It's been a while since we’ve seen the inimitable Will Smith in a new movie. Now he’s back with a bang — as the Genie in the live-action adaptation of Disney classic, Aladdin. But the 50-year-old is glad he took that break from acting.
“I spent those couple of years really learning and growing and expanding,” notes the Philadelphia-born star, whose breakout role was Nineties sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
“I really feel like I got to the ceiling of what I would be able to have and be and do in my life. My life had reached what my mind and my education and my emotional intelligence could handle so I felt like I had to really retreat for a minute and grow and now I have new ideas and new beliefs and I’m looking forward to creating new experiences.”
One such experience is the magical and vibrant Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie. Playing the famous shape-shifting blue Genie, who’s confined to an oil lamp, came with serious pressure. Especially as, in the original 1992 animation, he was voiced so memorably by the late Robin Williams.
Smith confides it was “deeply stressful and troubling” to think about following in the steps of Williams. The actor, who is married to Jada Pinkett Smith (they have two kids together, Jaden and Willow, while Will also has son Trey from a previous marriage), continues:
What Robin Williams did with the Genie was revolutionary in animation
“Actors didn’t even know you could do that, he introduced an idea and a way to come at these movies.
“So I watched that [the 1992 animation] about four or five times and it was the music that really gave me the in - because of my old school hip hop music background, I felt that I could create a new signature for the Genie.
“What Robin Williams did is essentially infuse the character with his stand-up persona and when I thought about doing the Genie in that way, that got my mind into, ‘Oh, I can just infuse the persona that people have known for the past 20 years into a heightened character and capture a nostalgia, while at the same time creating something new’.”
Smith also found encouragement for the role from Jaden (an actor himself, he’s starred in The Karate Kid and alongside his dad in The Pursuit Of Happyness). After all, there were certain themes that resonated with him thanks to having a 20-year-old son.
“When a film is truly and deeply based on ideas that sit near my heart, that is always helpful,” he suggests.
“The concepts around Aladdin as a character becoming a man, the concepts around the Genie, giving and helping, these are ideas that I’m excited and proud to go around the world promoting.”
Meanwhile, Smith found the variety in the portrayal of the Genie — who he lovingly calls both a “trickster and a mentor” — hugely appealing too.
“This was the first project since ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ that has used so many of the things that I like to do,” he says. “In this film, I get to sing and dance and rap and perform and do comedy and drama, so it was a great opportunity to use myself fully as an artist.”
Aladdin is the latest in a long line of much-loved animated Disney tales to undergo a fresh, modern re-telling for the cinema (next up is July’s The Lion King, featuring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor).