Will Smith will never forget the moment he knew he'd be able to nail his role as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness.
It was months before the start of filming and the actor had asked the real-life Gardner to take him on a tour of the shabby San Francisco neighborhoods where, years earlier, Gardner had struggled to raise a young son, hang on to a job as a salesman and finish an internship at a brokerage firm.
Gardner escorted Smith around the city's Tenderloin district, showing him the apartments, motels and homeless shelters that he and his son had bounced around when money got tight. The final stop was an Oakland subway station bathroom where, at his lowest, Gardner and his boy (played in the movie by Smith's real-life son, 8-year-old Jaden) had been forced to hole up for the night.
"When I walked into that bathroom with Chris, I instantly got it," says Smith, dressed casually in a turtleneck and black slacks for an interview in Manhattan. "I understood the character. Then when we actually shot the scene with my real son on my lap -- it was a case of no acting necessary. "
Gardner, who believes Smith does "a great job" playing him in the film, says he was touched by the actor's determination to revisit all of the real-life locations featured in the film.
"I couldn't even go in that bathroom for more than a moment but Will went in and said, `Chris, let me alone for a little while.' He was in there about five minutes," recalls the 52-year-old Gardner, now a successful stockbroker. "When he came out, he wasn't Will Smith anymore, he was Chris Gardner."
Smith's performance in The Pursuit of Happyness is easily the most gut-wrenching of his career. While he's proven himself to be a crackerjack comedian in Men in Black and Hitch as well as a powerful dramatic performer in Six Degrees of Separation and Ali, the Gardner film forces Smith to dial back his natural charm and throw off his movie-star armor.
"People think they know what Will can do, but he's gone deeper in this film and exposed something completely new," says Thandie Newton, who appears briefly as Gardner's dissatisfied wife. "He drew from his own personal stuff on this. It's like he suddenly decided to go back to school. And, at this point in his career, he doesn't have to do that but he wanted the challenge."
On the surface, Smith doesn't seem to have a lot in common with Gardner, who grew up poor and suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather. The actor was raised by a middle-class family in Philadelphia. His mother worked for the school board and his father owned a small refrigeration company. Although he divorced his first wife (with whom he has a son), Smith hasn't known much failure in his life.
He started rapping while still in high school and enjoyed a number of hit singles (along with pal Jeff Townes) as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. He subsequently anchored his own sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for six years before making a seamless transition to movies and starring in such hits as Independence Day, Enemy of the State and I, Robot. Married to actress Jada Pinkett since 1997, the couple has two children: Jaden and Willow.
When Smith first heard about Gardener's story, which was featured on an episode of 20/20 back in 2004, the actor responded to Gardner's stick-to-it spirit.
"What I love and connected with was the idea that your own will and your own desire creates your future," says Smith. "To me, that's the idea that this country was built upon. Chris Gardner believed in himself in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I always believed in myself like that, too. You could call it bizarre naiveté, or the audacity of hope. But Chris and I share that belief in the power of our desires."
In the film, which was directed by Italy's Gabriele Muccino, Gardner makes enormous sacrifices to land a position at Dean Witter. Even as he's evicted and turned away at overcrowded shelters, he never blames his problems on racism.
"There is an idea that's almost a quantum physics notion that both Chris and I share and that is that something only has power over you if you acknowledge that it has power over you. Chris knew that he was probably facing racism but he has never paid attention to any of that."
As far as Smith is concerned, his performance in Pursuit is strengthened by the presence of his son, who is with him every step of the way. Jaden was such a natural performer, in fact, that his playful takes delighted Muccino and inspired the elder Smith.
"On some scenes, Gabriele kept giving me notes, and Jaden thought that was funny because he took that as him winning," says Smith. "At one point, Jaden looks at me and says, 'You just do the same thing every time, Daddy.' I was a little offended. But Jaden was always doing different stuff every take. So, I started watching him and what I realized is that in the scene, I'm worried about being the producer and Will, the movie star. Jaden is just the character. It's a block that I've had in my career for a lot of years and this is the first time that I feel as if I've gotten myself free of that. Watching Jaden, I decided, `To hell with continuity and to hell with how much this shot costs.'
"There have been two other times in my career, with Ali and with Six Degrees of Separation, where I was just completely liberated to live and be free and to create as the character. I'm just extremely excited about it, and thankful to my son for showing me the way."
Smith jokingly says there were times when his youngster was so good, he considered trying to upstage him. "I told Jaden that it was a good thing that he was my son because I would've been leaning into his close-ups and all kinds of things if he weren't. He was stealing scene after scene on me, but it's a beautiful thing."
While Jaden might have stolen his share of scenes, it's his dad who's drawing the Oscar buzz. Smith was nominated once before for Ali and is likely to be making his way down the red carpet at 2007's ceremonies.
"I've never really been an awards guy," says Smith with a smile. "I mean, the parties are fun. I tell my wife all the time that I'm more of a mall guy. When I walk into the King of Prussia mall on Saturday afternoon, if they don't shut it down then I feel like I'm slipping. That's how I measure success -- if they still have to shut down the mall, I'm doing alright."
This article originally appeared on Featurewell.com.