Will Smith came up with the story for M. Night Shyamalan’s postapocalyptic drama After Earth, which opens May 31, while watching his son Jaden, 14, film The Karate Kid in China. The premise: A father is a best-in-class soldier who crash-lands with his son on a hostile planet Earth a thousand years in the future. The father, wounded, must watch from the sidelines as the son navigates treacherous terrain and fights terrible creatures in order to escape. The parallels to their adventures in Hollywood, Will says, are obvious.
I’ve read that you believe life can be understood through patterns.
Will: I’m a student of patterns. At heart, I’m a physicist. I look at everything in my life as trying to find the single equation, the theory of everything.
Do you think there is a single theory to everything?
Jaden: There’s definitely a theory to everything.
Will: When you find things that are tried and true for millennia, you can bet that it’s going to happen tomorrow.
Jaden: The sun coming up?
Will: The sun coming up, but even a little more. Like for Best Actor Oscars. Almost 90 percent of the time, it’s mental illness and historical figures, right? So, you can be pretty certain of that if you want to win—as a man; it’s very different for women. The patterns are all over the place, but for whatever reason, it’s really difficult to find the patterns in Best Actress.
Do you see patterns too, Jaden?
Jaden: I think that there is that special equation for everything, but I don’t think our mathematics have evolved enough for us to even—I think there’s, like, a whole new mathematics that we’d have to learn to get that equation.
Will: I agree with that.
Jaden: It’s beyond mathematical. It’s, like, multidimensional mathematical, if you can sort of understand what I’m saying.
Are both of you religious?
Will: No, we are students of world religion.
Seems like everyone’s excited about the idea that you might be religious.
Will: We respect all [religions].
Okay. Who would you say is the biggest star in your family?
Will and Jaden: [in unison] Willow! (Willow is Jaden’s 12-year-old sister.)
Jaden: She just knows who she is, so she just is.
Will: She has a magic power in the family. She absolutely demands the most attention, and there’s something really incendiary about a 12-year-old girl who says and does what she wants.
You and Jaden have acted in two movies together, including After Earth. Are you planning on a third?
Will: If you were a student of the pattern, you’d have to say we’re going to do another one.
Jaden: I definitely would do another one, absolutely. You know, how Johnny Depp and Tim Burton always do movies together, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio? We’ll have a relationship like that.
Do you think of that as a separate relationship from your father-son relationship?
Jaden: It’s kind of like father and son, except that we’re both going to work together. [Points to his dad.] Like you worked in your family business with your dad. I’m just working in my family business with my dad. Patterns, boom.
Jaden, how was working with your father this time around different from before?
Jaden: Well, with the first movie [Pursuit of Happyness], he was teaching me along the way. This is how the camera works. You do several takes. Like, literally everything you need to know about movies. And then, in Karate Kid, he was kind of holding my hand and watching me distill those rules. And then on After Earth, he was like, All right, you’re an actor, I’m an actor, let’s make a movie together. So it was like a collaboration, you know what I’m saying?
What is your dynamic when the whole family is on the set?
Jaden: Willow basically does her thing. [They both laugh.] Dad kind of just is there. He has to feel his own vibe. And my mom is probably like, “Uh-uh. Tell Jaden he needs to do this.”
Will: Yeah, Jada [Pinkett Smith] has really powerful insights and opinions about everything.
You guys aren’t that way?
Jaden: If we’re at a six, she’s like at an eight and a half. Like, when she comes on set and she sees something that’s not right, she says, “This needs to change, this needs to leave, this needs to happen.”
Will: Yeah, I probably had a couple of poor parenting moments on this movie. Do you know what a fer-de-lance is?
Jaden: It’s one of the most poisonous snakes in all of Costa Rica.
Will: There were a couple of days where there was a high concentration of snakes [on the set].
Jaden: Fer-de-lances, not snakes! I was doing a scene, going through some tall grasses, and they said, “Hey, we caught some fer-de-lances around there, and there seems to be a lot more, and I think we should move the scene.” I was like, “How many fer-de-lances did you catch?” He’s like, “Eight.”
