RD: In The Pursuit of Happyness, you play the real-life Chris Gardner [profiled in this month’s “Money Makers”], who in the early ’80s was a single father living on the streets with his son. But he got an internship at Dean Witter and ended up a multimillionaire, the owner of his own brokerage firm. He was a very determined man who believed in himself, and you seem to share similar views on life.
Smith: The thing I connected to was his desire to win.
RD: Deciding that if you want to do something, you’re going to do it.
RD: Your son Jaden plays your son in the movie. How did that come about?
Smith: I was reading the script one night, and he said, “I can do that, Daddy.” He’d done a couple of sitcom appearances, but had no formal theatrical training other than good genes.
RD: You’re telling me!
Smith: You mix up a couple of actors, chances are you might get an actor! There is a scene where he loses his Captain America and has to cry. He told me, “I am embarrassed.” I said, “Listen, you take your time. When you create art, the world has to wait. But when you finally deliver, it will be beyond anything they ever imagined. You know what it feels like. You know the pain of losing Captain America.” He took a few minutes, started sniffling, and he said, “You can roll now.”
RD: Does he want to do more acting?
Smith: Yeah. He says he wants to make comedy, though.
RD: Do you worry about the problems many child actors face?
Smith: No. I do not believe in getting trapped in a pattern when you recognize the pattern. The child-actor patterns are obvious. I am kind of a student of the patterns of the universe. When my partner, James Lassiter, and I came to Hollywood, I said, “I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.” We observed that of the top ten movies of all time, ten were special effects or animation. Nine were special effects or animation with creatures. Eight were special effects or animation with creatures and a love story. So we made Independence Day. When you see the patterns, you just try to put yourself in the position to get lucky.
RD: How did you get into the pattern of looking at patterns?
Smith: My father was in the military, so everything was really regimented.
RD: Was he a taskmaster?
Smith: Oh, yeah, he was very serious about things being a certain way. When my father got out of the Air Force, he started his own refrigeration business. I might have been 12 and my brother 9 when one day he decided he wanted a new front wall at his shop. He tore the old one down — it was probably 16 feet high and 40 feet long. And he told us that this was going to be our gig over the summer. We were standing there thinking, There will never, ever, be a wall here again. We went brick by brick for the entire summer and into winter and then back into spring. One day there was a wall there again. I know my dad had been planning this for a long time. He said, “Now, don’t you all ever tell me there’s something you can’t do.” And he walked into the shop. The thing I connect to is: I do not have to build a perfect wall today. I just have to lay a perfect brick. Just lay one brick, dude.
RD: How about your mom? What lessons did she imprint on you?
Smith: My mother just could not stand improper English. If you ran out of the house screaming, “Where y’all gonna be at?” she would say, “Hopefully y’all gonna be behind that preposition.” My grandmother would say, “A yawl is a boat, baby.”