Smith joined his children Willow, Jaden and Trey Smith as part of a takeover for Facebook Watch’s Red Table Talk on Wednesday to discuss the “grueling and transformative” shoot for director Antoine Fuqua’s slavery-focused drama. Emancipation, which is now streaming on Apple TV+, marks Smith’s first release since he slapped Oscars presenter Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony on March 27.
During the conversation with his family, the star, who won the best actor trophy for King Richard at that ceremony, did not directly mention the Oscars or anything specific to dealing with its fallout. Notably missing from the sit-down were Jada Pinkett Smith — the subject of Rock’s Oscars joke that led Smith to confront the comedian — and her mom, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, who both typically co-host Red Table Talk with Willow Smith.
Over the course of the 35-minute episode, Smith described the difficult emotions he felt while wearing the shackles and chains similar to those worn by slaves in the era depicted in the fact-based film. Emancipation stars Smith as Peter, a slave who escapes to the North and joins the Union Army, and whose scars from a near-fatal whipping are depicted in a photograph that helps strengthen the abolitionist movement.
“Once you’ve experienced those things, they go into the same banks as your actual memories,” he said of wearing chains as Peter. “You don’t have a separate place for acting. Your brain and your body recognizes it the same way it recognizes actual memories. You have nightmares about it the same way, so it’s all of that kind of stuff.”
Smith recalled that his turn as a con artist in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation was “the only other time in my career where I got lost, where I went too far with a character.” He then clarified, “I wouldn’t say I went too far with Peter — I just lost track of how far I went. I got twisted up in there a little bit.”
The actor said that “when you go that one click too far, Will Smith disappears, and then what happens is, psychologically, you go farther and farther into Peter, and you don’t realize that ‘you’ are slipping away, and then it’s over, and you go back, and you look for you, and you’re gone. It’s a hard thing to explain, right? So what happens — you play these characters, and when you play them long enough, it’s like moving to another country and speaking another language. If you speak the other language long enough, you’ll start to lose your native tongue.”
He explained that it can feel “terrifying” to find himself becoming immersed in a character he’s playing: “It’s blissful out there to be in a scene, and you have that moment on camera where you forget, and you’re lost. It’s blissful, except when they say ‘cut,’ and you reach back for you, right? [Pantomimes reaching behind himself and grasping at air.] It’s a weird thing, but I got out there to that terrifying, blissful edge.”
Fuqua previously told Vanity Fair that the Oscars followed a particularly tough Emancipation shoot. “It’s really hard to release a character who’s been brutalized and called the N-word every day — constantly, every day — and still be the nicest person in the world,” the Training Day helmer said at the time. “That, I know. So no excuses for anyone or anything, but I can say that he’s a good man, and I hope that people can forgive him and that we can move forward.”
Smith also recalled in his Red Table Talk conversation that co-star Ben Foster, who plays the man overseeing the slave camp, did not address Smith at all throughout the shoot in order to remain in character.
“Fox six months, he didn’t speak to me,” Smith said. “He didn’t make eye contact with me. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t acknowledge me for six months.” Smith credited his co-star’s focus with setting the tone for the film and added about Foster’s final day on set: “I look over at Ben — it’s his last day — and he says, ‘Nice to meet you, Ben.’”
During an interview with Trevor Noah on an episode of The Daily Show that aired last month, Smith spoke extensively about his infamous Oscars moment, saying that “hurt people hurt people.” He also said, “Trust me, there’s nobody that hates the fact that I’m human more than me. And just finding that space for myself within myself to be human.”