Will Smith knows a thing or two about playing a real person on the big screen. He’s done it in Ali, in The Pursuit of Happiness and now in Concussion. The story tells the tale of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist and Nigerian immigrant that forever changed the game of American Football. In 2002, Omalu performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, one of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most famous players. In the years before he died, Webster had struggled with mental illness and fallen into financial ruin.
Omalu asked himself how an apparently healthy, favorite son of Pittsburgh could die in disgrace at 50. His question led to a discovery that rocked the NFL and medicine: a degenerative brain disease associated with repetitive blows to the head called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The script for the movie Concussion landed in the hands of actor Will Smith. But Smith's first reaction was to repel the story. The actor described his inner battle with loving football the way he did and the fact football may actually be physically damaging to the long-term health of the mind. In New York we talked with Smith about the movie and his passion for Spanish Culture as he confessed that he travels to Spain every time he has a chance.
Q: Before we talk about your movie Concussion I would like to know where did you learn to speak Spanish?
WS: In Los Angeles, talking to people. Traveling to Spain where I do have many friends. Little by little I’ve being learning and I’m not afraid of talking or making mistakes, but I’m conscious of my terrible accent.
Q: Have you being many times in Spain?
WS: Many, yes. Spain is one of my favorites countries in the world, I do have a wonderful time every time I go.
Q: What do you like to do there?
WS: Walk around, listen to music, eat the food, is fantastic. The people is really fun to be around
Q: Have you read in Spanish?
WS: I’m not that good. I can’t read in Spanish, but I do read Spanish authors as Lorca o Garcia Marquez
Q: Mr. Smith, this is not the first time you played a living American hero. I’d like to know how your preparation as an actor differs when you’re playing someone who’s completely fictional versus a real man
WS: So I played Ali, Muhammad Ali in Ali. I played Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness and now Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion. And for me, it really plays into my strong suits when I can actually talk to the person. It’s much more terrifying – the end product – because you know one day you’re going to be sitting in a movie theatre with the person while they watch you butcher their life. So it’s terrifying in that sense, but in terms of preparation, to be able to sit and talk and feel – I mean, I met Bennet’s family, I met his friends, we sat, we talked for hours. I rode in his car with him and listened to the music he listened to and his daughter called. So all of the different aspects. I watched him completely dismantle multiple human bodies. Watching Bennet do an autopsy, I think was the most powerful insight. There’s music playing and he refers to them as his patients. And the idea of being a threshold guardian who is delivering souls from this world to the next and just how seriously he takes that job, not only on a scientific level but on a spiritual level, that it’s a spiritual responsibility to deliver these souls to the other side. And once I got hooked into that almost paradoxical nature of science and spirituality, it deeply opened the wellspring to the inner truth of Bennet.
Q: How was that for you, trying to capture the deepness of his faith and his convictions to push so powerfully ahead with everything?
WS: My grandmother was really my connection to God. She was my spiritual teacher and she was that grandmother at the church, so she was the one that had the kids doing the Easter recitations and she was putting on the Christmas play and her kids and grandkids had to be first. So she was the most spiritually certain person that I have ever met in my life, even to the point that when she was dying, she was happy. Like she was really excited about going to heaven, you know? And so I had a deep, profound, emotional comprehension of that level of spirituality and I connected a lot of those things also with Bennet. And I feel that with Bennet, the scientific part was the new addition, you know? ‘Cause my grandmother wasn’t a woman of science. She was a woman of the spirituality and the bible. And then for Bennet to connect that part of it was the new addition that was interesting and a little bit more difficult to reconcile for me. But the spirituality was deeply and easily comprehensible for me.
Q: What do you want the viewers to take away from your movie this time?
WS: You know, there are a couple of things in this film that I think are powerfully relevant, few of which have anything to do with football. I think that there are ideas in this film about the truth and one of the things that was really interesting in talking to Bennet about it, he never could get his head around how not knowing was better than knowing. And it was such a difficult thing. And even when we talked about it, how people didn’t want to know. How can you not want to know the truth? And as we got into this, I realized it’s not just the not wanting to know the truth; it’s people don’t want to tell the truth either – that we all have an issue around the truth and knowing. And in this film, there are ideas about the difficulty and the pain of saying and hearing what is real. So there’s ideas around that. Concepts around the American dream, the ideals that have built this country. Dr. Omalu being an immigrant coming into this country and the irony of having to be the person who discovers the brain disease that the players get in America’s favorite game. You know, the irony of that and then the courage to keep going. I think that there’s a beautiful mirror for America in this film. And then, at the end of the day, I hope people can be inspired, you know, more than the film being broccoli and chicken breasts, you know. I hope that people can actually take the inspiration. I want people to feel good about it and be inspired when they go out into the world and deal with their – hopefully not as aggressive, but be able to deal with their smaller situations and issues around the truth and ideals and love and family.
