Will Smith is back, two years after bombing at the box office

Will Smith plays a con man who takes a novice (Margot Robbie, both left) under his wing in Focus.
Will Smith plays a con man who takes a novice (Margot Robbie, both left) under his wing in Focus.PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, SONY PICTURES
Will Smith plays a con man who takes a novice (Margot Robbie, both left) under his wing in Focus.
Will Smith plays a con man who takes a novice (Margot Robbie, both left) under his wing in Focus.PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, SONY PICTURES

After learning the hard way that he is not always box-office gold, Will Smith now has a new Focus and that is having fun at work

Six years ago, Will Smith was named Forbes magazine's Most Bankable Star In Hollywood, the rapper-turned-actor beating the likes of actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie with his ability to generate box-office receipts.

In 2013, the performer with the Midas touch would come crashing down to earth when a movie he produced and starred in became one of the year's biggest flops.

Looking back on it now, the 46-year-old admits the failure of his science-fiction flick After Earth - the biggest bomb of his career - was nothing short of "emotionally devastating".

He fully expected the film, directed by 1999 The Sixth Sense's M. Night Shyamalan and co-starring Smith's son Jaden, to do as well as his previous sci-fi blockbusters, which included Independence Day (1996), the Men In Black trilogy (1997-2012) and Hancock (2008).

The last of these capped an unprecedented hot streak for an American actor, marking the eighth consecutive Smith film to gross more than US$100 million at the United States box office.

"It's, like, that's Big Willie weekend, you know? I smash at the box office, I'm No. 1, US$100 million - we start there," says the actor.

Instead, critics and moviegoers alike gave After Earth the thumbs-down and it earned just US$60 million (S$81.6 million) in the US despite costing US$120 million to make (although it did go on to do well overseas, with another US$183 million in takings).

"For that to happen, to realise that, oh shoot, I could lose - it was really emotionally difficult for me," says Smith, who had also enjoyed success with smaller dramatic films such as the biopics Ali (2001) and The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006), both earning him Oscar nominations for Best Actor.

As the actor promotes his new film Focus, his first lead role since the After Earth fiasco, he says his approach to work is different now.

"I had to back up for a second and say, 'Wait a minute, I'm allowing myself to be defined by what other people think of my movies'," he tells Life! and other press in Los Angeles.

His new film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, was the first project in which he got to put his new philosophy into practice, he says.

The story casts him as an unflappable con man who gets more than he bargains for when he takes on an attractive young protege, played by Margot Robbie from The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013).

"Focus was the first film I made where I actually approached it saying this is purely about fun, I'm going to have fun, I don't care if it's No. 1 or 10, I cannot allow myself to be defined by the success or failure of my movies.

"So it was hugely liberating for me to come to this movie (and treat it as) strictly about having fun and shifting from goal orientation - which made me crazy for a lot of years - to path orientation," he says, explaining he is now all about "enjoying this moment and not worrying about tomorrow because we don't really have too much control over that".

If there is any After Earth angst left, Smith is not showing it today, bounding into the Focus press conference like an over-caffeinated puppy.

"Morning, everyone! Whooo! Starting the day! I'm excited that it's a good day, I'm happy," he says, his booming voice and guffaw filling the hotel ballroom.

He and co-stars Robbie and Gerald McCraney say they had a blast making the movie, a light-hearted caper filmed in locations from New Orleans to Buenos Aires.

Under the tutelage of Mr Apollo Robbins, a sleight-of-hand artist and self-described "gentleman thief", the cast had to learn how to pick pockets, which Smith reports was at once thrilling and terrifying.

"I was in Vegas with Apollo and he said, 'I'm gonna need you to walk into that store and steal something. We'll give it back, but I need you to see what it feels like.'

"I said, 'Dude, look at me - everybody knows who I am.' He said, 'Wear a mask.' And I was like, 'You want a six-foot-two black dude to put on a mask and walk into a store? Yeah, no, it's just different for black people'," Smith recalls, laughing.

He strikes a more serious note when the question-and-answer session turns to the subject of how he feels about his career right now.

Without going into specifics, he hints that he is at something of a crossroads both here and in his personal life.

"I'm feeling myself making a shift and, really, a transition in my life and it'll start to reflect more in my artistry," says Smith, who has switched gears before, starting out as one half of the Grammy- winning rap and hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in the 1980s and then becoming an actor with the popular television show The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990-1996).

As he continues to develop his acting career, he now looks for projects that chime with where he is in his personal life.

Focus "just hit me at a great point in my life" because of its exploration of the idea of being

"vulnerable and authentic", as his con-man character has to learn how to do it even though he deceives people for a living. "I always want a parallel between my work and what's going on in my life and the concept of vulnerability and authenticity was at the forefront in my life.

"And then I read Focus and thought it was a genius way to talk about the absolute necessity of authenticity and openness to creating an environment for love. So for this character to have that struggle was perfect for me," says Smith, who is married to actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, mother of Jaden, 16, and daughter Willow, 14. He also has a 22-year-old son, Trey, from his first marriage.

This latest film also touches on the father-son relationship, a subject close to Smith's heart.

"The father-and-son element seems to be a theme for me," says the actor, who appeared with Jaden in After Earth and The Pursuit Of Happyness, and with Trey in the music video for his 1998 song, Just The Two Of Us. "I don't look for that, but I tend to be really attracted to projects that have a father-and-son component."

Whatever direction his acting career now takes, Smith says he will always care about how he does at the box office, even though he has learnt not to take it so personally when it does not go well.

"I'm much more concerned about how people are reacting to the material than any awards group.

"When people work hard and get their money on Friday night, they're going to decide where they spend their money and, for me, that is much larger than any (acting) award could be. That's a greater vote of confidence and artistic connection than an award could ever be."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Focus opens in Singapore tomorrow.