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Will Smith: Big Willie Style

The actor is ready to rip on politics, conspiracy, cruel comedy, gangsta rap, ghetto love, and Bill and Monica

Actor, Will SmithActor, Will Smith

Actor Will Smith attends the Fourth Annual Blockbuster Entertainment Awards in Hollywood, California on March 10th, 1998.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

It is 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and Will Smith is standing in his kitchen, seizing the day. Since he has suggested that I seize it with him, we are conferring with his cook about eggs: his scrambled, my omelette, our turkey bacon. Smith, who has just risen, is wearing khaki sweat pants and a sleeveless white T-shirt that shows the kind of firm muscles that look more natural than pumped. (I checked: He pumps.)

Getting from Los Angeles to Smith’s home, near Ventura County, is more than an hour’s drive. The man who has conquered Hollywood feels no need to live there. Instead, he and his new wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, have set up temporary shop in Smith’s former bachelor pad, a comfortable, unpretentious, sprawling affair now strewn with the flotsam of being married with children: toys, a baby carriage, scads of family photos. One, sitting on the bar in the media room, stands out: It’s the birth announcement for Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will’s second child (and second son), born on July 8th and weighing seven pounds, one ounce. A couple of hours later, Jaden himself appears, fresh from his bath and lounging in his mother’s arms. He is now thirteen pounds of adorable contentment: a head full of soft black curls, an alarmingly sensual mouth, a pair of green-golden eyes that latch onto yours and stick. If a three-month-old can summon up a come-hither look, this is it.

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Will Smith loves being a daddy almost as much as he loves his wife, a twenty-seven-year-old star (Scream 2) with her own burgeoning career. When the two married last December in Baltimore, Pinkett’s hometown, they gave each other away, walking arm in arm up the aisle – a symbol of the equality of their relationship.

“When I came to Hollywood, I planned on being the biggest star,” says Pinkett, “but when I got with Will, I said, ‘I’m going to have to compromise, because he’s not going to. That’s not even a discussion.’ So I had to ask myself, ‘Is career more important than having a good man who loves you and will provide a happy family?’ I choose Will. So now my work gets forty percent. [ can still have a career. I just won’t have the one I planned on. That will not happen. I put my family first.”

Pinkett pauses. “We have this African sculpture someone gave us,” she continues, “that’s the signature of our relationship. It’s the head of a man – big, out there, dominant – and sitting regally on top of his head, in a chair, is this little woman.” She laughs. “It’s OK that the man is in the forefront, because we know who’s really on top of the show.”

Their bond is as clearly defined as the difference in their sizes – he is six feet two inches, she is barely five feet. That, however, is the only thing small about Pinkett, whose whopper of a personality makes her a force in the intense, passionate conversations that fuel their union.

Take this exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Smith about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. “Bill and Hill sent us a congrats note for Jaden,” says Pinkett, who volunteers that she and Tracey Edmonds, Babyface’s wife, helped persuade their husbands to turn down a White House request to host a fund-raiser for the president. Nevertheless, she remains a Clinton supporter.

JADA: Bill never said, “‘I’m a perfect guy.” He came in with flaws. We knew.

WILL: Every step of the way, it’s pissing me off. Take Monica Lewinsky. What kind of Woman keeps a dress like that?

JADA: I know why she kept it: low self-esteem. It might seem disgusting to you, but she has this blue dress that’s got the semen of the president on it.

WILL: Oh, come on!

JADA: Baby, I’m telling you how women think who are not very secure. Monica’s a big girl, always been promiscuous. She ain’t got no real father. It’s even lack of self-esteem on Bill’s part. For him to mess with the kind of women he has been with . . . there’s something lacking in Bill, too.

WILL: Yeah, but the president sitting and gracefully fielding bizarre questions from intellectually barren inquisitors who talked to him as if he were Joe off the street? “Hey, man, that’s the president. Rephrase your fucking question.” The president should be exempt from having to answer questions from some dickhead prosecutor about a cigar.

JADA: It’s a witch hunt. All the women who know their husbands are sleeping with their secretaries think this is their chance to say, “Bad man.” And all the men who’ve done wrong think, “This is my chance to clear my spirit.” I want to say, “Everybody, look in your own back yard. We all got dirt.”

