Will Smith explains how he became Peter for ‘Emancipation’

Want all the “Emancipation” hype without any of the awkward Oscar slap questions that Will Smith is inevitably asked? Then the “Red Table Talk” movie star’s takeover of his family is just what the doctor ordered.

In Smith’s “Red Table Takeover” with kids Trey, Willow and Jaden, which began airing Wednesday on Facebook Watch, it was as if the slap never happened. The meeting began and ended with stories from Smith working on Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV+.

The actor described the moment when he felt that the character of Peter, a man who was enslaved, invaded him. It was the day they were testing the shackles and other chains, and footage was filmed showing Smith with chains around his ankles, wrists and neck.

“They put it on him and I was standing there and he took it off and it didn’t work,” Smith said. “So he’s blocked and my heart jumps. And I’m like, oh no, oh no, oh no. “

He sat there while the crew member who was helping him put on and take off the chains ran around looking for the keys.

“For 15 minutes I am trapped in chains,” continued Smith. “So my heart is pounding and I’m like, ‘Will, don’t freak out.’ And I’m sitting there, and then, it’s like, I’ve got it. ‘I’m Will Smith, with people running looking for keys‘, and my heart is still pounding and I’m still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have those things on, barefoot, and nobody cares.”

Smith was clearly deeply moved by the story of Peter, who in 1863 escaped from a Louisiana farm and ran nearly 80 miles to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the Union Army was stationed. A photo taken of Peter’s scarred back became “the first viral image,” Smith said, after it was published in Harper’s Weekly and also copied and distributed by various abolitionists.

He said that other than when he did “Six Degrees of Separation,” a 1993 release, “Emancipation” was the closest he ever got to “losing himself” in a character.

“I wouldn’t say I went too far with Peter, I just lost count of how far I got. I got a little squirmed there,” Smith said. The danger of going too far with a character, he said, is that when it comes time to go back to being yourself, you’re no longer exactly sure who that self is.

“You go into a state and when you click too far, Will Smith disappears,” he said.

Will Smith also disappeared, in the eyes of co-star Ben Foster.

From day 1 of shooting, the Method Foster actor intentionally did not acknowledge Smith, did not speak to him, did not make eye contact with him, and so it was for the six months they worked together on the film. It wasn’t until Smith and Director Fuqua were at the monitor one day, reviewing the last take of the day, that Foster suddenly approached him.

“He walks up to the monitor and looks at the shot. And Antoine says: ‘I’m happy. We did it.’ I look at Ben. It’s his last day. He says, ‘Nice to meet you, man,’” and then shook Smith’s hand.

The entire table dissolved in laughter. But Smith credited Foster’s demeanor, treating him like he was nothing, pushing him into “the next depth and focus march” on the first day of shooting.

As for all things Will Smith not related to “Emancipation,” the Oscar winner opened up about last year’s slap in the face in late November on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah.

During the 2021 Academy Awards, Smith famously slapped Chris Rock across the face after the comedian made a silly joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. She has battled alopecia, a medical condition that involves hair loss, and after first smiling, Will Smith’s expression darkened and he stood up and did what he did in defense of his wife.

“That was a horrible night, as you can imagine. It has a lot of nuances and complexities, but at the end of the day, I just lost it,” Smith said, occasionally tearing up during the interview. “And I guess what I would say is you never know what someone is going through. … I was going through something that night. Not that that justifies my behavior at all.

Smith mentioned being a child who saw his father hit his mother, and Noah spoke about Smith’s memoirs, in which he described growing up afraid of conflict and afraid of fighting. The host described Smith’s behavior at the Oscars as the actor who stands up for the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“I understand how shocking that was to people… It was a rage that had been bottled up for a long time,” Smith said on the show. “But I understand the pain.”

“Emancipation” is streaming on Apple TV+.

Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *