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Will Smith steps back into acting with first Disney role

Updated May 26, 2019 - 9:57 pm

Will Smith turned 50 last year. When he blew out the candles, the star of “Aladdin” didn’t feel like the Fresh Prince anymore. He found a bit of wisdom that only comes with age.

For instance, what did he wish for when he blew out that bevy of candles?

“I wished for divine understanding,” the superstar said on a rainy Sunday in Los Angeles. “I feel that lack of understanding or confusion is the mother of fear and violence.

“So, for me, I wished for divine understanding to be shared with all. Understanding is the seeds of peace.”

Smith — who spoke to a small group of reporters and then one-on-one with the Review-Journal — takes on the iconic Robin Williams genie role in the live-action “Aladdin” and stars in this summer’s thriller “Gemini Man.”

Review-Journal: What is a great Sunday to you?

Will Smith: It’s all about family around that table eating and just being together. What could be better? The people you love. Some great food. Music. Love. Maybe after that we go outside, hang out, watch a movie.

Do you have a favorite movie?

“Star Wars.” My imagination was so small before I walked into that theater to see “Star Wars” as a kid growing up in Philly. When I walked around, I couldn’t figure out how someone came up with that and made me feel that way. It was an important lesson. There is nothing more valuable to me than how people feel in a movie theater. Awards have never been important. That’s just a small group of people voting for you. I want the maximum amount of people to have an experience that will give them a germ of something.

Let’s talk about “Aladdin.” Is this your first Disney movie?

It is my first Disney movie, but I’ve always loved them. At the core of these stories is something that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile.

How did you feel stepping into this genie character that Robin Williams made so iconic?

I felt fear! It definitely started with fear. What Robin Williams did with this character didn’t leave a whole lot of room to add to the genie. But when I got to the music, it woke up that fun, childlike, silly part of me. It turned into one of the joyful experiences of my career.

What song convinced you that Will Smith could be the genie, too?

“Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio the first day and really wanted to play with that song to see if I could add something. Thirty minutes into it, I found my old-school hip-hop range in that song. I had them throw a little break in there. All of a sudden, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m home.” That genie was born.

How did you technically film the genie?

It’s 100 percent CGI (computer-generated images). I did the scenes from the script and then did some improv. I was able to see the CGI and make changes as we went, which was also key to the performance.

What was it like to work with director Guy Ritchie?

We would call him Cry Ritchie. Whenever he’d get a good performance, he’d cry.

Was it important to get the cultural details down of the “Aladdin” story?

I think it’s critically important to be able to pull stories, colors, textures and tastes from around the world. That kind of inclusion and diversity will be a critical part of our connectivity. You can transition that connectivity into harmony, which is really critical.

On a lighter note, has anyone called you the Jiggy Genie yet?

(Laughing) It’s the first time. I’ll be repeating that one.

Did you keep anything from the set?

I always try to keep a little piece of wardrobe. You could say I tucked a turban under my shirt on the way out.

You’ve said that turning 50 hit you hard. Why?

I took a couple of years off from the movies. I guess I sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things I could create in my career. I was getting to the end of the wisdom I could give my family. I got to the point where I had a bit of a collapse in my life and creations. I took a few years off essentially to study and journey spiritually. “Aladdin” was really my first coming back in to see if my heart was still into this kind of performing.

What did you discover about yourself during this time off?

I discovered that everything starts with what I am saying to the world. How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I teach and preach these things around the world in good conscience? “Aladdin” checked all the boxes. What I loved about the idea of this genie was he had shackles on him. He’s a prisoner. That’s how I sort of felt with Will Smith. I was shackled by Will Smith, the image. I started finding my freedom and got free of that Will Smith. I’m more comfortable just being me now.

What do you know now that you didn’t know at 20?

What I know now is that I control every interaction with every human being. That means no one is just a jerk or just crazy. I’m aware that I can actually manage any situation with 98 percent of the people on Earth. But what I know now is you play a part in every aspect of your life going the way you want it to go … or not going the way you want it to go. I also know that people want you to give them an experience, some germ of something. It’s so important to me to give them a big experience.

So Will Smith at 50 is …

Just getting warmed up.

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