new york city -- when michael mann decided he wanted to make the Muhammad Ali biopic, he knew he needed Will Smith. Studios don't like to hang major holiday releases on unknowns. Denzel Washington is too old and too small -- and he's a middleweight, not a heavy. Wesley Snipes is too short.
Smith has the size and, more importantly, the charisma -- and the mouth. He doesn't slip quietly into rooms, he lights them up.
It took this long for Mann to make Ali not because he couldn't find his star, but because his star kept turning him down.
"I always felt that I understood Muhammad Ali," Smith says at a press meet at Essex House on Central Park South. "I understand and relate to him -- we're both mama's boys, we both love and appreciate women, we both enjoy the fame.
"I turned it down out of respect for the champ and out of stark terror at being forever known as the guy who messed up the Muhammad Ali story. I did understand finally that I had to make this film. If there's a role I was born to play, this is it."
That last sentence is something you often hear from actors. (At least he didn't say the same thing about his performance in Robert Redford's Zen golf movie, The Legend Of Bagger Vance.)
But the role Will Smith was born to play is Will Smith, much as Archibald Leach was born to play Cary Grant, or Humphrey Bogart was born to play Humphrey Bogart.
We tend to undervalue the acting of movie stars, as if being charismatic and larger than life came naturally. And Smith faces another burden in that our curious culture tends to appreciate African-American artists who have a political edge more than those who are merely "entertainers." Will Smith, the Fresh Prince, never got much respect for his rapping in a critical culture that admired Public Enemy.
And then there's our suspicion of stardom in general, as if someone who makes $20 million a picture couldn't possibly be serious about his or her craft.
It's hard to blame someone for taking $20 million when it's offered. On the other hand, it's hard not to blame him when the result is a debacle like Wild Wild West. Of course, Smith didn't write or direct WWW. He showed up and played Will Smith in a bizarre context, which I suspect is what he was asked to do.
But that's not what he was asked to do on Ali. Here, he only had to do a convincing impression of one of the most famous figures of the last century, a man everyone knows and whom anyone can see by simply renting a video. The upshot is that it may or may not be the role Smith was born to play, but he certainly plays it as if it were.
"We wanted the boxing to be authentic, and the only way to make the boxing authentic was to authentically hit each other. We had a pact that there was nothing too valuable to be sacrificed trying to get it right. No stunt men, no stunts. If it looks like someone got hit in this movie, they got hit."
"Michael (director Mann) laid out the case for me to become Muhammad Ali -- it involved training for three months, then getting in the ring. I got hit every day. The Joe Frazier day was a tough one. I said to Ali, "At least you had the luxury of not knowing it was coming.'"
Smith's next picture is franchise maintenance -- Men In Black 2. After that, nothing is set. But Smith's work in Ali shows that anything is possible.
2000 The Legend Of Bagger Vance
1999 Wild Wild West
1998 Enemy Of The State
1997 Men In Black
1996 Independence Day
1995 Bad Boys
1993 Six Degrees Of SeparationIn Defence of Will Smith