BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Back in the early 1990s, just as Will Smith was making the transition from rapper to television star with "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," he presented his manager an interesting challenge.
"I told him I wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. He is like 'OK. We should figure out what they do and plot a course,' " Smith said. He accented the comment with that mischievous smile that has made him a hit on both the small and big screen.
Obviously, they figured it out. They realized the highest-grossing movies were those filled with special effects.
The course they plotted continues. Smith's latest project, the sci-fi fantasy "I Am Legend," hits theaters today. Smith plays the survivor of a man-made virus that has wiped out most of the planet's population. The majority of the survivors are vampirelike creatures that he must battle.
The big-budget, special effects action film joins movie credits that include the blockbusters "Men in Black," "Independence Day" and "Men in Black II." He's picked up a couple of Oscar nominations for "Ali" and "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Those are the box office credentials of a major movie star.
Of course, being a movie star is more than just box office totals. A big part has to do with the way a performer acts. In Smith's case, he's as easygoing and accessible as he was in 1990 when he was a lanky 22-year-old with a new television show.
Director Francis Lawrence describes Smith as always being positive, a great guy, a professional and smart. He also could have mentioned funny.
During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel to promote the movie, Smith joked about everything from music to religion. (For the record, the last time he was called Fresh Prince was about four minutes before the interview.)
But Smith can be serious. He talked in a no-nonsense tone about the demands of making "I Am Legend." Most of the movie features Smith alone on the screen. He does have a dog and a computer off which he bounces dialogue. The majority of the time he's alone.
"It was such a wonderful exploration of myself. What happens is that you get in a situation where you don't have people to create the stimulus for you to respond to. What happens is that you start creating the stimulus and the response," Smith said.
"There is a connection with yourself, where your mind starts to drift to in those types of situations, that you learn about yourself things you would never even imagine."
To Smith, the movie hits on two very basic fears: being alone and in the dark.
In his research into what it would be like to endure such solitude, Smith sat down with former prisoners of war. What he learned was that they all dealt with it by establishing rigid schedules.
Smith shares a few scenes with Alice Braga, who plays another survivor. She praised Smith for making everyone around him feel comfortable and motivate them to give their best.
Religion is one of the themes addressed in "I Am Legend." Smith has obviously put a lot of thought into what he believes along those lines.
"I don't necessarily believe in organized religion," Smith said. "I believe that there are absolutely, unquestionably, forces at work in the universe that science can't explain. I think there is an end to human knowledge. At that end of human knowledge we have to call it something to be able to talk about it.
"If people didn't have to put specific names and want to argue about it, I think that we all across the board could agree that things happen we can't control.
"We could just call it the high power, the X-factor, God, Allah or whatever."
His opinions about religion come from a host of outside influences. Smith talked about how he grew up in a Baptist household that was in a Jewish area. He attended Catholic church and had a crush on a Muslim girl in a nearby neighborhood.
"I love my God, my higher power. I create my connection and I decide how my connection is going to be."
Smith has maintained a down-to-Earth quality throughout his career. He said that it all comes down to a central theme of his life that he learned from two women from his past.
"There was a look of pride that came into my grandmother's eyes that became the fuel that I need for life. I need my woman, daughter and mother and women in general to look at me with that look," Smith said.
"Then when I was about 15 years old, my first girlfriend cheated on me. I processed in my mind that I was not good enough. I remember lying in my bed, making a decision I would never not be good enough again."
That determination has helped him reach a goal he set years ago. *