Will: I said, “Well, you got them all, so it’s fine. Let’s just shoot it.” Yeah, if Mommy was there, that wouldn’t have gone down. As an actor, I felt like it was an authentic experience of actually being in Costa Rica. I learned it in Ali, man, when you actually have to go to the place and you take the flight and you are actually in the authentic space, it adds to your performance.
Jaden, how does it feel to be famous?
Jaden: I think it’s fun, except when people make up stuff about you. Then it’s not so much fun. But besides that, I enjoy it.
It’s been reported that you might be dating Kylie Jenner. The Kardashians have treated their fame as the family business. Do you guys see yourselves as similar or different? [Will, laughing, holds up his hand for Jaden not to speak.]
Jaden: I’m trying to understand.
Will: Don’t. You know, he’s never had to, to deal with those kinds of questions.
Well, forget the Kardashians … maybe you could just …
Will: [Mimicking] “So how do you think your life is similar or un-similar to people’s names in Calabasas?” For our family, the entire structure of our life, our home, our business relationships—the entire purpose is for everyone to be able to create in a way that makes them happy. Fame is almost an inconsequential by-product of what we’re really trying to accomplish. We are trying to put great things into the world, we’re trying to have fun, and we’re trying to become the greatest versions of ourselves in the process of doing things we love. So the idea of fame or exploitation or orchestrating the media is sometimes even less than desirable for us.
Do you think Jaden could have been a dentist?
Will: It may seem like we have pushed our kids into the business, but that is absolutely insane. I would never, ever, push somebody to have their face on a poster that’s going be everywhere in the world. He is making a choice from the informed. It’s less scary to me than if he wanted to be a dentist in that I couldn’t help with what he’d chosen. I have relationships with some of the biggest filmmakers and actors and producers on Earth. So I can be a huge help.
Willow chose singing and then un-chose it. She said, “Daddy, I want to go to school with my friends during the week, and I want to hang out with them on the weekends.” At the peak of “Whip My Hair,” she’s like, “Daddy, I’m done.” I was like, “Wow, wow, wow. No, baby, I got Annie [the upcoming movie remake, co-produced by Jay-Z], you know. It’ll be New York, you’ll be with Beyoncé. You can bring your friends.” And she said, “Daddy, I got a better idea. How about I just be 12?” At the end of the day, it has to be their choice.
So maybe Jaden could have been a dentist, but he probably couldn’t sit in his room doing nothing all day.
Jaden: Probably not.
Will: I think it was in Edward Kennedy’s autobiography, he said that he hadn’t found his way in his life, and his father sat down with him and said, We are a family that are trying to have valuable lives. You are allowed to decide whether or not you want your life to be valuable to the world, and I respect that decision. I’m just not going to have a lot of time for you. Essentially that is my position with my children. You can choose anything that you want to do, anything you want to be, and you can decide you want to act crazy and run around. I respect your ability to choose a life for yourself that does not have value to the world. I respect that. I’m just not going have a lot of time for you.
In the past, Jada has described the family as transparent. Do you think that’s true?
Will: Let me see. Are we transparent?
Jaden: You can argue that we’re extremely un-transparent. Everybody knows where we live, but nobody really knows what our house looks like.
Will: That’s true.
Jaden: We kind of live in a fortress.
Will: I think for the most part we are transparent in the sense that there’s very few big family secrets. I think that if Jaden or Trey [Will’s son from his first marriage] or Willow were to write a book ten years from now, it will be very similar to what people think. And, the things about our family that are mysteries or seem strange, when they’re explained, it’ll be obvious. You know, the forum of media that we’re in can’t really handle the complexity of things that we say all the time.
What would be an example?
Will: I did an interview where the only quote that everybody ran was “Will Smith doesn’t believe in punishment.” Well, that’s actually ridiculous. That’s not what I said, but the sound bite can’t actually hold the complexity of what I’m trying to say, you know. That there is a destructive aspect to corporal punishment that I don’t agree with. There are concepts and ideas about punishment that I think run counter to healthy growth and psychological stability in this world. But they just take one blurb.
Jaden: They’re always gonna do that.
Will: Yeah. What’s the blurb gonna be from this one? [Laughs] But for the most part I think we are very transparent, or maybe not transparent, but boring.
You think you’re boring?
