Will Smith’s irresistible smile, irrepressible confidence, and galactic charm may have made him one of the defining movie stars of the last quarter century, but when it came to the question of who Will Smith really is, he always seemed to leave his fans hanging. Like Tom Cruise, he curtained off his private life.
Smith admits this was a conscious strategy in his surprisingly frank new memoir, Will. “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction — a carefully crafted and honed character — designed to protect myself,” he writes. “To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”
Consider the period of circumspection ended, the curtain removed. These days, Smith won’t stop shining a light on his personal life. Suddenly, he’s become like that Norwegian guy who wrote that gargantuan 9,000-page memoir to tell us about every time he ever picked his nose.
In May, Smith, uncharacteristically vulnerable and sounding pandemic-damaged, told us on Instagram, “I’m gonna be real with y'all. I’m in the worst shape of my life,” and showed off a Winnie-the-Pooh tummy to prove it. Smith’s public display of "dad bod" turned out to be prelude to a get-back-in-the-gym YouTube series called The Best Shape of My Life; most guys his age would rather wait till we have something to brag about before showing off our bellies.
In Will, Smith told us that his father, Will Sr., “terrorized his family” and that when he was 9, his father hit his mother so hard in the side of the head that she collapsed and spit blood. Smith says he thought about murdering his father but later came to have a sort of grudging respect for the older man’s grit. When an old girlfriend cheated on him, he first says he went “ghetto hyena” (meaning he took a flying poke at anyone in a skirt) but then was so consumed by disgust about his choices that he’d gag and sometimes vomit after sex. “I had sex with so many women, and it was so constitutionally disagreeable to the core of my being that I developed a psychosomatic reaction to having an orgasm,” he tells us. Moving on to second wife Jada Pinkett, whom he married in the Men in Black year of 1997, he says in the book, “We drank every day, we had sex multiple times every day for four straight months,” and it was “spectacular.” He added, or boasted, “There were only two possibilities: I was going to satisfy this woman sexually or I was going to die trying.”
On Smith’s new six-part Disney+ travelogue, Welcome to Earth, a noteworthy planet is forced to play straight man to Smith’s nonstop stream of jokes and reflections. “It’s not about the world. It’s about discovering myself,” he tells the audience. Welcome to Will Smith’s planet.
Smith is sometimes forthcoming in a very Hollywood way, which is to say he sounds like he read every holistic New Age spirit guide the spa offers. He explained to Oprah Winfrey that when he traveled to Peru to take a course of ayahuasca in search of forging mystical connections to inner truths — haven’t we all done that? — he had a vision of himself as a seed planted in the soil (that part would be Jada), and the joint effort combined to produce a beautiful tree. He says the pair of them were intended by God to have “fruitful interaction that is meant to feed the people around us ... Whether I liked our interaction or not, I started feeling in my heart we were special together. We were condoned by the universe.”
Ordinarily, this sort of oversharing would signal an obviously instrumental purpose. Smith has never won an Oscar, and he really wants one. HBO Max’s King Richard, in which he plays the crusty but canny and brilliantly unorthodox father of, and first coach to, Venus and Serena Williams, provides him with a direct path to Oscar glory. But then again, Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a buffed hyper-macho cowboy in Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, looks unstoppable, given that beloved U.S. entertainers have a tendency to get bigfooted on Oscar night by classy Brits (Michael Keaton of Birdman lost to Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Chadwick Boseman of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lost to Anthony Hopkins for The Father). Maybe Smith feels that being more open and accessible will make him more likable to Oscar voters.
Or maybe Smith has just reached the don’t-give-a-fig phase of his own existence. He talks like a man who has just been released from a nondisclosure agreement. Anything goes! If nothing else, Smith’s rapid-fire release of dozens of sensational details about his life and his maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t “open marriage” will turn everyone’s attention away from whatever whispers and rumors seeped in to fill the vacuum about who he really is. And his new policy of radical openness harmonizes with the millennial/Gen Z inclination to post full details of every vacation, meal, and parricidal feeling. Maybe being loose and freewheeling is making Will feel fresh and princely again.
Kyle Smith is critic-at-large for National Review.