Without any college experience, he was able to start from just a regular student in school to becoming Hollywood’s highest paying actor. Will Smith is not only a person who has great talent and a likeable personality, but he represents what any average person who has a dream is capable of doing and becoming through hard work.
Most people look at Will Smith and see him as an actor. But the truth is when he was young; he had absolutely no experience in acting. He devoted most of his time to rapping. Back then, rapping was considered gangster and an overall bad influence to young people. Being raised by a mom who worked as a school board employee and grandmother who was very moral, Will was a pretty good student. He wanted to change the definition of rap into something more fun and more positive. He was trying to transcend stereotypical rap into something that more people can respect and relate to.
This turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing for him. The good thing was he eventually met a guy named Jeff Townes or “DJ Jazzy Jeff”. DJ Jazzy Jeff had a DJ studio in his basement, and together he and Will would practice rapping in there, then go into parties to rap with other people. Eventually this duo got recognized and become really popular. They came out with recorded single, Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble and it became a big hit. By the time Will was 18, a senior in high school, he was already a millionaire.
In an interview, he laughs and tells the interviewer, “I had a hit single on the radio for thirty days before I graduated from high school… and… that’s dangerous. You don’t want to have a hit single on the radio when you’re in high school.”
His parents noticed his fame and started to get worried. He was a B student but his teachers believed he could get A’s. In addition, he was accepted to MIT on a scholarship because he had high SAT scores. But he had no intention of going to college; he just didn’t want to. He wanted to focus on his rapping instead. This is when his father stepped up and directly told him something that would force Will to make a decision that would change the rest of his life.
“Listen. Just take a year, you have one year. You go do whatever you want to do with this rap music for a year. If it doesn’t pan out to be what you believe that it could be within that year, then you’ll go back to school. Deal?”
Will listened to his dad’s words and made the deal. It was either do well with something he loved and believe in himself, or spend the next years of his life in college. He chose the first option. Within that year, they recorded a single called Parents Just Don’t Understand and it went on to win the first Grammy in history ever given to a rap artist.
At this point, Will was making more money than he knew what to do with it. He spent it like a teenager. One day, he got a call from the IRS. They told Will that he was “evading his taxes”. Will responds that he wasn’t evading them; he “just wasn’t paying them”. This led Will to complete bankruptcy. The IRS would come in and take all his stuff, and he went through about 5 million dollars, and was in huge debt for a teenager.
Not knowing what to do, he moved to Los Angeles to seek out opportunities there. Within 2 weeks, he caught the attention of a man name Quincy Jones, a music mobile icon. Quincy was impressed by Will’s talents and on his birthday, invited Will to his house for a party. The party was filled with NBC producers and Quincy told everyone that they were going to make a sitcom based off of Benny Medina, a music icon who moved from Watts, California, a poor neighborhood to Beverly Hills, California, a wealthy neighborhood. Added with a touch of Will’s funny, hip, sassy, and street-smart personality, Quincy told everyone to prepare for what he thought was going to be the next hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Within 5 weeks, they were on the set and started to shoot for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The crazy thing though was that Will says had no prior experience in acting. He remembers being on the set and asking himself, “Somebody probably should ask me whether or not I can act.”
It didn’t matter though, it was too late. What he lacked in acting experience, he made up for it with hard work.
“You can look at the first six episodes of the Fresh Prince, and I was just so… hell bent on not failing, that I memorized the entire script, and you can see in certain shots, they try to cut around it as much as they can, but I’m mouthing the other actor’s lines.”
The Fresh Prince became a big hit. But Will was still in debt with the IRS. For the first 3 years of the show’s 6 year run, the IRS would take 70% of every one of his paychecks. With the 30% of the paychecks he had left, he had enough money to live in an apartment in Burbank. During these years, he would pay off his debt slowly, until the 3rd year, he would pay off all his debts to the IRS, and be back at $0.
Eventually, after the 4th, 5th, and 6th year, he became more financially stable. He went on to play in one of the most dramatic films of that time, Six Degrees of Separation, where he played a street hustler trying to get into the lives of New York’s intellectual class families. The performance was hailed as extraordinary and one of the year’s best. He then went on to make movie sensations such as Independence Day, the highest grossed movie of that year, and Men in Black, with highly acclaimed actor, Tommy Lee Jones.
Will Smith became who he is today because he hustled, and he hustled hard. This all came from his life experiences. When he was young, his first girlfriend cheated on him, and he kept telling himself that she cheated on him because he wasn’t good enough, that his girlfriend wouldn’t have done that to him he was good enough. This was in high school and that mentality, as silly as it seems, stuck with him for the rest of his life. He told himself that he would never not be good enough again.
Going back further, when he grew up in Philadelphia, his dad owned refrigeration company. One summer, where the other kids are out of school playing, his dad tore down an entire brick wall in front of his business and told 12 year old Will and his 9 year old brother to rebuild it. They said that this job was impossible to do. But his dad didn’t care what they said and told them to get the job done. It took them a year and a half, but Will and his brother did it.
“And he said, ‘Now you don’t ever tell me it’s something that you can’t do.’ And he walked right through that door and went inside, and me and my brother stood there and looked…”
From this experience, he has learned that in life you don’t start out by building a wall. You don’t just go out and say, “I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, and greatest wall that’s ever been built. Instead you say, “I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid, and I’m going to do this every single day, and soon, I’ll have a wall.”
The thing about Will Smith is that most people think he’s talented. He tells people that he’s not particularly talented; where he excels though, is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. When the other person’s sleeping, he’s working. When the other person’s eating, he’s working. This can be seen 12 to 15 months, before he was going to shoot the movie Ali based on history’s greatest boxer of all time – Muhammad Ali. He had to weigh 223 pounds to play the role.
When asked how he got into that kind of physical shape to play Ali, this was his response:
A guy taught me how to box and got me into the conditions, a guy named Darrel Foster. Essentially what we were doing is for probably 12, 13 months before we started shooting, up at 6 AM, we would run 3 miles at 6 AM, we would eat, rest for an hour, and we would go into the boxing gym at around 10:30 or 11, we would watch Ali tape, and then we worked the moves, hit the bags, and then just training as a fighter.
We had a full training camp. Everyone on the film, all the other fighters in the film are true professional fighters, there’s no other actors. And we would train from 11 to 1. At 1 o’clock we would break, we’d have lunch. And from that point then, I would do dialect training from probably about 2 to 2:30 and then I would have Islamic studies 3:30 to 5 o’clock and then 5 o’clock we would go into the weight room.
By the time we were shooting, I was on autopilot. I was Muhammad Ali. There were moments of being tired, being drained, being beaten, feeling defeated. We shot seven cities on two continents. It was grueling. But I knew… that I wasn’t going to stop… until it was perfect.
In the end, Will Smith wanted to be an actor not for the sake of being famous, but for the sake of saying something to the world. He wants to play roles where people say something “can’t be done” and turn it to something that can be done. He wants to not just be another actor, but he wants to be something, somebody. He wants to be that first person who enters the set and the last person to leave. Because he believes that the road to success is through commitment, and through the strength to drive through that commitment where it gets hard. Life is going to get hard and you’re going to want to quit. But in the end, people are going to remember you for the journey of who you are, what you want to be, and how you were able to hustle more than anything in life in order to get there.
“Greatest is not this wonderful, esoteric, illusive Godlike feature that only the special alumnus will only taste. It’s something that truly exists in all of us.”