WILL: I look at Bill Clinton the way I look at Bill Gates. As long as my Microsoft stock is going up [laughs], I don’t care what Bill Gates does in the privacy of his own home. Look, whoever the president is, I’m a citizen, and I’m down with him. The way I was raised, you deal with that stuff within the family.

Family is a crucial word in Smith’s vocabulary. If Pinkett believes this will be her only marriage, Smith says he knows it will be his last. His first marriage – in 1992, to Sheree Zampino – ended in divorce after producing Willard Smith Ill, or Trey, now five years old. Smith learned about the complications of divorce at thirteen, when his own parents split up. The son of Will Smith Sr., an Air Force veteran who now runs his own refrigeration company, and Caroline Smith, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon who worked for the Philadelphia School Board, Smith grew up in Philadelphia, one of four children. (“Every time we hang out with the Wayanses — there’s ten of them – Will comes home wanting a basketball team,” says a cautious Pinkett. “I can see three of our own and Trey.”)

Smith was only twelve when he hooked up with Jeff Townes to form DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, a rap duo whose clean, gangsta-free music garnered the two their first album deal when Smith was seventeen. Passing on college, Smith hit the road with Townes, topping the charts with such hits as “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

At twenty-one, Smith – with no acting training – took on television as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a hit sitcom that ran for six seasons on NBC. At twenty-five, Smith won his first starring role in a movie – in a drama, yet -playing a bisexual hustler of rich white folks in Six Degrees of Separation. Great reviews; small audiences. After that, Smith turned his more comic side to the cameras in a trio of blockbusters – Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black – that shot his salary into the $20 million stratosphere occupied by the likes of Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise.

Now, with his box-office clout at a peak and his latest album, Big Willie Style, his biggest seller, Smith is getting serious about serious acting again. He co-stars in Enemy of the State, a thriller that casts Smith as a labor lawyer caught in a dangerous web of spies, mobsters and National Security agents. And when he finishes the comic western Wild, Wild West for Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld, Smith will most likely portray Muhammad Ali in Sonnenfeld’s Power and Grace.

Not bad for a big-eared kid from Philly whose rap got rapped for being too white-bread. In fact, the surprising thing about Smith today – he turned thirty on September 25th – is how street he is. “Will was far grittier, more ghetto, than I expected,” says a smiling Pinkett, who thinks her husband’s ambitions might one day take this Mr. Smith to Washington. “I can see him being a force in politics – he’s so passionate about it. And if he wanted to run for president, I’d be scared to death – about assassination – but I’d definitely be on the front lines with him. Whatever he wants to do, I’m there.”

But whatever it is that Will Smith ends up doing, you can be sure of one thing: It will be a family affair. You’re one of the few movie stars to actually claim they had a happy time growing up. I loved my childhood, deeply appreciate what it taught me.

You’ve spoken more about your father. Tell me about your mother. Is she pretty?
My mom’s fine! [Laughs] And, personalitywise, I’m a lot like her – more so than my dad. My room is out. She can’t sit still, just ups and goes. I’ll get a phone call that she’s on her way to Australia! When I was growing up, she was in charge of my emotional development. My father’s job was to beat me into shipshape [another laugh]. I don’t talk as much about her because it takes me to a real vulnerable space.

How would you describe your mother?
My more was this type of woman: When you’re learning to drive, you’re excited. You hop in the driver’s seat, start the car. But More would stand patiently outside on the passenger’s side. I’d say, “Mom, come on!” But she wouldn’t move. Finally I’d get it – jump out, run around, open the door, apologizing: “My fault, Morn, my fault.”

So she had your respect?
Definitely. My mother had that power over her sons. She’d be pissed off and say, “Just get out of my sight. I can’t look at you right now.”

Your mother must have been tough on you when it came to school.
Yeah. She was a hard-core educational disciplinarian. We lived with my grandmother and great-grandmother until I was three, and my grandmother was a serious wordster. She and my mother were the driving forces behind me speaking and performing well in school. When I first started writing rap, at twelve, I used expletives and four-letter words, because that’s what rap was. My grandmother got ahold of my rap book, read it and wrote in the back: “Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use these types of words to express themselves.” We’ve never talked about it, but from that day on, I didn’t use those words.

What was your father’s role?
My father was the physical disciplinarian. Usually with boys there has to be a threat of physical violence [laughs]. My father made me a soldier, and my mother gave me the strength to be one.

I assume that included spankings?
Spanking, yes. It’s hard, but not any harder than the world is. I believe in corporal punishment. My father trained good soldiers. I’m ready to deal with whatever life has to offer – though life is about balance. If my mother weren’t in the house, who knows how I would’ve reacted to that militaristic upbringing? had the best of both worlds. Around twenty, I started having a real appreciation for what I’d learned growing up.

As a child, could you talk to your father?
All the talking was with my room. My father was a drill sergeant. He and I didn’t start having an emotional relationship until I was twenty-one. I was a man then, so he could turn off the father stuff. Now we talk four times a week. He was tough, but it was great for me. I never tried drugs because I felt he would kill me. Literally.

He must be overwhelmed by your success.
The day after Independence Day opened – it was 7 A.M. in California – my dad called and screamed at the top of his lungs: “Do you remember when I told you that all you had to do was work hard and you could do anything you want?” And I’m like, “Dad, it’s early.” “Do you remember when I told you there was no such thing as luck? Only what you make?” And I say, “Yeah.” “Do you remember I said that you are not lucky, you are good?” I said, “Yeah.” Then he said, “That’s bullshit. You are the luckiest motherfucker I ever met.” Now he and my mother are just numb about everything. They’re even beyond taking credit for it [laughs]. My dad says, “Hey, we raised the boy the best we could.”

So you loved being part of a large family?
I had two sisters and a brother – a team of people to support you. Like my older sister: She was an athlete – All-City track – a real overachiever.

Apparently it runs in the family.
Yeah. One time some guys stole money from me and I came home crying. My older sister grabbed a bat and we walked around the neighborhood looking for these guys. I remember thinking, “Damn! This is the person you want in your corner.” My older sister always made me feel safe.

You’re used to strong, supportive women being there for you.
Being there and making me feel better. Telling me, “Yes, you can do what you want. Go ahead, give it a try, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll figure that out then; but as smart as you are, it’s gonna work.” Once you grow up with that, you can’t function without it. Jada and my morn are very similar in that respect: in their strength. My room is the Rock of Gibraltar – I’m used to that.

Your dad ran his own business, making, you think, between $40, 000 and $60,000 a year. Was money an issue?
We were more broke than we thought we were because my father always had cash – that’s how people paid him. But, often, all the cash he had was all the money the family had. We spent like we had money.

What kind of student were you?
I was the fun one who had trouble paying attention. Today they’d diagnose me as a child with ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder]. I was a B student who should’ve been getting A’s – classic underachiever. It was hard for me to read an entire book in two weeks. Today I buy a book and have someone read it for me on tape! [Laughs loudly]

When you were thirteen, your parents divorced. What made them split?
The kids got old enough. We were the glue.

What was your reaction?
I felt like, “Thank God.” We weren’t losing one another, because my more moved to my grandmother’s, in the same neighborhood.

Were you aware that there were problems?
Their problems never affected us, but I never felt it was a “happy” marriage. It seemed more like a bad situation – bills, the stress of four kids. All these petty arguments. Life was really about the kids.

Were they affectionate with each other?
Not a lot of that going on – which was what I wanted not to do. You have to make time for each other. You can’t think that if you live together and are in love, everything will be fine – which was their misconception. Things between them always seemed tough.

So you didn’t want to replicate your parents’ relationship?
Not at all. I wanted to replicate the feeling in the house. We were a big team. Something was always going on. My great-grandmother, nicknamed Stone Buddy, lived until I was six, and she used to make us dance for fruit – kept a big bowl of fruit in her room. She’d put on music and make us do the funky chicken – she loved that!

You won a scholarship to study computer engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology – why didn’t you go?
It didn’t feel right. At seventeen, my first record came out in June. I was already gone with this career, and my dad said, “Let him do what he wants.”

I’m surprised he had that reaction.
He said, “He’s not going to be happy if he doesn’t make his own decisions about life.” My mother, meanwhile, was losing it. We even visited the MIT campus, but I was scared of it. It just looked . . . hard! She couldn’t believe I’d give up MIT for rap. This was before anybody made money rapping – only Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Beastie Boys.

