TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — Will Smith has a new outlook on teenagers: Parents do indeed understand.
The rapper-turned-actor says he’s “grown a lot” since writing the Grammy-winning 1988 hit that humorously declared they didn’t.
All three of his children now at least dabble in music and acting, most notably 14-year-old Jaden, who stars with his father in the new sci-fi film After Earth, opening Friday. Even in the midst of a globe-hopping promotional tour for the movie, Smith recognizes the downside to making stardom a family affair.
“I think that the major risk of this particular business is strictly emotional,” he said. “The business has almost a narcotic quality. So it’s almost as if you’re introducing a narcotic into your kid’s life.
“So for [wife] Jada [Pinkett Smith] and I, the most important thing is that they have to stay focused and grounded on the fact that they are giving. You don’t make movies for your ego. You make movies to transfer information, to bring joy, to add value to the world.”
At an After Earth promotional event at the under-construction Virgin Galactic spaceport in the New Mexico desert, Smith does everything he can to playfully poke at his son’s ego.
When Jaden loudly drops a water bottle during a TV interview, he’s quickly reprimanded: “You’re kidding, right? You’re kidding. That’s the most unprofessional thing I’ve seen you do.”
Smith reaches over to shield his son’s face from bright camera lights, taunting the teen as a “super mega movie star, towering over you like a shadow over you. And you’re living in his shadow. And you’ve got to do interviews in his shadow.”
Jaden, obviously accustomed to the teasing, responds with calm confidence and some of dad’s hammy humor, saying he lives “naturally” in the spotlight.
“You have to try to put your shadow on me,” said Jaden, who rode his skateboard through a hall between interviews. “But eventually your arm gets tired and it falls away and you let me go back to my natural state.”
His father nods in mock sincerity. “Oh that’s deep. You are a deep being,” he says.
Their film is set in a future where nature has turned on humans and survivors were forced to start a new civilization on another planet. Jaden plays a trainee trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, a famous military leader played by Smith. When the two crash-land on an inhospitable Earth, Jaden’s character must prove his own abilities to survive, and save his father in the process.
“It is very allegorical in a way, right?” said screenwriter Gary Whitta, who developed the story with Smith and co-wrote the film with director M. Night Shyamalan. “Jaden I’m sure looks up to Will and is like ‘Wow, my dad is like the biggest movie star in the world. How can I ever live up to that?’ But he’s trying.”
Smith, 44, and Jaden first co-starred together in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith produced his son’s hit 2010 remake of The Karate Kid with Jackie Chan, which made over $350 million worldwide. (Smith’s last movie, last summer’s Men In Black 3, earned over $600 million globally.)
Smith said he wants his family to be successful in the entertainment industry across generations, and has searched Hollywood history for models.
“I’ve looked for a lot of years. The Barrymores got really close to what I see in my head for my family,” Smith said, referring to the clan of theatre and film actors famed in the 1930s and now represented by Drew Barrymore.
Smith’s daughter Willow, now 12, appeared in two movies but has focused on music. After causing a stir with the pop smash “Whip My Hair” three years ago, she’s backed away from the spotlight but continued to release songs online. Smith’s other son, 20-year-old Trey, has taken up DJ work and posts electronic dance songs and mixes online. Jada Pinkett Smith is an actress, author, singer-songwriter, and businesswoman. She and Smith started Overbrook Entertainment, which has produced many of Smith’s films, including After Earth.
Smith makes no apologies for encouraging his children to follow their parents toward cameras and microphones.
“I grew up in a family business. So it’s like everybody works together and that’s how the family bonds and communicates and how we eat,” he said. “In my mind, I’m a warrior and I’m teaching my son how to hunt. And how else would I teach my son how to hunt other than bring him with me and we’re in an interview and this is what I do and this is the business I work in. To me, I can’t imagine what the other option is.”
That said, he approaches parenting differently than his own father, a former Air Force pilot who enforced strict discipline on Smith and his siblings.
“The major difference is, I’m trying to release the sense of ownership,” Smith said. “With our kids, Jada and I believe that it’s their lives and we are helping them with their lives. And they’re not our property. They are people that are [deserving] of our respect and consideration in the same way that any other human being should be.”
Beyond acting, Jaden learned his father’s early raps and now writes his own. While he isn’t looking to replicate the one-time Fresh Prince’s every move, it’s clear he has internalized Dad’s long-term outlook on the family business.
“If I wanted my career to be exactly like his, then people would keep telling me for the rest of my life, ‘Wow, you successfully pulled off your dad’s career. Congratulations!’” Jaden said. “If I was doing just what he did, then my son would feel like he had to do just what I did. I want my son to feel like he can be a classical pianist if he wants to."