Q: How did you shake this movie out of your system?
WS: In terms of shaking off the role, it was heavy, you know? We were shooting in Pittsburgh, so every day, the family members of some of the deceased players would be there. For example, even the slides that were made for Mike Webster, and in the film there’s a woman making the slides – it’s the actual woman who did the slides for Mike Webster. So we were really immersed into just the emotional weight of what was going on. You know, it took me a while. You know, my son was a football player, so as a parent, I had no idea that this was even an issue. So my son played for four years and it was never even a question. So that fear came in. You know, autopsies – a series of autopsies and having to really confront mortality. I think there was one day, it was a Friday, and I had seen three autopsies and I just wanted to keep going ‘cause I knew it was something that Bennet would do every day, so I wanted it to be natural for me. So I think it was two o’clock or something like that and we called and the morgue said, “I’m sorry. There’s no bodies.” And they said, “You guys can come on Monday morning.” But by eight a.m. on Saturday morning, they had three bodies. And there were people at two o’clock on Friday afternoon that had no idea that their autopsies were going to be done at eight a.m. And you remember it was the girl and she had a cover on her arm that she had just gotten a tattoo. It was a fresh tattoo, you know. And it was just that constant barrage of the reality of the fragility of humanity – you know, it took a very heavy toll on me. So it took me probably three or four months to really just shake it off completely where you’re not dreaming and images aren’t popping and all of that. But there’s a certain weight that stays with it. Two weeks ago, I met Junior Seau’s daughter for the first time. And she was with the mother of the youngest high school player that committed suicide because of CTE. So, you know, there’s a weight when you do something like this as an actor, in particular, because you’re going into it emotionally. You’re not doing it intellectually. There’s a part of it that’s always going to stay with you.
Q: Will, you talked about being a parent and kind of feeling a sense of obligation to do this film. And your son played football. So how do you feel now, after all of this, about football as a parent?
WS: You know, I think it’s beautiful, you know? You can’t unsee the beauty. So, for me, I haven’t watched a game this season. I’m not avoiding it, I’ve been walking by in an airport or something like that and see plays. But you can’t not see the repetitive sub-concussive blows. Like once you know, it’s like one of those things like a puzzle, where you look at it and you try to find something and you can’t see it, can’t see it. And then as soon as you see, you cannot see it, you know? What’s it called?
Q: Magic Eye.
WS: Magic Eye. Magic Eye. See? She’s so smart. So now when I’m seeing it, I’m seeing it’s not just the big hits. It’s the things that are happening off of the ball. It’s the running back goes by, but behind him a guy falls and his head hits another guy’s knee, right? So now seeing all of those things, it’s double-sided. It makes it a much more elaborate sport for me now, right? So I’m seeing so many more things than I ever saw and it also makes me respect the guys that much more. But it definitely does change the game forever when you have an understanding of scientifically what happens when a brain collides with a human skull.
Q: The game is going to change?
WS: But it has to change with the players. The players have to take in the information and then they have to play the games differently. One of things that Bennet said that was interesting – I never thought of it that way – is you actually don’t want a helmet that makes you think you can slam your head into someone. And Bennet was saying that because the equipment is so much better, it gives the illusion that you’re protecting your brain. You’re actually protecting your skull, but you’re actually putting yourself in a position where you could potentially do more damage to your brain because the helmet is so good.
Q: What the solution would be?
WS: And I’ve gotten many, many calls from players. I was actually really surprised by how many players want to see the movie and I was asked, you know, what is it? And the compilation of the information – a lot of the players that I’ve spoken to were feeling like this was the most complete compilation of the information that they had seen. So I was inspired to be helpful in that way, even though I was somewhat surprised that they felt the need to see a movie for this level of important information.