Apparently you never felt the need to rebel against your parents.
Well, at seventeen I was on my own, able to put into play everything I’d learned: the discipline, what makes strength and respect vs. fear. I went out in the world and tried them for myself.

Why do I think you’re hard to live with?
[Laughs] It’s a difficult emotional undertaking to be with me [laughs].

Because it’s a heavy commitment. There’s a lot going on in my mind, things I want in life, so being my friend and, even more so, being my wife is not to be entered into casually. I demand attention because I’m never complacent. With me it will never be “This is where we’re going.” It’s “This is where we are now, but we’re going somewhere else.” Most women would say, “Can’t we stay here a minute?” But I have a sense there’s always something greater.

And Jada understands this?
Oh, yeah. And you’re so much stronger when your partner is strong. I honestly believe that there is no other woman for me but Jada. Of all the women I’ve met – and there’ve been a few – no one can handle me the way Jada does. And once you feel someone locked in on you like that, somebody being down for you, there’s no competition. And knowing that I’m not going anywhere gives Jada the strength to be what I need. As fine as other woman can be, as tempting sexually, I’m not going anywhere. This is it. I can’t imagine what anybody else could offer.

Why were you attracted to Jada?
There’s a real ghetto edge to Jada. Ghetto love.

What is ghetto love?
Ghetto love is no boundaries. Whatever the world has to offer, whatever comes down, we’re going to stand together and laugh in the face of the storm. There’s a strength that women of oppression possess that once you remove the insecurities of that oppression, there’s an individual who can take you anywhere, support you in anything, carry you. You know what it’s like to have a woman who can carry you? Not just walk beside you when you fall but grab the scruff of your neck and throw you over her shoulder? [Laughs] That strength is really sexy to me. It draws at the deepest pit of my being. I can’t imagine it being any better.

[At this point, the object of his affection – bearing a bowl of fruit – joins us at the dining-room table. She is wearing a sapphire-blue ankle-length dress, a Day-Glo orange baseball cap with a matching jacket and gold wire-rim glasses.]

JADA: You saying nice things about me, sweetie?

WILL: We’re talking about men and women, baby. You and me.

Is Will as hard to live with as he claims?
JADA: He’s a lot to take on. But him knowing that makes my job easier. And I’m a lot to take on. I wanted to find a man who could handle me. And he needed a woman to do the same. That’s why we’ve worked so well together. He’s very needy emotionally, creatively, and so am I. Because we’re pretty much one and the same, we know what the other needs. It’s wonderful having a man who’s not intimidated by my presence, my thoughts, my passions, my desires. He accepts me completely. I don’t have to slight myself to be with him.

You two first met when Jada auditioned for “Fresh Prince” in 1990. You traveled in the same social circle but didn’t get together until 1996, by which time Will was married and had a child. Were you attracted?
WILL: Definitely. With men it’s always completely sexual. You might talk with someone and be turned on intellectually, but the initial attraction is almost exclusively sexual. There’s only a handful of black actors in Hollywood, so any time there’s a function, everyone shows up. So we’d see each other around a lot.

JADA: I had this whole preconceived idea about Will. Then one night we went out to dinner with eight other people. Will and I were the only two who weren’t a couple, and we started talking – about my dysfunctional relationship [with basketball star Grant Hill] and his dysfunctional marriage. I’m giving him advice about his situation: “This is where your problems are.” And he’s telling me, “OK, this is where you’re messing up.” We were talking about relationships we were trying to fix.

WILL: When everyone else left, Jada and I stayed, and I was surprised at how smart she was. Generally people don’t arouse your intellect and your loins.

Do you remember the moment the friendship turned romantic?
JADA: I remember it completely. There was this glass of water on the table. Will was talking about perspective in relationships. He said, “See that glass of water? When you look at it, it’s to your left. That’s a fact. But I’m sitting across from you and that same glass is to my right.” We’d been talking about everything. But that moment, I looked at him and thought, “This guy has everything I need.”

After that night, did you see each other again right away?
WILL: No. I was still dealing with my ex-wife and my child.

