Will Smith was knee deep in alligator infested swamp every day for 'Emancipation': 'This was the hardest film of my career'

For the movie premiere, Will Smith walks the red carpet with wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and his three children (Trey, Jaden and Willow) in Los Angeles, California. Photo: AFP

More than eight months after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on the Oscar stage and entered Hollywood purgatory, the 54-year-old resurfaces with a starring role in new film Emancipation.

This is his first major release since winning the Best Actor award for King Richard.

In an exclusive online group interview StarLifestyle participated in, Smith spoke of the relationship between suffering and redemption.

He came to the realisation of this while portraying a God-fearing slave named Peter in the film.

“Peter understood the power of his suffering as a rung on the ladder of his salvation. And he embraced and willingly accepted his plight, which is a different kind of idea,” said Smith.

“During filming, I was just filled with the idea of the acceptance of your plight; the bearing of your cross willingly.

“You know, I was raised in a Baptist household and I went to a Catholic school. So, I’m well-versed with the story of Christ.

“But that concept of willingly accepting – where you trust God so much, that whatever is in your life, it’s a benefit – that was actually new for me. That you are fortunate to have your suffering.”

Describing Peter as a spiritual warrior, Smith said he admires Peter’s mentality and “emotional invincibility to sustain any and all things that he experienced in the material world”.

“Peter was free in his mind. His body was enslaved, but his mind was completely free. And the ability of your mind to overcome any external circumstance ... that became a North Star for me, in my life,” the actor said.

Will Smith describes his character in 'Emancipation' as a spiritual warrior. Photo: HandoutWill Smith describes his character in 'Emancipation' as a spiritual warrior. Photo: Handout

Set during the United States’ Civil War, the movie tells the story of an enslaved man making a daring escape to reunite with his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and children after hearing whispers that US President Abraham Lincoln has proclaimed that all slaves shall be free.

To gain that freedom, the upright Peter makes his way through perilous swamp using his wits and by gaining strength from his faith and deep love for his family.

However, a ruthless and racist hunter (Ben Foster) is on his tail with the intent to kill rather than lose his “property”.

The story is inspired by a real man known as “Whipped Peter” whose 1863 photo of his mutilated bare back became an enduring image of the horrors of slavery.

Smith, who started his acting career in 1990, said that he’s avoided doing a movie about slavery because he didn’t want to “depict Black people in that way”.

But he changed his mind once he read Emancipation’s screenplay.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this isn’t a slavery movie. This is a freedom movie’. And Peter was a different kind of human in that he tapped into something in his heart and mind that I felt was something everyone on the planet needed, at a minimum, to ponder,” Smith said.

Director Antoine Fuqua (left) with and actor Will Smith on the set of the film. Photo: HandoutDirector Antoine Fuqua (left) with and actor Will Smith on the set of the film. Photo: Handout

The period action thriller, reportedly produced with a US$120mil (RM528mil) budget, was filmed in 2021.

It turned out to be a gruelling shoot, not only of the detailed sequences planned and the expansive camerawork, but also because there were cases of Covid-19 on set, as well as a hurricane and a tornado.

“Without question, this was the hardest film of my career,” Smith said in the production notes.

“It was searing hot, a hurricane tore down our sets, I was in the swamp every day.

“But when you’re telling a true story like this, there’s a huge energy you get from the meaningful purpose of sharing an incredible human life with others.”

Director Fuqua confirmed his star’s dedication, stating in the notes that Smith went beyond what he would ever expect from any actor.

“Will gave his whole self over to Peter. He told me that he always tried to never judge and just be in the moment. Anything I asked him to do, he did. He ran into the swamp with alligators, he climbed trees.

“You might think he’d use a double, but he did it himself. The story was that important to him,” the 56-year-old filmmaker said.

In our interview, Smith shared one of the unique experiences he had filming in the swamp, which was shot in the US state of Louisiana.

“I guess one of the most challenging was being up to your neck in a swamp and hearing them scream ‘Cut! Cut! Get Will out! Get Will out! There is a gator! There is a gator!’

“You don’t hear that often as an actor,” he shared with a laugh.

Emancipation is available on Apple TV+.

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