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INTERVIEW GET FRESH WITH WILL; Ever the unconventional star, Will Smith chats to Alison Jones about racism, the woman inside him, his fear of Kenneth Branagh and his bottom.

When interviewing movie megastars it is generally considered bad form for journalists to ask for their autograph.

Being invited to feel Will Smith's backside, however, is a whole different ball game.

As it was at his request - to ascertain its pertness - and I was raised to always be polite to multi-millionaire actors/rap stars, I duly copped a feel. (It was pert yet soft since you ask.)

The question of his rear arose after the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince complained that action figures of him failed to capture its true beauty and "friendly" nature.

Thirty year old Will has been immortalised in plastic thanks to his career-making roles in Independence Day and Men in Black.

He is back playing the hero in Wild Wild West, another special effects driven comic adventure that reunites him with MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld.

A rehash of an old 60s television series - now there's a novelty - it is set in 1869 and stars Will as government agent/gunslinger James West, partnered with gadget inventing US Marshall Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline).

The two are pitted against a legless Kenneth Branagh as the diabolical villain Dr Loveless in what was clearly meant to be a 'Men in Black Hats'.

The critical roasting it received, however, put it firmly in the camp of the over-ambitious remake turkeys already occupied by The Avengers.

"Critics notoriously don't like the big summer films," said Will. "It is almost like they are not allowed to.

"I was scared reading the Stars Wars stuff, it was just torn to shreds. And then when Wild Wild West came out the critics were in a shred-tearing mood.

"What is wonderful is I realised that the public do make their own decisions and we had a number one movie and a number one record and that got me over my pain."

The success of both can be put down, almost entirely, to the audience-pulling power of the personable Mr Smith rather than the plot-lite, effects-heavy missed opportunity of a movie.

The rap singer turned TV actor, who was so nervous when he first appeared in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that he used to mouth his co-stars' lines to make sure he did not miss his cue, is now officially a bankable name.

He can "open" movies on the strength of his fame and charge up to $20 million for his services, one of only an elite handful of actors who can and almost certainly the only black actor.

"When Barry asked me to read for James West I said: "I don't know whether you have noticed but there are a few subtle differences between myself and the original James West (played by Robert Conrad)," laughed Will.

"And he said 'Oh you're a little taller but nobody's going to notice'.

"I think the great thing about Hollywood is there is racism, but on a certain level everyone is green. It gets to the point that if you can put butts on the seats then people will make films with you.

"I don't look at myself as though I'm making any wonderful social statements. I am having a great time making the films I'm making.

"If children can be inspired to think that maybe they can do something like I've done then I accept that. But it is all about the bottom line. Whoever can deliver gets the opportunity to make movies."

Despite his lack of experience Will has proved to be a natural performer. He has a light touch as a comedian but can also tackle heavy drama, as he did with his first lead role in the Oscar-nominated Six Degrees of Separation.

But even his apparently uncrushable self-confidence was shaken a little when he realised he would be working with seasoned theatre performers Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh.

"They are probably two of the premiere Shakespearean actors of our time and I am like a kid from West Philly with no formal theatrical training. I sat across from those guys and I just felt dumb.

"Kevin Kline is more like me but Kenneth Branagh is so precise he just doesn't miss. He hits it every time and he actually listens to the director and does something different when he's asked. I'm like 'Yeah cool Baz', and keep going with what I want."

Although WWW is hardly a stretch for him in acting terms it did test how far he was willing to risk his reputation, by requiring him to tackle a nude scene and dress up as a woman - complete with flame-throwing breasts.

"I felt more comfortable being a woman. Nude scenes are always hard and embarrassing. It looks like it should be wonderful because you get to kiss a beautiful woman but there's grips standing around eating hot dogs and 30 people looking at you.

"But as a woman! I am in touch with the woman inside of me and this was just an opportunity to let her come out and play.

"And for the brief time I was able to become one I was able to see how difficult it was. I felt your pain," he said, tongue firmly in cheek by now. "Because breasts are eye magnets. There were guys on the set and they knew it was me but they were still looking at my breasts. I felt violated."

Actor and director are planning a change of pace for their next collaboration, a biopic of Muhammed Ali.

"We're working on the script because that is a story we cannot afford to get wrong," said Will. "I think you have to balance out these big effects films with character-driven pieces. It sharpens you up for the kind of roles when you are sitting across from Gene Hackman."

Although he will have to bulk up to play the fleetfooted heavyweight, Will already has a fairly solid muscle base, as Sonnenfeld discovered when he broke his hand punching Will in the shoulder.

By coincidence it happened on the same day Will's second wife, actress Jada Pinkett, gave birth to their son Jaden, so he was able to snatch some unscheduled paternity leave.

"Barry was rushed to the hospital at which point my wife's waters broke. It was perfect, they were both in there at the same time. I figure in the future I'll just break a few directors' hands and I'll get all the time off I need with my family."

It would certainly please his eldest son, Trey, who is thriving on the kudos of having the newest, and certainly the best dressed, action star reading him bedtime stories.

"I'm the best Dad in the world with Men In Black and Wild Wild West. I was able to get all the action figures ahead of time for my son to give to his friends at school, so it's been heaven in my household.

"But he said to me 'Dad, I don't know why people laugh when you talk. You're not really that funny'!"
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Author:Jones, Alison
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 7, 1999
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