JADA: After that night, I didn’t talk to him for six months. When you know there’s a connection, you think, “This is not something I want to fool around with.” We didn’t leave that night saying, “Hey, we really dig each other.” It was like a secret we had. I knew, but I didn’t get any signal from him. It wasn’t until he got his divorce papers that he finally called me. He needed a smart woman to talk to, and he remembered our conversation. Will really needs female energy around him. That’s what he responds to. He loves women – and not just in a sexual way. He loves their energy; he loves looking at women, talking to them.

So you were just two human beings in mutual need?
WILL: I was in the middle of a divorce, which is an emotional time. You need intellectual conversation about an emotional situation, a dichotomy everyone can’t give you. Jada found the balance – showed me through the valley, back to the light.

Being young, black and successful, like Jada and me, is rare. And to find someone who can go from the White House to the ghetto is hard. You can always find the ghetto queen. But when Bill Clinton invites you to play golf [laughs], can you bring her along? You want to cover both ends of the spectrum. That’s what we were both searching for: someone who will scream out “Oh, shit!” when the new Jay-Z record comes on but can also be appalled by public policy. It’s a difficult combination.

JADA: He’s smart yet gritty, streetwise and creative. Will’s one of those people who can take you to a Tupac concert one night and the next to an opera. And that’s who I am. It’s hard to find somebody to connect with you on all those levels. But the glass – that was the exact moment. I said, “I want this man in my life.”

[With that, Jada is out of his life – momentarily. She’s off to buy a new tub for Jaden. After a goodbye hiss, Will continues.]

There were never any games with me and Jada. No lying to get sex like men do, no telephone games like women play, waiting for him to call. All that was gone.

Still, it sounds like you were reluctant to begin a new relationship.
I was still so weak, but it felt good to have somebody you trust – like Jada.

Also, your usual defenses were down.
Completely down. One of the great things about our relationship is that we got together during wartime. She had things going on in her life, too. When someone is shooting at you, who you are comes out. There’s no facade; you’re not trying to pretend.

You worked hard on the relationship?
Absolutely. A successful relationship is about effective communication. You need to discuss theory. Everyone’s shooting for that great metaphysical thing, but there’s also day-to-day interactions that need to be dealt with. So we worked, taught each other – intellectually, conceptually – about relationships. You know that book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? Best book ever written. I read it four times. Men and women are from two different planets, speak two entirely different languages.

Give me an example.
Jada relates to our baby. She can feel what he’s thinking. I have no idea. There’s a connection that women have with other beings that men don’t.

And on the flip side?
Man can go out and kill the lion, because he’s more physically equipped to do so. Jada could do a movie right now, but we both realize that it’s better for her to be at home with the baby. We are two separate people with different needs and desires, working together as a family.

Clearly, you didn’t have this information during your first marriage.
Definitely not. There, the timing was poor. And, again, I’m a hard person to live with, because I have to be moving toward perfection. We don’t have to achieve it, but we do have to be moving toward it. It’s going to be more difficult for my two sons. But I’m working on myself. Trey is five; I just want him to enjoy competition and have fun.

You got married for the first time at twenty-two, became a dad a year later — why do both so young?
I wanted to be married from about seventeen years old.

It always felt right. I never questioned that marriage was the ultimate fulfillment of all the senses. Ecstasy for every human starts with that companionship.

You didn’t want to date?
No. Essentially, I’ve had four girlfriends, including my wives.

And you’ve always had monogamous relationships?
Yeah. I was with my first girlfriend from fifteen to twenty-one. She cheated on me when I was about eighteen.

How did you find out?
It was the most bizarre situation. I was on tour, and her aunt had been telling her, “He’s on the road, you know what he’s doing. You’re only seventeen, you need to be out experiencing things.”

Which, for many entertainers, would have been true.
It wasn’t true for me. So she cheated on me. When I came off the road, it was like my guardian angel tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, man, she cheated on you.” All I did was walk in the house and look at her to know that she fucked somebody.

Did you say anything to her?
I went with it. I screamed, “How could you do that? Do you think I’m stupid? I know exactly what you did.” And I got a response that in a million years I didn’t expect. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

How painful!
And I said, “You did for real? I was playing!” [Laughs]

And you split up?
No. We tried for three more years. But once you break that trust, it’s impossible to get back. So after that, I had some really wild times.

