Will Smith opened up about the co-star who wouldn’t speak to him on the set of “Emancipation” and how connected to his character, Peter, he became during filming.
Smith was joined by his three children — Trey, Willow and Jaden Smith — for Wednesday’s episode of “Red Table Talk.” Jada Pinkett Smith and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris were absent from the episode, and Will Smith hosted.
During the conversation, Smith shared a video message filmed by his co-star Ben Foster. The actor revealed the first day on set he first “felt” Smith before seeing him. Foster, who plays slave catcher Jim Fassel in the film, said Smith was “vibrating” on set.
“In my mind, I was giving my best Will Smith, and Ben just walked past me and didn’t say anything,” Smith recalled of the same moment. “And I was like, ‘Oh he must not have seen me.’ And then for six months, he didn’t speak to me.
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“He didn’t make eye contact with me. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t acknowledge me for six months. But what he did that first day, I was like, ‘Yup. Got it. We’re not playing. This is real. This is serious. We’re not fooling around with these ideas.’ And I really credit Ben for clicking me into the next gear of depth and focus.”
Smith then touched on the moment Foster decided to introduce himself.
“He never came over to the monitor ever,” Smith said. “He comes to the monitor, he watches the shot, and Antoine said, ‘I’m happy. We got it.’ And then I look over at Ben. It’s his last day. He says, ‘Nice to meet you. Ben.'”
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Elsewhere in the episode, Smith talked about transforming into the character of Peter. “Emancipation” tells the story of Peter Smith, an enslaved man who fled a Louisiana plantation in the 1860s.
“I was getting called the N-word a hundred times a day by very good actors — by very, very good actors,” Smith recalled. “It’s rough. It twists your mind up. You have to be really careful because you definitely twist your mind up.”
The “Gemini Man” actor also revealed the moment he really connected with his character.
“There’s like a magic moment as an actor that you look for,” Smith explained. “The best way I can describe it is like you feel the character wash over you. It’ll be wardrobe. It’ll be a scene. It’ll be the dialect, something. What happened was we were trying on the neck chains .”
The episode cut to behind-the-scenes footage of Smith in the wardrobe when he was talking about putting the neck chains on.
“He goes to take it off, and it doesn’t work. So, it’s locked on and my heart jumps. And I’m like, ‘Oh no. Oh no.’ So I’m sitting there, and he’s running around looking for the keys. And for 15 minutes I’m stuck there in the chain and my heart is pounding.
“I’m like, ‘Will, don’t freak.’ And I’m sitting there, and then it’s like, ‘I got it.’ It’s like, I’m Will Smith with people running around looking for keys and my heart is still pounding, and I’m still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have that stuff on, barefoot, and nobody cared.”
Smith said the moment left him “embarrassed.”
“I haven’t been able to articulate why, but I felt embarrassed. I was embarrassed while I was standing there, and I was waiting. It was emasculating, dehumanizing, all of that, and I was like ‘Got it.'”
“Six Degrees of Separation” is the only other film where Smith said he “got lost” and “went too far” as an actor.
“I wouldn’t say I went ‘too far’ with Peter. I just lost track of how far I went. I got twisted up in there a little bit.”
The actor went on to explain what he meant by going “too far” with a character.
“You go into a state. And when you go that one click too far, Will Smith disappears. And then what happens psychologically, you go farther and farther into Peter, and you don’t realize that ‘you’ are slipping away. And then it’s over, and you go back and you look for you and you’re gone.”
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Smith said it was hard to explain before making another attempt.
“You play these characters, and when you play them long enough it’s like moving to another country and speaking another language,” he added. “If you speak the other language long enough, you’ll start to lose your native tongue. You can forget how you walk, your previous personality, and, you know, you can see when actors get out on that edge — when you touch that edge of no self.
“It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying out there. Peter is as far as I’ve ever been with a character, and you have to actually train yourself to be able to go farther and farther and farther.”
Smith noted that being on that “edge” while filming a scene is “blissful.”
“Emancipation” is Smith’s first film since the 2022 Oscars controversy. The film hit theaters Dec. 9.
The actor was banned from attending any Academy Awards for the next 10 years after slapping Chris Rock while the comedian was presenting an award during the ceremony.
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Smith won the Oscar for best actor for his role in “King Richard” despite his behavior.