The actor discusses the character, working with his son, and why he feels this film is his best work

To say that Will Smith is a versatile actor would be like saying Bill Gates is good at programming. From his breakout performance in Six Degrees of Separation, to starring roles in action films like Independence Day, to contemplative performances in Michael Mann's Ali, this rapper turned actor has become one of our greatest stars. In his newest film, The Pursuit of Happyness Smith stretches himself even further.

In the moving drama The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is a marginally employed salesman and a single father, struggling with the mother (Thandie Newton) of his five-year-old son (Jaden Smith). When they are evicted from their apartment, Gardner finds himself alone with his son in San Francisco and no place to go. Even when Gardner lands an intern position at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, it pays no money. Forced to live in shelters, enduring many hardships as he goes through their program, Chris refuses to let this dampen his spirits as he pursues his dream of security for himself and his son.

Tell us about the character you play in this film?

Will Smith: I have played a lot of heroic characters. I'm obsessive so I study things and I've studied ad nauseam, the Heroes Journey... to understand what that journey is. To be able to play those bigger than life characters. And with all of that I've never played a more heroic character that Chris Gardner.

Can you talk about what the themes in the movie?

Will Smith: The power of the experience and the power of the win and the American Dream, all of that connective tissue and the actual dream of humanity that everyone carries of being able to become... I've never been involved with a project that is more inspiring.

You're giving your fans something different with this film...

Will Smith: This is really the first time in my career where I'm looking at thematic throughlines, in the work that I've chosen. Why I like something and why I want to be a part of it... the idea that I'm connecting to the line in my work is the ability of the individual to design your destiny.

What made you want to do The Pursuit of Happyness?

Will Smith: I've always been attracted to characters with insurmountable odds and obstacles, because innately, however inarticulately I've always believed that my dreams and my desires can command and bend time and space to be the things that I want them to be. On a very natural, on a very human level, Chris Gardner displays that same ability.

Was there a transformation process to become this character?

Will Smith: You get to a point with a character where you start and you're saying "him" and "he." There's a certain point where you are totally entrenched and there's the first time you slip, and you say "I" or "me." Once you slip and say "I" or "me" you never want to go back the other way. It wasn't something intentional I was trying to do with the character, that's just where I needed to keep my mind during the downtime, in order to not slip or not feel a necessity to resort to the "Will Smith go to emotional moves."

What was it like working with your son Jaden?

Will Smith: It was a great working experience, for me, 10-12 hours a day to have your son there and he gets to watch you at your best. The thing that I know the most about the thing that I've done most in my life, and he wants to do it.

What would tell people that maybe expect a different kind of movie from you, so they might be reticent about seeing this film?

Will Smith: You have to see this movie because it's a powerful, wonderful story about a father and son and the necessity to commit to one another no matter what. I think it's beautiful, great for the Holidays, a wonderful American story and I think it's the best work I've ever done.

The Pursuit of Happyness opens in theaters everywhere December 15 from Columbia Pictures.

Evan Jacobs