Lots of women?
Yeah. On the road in different cities.

How did you feel about yourself during this time?
It was the emotionally darkest time in my life. It was unfulfilling, but like a drug, you keep feeling you need more. And since I didn’t do drugs, I dealt with everything completely sober.

So you remember everything?
Everything! Which is even worse. At least with drugs, some of it would be cloudy. As it is, I have complete recall of everything I did [laughs].

What was the worst moment during times like this?
After the orgasms, when you say, “Why am I here? What am I doing with this person?” My experience is that women who do that sort of thing figure they have to, to get what they’re searching for. It happens a lot in small towns where the show is the biggest thing that’s ever come through. Parents would actually bring their daughters to the hotel, hoping that you’ll sleep with one, fall in love and take her with you.

How did they get to you?
They wait for you in the lobby and say, “Hey, man, come here. My name is such and such, and this is my wife and our four daughters. Man, these girls can cook, clean . . . . “

How sad.
Oh, yeah. It got so dark. But that’s the thing about having a good upbringing that you can fall back on.

How about your career – can you fall back on that? Does it nurture you?
My career pays the bills, and it’s fun. It’s my hobby. My movie career is as serious to me as playing chess or golf. I want to do things well. I can’t function if I’m not excelling.

I have a feeling that making movies isn’t going to fascinate you for the rest of your life.
No, I’m headed for something greater. I just don’t know what it is yet.

Jada says she could see you doing something in politics.
I’ve jokingly talked about politics. I don’t know what my calling is, but my performing career is a pit stop on the way to whatever the next level of greatness is. And, again, I’m in the middle of this movie thing and loving it, but Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali achieved a higher level of personal greatness.

What do you mean?
Right now, I make people laugh. It’s an important service to make people feel good. But I want to be here for a bigger reason. And I measure my greatness – or lack thereof – in the number of people I move, help or make life better for.

Do you think you have a destiny?
I don’t believe in predetermined destiny. I strive to be like the greatest people who ever existed. Like Jesus. When I’m angry or hurt, I ask myself, “What would Buddha do? Gandhi?” I try to find strength within myself to achieve – through love – that greatness. I do believe that love is the ultimate power.

What does power mean to you?
In the sense of physics, power is the ability to move things – physically, emotionally. The more things you move, the more power you have. Then comes the dexterity to use that power effectively. For instance, the best record I’ve ever written is “Just the Two of Us.”

Because there’s not a second of that record that misses.

Did you know that when you were writing?
Yeah. I wrote it in five minutes, because it was something I felt. You can’t lose when you pour out what you feel. And, today, fathers and sons tell me how much that song means to them. The second-best song is “Summertime.” There, I captured what summertime feels like. As an artist, you can’t do that any time. I’ve done it twice in my career.

Power usually goes hand in hand with drive. You’ve called yours psychotic. Think your sons will inherit it?
Drive isn’t hereditary. Energy can be. In general, I give ten percent to genetics, ninety percent to behavioralism. I’m a firm believer that success is, strictly, a product of time applied.

So your success is simply a matter of time applied? Nothing about you is special?
My strength is that I can feel people; I know what the marketplace is ready for. I was ready to write my latest album years ago, but not until the tragic loss of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. did I feel it was time. I felt an opening, a desire for change from the darkness of rap music in general. When I heard Tupac, then Biggie, got killed, I said, “This shit is too much for people to be dying because of it.”

Did they die because of the music – or the business of making it?
It’s strictly music. Too many people started to believe the fantasies of the music. It’s like killing Al Pacino for Scarface.

What was Tupac like?
Brilliant. A philosopher who never realized his full potential. The brilliance of his music and Biggie’s was that they preached against what they were doing. In his first album, on the end cut, “Ready to Die,” Biggie kills himself. He’s on the phone with one of his boys and commits suicide. That album should be used in psychology classes when discussing the plight of the urban Negro male. In it, Biggie goes from his birth to his teenage years to being incarcerated, released and deciding he wants to make music instead of holding up people.

You met the Notorious B.I.G. for the first time at the “Soul Train” awards an hour before he died. How did he strike you?
He was everything I imagined: big and bold yet calm. He was a rap don. A hip-hop don.

