Will Smith has opened up more about the infamous slap heard ’round the world. He appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in support of his new Apple+ film Emancipation, coming to theaters on Dec. 2 and to the streamer on Dec. 9. But Smith is also on his comeback trail, hoping to restore his previously unblemished image in the public eye.
As anyone with internet access knows, on the night of the Oscars, Smith responded poorly to an offhand joke about his wife, Jada, from presenter Chris Rock. Instead of confronting him backstage, Smith instead strode from his front row seat, backhanded Rock, and told the comedian to “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—– mouth,” while actress Lupita Nyong’o seated directly behind him and a startled global audience of Oscar viewers looked on.
Host Noah eased Smith into the Oscars conversation after talking to him about his role in Emancipation. In the film, Smith plays Peter, a real-life former slave whose photo became a flashpoint in the fight against slavery in America. Peter, whose last name has been lost to history, escaped from slavery in Louisiana to volunteer for the Union Army. Once he did, Army medics took a photo of the keloidal whip marks on his back that were ultimately published as “Whipped Peter” in Harper’s Weekly in 1863.
“This film centers on faith,” Smith told Noah. “And the power of faith to be able to endure anything. This character is just what he had to endure and what he had to survive, only God could make a man, when you look at those marks on his back, only God could make that possible.”
Noah moved on to the Oscars by asking Smith, “I can only imagine what it’s been like for you because it’s been weird for many of us. You’re Will Smith. You are one of the biggest movie stars that’s ever existed,” he began. “You won your first Oscar that night, well deserved Oscar that night…. But it is one of the best days of your life and one of the worst days of your life. What has the journey been like for you?”
In response, Smith said, “At the end of the day, I lost it. I guess what I would say is that you just never know what somebody’s going through…you just don’t know what’s going on with people. I was going through something that night, not that that justifies my behavior at all… it’s that, we just got to be nice to each other, man. It’s hard. And I guess the thing that was most painful for me is that I took my hard and made it hard for other people. I understood the idea when they say ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”
Though Smith was seen partying hard with his family and friends in the immediate aftermath, he says when he got home hours later, he says it was his young nephew that humbled him.
“I was gone. That was a rage that had been bottled for a really long time,” Smith told Noah. “My nephew, Dom, is nine. He is the sweetest little boy. We came home. He had stayed up late to see his uncle Will and we’re sitting in my kitchen and he’s on my lap and he’s holding the Oscar and he’s just like, ‘Why did you hit that man, Uncle Will?’
Smith, who was visibly emotional in recounting the story, said to Noah, “Why you trying to Oprah me?”
Noah showed him some grace, condemning Smith’s inclusion on a list of canceled celebs that compared his actions to other headliners embroiled in scandals or legal matters including Kevin Spacey (accused, but acquitted of sexual abuse in one UK case), comedian Louis C.K., who admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent, Marilyn Manson (accused of sexual assault), Kanye West and others.
Though Smith never quite addressed his issue with Rock head-on or whether the men had resolved it, he said he felt bad about the film being impacted by his “horrific” actions.
“The one thing that’s killing me is that Emancipation is Antoine’s masterpiece. (Antoine Fuqua, director of Emancipation is best known for Training Day, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar.) “He has created an absolute masterpiece. Bob Richardson the (director of photography), (actor) Ben Foster, and just all the way down, these top artists in the world have done some of the best work of their career, and the idea that they might be denied because of me, that is killing me dead.”
Smith’s next projects, including Bad Boys 4, remain in development, but there has been no further word about production since his co-star Martin Lawrence and Sony chairman Tom Rothman confirmed the project was moving forward over the summer. Bright 2, the sequel to Smith’s Netflix film was already in trouble prior to the slap, but it appears I Am Legend 2 with Michael B. Jordan attached, is moving forward.
Smith says in the final analysis he had to allow himself to make a mistake.
“I had to forgive myself for being human,” he told Noah. “I had to find the space for myself within myself to be human. I’ve always wanted to be Superman. I’ve always wanted to swoop in and save the damsel in distress. I had to humble down and realize that I’m a flawed human and I still have an opportunity to go out into the world and contribute in ways that fill my heart and hopefully help other people.”
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