The sexy crime dramedy Focus, from writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.), follows Nicky (Will Smith), a seasoned master of misdirection, and his long-time crew. When he meets novice con artist Jess (Margot Robbie), he finds her to be a very quick study of the tricks of the trade, and before he knows it, they’re both in too deep, knocking the consummate con man off of his game.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie talked about how everything is about perception over reality, faking confidence, the powers of manipulation, doing such sexy scenes together, working in the extremely passionate location of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the fine line between being a con artist and being an actor, their instant chemistry, and why this film is really a love story at its core. Smith also talked about how the box office failure of After Earth made him change the way he thinks about each project now, and Robbie talked about what attracted her to the role of Harley Quinn in the upcoming Suicide Squad, in which Smith will play Deadshot.
WILL SMITH: For me, the huge take-away from this film is how everything is perception and how reality almost does not matter, at all. When you’re talking to a person, it only matters what they are perceiving. You only need them to perceive you as a loving husband. You don’t necessarily need to be one. That’s always a good road, if you actually are one. But what people are perceiving will dictate what their life is, and ultimately what your interaction is.
Will, when you walk into a room, you own it, and when you’re on stage, it’s all yours. Have you always been so confident?
SMITH: I think it’s the opposite. When I was doing Ali, he would say, “I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest!” And when we talked, he said it was because of how much like the greatest he didn’t feel. It was almost a mantra for himself, and that’s a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve-wracking for me, sometimes, to walk into a new space. My experience is, if I just let myself go, it’s a whole lot easier, rather than letting all those things come in. I just like to leap.
As a little kid, did you ever do anything really bad?
SMITH: Oh, I did some stuff. There just wasn’t no Twitter back then.
What sort of stuff did you do?
SMITH: I’ve always been a jokester. The things I got in trouble for, when I was little, was always about making a joke or setting up a prank or being silly when I should be paying attention. But, it was very different with Focus. I’m so glad that I didn’t know these things then. I’m really glad that I didn’t know some of these things when I was young. I think my general disposition on life is finding what’s funny about it. When something happens, the first thing in my mind is, “What’s funny about it?” It’s a little bit different when you can have the powers of manipulation.
Margot, what was your experience like, on this film, surrounded by all of these guys?
MARGOT ROBBIE: I had a great time. I seem to keep doing films that are like a boy’s club, and I’m the only girl. But, it was fun rolling with these guys. They’ve been really great. It’s like I inherited a bunch of older brothers. They all took me under their wing and were really wonderful. I had a great time.
Will, you can be very funny and do dramatic roles, but we don’t get to see you do sexy that often, and we see you do sexy in this film. How was that change for you?
SMITH: I think that I’m coming into a different time, in my career. I’ve always been the goofy kid. Growing up, I always enjoyed the comedic aspect of relating to women. Even on camera, it was always the funny take on it. This is one of the first times, in my career, where it was full-on, steamy, grown man-ness, and emotion. It’s funny because it’s actually an uncomfortable space for me. I’m having to settle into that. My natural instinct is that, when you set a moment, in that way, and it’s really serious, that’s the perfect time for the joke. So, to be constantly pulled away from that, and to just live in the seriousness and the sexiness of a moment, was a little uncomfortable for me.
ROBBIE: It was awful. It’s a tough job, but at the end of the day, someone’s got to do it. No. It was great. Will made it very, very easy.
How was your experience working in Buenos Aires, Argentina?
ROBBIE: We found that everyone in Buenos Aires was extremely passionate. They were exceptionally excited to see Will, so the first day of shooting was a little tricky. There was like a wall of people.
SMITH: I had never been to Argentina. That was my first time. It was passionate. That’s a good word. People were very, very passionate and energized.
ROBBIE: There is such a vibrancy about that city, and we just had the best time. It was such an infectious energy. I hope it seeped into the scenes a little bit because we were definitely feeling it.
What was it like to shoot the big 55 scene?
SMITH: I think that Super Bowl scene is probably going to end up being the signature scene of this movie, and it’s just so clever. We say the word con, but it’s so far beyond a con. It is a deep and powerful perception of how the human mind works. It’s human behavior. Those ideas are just so intriguing and exciting. And as an actor, you’re playing one scene, but then there’s another scene, that’s the real scene, that’s actually going on. And beneath that, the audience is getting played, at the same time.
ROBBIE: It’s perception. There are layers and layers. It’s hard to keep your head straight.
SMITH: It’s an honor to be in a scene like that.
What’s the craziest thing that either of you have ever bet on?
ROBBIE: We played poker, and I won ten pumpkins off of Will. I didn’t know how to play, and Will taught me how to play poker.
ROBBIE: I just kept winning.
SMITH: I was like, “How’s your firsthand of poker a full house?!” It was ridiculous! I couldn’t win a hand, and it was really frustrating. She was like, “So, wait, if you have four [of a kind], is that better than three?” I was like, “Yeah, your four is better than my three.”