You sensed no impending doom?
No. I found out the next morning. The hardest part was that he lost his life over rap records! Does that make sense?

Who do you think killed him?
Who knows? It’s not even about a person. It’s about the energy that was created through his music. He died at the hands of the hate and misogyny that is – was – the aura around rap music. He felt his death was inevitable. So did Pac. Listen to his records – he didn’t want to live that way, either.

Do awards like Oscars mean much?
The credit was never important to me. The real reward is walking into a mall and kids losing their minds. Take the Nickelodeon Awards. Those are the loudest kids in the world! They give you a good idea of how you’re doing at the most basic level of entertaining. There’s people there that the kids know, but they don’t necessarily give them decibels. And, believe me, it’s all about decibels!

How do you handle feedback from your own son, Trey?
It’s hard, because he’s hilarious. At his soccer game the other day – and I don’t want to be that crazy dad, screaming from the sidelines – it’s killing me because Trey is running full-out to the ball, then letting someone else kick it. And I know he can do it, because we practice. During a timeout, I call him to the sidelines. And he’s winded, bent over with his hands on his knees. So I say, “Trey, man, you been doing a great job, dude. But there’s one little problem: You run really hard to the ball, but you’re not kicking it.” And he looks up at me and says, “What are you talking about? I’m all over the place out there.” Back on the field, I hear him saying, “I’m a machine! I’m a machine!” And I’m crying. I try to discipline him, but he cracks me up. He’s got so much personality.

But you are so competitive. Won’t your kids have to win, as well?
It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about fighting to within an inch of your life with everything you have. And if you lose, you still win.

Does that apply to your first marriage?
The most bitterness I carry is divorce bitterness, because it represents one of my few failures. The situation is clark inside me. I don’t like to fail. And, of course, there’s a constant reminder.

You mean Trey?
Yeah. The other day one of his friends was crying. And Trey said, “Hey, don’t cry. At least you get to live with your mommy and your daddy.” He wasn’t down. He was sharing a piece of himself, trying to help. That hurt . . . . Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I want to have a bunch of kids. I could have five, but I’d take up to seven. Healthy babies being born are the happiest times you experience in life.

Your new movie is “Enemy of the State” – are you funny in it?
No. Very serious. I play a labor attorney whose life is stolen through computer and surveillance technology. The technology in Enemy of the State is so advanced that people are going to think it’s made up for the movie.

Speaking of which, you’re a conspiracy theorist. That seems out of character.
I’m definitely a conspiracy theorist, and Enemy of the State only confirmed my beliefs. There’s a line in the movie, “The only privacy you have is in your head.”

You’ve talked about AIDS as a conspiracy perpetrated on gays by the government. Could you elaborate?
I said I felt that AIDS was created as a result of biological-warfare testing. I said I felt that someone was messing around in a laboratory, trying to find biological weapons, and created AIDS. I wasn’t implying that it was targeted at a specific group. I said it managed to make its way to them.

How do you define conspiracy?
A conspiracy happens when two people get together and talk about something they’re trying to keep from a third person. Under that definition, there are tons of conspiracies at work.

That’s a broad definition. How do you avoid finding a conspiracy in every situation involving more than two people?
This is how I feel about conspiracy theories [laughs]: I’m a thirty-year-old black man. When I hang out with black people, we talk about how we can get out from under the thumb of the white man.

You do?
It’s not the only conversation, but it will come up. Somebody will say, “My boss is a racist pig and I’m not going to get the promotion.” And we talk about ways to get the promotion. So why wouldn’t I think that when white men are together – say this guy’s boss and his friends – he doesn’t say to them, “I got this black kid. He’s good, but I’m never gonna let a black come up”?

So what’s the conspiracy?
The conspiracy is that people are talking behind someone else’s back.

That’s not conspiracy. That’s life.
That’s my point. Listen, I don’t give in to negative energy. You can conspire against me all you want, but I’m still going to try to help you.

What hurts you?
Dishonesty always kills me the most. Take growing up in Philly, dealing with the police – where, one time, a cop pulled me over and, when I asked him, “Officer, did I do something?” he said, “You’re a fucking nigger in a nice car. Now shut the fuck up until I figure out why I’m giving you a ticket.” That I could live with [laughs], because I knew exactly what I was dealing with. It was up to me to make a decision about how to react. I did. I reported him to Internal Affairs.

