Will Smith: 'I had to slow down and enjoy that I'm still able to do this'

Bad Boys: Ride or Die star discusses fourth film in long-running franchise and how it uses comedy to tackle ageing, anxiety and spirituality

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Will Smith has never been one to stop and smell the roses. Since the beginning of his career, his only focus has been on the next step.

That’s what turned him into one of the world’s few truly cross-cultural superstars. And that’s also why he loves coming to the UAE.

Smith put plainly at a press conference in 2016: “Dubai dreams the way I dream.”

Ambition may have got him here but, at 55, his priorities have changed. Returning to Dubai for the premiere of Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the fourth entry in his long-running franchise alongside co-star and friend Martin Lawrence, Smith is no longer thinking about what’s next. Now, he’s counting his blessings.

“One of the best things Martin said to me on this movie is, ‘Slow down. Settle. Be here, be now. Enjoy the grace of what we’re experiencing, and that we’re still even able to do this',” he tells The National.

“I've always said Dubai and Miami are my two favourite cities on Earth. To be able to shoot a film in Miami and then premiere it in Dubai is double heaven for me.”

Despite his many plans for the future, Smith could have never envisioned that a buddy cop action film he made in his mid-20s would become such a key part of his legacy. But Bad Boys, released in 1995, might be his most universally loved film.

“We didn’t even realise it at the time, but back then, we were in the middle of our wildest dreams,” says Smith. “And that’s why we had to slow down this time.

“It’s a really rare situation to be able to still star in a franchise 30 years after the first one. Usually, at our age, you make a cameo while a pair of newer younger stars have taken over the reins. To still be at the centre of it, when this one is potentially the biggest one of all, is a real privilege."

Part of taking stock now is accepting the bad and the good. Getting older has its perks, but it comes with complications. And rather than pretend they don’t exist, Smith and his 59-year-old co-star Lawrence deliberately lean into the realities of ageing in the new film.

“We wanted the characters to stay age-appropriate so we could play with some of the things that were really happening with our bodies,” says Smith.

That was not just about having these two brash Miami cops run a little slower. Early on, Lawrence’s character, Marcus Burnett, has a brush with death, which causes him to have a spiritual awakening. Smith’s character, Mike Lowrey, meanwhile, begins to have panic attacks when he also begins to confront his own mortality. “For the first time in his life, Mike Lowrey is scared,” Smith says.

In recent years, Smith has been forced to confront his fears in his personal life. Whether in his memoir, Will, published in 2021, or his many vlogs on social media, Smith has been honest about his mental health struggles, and his efforts to overcome them.

It’s not a coincidence that Smith has let his character be more vulnerable after the actor got in touch with his own vulnerabilities, he acknowledges. But he quickly pivots to a positive theme – the film’s spirituality.

Smith explains the series has become more spiritual as a direct result of his search within himself, and the conversations he and Lawrence have had about their own mortality. “I love that the spiritual awakening is at the centre of the film. That is really close to the ideas that Martin and I were thinking and the things we were experiencing in our real lives,” Smith explains. “We then had to figure out how to turn that into character experiences.”

The result is a comedy film that reaches for something more. In accepting the realities of ageing in Ride or Die, the Bad Boys franchise has added an ingredient it never had before: poignancy.

That poignancy was inevitable, because it's how the pair felt behind the scenes, as their own personal relationship deepened.

"There's a parallel growth between ourselves and the characters. You don't realise it when you're 25, but one day you look up one day and you've known somebody for 30 years. Part of the joy of this is witnessing each other's lives. We witness in each other and in these characters the expansion, the growth, the ups, the downs. That has been beautiful," says Smith.

Lawrence has learnt a lot from Smith over the years, as well.

"Will says so many things," Lawrence says. "He's just smart. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. Can't pinpoint one exact thing that he says me, but it's been good. Whatever it's been. He's been able to help me, whatever he's told me."

That doesn't mean, of course, that this isn't a comedy first and foremost. At the end of the day, if the film doesn't bring the laughs, then it's a failure, according to Smith. That's especially due to the fact that if the film is funny enough, they can explore more or less whatever they want.

Smith says: "Funny is the elixir. As long as it's funny, we can get away with anything. If it's only kind of funny, that's what you get caught.

"The world is difficult right now, in general. We wanted to make sure that the movie was a really pure comedy that people could escape in and have some fun, feel good and cheer. We push the envelope, but not too hard."

And Smith’s excitement in the end has him, once again, focused on the future – both in his own life, and for the franchise, pending the latest instalment's success. “[We want to do part] five, but I’ll let you know after opening weekend,” Smith laughs.

Nasser Al Maskri contributed reporting to this story

Updated: June 06, 2024, 11:16 AM