Imagine, if you will, a 44-year-old A-list actor in trouble. Once labeled the only sure-thing superstar in Hollywood, he’s been hobbled by an underperforming summer movie, and the knives are starting to come out. It seems our A-lister has an image problem: He’s become more famous for his personal life than for his work, and as audiences speculate about his marriage, his famous child, and his ties to Scientology, his box-office appeal has started to wane. Can he turn things around?
Yes, we’re talking about Will Smith, whose career took a hit this week after his father-son tentpole After Earth bombed at the box office, but we might as well be describing Smith’s superstar buddy Tom Cruise, who hit a similar rough patch when he was 44, back in 2006. That was the year that Cruise couldn’t stop touting Katie and Suri instead of the movie he was supposed to be selling — the lackluster Mission: Impossible III — which prompted Sumner Redstone to sever Cruise’s production deal with Paramount. It hasn’t entirely been smooth sailing since then for Cruise, but through a series of comeback moves, he’s at least righted his ship. Here’s what Smith can learn from what Cruise has done right — and wrong — since suffering that midlife-career crisis.
Surprise audiences with a comedy.
Can you guess what was the biggest romantic comedy of the last ten years? It’s Hitch, the Will Smith–Eva Mendes vehicle that made a whopping $179 million back in 2005. And yet, Smith hasn’t made a straight-up comedy since that megahit, unless you’re willing to count last year’s sci-fi sequel Men in Black 3, which also happened to top out at $179 million (but cost way more than Hitch, obviously). Why is one of our most naturally charismatic stars determined to hide his light under a bushel by starring in drab dramas like After Earth and Seven Pounds? Smith would be well-advised to take a cue from Cruise, who rebounded from his mid-aughts image imbroglio with an unexpected comic comeback in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Make an audience laugh, and they’ll forgive you almost anything.
Ease up on the family stuff.
Here’s a lesson Tom Cruise learned the hard way: When you push your child into the spotlight, you’re not doing the kid — or your own reputation — any favors. Stage parenting is not a good look, and Smith seems to desire fame for his children more than they do for themselves. In his recent cover-story interview for New York, Smith is asked whether he would have ever allowed Jaden to become a dentist, and he replies, “It may seem like we have pushed our kids into the business, but that is absolutely insane … 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.”* It’s pertinent to note that 14-year-olds can’t actually be dentists, though they can become movie stars, if certain people have been putting them in movies since they were in grade school. In fact, most 14-year-olds don’t have careers at all, and that’s actually kind of fine! Maybe Smith should listen more to his own daughter, Willow, who turned down his offer to star in a remake of Annie with the simple reply, “Daddy, I got a better idea. How about I just be 12?”
Work with major auteurs.
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but over the course of his career, the man has had an unerring knack for working with high-class helmers: Scorsese! Kubrick! Spielberg! Crowe! Stone! Will Smith has worked with a lot of big action-movie veterans like Michael Bay, but he’s conspicuously avoided projects made by A-list auteurs, save for his 2001 performance in Michael Mann’s Ali. Recently, Smith took a lot of heat for turning down Quentin Tarantino’s entreaties to star in Django Unchained, and while we actually do understand his reluctance on some level (did you come out of that movie buzzing about Jamie Foxx’s mostly passive character, or were you instead raving about Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio?), