NEW YORK – In boxing terms, this is the 12th round.
Will Smith has been talking to the press since 9:00 a.m. It's now almost 5:30 p.m, but he's still dancing. Bam-bam-bam. Next! Bring it on.
Questions about racism? He's ready. The sixties? He doesn't wobble. Holiday plans with wife and costar Jada Pinkett Smith? No sucker punch. But ask him about an Oscar and he runs for a neutral corner.
At 32 Smith is confident that he has nailed the role of a lifetime. And his style is graceful, winning and genuine — just like the man he portrays in Ali.
McCuddy: Where are you going to be for Christmas?
Smith: Uh, Christmas? We're going to stay at home. We've rarely stayed in Los Angeles on Christmas. We usually try to find some snow, because we both grew up on the East Coast. But we're going to stay in Los Angeles and try it out this year.
McCuddy: Not going to miss the cold?
Smith: It was pretty cold when we left L.A. (Laughs). No, not at all, we're going to give it a shot and see how it works out.
McCuddy: You had some cold weather when you were shooting this movie.
Smith: Yeah! We were in Chicago. It doesn't get too much colder anywhere in the world than it does in Chicago. It gets really chilly, really windy out there.
McCuddy: What do you want this year? What do you want under the tree?
Smith: Under the tree? Um, well Jada wrapped herself up pretty nice last year. That little funny thing. So, I want what I had last year. (laughs)
McCuddy: Didn't return that.
Smith: (Laughing) Yeah, didn't return that gift.
McCuddy: Tell me about how this role in Ali changed your life.
Smith: Oh man. Just, uh, anytime you go to the limits that Michael Mann and I have gone to, with this film, just physically and emotionally ...
McCuddy: Well let's talk about the emotional part.
McCuddy: You immersed yourself in the '60s.
McCuddy: Were you prouder or more ashamed about what you learned?
Smith: Um, I guess first and foremost I was shocked. You know? You always hear about the "turbulent '60s" but now when people talk about the '60s, it's sort of bronzed in their memories. The '60s was a time of purpose, and ...
McCuddy: Wonderful songs.
Smith: Yeah, yeah wonderful music. And a defining era. And what I realized through Geronimo Degiga, who was formerly Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panthers, Michael Mann called Geronimo in to give me a sense of the '60s. And he said that "War had been declared on Black America." And he said "Fire hoses, dogs, domestic terrorism, bombing ..."
McCuddy: And Will, was that really something that you hadn't been aware of?
Smith: It was, you know you're aware of it, you see the pictures, but when you think about it in terms of "War had been declared," right? If you think about it in terms of there was a war going on, then it becomes really clear about why Muhammad Ali wasn't going to Vietnam. Okay? If he's viewing, we're at war right here in America. I can't fight two wars at one time. I'm fightin' a war right here. I'm not going to go off there so you can sick dogs and spray water hoses on my women and children here. I'm stayin' here. And when this war is over, then we'll talk about another one.
McCuddy: OK, it's that night in March. You've won the Oscar ...
Smith: (Holding his head) Oh geez, c'mon, don't even go there with me (he begins making that gibberish noise to avoid hearing me).
McCuddy: You going to bring Ali up with you?
Smith: Man, listen, (he is shaking his arms all around) I'm ... not ... even ... thinking ... about ... that. (Regaining his composure) If there are any awards to be won, uh, I feel first and foremost it's Michael Mann and Muhammad Ali.
McCuddy: What about these rumors that you are "the greatest" and you're running for president someday?
Smith: (Laughs) Well, you know, what I said was that "I feel that anything that I set my mind to I can, I can do, anything I can conceive, I can achieve." And I truly feel that — especially after this role, after seeing what Muhammad Ali had to go through, and what he was able to stand firm against, and win, a fight against a seemingly unbeatable opponent.
McCuddy: Thanks and happy holidays.
Smith: Happy holidays.
McCuddy: (Offering my biceps for inspection) Hey, I've been working out.
Smith: You've been working out? (Grabbing my biceps and feigning enthusiasm) Ooooooooooh! Wow!
McCuddy: You can act!
Ali opens December 25, 2001.