Last Updated: 2:08 PM, May 20, 2012
Posted: 9:37 PM, May 19, 2012
In your world, two plus two equals four. In Will Smith’s world, “Two plus two is gonna be what I want it to be,” as he once told TV host Tavis Smiley.
Whoa. Hold up, Big Willie. Let us take a moment to get jiggy with that math. What are we to make of a man who believes so strongly in his own power that he suggests something as inviolate as arithmetic is under his control? Is this a case of extreme optimism — or extreme narcissism?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world, and it’s impossible to say if that status gave him a belief in his own power, or if that belief in his own power earned him that status.
Now 43, Smith has been absent from movie screens since 2008’s “Seven Pounds,” a relative eternity for a star as big as he is. He finally returns Friday in “Men in Black 3,” reprising his role as Agent J, who must time travel back to 1969 to prevent Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), from being assassinated.
The movie comes at a decisive moment in Smith’s career, thanks to his long hiatus and the faltering of his two previous films, “Hancock” and “Seven Pounds.” Those movies made loads of cash but were bashed by critics, breaking a run of commercial and critical successes running back to his Oscar-nominated role in 2001’s “Ali.” (We’ll just ignore “Wild, Wild West.”)
During the past four years, the star has also seen his golden image dinged by rare p.r. gaffes involving the way he handles his kids’ careers, his apparent ties to Scientology and his ginormous double-decker on-set dressing room.
Smith, though, already has a process for solving thorny problems. “Make a choice — from that point on, the universe is gonna get out of your way. It’s water,” Smith told Smiley. “I believe I can create whatever I want to create.”
What the famously hard-working Smith desperately wants to create now is a universe in which he remains the top draw in Hollywood.
First step: Choose a sure thing. After “Seven Pounds,” Smith was deciding whether to shoot “MIB3” or “The City That Sailed,” an original fantasy script about a piece of America breaking off and floating in the ocean. Not surprisingly, he chose the safe sequel.
“He hasn’t done a movie since ‘Seven Pounds,’ so I think there’s a big, big ‘want to see’ [factor],” says producer Todd Black, who worked with Smith on “Seven Pounds” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” “And to make a comeback in a big, populist movie like this is really smart. It goes right to the sweet spot of his audience.”
Next step: Use your massive influence and power to mold projects to your liking and avoid any possible missteps.
“When things are going his way, Will’s fine,” a Hollywood executive who asked for anonymity tells The Post. “But he always wants to be involved in every element of the movie, even when he has little experience in that field. He gives ‘suggestions’ to casting directors, and everyone’s too scared to tell him to back off. He can be a nice guy, but he definitely believes his own hype.”
Smith demands and receives huge amounts of control over his scripts. When your movies earn billions of dollars worldwide, you’ll get that perk, too. However, handing over so much control to a star can lead to conflict, as it did on “Men in Black 3.”
It was Smith who originally came up with the time-travel premise for the film more than a decade ago, while he and director Barry Sonnenfeld were shooting “Men in Black 2.” Etan Cohen, screenwriter of “Tropic Thunder,” was hired to write the script, but his work was retooled by others over the years.
Fast-forward to fall 2010 when Sony, the studio, desperate to claim expiring New York tax credits, rushed the film into production despite an unfinished script. As shooting on the first act moved along, Smith reportedly began to voice concerns about the second and third acts, and their time-travel plotlines. Sonnenfeld has said that he’d wake up at night worrying over potential plot holes.
The studio ordered rewrites, and the production was put on hiatus that winter, at first until February 2011, then to March. Smith had his own writer, Mike Soccio, a friend from his “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” days, chopping away at the script, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The writers who had been hired by the studio were unaware of Soccio’s tinkering.
Script doctoring aside, “Men in Black 3” is set to be a big hit, according to industry tracking numbers, especially in the increasingly important foreign markets. And a winner at the box office should go a long way to making the public forget — just like the “MIB” Nerualyzer gadget — of the rare dings Smith has taken in recent years.
In March 2010, Smith shut down wife Jada Pinkett-Smith’s TNT show “HawthoRNe” for eight days because, according to one set snitch, he was “inserting his input and requesting so many changes to the script that it pushed back the production schedule and caused everything to spiral out of control.”
A year later, the show was canceled.
Then there’s Smith’s family and the growing sense that he is a rabid stage dad one step removed from “Toddlers and Tiaras.” During his four-year hiatus from movies, Smith helped launch careers for his two youngest children, Jaden, now 13, and Willow, 11. He produced 2010’s “The Karate Kid,” starring Jaden, and father and son will appear together in the M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi film “After Earth,” due next year. Willow released her first single, “Whip My Hair,” in 2010. She also acts sporadically. Jada famously said in an interview that she and her husband set out to build a “family business.”
“Waiting To Exhale” author Terry McMillan lashed out at the family on Twitter, writing, “The Smith children act like child stars. There’s an arrogance in their demeanor and behavior. I find it incredibly sad. It feels like the Smith children are being pimped and exploited. What about fourth grade?”
Willow, for one, seems to regret her stardom. “If I could change one thing about my life, I wouldn’t be famous,” she said last week on Web series “Red Table Talk.”
And then there are the Scientology rumors. Perhaps going along with his belief that he can remake the world, Smith turned to the education system in 2008, opening a California private school that employs Study Technology, a teaching method created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Smith admits that he’s talked about Scientology with friend Tom Cruise, but he and Jada deny they belong to the church, despite donating tens of thousands to organizations affiliated with the group. One industry insider tells The Post that a 2007 party the Smiths and Cruises threw for David and Victoria Beckham was filled with high-ranking Scientologists, and the most senior member got ample face time with Smith.
Smith’s once-thriving pop career has also cooled, and the rapper hasn’t had a hit since 2005’s “Switch.” Despite recording theme songs for both of the previous “MIB” films, he declined to put his stamp on this one. The job went to Pitbull instead.
Still, audiences are unlikely to care about any of this behind-the-scenes drama. Dollars are the only ballots that matter in Hollywood, and Smith has proven himself electable on nearly every outing. Even “Seven Pounds” raked in nearly $170 million worldwide.
The Fresh Prince works hard to keep his image burnished. Actors on the NYC set report that Smith, though shadowed by bodyguards, was always friendly and “not a diva.” He even chatted and joked with background players, demonstrating his uncanny charm.
Joe Abbott, a New Jersey actor who worked on the film as an extra, says that he briefly met Smith in 2000 at the opening of the “Men in Black” ride at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. Abbott shook his hand and jokingly asked if Smith “was getting jiggy with it.” That’s it. One five-second encounter.
A decade later, on the Brooklyn set of “MIB3,” Abbot walked past Smith during a break. The star stopped, turned and said, “Hey, I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
Smith even treated cast and crew to a holiday party in late 2010. “He flew his personal caterer in from LA and had lunch for everyone,” says Jian Leonardo, who played an agent. “It was really classy. There were crab cakes, steaks, nice food. “
Smith did, however, upbraid one extra who surreptitiously tried to film him during a scene. “Will called him out personally. ‘Is that guy filming me?’ ” says Michael Dean, a New York actor who played another agent. “He stopped the whole scene, walked up to the guy and asked him to leave the set. That was interesting, to see him take a role almost as a [production assistant].”
We’ll know in five days whether all of this hard work, meddling and drama has been worth it, and whether Smith can still be considered the world’s biggest star.
If not, well — there’s always Jaden.
Additional reporting by Caroline Hedley.