Will Smith has one of the most carefully managed images in Hollywood. There is never a hair out of place, a rumor that won’t get squashed with atomic efficiency, a factoid that gets to the press that Smith didn’t want to get to the press — the way Smith has built his public persona is actually one of the greatest works of self-actualization we’ve ever seen.
When he decided he wanted to escape The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and be a movie star, he and his manager, James Lassiter, looked at the highest-grossing films ever and proceeded to moneyball his career. As he told Time magazine back in 2007:
“We looked at (the list) and said, O.K., what are the patterns? We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.”
He’s made bad movies and good, blockbusters and, well, less than blockbusters. But he followed that plan and became the biggest movie star in the world: Big Willie Styles, King of the Fourth of July.
When his son, Jaden, decided that he too wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, Will built movies for him. First, 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Jaden simply had to play his father’s son and occasionally summon puppy eyes. Then came The Karate Kid remake in 2010 (which was still called The Karate Kid even though the action was set in China and the martial art was kung fu — can’t escape the branding). Finally, a big, shiny sci-fi would-be franchise-starter: 2013’s After Earth, which didn’t make enough sense to summarize beyond saying that it’s a boy-vs.-father-vs.-nature movie that was probably maybe about Scientology.
Meanwhile Smith’s daughter, Willow — after dabbling in acting, appearing with dad in I Am Legend and Kit Kittridge: All-American Girl — decided she wanted to be a pop star. And so 2010’s “Whip My Hair” dropped and went platinum.
Will Smith did what Will Smith does: Make a plan and execute with flawless efficiency.
Except that Jaden and Willow are 16 and 14, respectively — teenagers, and teenagers will occasionally do stupid shit. Like do an interview with T: The New York Times Magazine, to promote their new albums, and say things like this:
I’m curious about your experience of time. Do you feel like life is moving really quickly? Is your music one way to sort of turn it over and reflect on it?
WILLOW: I mean, time for me, I can make it go slow or fast, however I please, and that’s how I know it doesn’t exist.
JADEN: It’s proven that how time moves for you depends on where you are in the universe. It’s relative to beings and other places. But on the level of being here on earth, if you are aware in a moment, one second can last a year. And if you are unaware, your whole childhood, your whole life can pass by in six seconds. But it’s also such a thing that you can get lost in.
WILLOW: Because living.
You mentioned breathing earlier, and it’s also an idea that recurs in your songs.
WILLOW: Breathing is meditation; life is a meditation. You have to breathe in order to live, so breathing is how you get in touch with the sacred space of your heart.
JADEN: When babies are born, their soft spots bump: It has, like, a heartbeat in it. That’s because energy is coming through their body, up and down.
WILLOW: Prana energy.
JADEN: It’s prana energy because they still breathe through their stomach. They remember. Babies remember.
WILLOW: When they’re in the stomach, they’re so aware, putting all their bones together, putting all their ligaments together. But they’re shocked by this harsh world.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with teenagers wrestling with larger philosophical issues. That is what they’re supposed to do. We’ve all sat in some shitbox car at 2:00 am with a buddy and whatever illicit substance we were able to get our hands are and pondered our places in the universe. Where you run through whatever fragments of Deep Thought you’ve encountered and try to force some sense from it: “What is free will? What if the Earth is just a marble in a giant cosmic bag of marbles? What if she/he never calls?”
That’s what being a teenager is for.
But not in public. Not for the world to see. Not from children who’ve been raised by the Yoda of image-burnishing.
Hell, for all I know, this was another carefully managed play – how better for teens like this to show they’re breaking free from their nigh-omnipotent father than to come across as new-age dingbats? Is this all an act of market-savvy rebellion?
If so, and a round of applause if they are, they could’ve made themselves seem…smarter.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He is thinking of moneyballing lunch: fries from McDonalds, burger from In-N-Out, shake from White Castle.