Making of a legend

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2007, 12:00am

As an in-demand Hollywood actor and a caring father, Will Smith rarely has a quiet moment by himself. But in I Am Legend, the star plays the sole survivor in New York City after a man-made virus wipes out most of the world's population.

'During the making of I Am Legend I was forced to be alone - my family stayed in Los Angeles for most of the shooting - and it was the most amount of time I had ever been by myself,' says Smith, who was in Hong Kong recently to promote the science fiction movie, which opened yesterday.

Smith's character, Robert Neville, is a virologist who talks to himself, his dog and mannequins while trying to find a cure for the virus that either kills or turns its victims into nocturnal cannibalistic mutants.

It is perhaps Smith's darkest and most difficult performance to date. Without a strong co-star - such as Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black franchise or Eva Mendes in Hitch - Smith carries the movie alone. He gives emotional depth to an apocalyptic movie about the instinctive human fear of loneliness and the dark.

Smith says finding universal themes is his way of striking a chord with audiences. 'Most people are influenced by ideas that are pre-programmed,' he says.

'Everybody wants to be able to feed their kids so I have something like The Pursuit of Happyness. It is about a man who wants to feed his child. Everybody gets it. There's no language barrier. That is an idea that is pre-programmed in anybody who has a child.

'I generally try to beat the odds with concepts that are pre-programmed in humanity. The fear of the dark and what will you do if you were the last person on Earth - instantly that [the ideas] connect to people.'

Smith's eagerness to take on all sorts of challenging roles stems from his pursuit of perfection. The star says since his first failed relationship, he has refused to settle for being second best.

'I have never been driven by money. For me, it's always been about being good enough,' he says. 'When I was 15 years old, my first girlfriend cheated on me. I processed that as [me] not being good enough. No one would cheat on you if you are good enough. The only reason someone would cheat on you is because there is someone better. I remember making that click in my mind that I would never not be good enough again.'

That philosophy has sustained Smith through the peaks and troughs of a career that has its fair share of setbacks and disappointments. His 1999 sci-fi western, Wild Wild West, based on the 1960s television series, was a flop. But he bounced back with Ali - about boxer Muhammad Ali - in 2001, for which he was nominated as best actor at the Academy Awards. He was also in the running for the same award with The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006.

'The major thing is not to put too much pressure on one piece of art. You just have to know that you are laying one brick today. One day you will have the Great Wall, but it is not today,' the actor says.

'Today you are just going to lay that one perfect brick. This is the brick of I Am Legend. Some people may say it is just a zombie movie, but it is not standing alone. It is standing next to The Pursuit of Happyness, which is sitting next to Hitch. All I have to say is that you try not to self-destruct based on one reaction to one film in one year.'