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Will Smith Grants Trevor Noah His Biggest Post-Slap Interview Yet

GQ [article/slideshow] 11/29/2022 Grant Rindner
Will Smith attends the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. © Courtesy of Emma McIntyre via Getty Images Will Smith attends the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California.

Update 11/29: After a few warm-up interviews in a quick-hit junket setting, on November 28 Smith spoke to Trevor Noah of The Daily Show in his first major TV interview to address the Chris Rock slap. Smith referred to his actions as a “horrific decision,” and reiterated that he wants the other people who worked on Emancipation to not suffer because of his involvement in the film. 

It was a friendly spot to open up: Noah repeatedly mentioned that he and Smith were friends, and called him one of his favorite actors, saying his King Richard Oscar win was “well-deserved.” Noah framed his questioning by first asking Smith about the “journey” he’s been on since the incident. Smith told Noah he learned that “We just gotta be nice to each other, man,” and that he felt like he embodied the old adage, “Hurt people hurt people," alluding to (but not specifying) an emotional reaction he had in the moment. 

“At the end of the day, I just lost it,” he said. “I guess what I would say [is] you just never know what somebody's going through. In the audience right now, you're sitting next to strangers, and somebody's mother died last week. Somebody's child is sick. Somebody just lost their job.” He added, “I was going through something that night…not that that justifies my behavior at all,” and that “The thing that was most painful to me, is I took my hard and made it hard for other people.” He explained that his actions were triggered by “a lot of things. It was the little boy who watched his father beat up his mother. All of that bubbled up in the moment. That's not who I want to be.” He didn't go any further into specifics, saying, “It was a mess. I don't to go too far into it to give people more to misunderstand.”

Noah lent Smith a sympathetic ear, citing negative discussions about the actor that had become pervasive online and which he thought unfair. Smith spoke about returning home that night after the award show, and how his nine-year-old nephew, Dom, asked him, “Why did you hit that man, Uncle Will?” As his voice broke, he joked that Noah was trying to “Oprah” him, by getting an emotional, revealing interview about the slap.

Original story below.

Save for an apology on YouTube in July, Will Smith has largely stayed out of the public eye since the 2022 Academy Awards when he slapped Chris Rock across the face and then won Best Actor. But Smith has a new, serious Apple TV+ movie, Emancipation, coming out in December, and so he’s beginning to make his way back into the limelight, as any Oscar-bait rollout demands.

Emancipation is loosely based on the life of a slave named Gordon (Smith), who escaped bondage in Louisiana and made his way to a Union Army camp, where he ultimately joined the fight for emancipation in the Civil War. His gruesomely scarred back was photographed in 1863 and shared widely by abolitionists to illustrate the horrific brutality of slavery. (The picture is often referred to as being of “Whipped Peter.”)

In a November 28 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Smith spoke contritely about how the negative PR from his slap might affect the release of Emancipation, which already had its release date pushed once after the Oscars controversy, but seems positioned as the kind of weighty period drama that could garner awards consideration.

“The only discomfort my heart has around that is that so many people have done spectacular work on this film,” he said, specifically citing director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), cinematographer Robert Richardson, and his co-stars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa. “I definitely lose a couple winks of sleep every night thinking that I could have potentially penalized my team, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that everyone gets seen in the light that they deserve." This contrition then allowed him to move on and discuss his film.

As part of his punishment for the slap, Smith is barred from attending the Academy Awards for the next decade, though he can still theoretically be nominated and even win. Smith did not dispute the sanctions when they were announced.

The movie will receive a theatrical release on December 2, before being released via Apple TV+ on December 9. Per a 2020 Deadline article, Apple’s purchase of Emancipation at that year’s virtual Cannes was the largest film-festival deal in the industry’s history at the time, and cost the streamer over $100 million.

Puck published an October 30 story that took a skeptical angle to what it dubbed “The Will Smith Image Rehab Tour, Sponsored By Apple.” Their article highlighted a screening of Emancipation for the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus that did not include traditional press, meaning that the ensuing coverage was more about the event itself than the actual quality of the film. It also cited high-visibility social media moments like Smith’s Instagram photo with Dave Chappelle, Rihanna, and Tyler Perry at a private Emancipation screening, and his appearance with the Los Angeles Lakers as ways to get Smith back into the mainstream spotlight without doing a “60 Minutes mea culpa sit-down” interview with a reporter. 

It’s unclear whether one such deep-dive TV interview or a longform written profile will materialize as Smith continues to promote the film. He hasn’t been totally ignoring the press, though so far he’s limited himself to things like the EW roundtable and some short satellite junket interviews that have allowed him to repeat variations of the above message (I understand why people might not want to see me, but I hate that they would miss the amazing work of my team…) and then get back to talking about the film.  It may be difficult to extrapolate his audience’s feelings about him from the grosses, what with only a one-week big-screen release before it goes on Apple TV+: Streamers are notoriously averse to releasing definitive viewer numbers. However, the big reveal will be how the Academy treats him if his performance would normally be considered Oscar-worthy…from an actor who hadn’t shocked his peers and a worldwide audience just a year ago.

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