From Academy Award winning filmmaker Ang Lee, and with a screenplay by David Benioff and Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, the innovative and ground-breaking action-thriller Gemini Man follows Henry Brogan (Will Smith), the undisputedly best assassin in the world, who suddenly finds himself being hunted by a mysterious young operative that seems to be able to predict his every move. While the fight takes him from Georgia to the streets of Cartagena and Budapest, Henry knows he must get through to the 23-year-old Junior (also Smith), if he’s going to survive the assassin that’s trying to assassinate him.
During a conference at the film’s Los Angeles press day, mega movie star Will Smith spoke about what interested him in this project, the challenges in bringing the younger version of himself to life, separating his performance as Henry from his performance as Junior, going back through his filmography with Ang Lee in order to figure out the approach for this film, shooting in a higher frame rate (the film was shot at 120 frames per second, as opposed to the standard 24 frames per second), how he felt about the finished look of the fully CGI character of Junior, his own thoughts on cloning, the sci-fi movie that made a big impression on him growing him, how he’s looking to approach his career at this stage of his life, and whether he’d give any advice to his own 23-year-old self.
Question: So much has been made of the technology in this and how it breaks ground and boundaries, which it absolutely does, but it also has to have a great script is the thing. When you read this, what made you want to do it?
WILL SMITH: I loved the philosophical idea that we all plant the seeds of our own destruction, and we are our own worst enemy. We make choices and we make decisions in our lives that set things in motion, that we can’t blame other people for, and that the battle with trying to overcome our karma. I just thought it was a really clever and creative way to say that we are the architects of our ultimate rise or fall, and to be able to do that, in this way. It’s a big part of why I love science fiction. You can put those things under really wild visual landscapes.
What were the biggest challenges in bringing the younger version of yourself to life?
SMITH: I think people don’t completely understand the depth of what they attempted and accomplished here. Junior is not de-aging. It’s not my face, and then they smoothed out my face to make it look younger. It’s a 100% digital human, in the same way that the tiger in Life of Pi, was digital. They used a real tiger to understand the movement, but in the movie, when you’re seeing the tiger, you’re seeing a 100% digital recreation of a tiger. This is not me, de-aged. It’s a 100% digital interpretation of me, as a digital character. It’s the first digital human. It’s actually a spectacular thing, to be able to make people feel emotion, in that way, capturing the youthful eyes. That’s the thing for me that was so amazing, and was the hardest part. You can’t fake innocence. As a young actor, it’s easier to play older, but older, it’s difficult to impossible to play younger. Once you know some stuff, it’s in your eyes. It’s in your cells, once you know some stuff. Once you’ve had sex, you walk different. It’s in your back. So, they’re job, in the creating of a digital human, was to be able to sell that innocence and that youth, and I think they’ve done spectacular work.
How did you do this double performance, every day?
SMITH: What Ang did that was really great was that he understood how to create circumstances for me to achieve the psychological and emotional space that he was looking for. Ang was really good about separating Henry from Junior, in the scheduling. I’d get lathered up into Henry, and if the shift was too abrupt, it was hard to get my mind around it. He did a really great job of separating the time between Henry and Junior, so that I could separate one mind-set from the other.
How did you make sure to separate your performance as Henry from your performance as Junior?
SMITH: What was really great that Ang did was that, before we even met, he had gone through all of my filmography and he grabbed things. He grabbed scenes from Fresh Prince, Six Degrees of Separation, Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black, and he walked me through moments. He’s say, “I love very much what you have done in this moment here, in Six Degrees of Separation. In Bad Boys, this one was good, but don’t ever do this in my movie. So, we created a language of my old characters and the moments of what he was trying to capture. It’s funny, before you learn how to act, there’s a powerful thing that you have from not knowing, and it’s really difficult to recapture that, that not knowing. We found these really honest moments in some of my early work. Of all the things, that was the most difficult part. It almost felt like learning how to do some bad acting because there’s an honesty, before you actually learn where the light is, you learn how to stand and you, and you learn what makes people clap for movie stars in the theater. Letting go of all of that stuff was really difficult.
One of the high points of the film, action-wise, is the bike chase where you’re following Henry, in one long sequence. What were the challenges in pulling off that scene?
SMITH: Because everyone is watching the Junior character, people don’t actually realize there are full digital old Henry shots in the film, also. There are moments when there are full-frame, close-up digital shots of old Henry. That’s when you can really tell that it works, when people aren’t thinking about it.
How does the higher frame rate change things?
SMITH: It’s so clear. It responds the way that reality responds to your eye, which makes it a much more realistic experience. It’s so crystal clear that the actors couldn’t wear make-up because when the camera comes in, you could see make-up on our faces. I had to drink a lot of water. You couldn’t afford a break-out.
When you finally saw the finished character of Junior, what went through your mind?