You did?
Yeah. But at least he gave me the option to make an informed decision. It’s much easier to interact with people when they give it to you straight. That’s what I try to do. The biggest hurts have been when someone leads me to believe that something is different than what they’re actually thinking or feeling.

What do you think was the most painful time in your life?
The most emotional pain I ever felt was when my first girlfriend cheated on me. That was like a . . .

Loss of innocence?
Yeah. Complete destruction of what I thought the world was – loss of faith in women, in my concept of work and reward. It was the first and biggest thing that ever happened – a 9.0 on the Richter scale. It cracked the foundation I was raised with.

Oh, no. Jada put me back together.

But it took about ten years?
It did. And that lack of faith is probably the largest part of why my first marriage didn’t work.

Because you couldn’t trust your wife?
Couldn’t. Didn’t trust women. Though there was always a part of me that thought it was still possible. My mind kept saying, “Well, there’s my mom. She has to be there for me.” [Laughs] But as far as a girlfriend . . .

Are you friendly with your ex-wife?
Yeah, we’re good friends.

Actually, she left you. You said you would’ve stayed married because of your son.
Well, that’s what my parents did. To me, age thirteen felt like an OK time for my parents to say, “This is not working out.” Thirteen years old worked for me. So I would have stayed together until Trey was thirteen and then moved on. Sheree and I didn’t have a volatile relationship. It was passive, sort of a drippy faucet. It wasn’t fighting, arguing. We never raised our voices. It was . . . Chinese water torture.

To the outside world, your ascent has looked certainly fast but also relatively painless. Not many valleys.
I’ve had those, but how I view life mellows the undulation. Since you have no control over what life gives you, you have two options: live or kill yourself. And once you decide to live, then my ego kicks in – I’m going to live the best life I possibly can.

Do people have problems with your extraordinary drive?
You have to be with someone who completely understands the drive, the passion, the fire – someone who understands when you’re awake in the middle of the night, trying to write a record, and will wake up and say, “OK, what do you need?” Jada’s like that.

Your reputation is that of a nice guy. But most funny people have a mean streak.
Jada thinks my comedy is sometimes mean. I’m actually very good at being mean, very skilled at finding your weakest spot and ramming an ice pick into it. I’m a laser-guided, intergalactic, space-molecular, air-dispersing module for finding, that particular bull’s eye. My natural instinct is to pad rather than stab. But I can be deadly.

Has this tendency ever damaged anyone?
Yes, when you stab someone you didn’t have to. Someone catches you on the wrong day, says the wrong thing, and you lash out. Then you think, “I didn’t have to do that.”

Particularly someone in your position?
Right. Because every little thing I do is huge. I’m much more accommodating to people because I know even the slightest bump is going to be magnified tenfold. My consciousness, though, comes from a more selfish place. I need a pleasant environment to be effective — on movie sets, in the studio.

You’ve made it in rap, TV and, now, movies. How do you stay hungry?
I have an ego the size of Texas [laughs]. I hate – refuse – to lose.

What is losing to you?
I see things universally. If it’s a record, I want it to be Number One in the world; if it’s a film, I want it to translate to every single person on the planet. I’ve always measured success by how many people I reach. And touch.

Where did that notion first hit you?
In Japan, with Run-D.M.C. We [DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince] were there with Run-D.M.C., and there were 50,000 Japanese B-boys [laughs] wearing fat gold chains, glasses and Adidas, screaming: “Run, Run, Run.” I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Run-D.M.C.’s from New York. How do 50,000 kids in Japan who don’t speak English know about them?” Then I got it. I tasted their power and knew I wanted to be able to move people all over the world.

You’re going to combine a few live rap performances in London with promoting “Enemy of the State.” It’s been about five years since you’ve performed live – why now?
Nothing like being onstage with a record the entire audience knows. I’m not going with twenty dancers. I’m doing it old-school style, old-school hip-hop. A DJ with two turntables, and me with a microphone. The important thing about being onstage is sharing joy. And I have more joy in my life now than I’ve ever had, which means I’ll have that much more to share with an audience.

In This Article: Coverwall, Will Smith


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