Will Smith, genie: Aladdin was a great opportunity to use myself fully as an artist
The remake of Disney's Aladdin features Will Smith as the larger-than-life Genie. He tells Georgia Humphreys about following in the footsteps of Robin Williams, the vision for the character this time round, plus why he had stepped away from being an actor
IT'S been a while since we've seen the inimitable Will Smith in a new movie. Now he's back with a bang – as the Genie in the live-action adaptation of Disney classic, Aladdin. But the 50-year-old is certainly glad he took that break from acting.
"I spent those couple of years really learning and growing and expanding," says the Philadelphia-born star, whose breakout role was 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
"I really feel like I got to the ceiling of what I would be able to have and be and do in my life.
"My life had reached what my mind and my education and my emotional intelligence could handle so I felt like I had to really retreat for a minute and grow and now I have new ideas and new beliefs and I'm looking forward to creating new experiences."
One such experience is the magical and vibrant Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie. Set in the fictional city of Agrabah, the titular character, played by Mena Massoud, is a lovable street rat who believes he is destined for greater things than making a living from petty thievery.
Then, he falls in love with the Sultan's daughter, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who also has big dreams – of a life beyond the palace walls and away from her overprotective father. And the Genie ends up being particularly key to them having a future together...
Playing the famous shape-shifting blue entity, who's confined to an oil lamp, came with serious pressure, especially as, in the original 1992 animation, he was voiced so memorably by the late comedian and actor Robin Williams, who took his own life in 2014, aged 63.
Smith says "it was deeply stressful and troubling" at first to think about following in the steps of Williams, known for Mrs Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam.
"What Robin Williams did with the Genie was revolutionary in animation," continues the actor, who is married to Jada Pinkett Smith (they have two kids together, Jaden and Willow, while Will also has son Trey from a previous marriage).
"Actors didn't even know you could do that – he introduced an idea and a way to come at these movies. So I watched [the 1992 animation] about four or five times and it was the music that really gave me the in – because of my old-school hip-hop music background, I felt that I could create a new signature for the Genie.
"What Robin Williams did is essentially infuse the character with his stand-up persona and when I thought about doing the Genie in that way, that got my mind into, 'Oh, I can just infuse the persona that people have known for the past 20 years into a heightened character and capture a nostalgia, while at the same time creating something new'."
Smith, whose previous big film roles include I Am Legend, Independence Day and the Men In Black series, also found encouragement for the role from Jaden (an actor himself, he's starred in The Karate Kid and alongside his dad in The Pursuit Of Happyness). After all, there were certain themes that resonated with him thanks to having a 20-year-old son.
"When a film is truly and deeply based on ideas that sit near my heart, that is always helpful," he suggests. "The concepts around Aladdin as a character becoming a man, the concepts around the Genie, giving and helping, these are ideas that I'm excited and proud to go around the world promoting."
It can't go unmentioned how diverse a cast Aladdin has. And that's definitely something Smith's young co-star, Canadian actor Massoud, is proud of.
"The diversity in this film, the ethnic representation, it's just beautiful," says the 27-year-old actor, who was born in Cairo. "I think, unlike other films in Hollywood, we're representing a lot of different ethnicities and diverse actors in this, not just one group, so it's just a beautiful thing. And we honestly all love each other and get along and it was just such a magical experience."
Massoud learnt a very impressive range of new skills from being on set. "It was like going back to theatre school all over again to be honest with you," he quips.
"I had an incredible time in theatre school learning all sorts of things – we did clown work and mask and musical theatre and all sorts of things. And for this it was like, alright, we're going to do that again, but now I'm going to learn parkour and boxing and scuba diving and camel riding and all sorts of things."
Meanwhile, Smith found the variety in the portrayal of the Genie – who he calls both a "trickster and a mentor" – hugely appealing too.
"This was the first project since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that has used so many of the things that I like to do," he says. "In this film, I get to sing and dance and rap and perform and do comedy and drama, so it was a great opportunity to use myself fully as an artist."
Aladdin is the latest in a long line of much-loved animated Disney tales to undergo a fresh, modern re-telling for the cinema (next up is July's The Lion King, featuring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor).
For Massoud, and surely other members of the Aladdin cast too, it was important when filming the remake to not think too much about it being a "big deal".
"It was about removing the name Aladdin, the name Disney, from the process and putting my whole self into the role," the actor recalls, when asked about his approach to the role.
"I just wanted to look at what the character was all about. His journey, his quest for personal identity, falling in love, just the big themes that we wanted to focus on. So I wanted to remove any of the labels that come with it."
:: Aladdin is in cinemas now.