SMITH: It was really crazy. The first time I saw, it was chilling, almost. It was a little scary. The first one I saw, and one of my favorite shots in the whole movie, was when Henry flips Junior over in the catacombs, and then puts the light up to Junior’s face. That was one of the first completed shots that I saw, it was a little bit surreal and weird, but then I started getting excited about all of the possibilities, like the young Will Smith and young Marlon Brando movie that could get made while I’m at home, which would be great. It’s a full 23-year-old digital version of myself, and my mind just started to go wild about what you’d be able to do. Normally you do an action sequence and you can’t actually punch somebody in the face. Now, what they’re able to do with this technology is that you do the scene and you do the swing, and then they take the face and actually put it on the face of the digital character, and bend the face and roll the sweat, and all of that. So, when you’re seeing those shots now, where you’re used to seeing misses with sound and blur, now you’re seeing full shots, in the same way you’d see it in MMA. It was a really great new way to be able to do the action. You do all of these different variations, where the stunt men can do full takes and the actors can do full takes, and then they’re able to make the most visceral version of it, when they get all of those assets. So, in terms of action, I’m really excited about the use of this technology, in the future.
How do you think the way that each version of Henry was raised really shaped them into who they are in the film?
SMITH: That was one of the major discussions that we had, in terms of nature versus nurture, and if you’re genetically identical, how much does your life experience affect the things that you say and do and feel. We were trying to draw as big a difference as possible, between the characters. Henry grew up in a brutal household and he had a tougher upbringing, whereas Junior had the perfect upbringing with Clive Owen’s character. In Clive’s character’s pursuit of the perfect human, he was trying to lay out the perfect experience for a young Junior, so it was all of the right schools, he was only allowed to read the right books, and he was only allowed to experience the best of what the nurturing aspects of a home should be. In drawing those distinctions, it was interesting that it still came down to two men who had taken these gifts that they had, and still turned them into things that were going to create nightmares that were going to create a horrible end to this experience.
Was it fun to go through your filmography with Ang Lee, as he analyzed your performances?
SMITH: No, it was no fun, at all, with Ang Lee, up on the edge of his chair, watching everything you’ve ever done and breaking down every moment. I would say that was fun. But in terms of it being a film school environment, it was fantastic. I grew, as an actor and as a human, for the time that I was able to spend with such an incredible artist as Ang Lee.
When you clone or recreate someone, you have the opportunity to not grieve any longer and to not lose the person that you love. How would you feel, if that became a possible reality?
SMITH: I think we all have the human quest to overcome our pain. We’re all trying to figure out how to eliminate suffering from our lives. There was an interesting phrase that I heard, the other day, that was “poisoned honey.” We reach for poisoned honey a lot, in order to overcome our pain and suffering. When I think about cloning, and we talked about it a lot on this movie, it’s one of those scientific reaches where we’ve already gone down the road, and I’m sure there are absolutely things that have happened in cloning that we don’t know about yet, but are gonna find out about. My opinion is that cloning will ultimately pan out to be poisoned honey. It will be a reach that will potentially come back to bite humanity, in a way that we’ve probably not considered fully.
In today’s movie-going climate with franchises, is a movie like Gemini Man the underdog?
SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely, in this new world, it’s a whole lot safer, from a financial standpoint, to make a part three of something than it is to do something brand new, from the ground up. That’s what we were all excited about with this. We wanted to push the envelope to give people a new reason to go to movie theaters to see something that you can’t see at home.
As someone who’s been in some big sci-fi films, is there a big sci-fi movie that made an impression on you, growing up?
SMITH: Star Wars was the movie, when I was growing up, where I was absolutely stunned. After Star Wars ended, I couldn’t believe that they could make me feel like that, with a story and with these characters. Career wise, the things that I’ve been chasing are Star Wars and Thriller. Those are the two pieces of entertainment that I’ve always been hoping to make something like, that matches for others how I felt, when I experienced those.
Have you come to a point where you’ve started thinking about the next stage in your career and what you’d like to do next?
SMITH: I could be jumping off of building into my hundreds. No, more than just a transition in roles, I turned 51 last week and I’m experiences a transition in my life. More than ever, I’m seeing my role in the world as a role of service. In my younger days, it was ambition. I wanted to win. I wanted to put points on the board. Now, I’m growing into a position in my life where the main question that I ask myself, before I do anything is, how is this of service to the human family. So, with that prism, I’ll be making more and more decisions in my life. I love science fiction. I love filmmaking. Everything that I do is conscious and thought out, in some justifiable service to the human family.
Do you have any advice for your 23-year-old self?
SMITH: My younger self was wildly and insanely aggressive. At 23 years old, I was naive, ambitious and aggressive, and there’s a power to naivete. There’s a power that I’m actually trying to get back in my life, right now. So, I would be asking my 23-year-old for advice. He made some good decisions. I would have done it that way, but he made some good calls. Just in the last couple of years, I’ve been feeling trapped by the success that I’ve had. The decisions and choices I’ve been able to make have been smaller, trying to protect Will Smith. So, on my 50th birthday, I jumped out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, trying to get back to that youthful, fearless space. So, I would be interviewing him, more than trying to give him advice.
Gemini Man opens in theaters on October 11th.