow and hopefully cover the pain."

With his "Fresh Prince" rap persona, Smith landed up on a character that offered a counterbalance to what he was feeling: "That buoyant, happy, joyful image [of the Fresh Prince] was painted over a core of a real lack of self esteem and self-respect," he says.

Smith went on to star (and later produce) the 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which was based on that persona. After the show ended, he turned to movies, including the Men in Black films, Independence Day and I Am Legend. He's currently starring as the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard.

I'm happier than I have ever been. And it is largely based on the perception of myself that I can survive anything."

Looking back now, Smith says he wouldn't change the adversity he experienced as a child: "Those difficulties and those traumas and the mental anguish that I had to overcome was a big part of me growing into the person I am today, and I love my life. I'm happier than I have ever been. And it is largely based on the perception of myself that I can survive anything."

Interview highlights

<em>Will</em>, by Will Smith
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
Will, by Will Smith

On waiting until after his father died to write the memoir

I saw my father beat up my mother, and that narrative didn't fit into the image that I was crafting. It was embarrassing. There was a person I wanted to be, or a person I thought I had to be, to be able to create the life that I wanted to create, and I just never could have said that out loud while my father was alive. Because at the same time, my father was my hero, and my father is largely responsible for all of the blessings and the things that I've been able to go on and create and build, so that internal conflict was dissolved when my father passed in 2016.

On being open with his family about what he was writing

I had what I call "book camp." So basically ... I was probably 85%, 90% finished the book [and] I called everybody that I mentioned in the book and I sat down and for two weeks, I read everybody everything that I said about them. And we laughed and we cried and I allowed people to say, "Hey, that wasn't my experience, can you please make this adjustment?" And ... my mother and I had never talked about it. ... So it was a very cathartic time for us to sit down and talk through all of the moments and talk through the experiences, and she reassured me that she never viewed me as a coward.

On his love and reverence for his father, and wanting to show the nuance

My father was one of the greatest men I've ever known. My father was brilliant. My father was wise, and not unlike other little boys, my father was the Superman image in my mind. And that was also one of the things that was difficult about writing this book and telling this story, because as soon as people hear "abuse," they paint an ogre in their mind, and my father wasn't an ogre. My father was both things. My father was deeply brilliant. He never missed a game. He was a beautiful teacher. He was military-minded and he never abandoned the post of being a father. He put food on the table every night. That dichotomy is part of what breaks the mind of a child in that way, because you can't fit both of those things into one space.

So in writing a book, it was really difficult for me because I know that people need the black and white. People need good guys and bad guys and all of that, and my father wasn't a bad guy by a long shot. He was troubled and he overcame many of his struggles to be able to provide a place for his family, and it was hard for me to feel like I could potentially do a disservice to the multiple aspects of what my father was and have my impressions soil his legacy in a way that would feel not nuanced.

On what he learned talking to Venus and Serena Williams about their father

One of the biggest surprises was when we think about Richard Williams, we think about a standard, overbearing parent — and he was so not that. He wasn't the father that was hammering and pounding his kids to excel. He was the father who used love and he aligned with what they wanted for their lives, and it was a family mission. It wasn't Richard's mission to get his kids to become something that would satiate his ego. So one of the major things that I got from talking to Venus and Serena was, they were pushing Richard, in a way. Venus called it the "Jedi mind trick," that he somehow did a Jedi mind trick on them where they were pushing to play tennis, they wanted to excel. In terms of Richard's priorities, God was first alongside family and love and school, and tennis was fifth or sixth on the list of what he wanted from them.

On how he's had to adjust his parenting approach over the years

I fell right into my father's military mindset and the transition and the transformation that I had to make over the past few years with my parenting, the past decade really, is from a place of seeking product, seeking an end result, seeking a goal, to opening to understanding my children's unique talents and difficulties and supporting their vision for their lives, rather than demanding that they adhere to my vision for their lives. And I call it the flower/gardener scenario, where shifting from a military mindset, where I try to demand that they become a certain thing, to the flower/gardener concept where they are a seed and I'm respecting what they are as a seed, and I'm just trying to water and care for what they are innately and allowing them to blossom into what they naturally are, versus trying to force them into becoming what I think they should be.

On why he wouldn't star in films about slavery early in his career and why he decided to play "Whipped Peter" in a forthcoming film Emancipation by Antoine Fuqua

In the first part of my career, it was really important to me, I wanted to be considered for the same roles that Tom Cruise is considered for. I don't want to be seen as a Black actor. I want to be seen as an actor equal to all of my white or Latino counterparts. I'm an actor. I'm a human, to be seen on the same level. So it was really important to me to play characters that weren't necessarily Black in the screenplay. ... Roles in slavery, I was not considering those at the time. But when you know, when this role came around, one of the first that I considered was Django. Quentin [Tarantino], and I talked for a long time about the potential of Django. And I ultimately decided against Django, because I didn't want to make a movie set in slavery about vengeance. It was just slightly outside of my perception and belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity. So when the Whipped Peter story came around, it is a story set during the time of emancipation, but the core of it is love. It's a man who was separated from his family and his love and his faith and God helped him to persevere and to ultimately emancipate and reunite. So I would say the philosophical thematic premise is what really drew me to Emancipation.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.