There's a Rubik's Cube on the coffee table, not three feet from where Will Smith sits in the fifth-floor
living room of his river-front home in New York City. The one-time teen star, who started his career as
a rapper, then became an actor and movie producer and is now practically a one-man entertainment
industry, has a simple philosophy: "I can do it."
Smith, 38, is talking about the Cube, but that's also the way he looks at pretty much everything. From
his dad, he says, he learned to look for patterns in life, and figure out how to make them work in his
favor. From his mother he learned the value of knowledge, even though he quit his formal education after
high school. And from somewhere, Smith discovered an unshakable belief that he can accomplish anything
he sets his mind to.
So far he has. At age 12, he began performing rap music at parties in his hometown of Philadelphia. By
the time he was 20, his upbeat lyrics had translated into seven Billboard hits and won him a Grammy.
At 21, Smith moved to Hollywood and landed a starring role on the hit TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,
then went on to pursue his dream of becoming a movie star. Films like Independence Day, Enemy of the State
and Ali, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, proved that, yes, Will Smith can do it.
He is married to actress and musician Jada Pinkett Smith and the father of three children -- Willard III, 13
(from his first marriage); Jaden, 8; and Willow, 6. To keep fit, he runs -- perhaps the perfect pastime for a
man who can never seem to slow down. Wearing jogging pants and large diamond studs in his ears, Smith sat
down with Reader's Digest to talk about his family, fame and fortune, as well as The Pursuit of
Happyness (which, by the way, is the title of his new movie).
RD: You grew up in the '70s in Philadelphia. What was your neighborhood like?
Smith: It was probably 50 percent Orthodox Jewish. One neighborhood over were
all the pretty little Muslim girls. Mine was a Baptist household, and I went to a Catholic school.
I was surrounded by different religions.
RD: What was your experience growing up black in this neighborhood?
Smith: My school was 90 percent white, but 90 percent of the kids I played with were black. So I got
the best of both worlds. I think that is where my comedy developed. In black neighborhoods, everybody
appreciated comedy about real life. In the white community, fantasy was funnier. I started looking for
the jokes that were equally hilarious across the board, for totally different reasons.
RD: Is it true that at one point you were planning to go to MIT?
Smith: My mother, who worked for the School Board of Philadelphia, had a friend who was
the admissions officer at MIT. I had pretty high SAT scores and they needed black kids, so I probably could
have gotten in. But I had no intention of going to college.
RD: Because you got a record deal?
Smith: My first record came out while I was a senior in high school, which is dangerous. Life is too good.
RD: So you said, "Mom, gotta tell ya..."
Smith:I told my parents I wanted to rap. They said, "Rap?" My mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She thought
college was the only way. My father could kind of see doing something differently. We agreed that I would take a year making music, and if it did not work
out, I would go to college. That year we won the first Grammy given to a rap artist.
RD: How did your mom react?
Smith: She backed up a little bit. I sent her one of those 300E Mercedes, and she was cool.
RD: Have you ever thought about going back to college?
Smith: The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school. Traditional
education is based on facts and figures and passing tests -- not on a comprehension of the material and its application to your life. Jada and I homeschool
our children, because the date of the Boston Tea Party does not matter.
RD: But there are some basics in education that need to be taught.
Smith: Of course there are. Reading, writing and arithmetic, because those are the
languages of our country.
RD: When you say you homeschool, do you mean you actually teach them?
Smith: No, we have hired teachers who teach what we feel is important. For example,
Plato's Republic -- kids need to know that. Why is that not taught in first grade?
RD: You think kids in elementary school should read Plato's Republic?
Smith: Yeah. You cannot be an American without reading it and Aristotle's Politics.
That is what the forefathers of this country read, and they used them to create what I believe is the finest system of government that has ever existed.
RD: So, you don't see any reason to go back to a formal education yourself?
Smith: I know how to learn anything I want to learn. I absolutely know that I
could learn how to fly the space shuttle because someone else knows how to fly it, and they put it in a book. Give me the book, and I do not need somebody
to stand up in front of the class.
RD: They put physics in a book, but I know I could never be a physicist.
Smith: The first step is you have to say that you can.
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."
RD: You and Jada have been married nine years and, by all accounts, are very happy. What's the key?
Smith: Communication. And divorce cannot be an option.
RD: Your first marriage ended in divorce.
Smith: That is probably the most painful loss of my life. I quit. I could have fixed it. It really was not that
RD: Some would say there's no reason to stay if a marriage isn't good.
Smith: Once you say that, you've lost. With Jada, I stood up in front of God and my
family and friends and said, "Till death do us part." So there are two possible outcomes: We are going to be together till death, or I am dead.
RD: But people do have problems in marriage.
Smith: Jada and I have problems; everybody has problems. People ask, "What happens if you made a mistake?"
Well, you should be a little more careful before you stand up in front of God and your family and friends and say, "Till death do us part."
RD: Has your success surprised you?
Smith: For a long time now, I have been beyond anything that I ever dreamed. I just put my head down and run hard, and
I am almost always surprised when I look up and see where I am.
RD: So getting to where you are is all just about running hard?
Smith: Most people you are going to be in competition with are not gonna give 100 percent.
If you catch a bad day, you are going to run up against somebody willing to do 87 percent. You're still going to win. If you happen to run up against
Michael Jordan, you are going to be better for losing. In one of my songs, I write, "The key to life is on a treadmill. I'll just watch and learn while
your chest burns. Because if you say you are going to run three miles and you only run two, I don't ever have to worry about losing something to you." When
I say I am going to run three miles, I run five. With that mentality, it is actually difficult to lose.
RD: You work harder than the next guy?
Smith: I consider myself to be of basically average talent, right? What I have that other people do not have is a
sick, obsessive, raw animal drive.
RD: Do you get tired of pushing?
Smith: Not yet. There is no pain worse than not achieving a dream when it is your fault. If God did not want you to have
it, that is one thing. But if you do not get what you desire because you are lazy, there is no pain worse than that.
RD: Have you always been a runner?
Smith: I started about five years ago. Running introduces you to your worst enemy, to that person who tells you, "Ooh,
our ankles hurt and we should stop. Why do we need to run five miles? Let us run three." That is the same person who says to the man, "Hey, your wife will
never find out if you sleep with her," and the same person who tells the 16-year-old, "You are not gonna be cool if you do not smoke it." If you start
giving in to that person, you will never get to your goals.
RD: Are you the most driven person you've ever met?
Smith: No. That's Michael Jordan.