Two years ago, I sat down with Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, the film that turned Will Smith from the Fresh Prince into the world’s biggest movie star. At one point in our conversation, Smith came up.
“You know, I think it’s easier for him to do one of these comic book films because they will be big anyway, and not make bets on original films. If he does that, then it will only sell based on his name, and people will say, oh, there is Will Smith, when he’s actually not that person anymore,” says Emmerich. “He’s not ‘Will Smith’ anymore—the Will I knew.”
Part of the heartache of getting older is when old friends tell you that you’ve changed before you’ve realized it yourself. This is hard enough to hear as a normal person—none of us have ever hit the highs of being Will Smith in 1996.
What Roland said echoed in my mind for months. When Smith and I sit down during one of his many trips to Dubai a few months later, I can’t help but bring it up.
“That guy you were—lighting in a bottle—in 1996.”
“Oh my god, yes,” Smith says, letting out a trademark, “Woo!”
“Do you still feel you’re able to be that guy? Or do you feel you’ve matured to the point where you don’t even want to be?”
“I’m certainly a different guy now,” Smith says.
“It’s interesting. It’s part of the pain of elevation. As you learn and grow, you know things tomorrow that you didn’t know yesterday. What happens is, it automatically changes you as you take in more information. You get deeper, you get wider, you get wiser, and you’re changed. That guy is gone.”
“No matter how much fun it was, I had to get comfortable not reaching backwards. I had to reach forward, and trust that there’s a new great guy for me to find in the future and let that go. When you cling to dead things, they kill you,” Smith says.
On September 25, 2018, Will Smith turned 50 years old. To mark the occasion, he bungee jumped out of a helicopter—filmed by his social media team for the 22 million followers he’s amassed on Instagram in a short time period, which has quickly become his main creative outlet.
It’s not just Smith that has changed. The whole concept of celebrity has changed, making the Will Smiths of the world fewer and farther between. Is that change for the better?
“It’s not a blanket better. Social media has completely changed how people consume entertainment and what people demand of the actors and stars and celebrities that they follow,” Smith tells me.
“20 years ago, you could create an icon because you had enough space, enough distance, and enough mystery, that people would fill in the most beautiful aspects around whatever image was created of a star. So the era of Michael Jackson, the era of Madonna, Tom Cruise, or even somebody like Mike Tyson. What you were able to create in people’s minds was hugely about what was hidden—the things you didn’t know,” Smith says.
“Today, it’s much more difficult. I’d be interested to see if you can create a star of that magnitude anymore. I don’t believe that you can. Justin Bieber was the first test case of this new mega-stardom. Kim Kardashian is another test case of the new mega-stardom. There’s a quality that was missing though when you know what somebody ate for breakfast. There’s the next level of emotional impact when you know every single step of a person’s day. It becomes much more pedestrian and less iconic.”
Smith has enjoyed his social media resurgence, but part of the fun is knowing that he doesn’t need it.
“For me, it’s much better because I started in that era so I’ve already created that foundation with fans that can’t be broken, but now, I get to learn these new modern tools. I can stay out of it, and still be famous. Other people, if you’re just starting, you can’t stay out of it and still be famous. You have to be all in it or nobody’s going to know who you are,” says Smith.
From 2008 to 2012, Smith made zero films, as he focused on raising his children Trey, Jaden and Willow. Now, as all three have become adults, things are changing for him once again.
“There’s a certain amount of freedom that I’m starting to have. I can be gone longer because my kids could come. Now, Willow can come meet me in Dubai and hang out for a week,” says Smith.
“I had my kids in my 20s—I was a parent at 24 years old—and now I have friends who are having kids at 45 and 46, and I’ve always wondered which is better. You’re a better parent if you have kids at 45 and 46, but it’s really great to be free at 45 and 46. I’m torn, but I’m loving coming into that next phase where I’m still youthful enough to make an action movie but all my kids are out of the house,” says Smith.
‘Dubai dreams the way that I dream’
Of all the places he travels, Dubai is a place he keeps returning to, as he sees something of himself in the city.
“I came to Dubai about 15 years ago. I was crossing over to Mumbai. It was the first time that the Emirates Airline had the nonstop from Los Angeles. And so I stayed here a couple days, and it was absolutely amazing to me what the dream of Dubai was,” Smith says.
“There are just some places where they fit for you. Sometimes you just show up places, and you don’t know why, but it just agrees with you. Dubai dreams the way I dream. I’m completely at home, and I feel inspired, and I want to create, and I want to be a part of the ideas, and the bridge between the Middle East and America and the West. I just feel like my gifts would be particularly useful here. I want to be a part of it,” he says.