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Will Smith is opening up about the "dehumanizing" experience of portraying an enslaved man for Antoine Fuqua's Emancipation. On Wednesday, the 54-year-old took over as host of Red Table Talk -- the role his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, usually occupies -- to share details about the grueling and transformative film with his three children, Trey, Willow and Jaden.
Based on a true story, Emancipation follows the journey of Will as Peter, an enslaved man who relies on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom. The film is inspired by the 1863 photo "Whipped Peter," which shows the lacerated back of a real-life runaway turned Union soldier which contributed to growing public opposition to continued slavery after it continued in the South post-abolition.
Calling the project "the most rewarding film of my entire career," Will explained to his children that they are his first thought when he chooses what roles to take on. "I am making things to leave ideas for my children," he added.
As he began to delve into his mindset while playing Peter, Will provided insight into how all-consuming it can be to depict such harrowing and traumatic experiences, even knowing that everyone is acting in a role that may not represent who they are in real life. "As the years have gone on I've gotten more and more locked into these characters for longer periods of time," he explained. "And it's just the weight of this story, the weight of these experiences -- the quality of these actors. It was emotionally, it was physically, it was spiritually taxing."
"One of the first days on set, there is a scene with one of the actors and he leans down in my face and says, 'You a cold one, ain't you?' and then he ad-libbed...," Will recalled as he simulated spitting on Willow and played up his astounded response to the moment as his kids laughed.
Will noted that at that moment he fully recognized that "every actor on this set was taking it really, really seriously."
The Oscar winner revealed that he understood the initial reaction audiences -- especially Black viewers -- have toward "slave films." It was that knowledge that turned him away from joining the production of Django Unchained, which he ultimately passed on after discussing it with his family. But to Will, Emancipation is a story of freedom rather than slavery.
"It was really critical for me for you guys … and really your generation to see this movie and to understand the foundations of this story and what it means in this country," he told his kids.
That didn't make filming the movie any easier, Will admitted. Answering a question submitted by a college student, the actor recounted the struggles he had during production.
"I was getting called the N-word 100 times a day by very good actors. It’s rough, it twists your mind. You have to be really careful," he recalled.
"There's like a magic moment as an actor you look for -- the best way I could describe it is you feel the character wash over you. It’ll be [the] wardrobe or a scene or the dialect," he added, noting that this moment for him was the experience of wearing the chains and shackles Peter bore as an enslaved man.
In a video from behind the scenes of the film, Will described the process as "horrendous."
"Putting the chains on. As an actor, you're always trying to find a thing that makes you understand the character. On Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner took me to the bathroom that him and his son had to sleep in, and I walked in the bathroom with him, and I was like, 'Got it.' And as soon as those chains went on, I was like, 'Got it,'" Will shared in the video. "It turns off your agency. You don't want to step. You don't want to move. You don't want to look anybody in the face. It's deeply dehumanizing."
With his children at the red table, Will said of wearing chains as Peter, "So they put it on, they do it, so I'm standing there, and then he goes to take it off, and it doesn't work. So it's locked on, and my heart jumps. And I'm like, 'Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.' So I'm sitting there, and now he's running around looking for the keys, and for 15 minutes, I'm stuck there in the chain, and my heart is pounding, and I'm like, 'Will, do not freak.' And I'm sitting there, and then it's like, 'I got it.' It's like, I'm Will Smith with people running around looking for keys -- and my heart is still pounding, and I'm still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have that stuff on. Barefooted and nobody cares. And it was like, 'Whew, yep, I got it.'"
"And I haven't been able to articulate why, but I felt embarrassed," he added. "I was embarrassed while I was standing there and I was waiting, and it was emasculating, dehumanizing, all of that, and it was like, 'I got it.' Once you've experienced those things, they go into the same banks as your actual memories. You don't have a separate place for acting. Your brain and your body recognizes it the same way it recognizes actual memories. You have nightmares about it the same way, so it's all of that kind of stuff."
When asked what form of suffering did he have to tap into for this role, Will responded, "There's a universal suffering that we can all connect on. But I don't know what I would do in the face of that kind of demonic benevolence," he said.
Willow chimed in, "It's either you're enlightened, or it breaks you."
Will also recalled how his co-star, Ben Foster, stayed in character onset by not addressing him for six months. He said on the first day of production, the weather forced them not to get anything filmed, so Will started thanking everybody for showing up -- but Foster ignored him.
"In my mind, I was giving my best 'Will Smith' and Ben just walked past me and didn't say nothing," the actor said. "I was like, 'Oh, he must not have seen me.' Then for six months he didn't speak to me. He didn't make eye contact with me. He didn't say a word. He didn't acknowledge me for six months."
"But what he did that first day," Will continued, "I was like, 'Yup. Got it. We're not playing. This is real; this is serious. We're not fooling around with these ideas.' I really credit Ben for clicking me into the next gear of depth and focus."
On the final day of the shoot, Foster finally broke character and introduced himself to Will. The moment came after director Fuqua confirmed "we got it" and wrapped the film's production, giving Foster the all-clear to call off his methods.
"Then I look over at Ben, it's his last day, he says, 'Nice to meet you. Ben,' " Will recalled with a smile as he laughed with his kids.
Will Smith's Red Table Talk Takeover with Willow, Jaden and Trey is available to stream on Facebook Watch.
Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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