Will Smith: ‘I’ve only lost an Oscar to other black actors’

After his nomination for best actor in King Richard, the actor reflects on his career

Will Smith was just opening his eyes "bright and early" on Tuesday in Wyoming, the US, where he was speaking at a business conference, when his phone began buzzing. This year's Oscar nominations had just been announced.

"It was like, uh oh, wait, let me Google myself and see what happened," Smith said in a phone interview later that afternoon. "But it was just a beautiful, pleasant surprise."

Smith was nominated for best actor for his role as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard. It's the third time around for the actor, now 53, who was also up for Ali in 2002 and The Pursuit of Happyness in 2007.

The actor said that for a long time he secretly feared that he would never make anything as good as The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of a man trying to hold his family together in the face of homelessness.

“I thought I had reached my artistic pinnacle,” he said. “So for the world to respond to this film and in this way energizes me as an artist. I’m just wildly inspired to create and even to to be able to tell stories like this,” a sports drama.

King Richard chronicles the journey and triumph of an ambitious father who's determined to turn his daughters into tennis champs. The film also stars Aunjanue Ellis, who received her first Oscar nomination in the best supporting actress category for her performance as Oracene Price, the Williams family matriarch. All told, the film picked up six nominations, including one for best picture.

If Smith wins, this will be the first time he takes home an Oscar after more than 30 years in the business as one of Hollywood’s top stars.

In a phone interview, Smith discussed the nominations for King Richard, working with director Reinaldo Marcus Green and the special way he plans to celebrate this recognition. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Hey, Will! How's it going?

A: All is in divine order. How are you?

Q: I'm great and congratulations!

A: Thank you, thank you. That was a little head-spinning.

Q: What was exactly? The nomination?

A: Six! I've had films that have had box office success and I've been nominated twice before, but this is like a lovefest for the film, the entire cast, the crew. That's definitely a little bit of a new world.

Q: What are your thoughts on the other five nominations that King Richard received, especially on Aunjanue Ellis receiving her first?

A: We spent so much time together and became friends, and I just know how hard she's worked and my heart was yearning for her to be honoured. Her work was so subtle in this film. It's the type of exquisite and extraordinary performance that can be overlooked. So I was ecstatic that she got honoured. And then just for Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family. For Richard Williams, he has been wildly misunderstood for so many years. I love that the world is standing up and acknowledging their story, acknowledging their family.

Q: This is the third time you've been nominated for an Oscar in the best actor category and for playing another real-life figure. How does that feel?

A: This one is really different. It's one thing to be singularly nominated. And it's another thing when it's the entire group, the film. It's just a different thing. This could have been a much smaller story. But the audience recognising the universal gifts and power of the ideas in this film, it is beautifully uplifting and inspiring for me.

Q: Can you share some thoughts about the other films that were recognised by the academy this morning? Any that you've seen and are rooting for, obviously apart from your own?

A: I just heard that Denzel, with this nomination, became the most nominated black actor in history. So as soon as we hang up, I'm going to post about that. [Denzel Washington on Tuesday earned his 10th Oscar nomination, for The Tragedy of Macbeth.]

Q: Speaking of Denzel Washington, I also understand that 2002 marked the first time that two black actors were competing for the best actor award. Washington won that year for Training Day, and now it's 20 years later and you guys are back here again. How does that feel?

A: You know it's funny, I don't think I've ever talked about this. So those two times I was nominated before, I've only ever lost to black actors. I lost once to Denzel and the next was Forest Whitaker. So it's funny, Jada [Pinkett Smith, his wife] and I were talking about the inclusion and all that [the issue of the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees over the years] and I was like, "I've only ever lost to black actors!" [laughs].

Q: Have you spoken to the film's director?

A: Yeah we spoke this morning. He is so calm and sweet. I was like, "Dude, your movie's nominated for best picture, you got a bunch of your actors nominated. You can laugh a little bit if you want." He's just so humble and happy for others. And what I love about him is like he's never reaching for himself. And even on set, that's part of the beauty of what he was able to create.

Q: You've had a big and busy past year, with the premiere of King Richard, publishing your memoir, Will, last autumn, your new Disney+ documentary about the planet and the new adaptation of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air next month. And now with this recognition, how do you plan on celebrating all of this?

A: We celebrate by creating the next thing. We live in celebration of the fact that we get to do this for a living. It's like every single day is the celebration of the gift to live and work. I don't think of it in terms of "grind, grind, grind and celebrate". Like, let's just be thankful for this opportunity, and gratitude is a major part of my belief in how you can create great things, to constantly live in gratitude. I don't feel a necessity to set aside celebration time in that way.

Q: What excites you the most about the award ceremony?

A: I am excited to honour my cast and crew and Venus and Serena. And I will do it in person or in my living room if Covid demands. But I am excited and ready to hand out flowers to my people. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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