Treading through material wrought with loneliness, grief and mild insanity, actor Will Smith is putting his own spin on the role of Robert Neville – one embodied previously by the likes of Vincent Price and Charlton Heston – in Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend. As, seemingly, the only “normal” person left alive in the world following a lethal viral outbreak, Neville struggles with the emotional challenges that come with his tragic predicament. All of this while attempting to find a cure for the “infected” that roam the streets of New York City at night. ShockTillYouDrop.com sat in on a press conference where Smith discussed getting into the mindset of Neville, shooting in New York and showed copious amounts of love for his scene-stealing furry co-star.
Question: Can you talk about the large scope of this production and what the experience was like shooting it in New York City?
Will Smith: Shooting in New York, especially something on this level, is difficult. I would say, percentage-wise, it’s the most amount of middle fingers I have received in my career. I’m used to people liking me, it’s like fun. Middle fingers, I was starting to think F-U was my name. We shut down six blocks of Fifth Avenue on a Monday morning. That was probably poor logistics, that was poor planning. You realize you’ve never actually seen an empty shot of New York. When we were doing it, it is chilling to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue. You never have that opportunity. Two o’clock in the morning on a Sunday you can’t do that. It created such a creepy energy and there are iconic buildings. There’s a shot of the U.N. A shot of Broadway. It puts such an icky, eerie feeling on the movie when you see those shots, so logistically it was a nightmare but it absolutely created something you can’t do on a green screen or in another city substituting for New York.
Question: How significant do you think it is that the last man alive is African-American?
Smith: Well, first and last, baby. [laugh] It’s funny, it’s almost a metaphysical idea for me. I rarely think about that until somebody brings it up. Then I say, ‘Oh, wow.’ That never actually crossed my mind in that way. For me, the acknowledgements of those ideas put a weird boundary on my thoughts that I can’t allow to be a part of it. It sorta makes me think smaller, if that makes sense. All that is to say I never really thought about the significance of that with the film.
Question: Would you comment on dealing with the loneliness and the madness the role asks you to explore in the film?
Smith: It was such a wonderful exploration of myself. Because what happens is you get into a situation where you don’t have people to create the stimulus for you to respond to. So what happens is you start to create the stimulus and the response. There’s a connection with yourself that where your mind starts to drift to in those types of situations you start to learn things about yourself that you would never even imagine. In order to prepare for that, we sat with former POWs and people who sat in solitary confinement. That was the framework for creating the idea. The first thing they said you start to create a schedule. You will not survive in solitary if you don’t schedule everything. We talked to Geronimo ji-Jaga, he was formerly Geronimo Pratt of The Black Panthers, he was in solitary for over three months and he said you plan things like cleaning your nails. You take two hours that you have to, because it’s on the schedule, you have to just clean your nails. He spent six weeks and he trained roaches to bring him food. I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my God.’ The idea of where your mind goes to defend itself, either he really did train the roaches which is huge or his mind needed that to survive – either way, you put that on camera and it’s genius. For me, that was the thing to get into the mental space where what the truth was for Robert Neville didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was what he saw and what he believed. How many of you picked up on the mannequin shot with the little turn of the head? There’s probably six or seven of those in the movie. I’m a better actor for having had to create both sides of the scene with no dialogue.
Question: Was the grey hair a special effect…
Smith: Special effect. We had the world’s best grey hair people come in. They were from Europe. [laughs]
Question: You’ve been interested in this role for a while, why?
Smith: Robert Neville has stayed with me for this long because…with movies, I am really connecting to the Joseph Campbell idea of the collective unconscious. There are things that we all dream, things that each one of us has thought that connect to life, death, sex – there are things that are beyond language. To me, this is one of those concepts. You’ve been on the freeway many times and wished everybody was dead. [laughs] You just wish you were by yourself, you don’t need any of these assholes… That separation from people coupled with the unknown, the fear of the dark and how we would fare against what was in the realm of that unknown is a really primal idea. I couldn’t always articulate it like that, but I’ve always loved this concept ’cause it connects to something a four-year-old could understand.
Question: You’ve had a lot of experience saving the world…
Smith: I miss this time.
Question: Have you ever thought about what you’d do in a real life disaster and have you ever had to play the hero?
Smith: That’s always a tough question and what’s interesting about playing characters like this one because you get to explore and wonder how you would react. For, “Ali” was the great time for asking myself that question. When Ali didn’t step forward because they didn’t call him Mohammed Ali and he knew he was going to jail, he knew what the situation was going to be but still could not step forward – I just remember in that moment I was thinking, ‘What would I do?’ I don’t know if I would be enough man to give up everything I have right now for that principal. When I look at Neville I wonder what was there to live for, what was there to hope for? To wake up every day and try to restore something that is good and gone. I like to believe I would put my chest up and stand forward and march on. Continue to fight for the future of humanity. But I would probably find a bridge [jump off of] and say, ‘I’m comin’ to join you!’ It’s a tough question and I guess the answer is, I don’t know and I don’t think so. You want to be tested to know what you would do, but you don’t really want to be tested.
Question: How attached did you get to Samantha the dog, your co-star?
Smith: Abbey is her real name. When I was probably nine-years-old, I had a dog named Trixie – a white golden retriever that got hit by a car – so I refuse… I tell Jada, you and the kids can have the dogs you want, but I am not putting myself emotionally connected to a dog any more. Then Steve brought that damn Abbey to the set. It’s like, you say a smart dog. It got to a point where she’d be playing, playing, playing and then she’d hear, ‘Rolling!’, and she’d run over to her mark and get ready. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ She would know when I wasn’t doing my lines right. If I would get lost in the scene, she would go [Smith makes a ‘puzzled face’ look]. I connected and allowed myself to be fond of a dog since the experience, and I told Steve the owner, ‘Please, Abbey has to live with me.’ He’s like, ‘Will, this is how I make my living, man.’ She’s just smart, and fun and warm. I experienced the loss again. Steve said, ‘I’ll bring her over every weekend, Will. But she has to work.’ It was painful, but she was great. I used to watch Lassie, and animals can be smarter than other animals. She’s way on another plane of connecting to what your energy is, what your feelings are, protective and all that. It was beautiful.