Will Smith on acting, parenting, love, longevity — and muffins | #parenting

The last place you expect to find Will Smith on a Sunday morning is on a tennis court. But there he is: the freshest prince of Beverly Hills. Fresh as in new, improved and winding back the clock on Daylight Savings morning.

The 53-year-old actor — who used to dedicate Sundays to blueberry muffins — has shed his 20 COVID-19 pounds after going from “the worst shape in my life” to shirtless photos of himself on social media.

The proof is chilling in a folding chair by the net. He’s lean in a black shirt with striped sleeves, grey pants and black sneaks. Anything resembling middle age left with the baby fat. Smith has a small goatee now. He looks like he could go fight aliens again, and win.

Speaking of winning — and he’s not talking about it much — Smith is a sure-fire Oscar nominee for his role in “King Richard,” a biopic about sports sensations Venus and Serena Williams, who became superstars thanks to the coaching and driving force from their father, Richard Williams.

This film is only part of the upcoming season of Will. His book “Will,” a searing biography, came out this week. On TV, he is also working on “Emancipation” for Apple TV+ about “Whipped Peter,” a black man whose scarred back is depicted in one of the most famous photos of slavery. Peter is believed to have escaped via a harrowing 10-day journey through the Louisiana bayou, only to join Lincoln’s army and return south to free friends and family.

At home, Smith is celebrating 23 years with Jada-Pinkett Smith and longs for visits from the kids, Trey, 28 (from a former marriage), plus Willow, 20 and Jaden, 23.

Review-Journal: What was the appeal of playing Richard Williams?

Will Smith: First of all, I wouldn’t do this movie unless I could get it right for the family. I wanted the family involved and they were very involved. As for the appeal, you know … there was an interview Venus did when she was 13 or 14 years old. A famous interview. Richard Williams snapped on the reporter. Well, the look on Venus’s face was an image burned into my heart. It’s how I want my daughter to look when I show up. Venus had a lion with her that day. He was not going to let anything happen to her. I fell in love with Richard Williams at that moment.

What does this say about fathers and daughters?

I knew I wanted to show a father protecting his daughter from the world in the movie … and all fathers want to protect their kids from the world. He just might be the greatest coach in this story of family and love and sports.

This isn’t the first time you’ve played a father onscreen. What made this different? And how did it change your style of parenting?

I sat down with Venus, who told me, “As a kid, it’s almost like he brainwashed us instead of pushed us. For example, our punishment was we couldn’t play tennis that day. Again, never pushing.” It was a Jedi mind trick that brings me back to how my parenting has changed. Richard just threw fuel in a fire that was already burning inside Venus and Serena. As an actor, when I take a role, I take it to explore something about life. That was a new parenting idea for me.

So Will Smith isn’t pushy-pushy in real life?

I learned that you align with your children versus directing your children. It was a magical approach inside the Williams family, too. I also believe that as a father you set the rules. Divine rules. Faith at the center. The rest shouldn’t be just lecturing. Never say, “You don’t know, but I do. You don’t know because you’re little and I’m big.” That doesn’t get you anywhere.

You delve into your father’s parenting in your new book. What can you say about his style?

My father was military. When I grew up, you didn’t get a vote. It was laid out. Established. It was a very different kind of thing.

Saniyya Sidney, who played Venus, and Demi Singleton, who played Serena, had to learn how to play tennis for this film. Did you identify after having to learn how to box like the greatest, Ali?

These young actresses had to learn how to play tennis like two of the greatest tennis players of all time. It was like what I had to do on Ali, and that kind of precise training is daunting. There are pro tennis players out there who can’t play like Venus and Serena. I was watching Saniyya train one day. Not only did she learn how to play like Venus, but she learned to play with her off hand. She’s left-handed and Venus is not. I just stood there clapping for her. That was remarkable.

After all of these years what do you still love about acting?

I love the responsibility of it now. When I step on a set, I do feel it’s my responsibility. My family. My crew. My people. My place. If it all works, it’s such a heart thing to watch.

Even now is it ever hard to get where you want in a scene?

There’s a scene in the kitchen in “King Richard” where we didn’t find it until the end of the day. It was a case of … a little bit more … a little bit more … even more … that’s it! To be able to fire every nerve to create that way with such tenacity and authenticity is still so beautiful. Getting there — the struggle — makes it worth it.

You met Jada Pinkett Smith in 1994 when she auditioned to be your girlfriend on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and didn’t get the role! The two of you are upfront about the ups and downs of a long union. What is the secret of staying together now?

I look at it this way, and I’ve said it before: Love is like tending to your garden. You must focus on helping your love to bloom into what you want to be and what you were born to be in life together, rather than demanding what my fragile ego needs you to be.

You’ve been on a post-COVID weight-loss journey this year. Why was this important to you?

It was more about transformation. It wasn’t about looking better, but about feeling better. That meant no sneaking around at midnight eating muffins or spending all that time in the pantry. It’s about spending some tough and rewarding time in the gym. It’s totally worth it. You can get your groove back.

What is your idea of a perfect Sunday?

Laughing with my wife and kids. We just have a good time together. But one thing. Sundays are not for muffins anymore. You don’t have to be lazy, either. You got the time. Go be active together.

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