Will Smith stars in an uplifting drama based on the true story of a single father who went from homeless to successful businessman. Alan Silverman spoke with Will for this look at The Pursuit of Happyness.
In the early 1980s in San Francisco, Chris Gardner had big dreams, but could barely earn enough to keep a roof over his young family. None of his moneymaking schemes work out and their only steady income is from his wife working double-shifts as a hotel maid. When she reaches her limit and tells Chris she is leaving, he insists their young son, Chris Jr., must stay with him.
Chris is convinced an unpaid internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm will lead to a career; but, now as a single father, he finds it harder and harder to stay afloat. Evicted from their motel room home, father and son wind up on the street, sleeping in public restrooms at subway train stations when they cannot find a bed at homeless shelters. Through it all, Chris is determined to give his son something he himself never had as a child: a father's love.
Eventually Chris does make his dream come true. The internship leads to a job and later to start up his own brokerage company with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Today he is a multi-millionaire and a highly regarded motivational speaker.
Will Smith says he was drawn to the story, but also apprehensive about portraying the often-heartbreaking events in a real person's life.
"I connected with Chris Gardner," says Smith. "We looked in one another's eyes and I said 'I'm going to learn your story and tell it.' He said 'just tell the truth.' "
That simple instruction " just tell the truth " proved to be more of a challenge than Smith expected. The popular actor who has starred in some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters found himself re-learning the craft under the guidance of Italian-born director Gabriele Muccino.
"Gabriele told me ...one day he said ...'don't pose for my camera.' I said 'what do you mean?' He said 'you are posing for my camera. I don't want you to pose. You are making faces like you are hurt. We will shut down. You go away and come back when you hurt for real,'" recalls Smith. " He and Michael Mann are the two directors that I've worked with who know all of my tricks. They can see right through me and all of the 'Will-isms' that I know how to do to make the audience laugh or smile or cry ...all those things I know, they beat them out of me.
Michael Mann directed Smith to critical acclaim in the 2001 drama Ali. As much as the director demanded, Smith says he also found himself struggling to meet the expectations of his co-star: his own nine-year-old son, Jaden Christopher Smith, who plays his character's son, Chris Jr.
"I was struggling in a particularly difficult scene and Jaden said to me, 'you just do the same thing every take, Daddy.' I was little offended by that, but what he was saying was that innately he couldn't understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time," says Smith. "He was feeling 'that's not real; I thought we were supposed to be trying to make this real.' He broke me out of a mechanical space."
Will Smith says the experience changed him as an actor; and as a bonus, he says playing out the events of what Chris Gardner called 'the worst year of his life' gave Smith and his son a stronger foundation in their relationship.
"Jaden and I got to spend every single day, 10 or 12 hours a day, together, working on this film and it became clear that whatever you have to offer financially doesn't matter," Smith says. "Whatever situation you are in, it doesn't matter. You have to be there. You have to be with your child. To be able to spend that many hours a day together, our bond took off in a way that I never imagined."
The Pursuit of Happyness takes its misspelled title from the line in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. As Chris Gardner explains, what Thomas Jefferson wrote says happiness is not guaranteed; it is something you have to pursue. The cast features Thandie Newton as Linda Gardner and the screenplay by Steve Conrad is adapted from Chris Gardner's best-selling book, The Pursuit of Happyness.