Will: I think that if you were to come to the house, people would really be surprised at how simple and basic it is. Our whole dream for our home was for it to be an artist’s haven. So there are paint supplies; there’s a piano with a microphone and a recorder right there to capture things right in the second. There’s editing equipment. There are cameras. I think the only thing in our house that people would be surprised by is the efficiency.
Will: No, just how serious we are about how the microphone at the piano has to be on and the recorder has to be ready to go for when somebody gets an idea. The paint supplies have got to be kept up—you know, you cannot go to paint something and a color’s empty.
Is it true that you alphabetized your laser discs?
Will: Yeah, I’m very, very serious about systems supporting creative inspiration.
In the movie, Jaden, your character calls his dad “Sir.” Is that the dynamic with you guys?
Jaden: In real life, no. It’s like how it is right now.
How is it right now?
Jaden: It’s hard for me to explain because it’s so normal to me. It’s like asking, “So, Jaden, how do you breathe?” He’s, like, really just cool. He lets us have our freedom as long as we can control our freedom.
In After Earth, the father is a general who is injured and has to watch his son fight for his life. Was this a metaphor for what it’s like sending your kid into Hollywood?
Will: Absolutely. That’s what I wanted the metaphor of this movie to be. A father having to watch as his son makes mistakes in the world, and in an extreme place of life or death. It is the excruciating parental pain of having to let your kids go, and you just have to hope that the lessons you’ve instilled will kick in at the right time.
Will, what kind of relationship did you have with your father?
Will: You know, I grew up where you got the hospital corners on the beds. I grew up with old-school rules where you speak when you’re spoken to. There were hugely powerful ideas about discipline and spirituality.
You were baptized.
Will: Baptized. Went to a Catholic school. Lived in a Jewish neighborhood.
My mother worked on the school board, so she was very serious about education, and my grandmother was in the church. So there was a huge amount of discipline, and I’m trying to maintain some of the old ideals, minus the ownership. We don’t own our children, you know. They own themselves. Not to go too far into that, talking about slavery concepts and how the black community is carrying those …
Jaden: If we started going down that road, Mommy would, like, burst into this room.
In terms of mistakes, Will, early on in your career you had a period of years where most of your wages were garnished for not paying taxes. Have you educated Jaden about all the money he’s making?
Will: Yeah, you know, we met with Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and we’re trying to design a curriculum for children to understand even the basic connection between a bank and capitalism. I mean, I’m very serious with my kids about them comprehending the intricacies of global finance.
Is it hard to educate your kids to be responsible about money when they grew up with wealth?
Will: It’s funny. Willow and Trey went in completely the opposite direction. Like, Willow only shops at Target. Jaden is really the only one of my kids that has a little bit of a taste for, uh …
Jaden: I like Cartier.
Will: That’s a little new.
Jaden: The Cartier is new, but before that it was Louis [Vuitton].
Will: Yes, he has a little bit of a taste. But he connects his responsibility to working and creating to the fun that he enjoys with the finer things.
So, Jaden, you like spending the money you earn?
Jaden: Well, when you say it like that, not really. There was a time in my life when I’d go to Cartier, like, every weekend for like a month. But, now I’m …
What would you buy?
Jaden: I have four rings I’m not wearing today. I haven’t bought anything that expensive in a really long time. The only thing I buy is, like, food and skateboards.
Will: Once he started approving his own bank statements and credit cards and all, yeah, he changed.
I heard that you and Jada were going to write a book together?
Will: It feels like you can’t write books in progress.
Jaden: Give them ten years. They’ll drop a book every year.
You feel like they have a lot to say?
Jaden: Yes, like 900 pages, both of them, so it’ll be like two books a year. He drops his book, she drops her book.
Will: Our kids get an earful around the house just on every topic, every subject.
Jaden: If I’m with my friends, and they’ll be like, “Oh, hey, where’s your dad? Let’s go say hi.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, no. He’s watching hours and hours of TED Talks just … Dude, don’t go in there.” Last time I went in there, he said, “Jaden, so the art of telling stories is an art that you really have to learn. I want you to read Aesop’s Fables.” “Dad, I’ve read Aesop’s Fables three times.” “Honestly, you can’t read it enough.” But when you’re on your way to see a 9:15 movie and it’s nine o’clock, he’s like, “Wait, wait, Jaden, I need to tell you something about life, man.”
*This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.