Will Smith is no stranger to playing real-life characters. "I have played Ali—Muhammad Ali in Ali. I played Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness and now Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion," Smith remarks. He admits the experience of playing a real person is "terrifying." He reluctantly jokes, "cause you know one day you're going to be sitting in a movie theater with the person as they watch you butcher their life." However, Smith acknowledges that portraying genuine people does play into his "strong suits." For Smith’s latest film, Concussion, which hits theaters Christmas Day, he steps into the shoes of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a role that Smith admits has "a certain weight that stays with [you]".
To prepare for the role Smith studied Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian American forensic pathologist who is credited with taking on the National Football League by addressing the impact of concussions on American football players. After seeing similar signs, the doctor discovers chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE-a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma found in numerous players). Smith explains, "I met Bennet, his friends, his family. We sat and talked for hours. I rode in his car with him and listened to the music he listens to." He even observed him at work, "I watched him completely dismantle multiple human bodies." Smith remarks, "watching Bennet doing an autopsy, I think was the most powerful insight [to him]. There is music playing and [he] refers to them as his patients."
Smith admits the weight of the role has stayed with him emotionally:
"In terms of shaking off the role, it was heavy. We were shooting in Pittsburgh so every day the family members of the deceased players would be there. So we were really immersed into the emotional weight of what was going on. It took me a while. "I think there was one day—it was a Friday, and I had seen three autopsies and I just wanted to keep going, because I knew it was something that Bennet would do every day.
So I think it was 2 o’clock or something like that, and we called and the morgue said sorry there are no [more] bodies and [so] you guys can come in on Monday morning. But by 8 am on Saturday morning, they had 3 bodies and there [we] were at 2 pm on Friday afternoon, they had no idea that their autopsies were going to be done at 8 am. You remember it was this 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. It took a very heavy toll on me."
Smith shares that the role of Bennet has forever changed his views on football. "My son is a football player and so as a parent I had no idea that this was even an issue." Given what Smith knows now he admits, "there was that fear [which] came in."
Smith also recalls meeting people who have been directly connected with Bennet's story. "Two weeks ago I met Junior Seau's daughter (Linebacker Seau suffered from CTE before committing suicide in 2012) for the first time and she was with the mother of the youngest high school player who committed suicide because of CTE." He confesses, "so there is a weight when you do something like this."
Smith also talked about the game of football itself and how making Concussion has impacted his viewing of it:
"I think it is beautiful; you can’t unseen the beauty. I haven’t watched a game this season. I am not avoiding it...but [I] can’t see the repetitive sub-concussive blows. Once you know it's there it like one of those—magic eyes (once you see it, you can’t help but see it). So now when I am seeing it [a football game], I am now seeing not just the big hits— it is the things that are happening off the ball. You know the running back goes by, but the guy behind him falls and his head hits another guy's knee. Now seeing all of those things makes it much more of an elaborate sport for me...it also makes me respect the guys that much more. It definitely does change the game forever when you have an understanding scientifically what happens when a brain collides with a human skull."
Smith is quick to point out that this movie is much more than a football story or an attack on football. "There are a couple of things in this film that I feel are [powerful], which have [very little if] anything to do with football. I think there are ideas in this film about the truth," he says. "One of the things that was really interesting in talking to Bennet about, is he never gets his head around how not knowing was better than knowing." Smith concedes the film tackles the issue of knowing the truth, "there are ideas around the difficulty and the pain of saying and hearing what is real."
Smith wants audiences to know that the film is much more than a story about truth, the NFL and its players, or even one man's journey to take on a major corporation in this David and Goliath film. Smith embraces the film's message of what it means to be an American and acknowledges life's ironies. He shares that the film is about, "Doctor 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 and...the courage to keep going." He describes, these are the "concepts around the American dream [and] the ideals that have built this country."
Concussion opens in theaters December 25, 2015.
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