Is there a fine line between being a con artist and being an actor?
ROBBIE: I think it really does go hand-in-hand with acting, sometimes. There’s a lot of that emotional manipulation, and that’s precisely what we do to try to evoke an emotion out of the audience members and make them emotionally invest in something. That just raises the stakes and people care so much more, all of a sudden.
SMITH: Part of what was exciting for me about taking on this role is how everybody is running a con. We choose our clothes. We do our hair. Everyone wants to be perceived a certain way, to gain the things that they have decided are the things that they want in their life. And at the center of this film, there’s the idea that lying and loving don’t go together. Until we are willing to actually show that we have warts and show that we’re scared, and until we’re willing to let it all go and be authentic, you actually can’t have the very thing that you’re doing it for, which is the love and connection with other human beings. So, for me, that’s what was so exciting. Everything is a con.
SMITH: Yeah, it was pretty instantaneous. We were in New York, and Margot had flown in from Croatia, so it was a pretty long flight and her luggage was lost. She only had the clothes in her backpack.
ROBBIE: Which were actually wet clothes. I’d been swimming, right before getting the call. It was six in the morning and I’d been swimming when I got the call saying, “You need to be doing an audition with Will Smith tomorrow in New York, so your flight’s booked for tonight.” And I was like, “Tonight?! Oh, my god!” I asked the lady at the hostel I was staying at, “How do I get off this island? I need to go to the mainland.” She was like, “Oh, there’s only one boat a day, and it leaves in 20 minutes.” I was like, “Oh, my god!,” and grabbed all my stuff. I probably left half of it in the hostel. I raced and got a catamaran, and then got a bus and got another bus, and got to the airport. I waited eight hours, and then I went to France. And then, I went to New York. By the time I got to New York, I’d not slept for well over two days. They had lost my luggage and my audition was about seven hours away. So, I walked into the audition in wet sneakers and denim shorts and a pajama shirt, which was the only dry thing I had before they lost my luggage. I was like, “I cannot meet Will Smith in my pajama shirt.” So, I went to Top Shop and grabbed this top and then walked in. I looked horrendous.
ROBBIE: And Will was late. I’d come from Croatia, but Will was late.
SMITH: Because there was traffic coming from Queens. But, it was fantastic.
ROBBIE: I called him a dick.
SMITH: Yeah, she ad-libbed, which was fantastic.
ROBBIE: We even put it in the movie. It was great.
SMITH: That was the actual moment. That’s when I knew. We were ad-libbing. I’ll go off the script, every once in a while, which is a big test. If you go off of the script, you’ll see what kind of person will go with you. So, in the middle of the audition, I went off script. And she ad-libbed back, “Oh, you’re such a dick!” It was absolute complete fearlessness and complete comfort.
ROBBIE: It was fun!
Would you agree that, even with all of this wonderful deception and conning, there are many levels of love in this film and that it’s really a love story?
ROBBIE: Absolutely! John [Requa] and Glenn [Ficarra] always said, from the beginning, that at the core of it, it was a love story, and what they do best is tell love stories. I think it’s pretty amazing that we didn’t lose that, with all the heists and things that were happening around it. That was the most important part of the story.
Have you ever tried to pull this kind of thing off, in a real-life scenario? Have you ever tried to convince somebody that you’re someone else?
ROBBIE: I started working on a TV show in Australia, straight out of high school, so I missed the whole university experience. So, I would just go to all the university parties with all my friends, and if anyone was like, “Do I know you?,” I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m studying here.” They’d be like, “Studying what?” I’d say, “Marine biology.” I would just pick a new student that I would be, every time I went to these university events, so I didn’t feel like I missed out on the university experience. It was fun.
Will, what do you feel you have riding on Focus, particularly after what happened with After Earth?
SMITH: For me, this film really marks a transition in my life, emotionally and in my career. After the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind. I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m still alive. Actually, I still am me, even though the movie didn’t open at number one. Wait, I can still get hired on another movie.” In my mind, my entire, Mr. July, Big Willie Weekend, number one for eight in a row all collapsed, and I realized that I still was a good person. So, when I went into Focus, I completely released the concept of goal orientation and got into path orientation, with this moment, this second, these people, this interaction. It is a huge relief for me to not care whether or not Focus is number one or number ten at the box office. I’ve already gained everything that I could possibly have hoped for, from meeting the people that I met and from the creation of what we did together. It’s just painting. I’m going to paint. Some paintings are going to be fantastic, others are going to be not so good, but I no longer measure the quality of myself on whether or not somebody else thinks what I painted is beautiful.
Margot, what attracted you to playing Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad?
ROBBIE: There are a lot of layers to the character. And then, there’s the idea of playing a supervillain. Playing a bad guy is always more fun than playing the good guy. I’m looking forward to that.
Focus opens in theaters on February 27th.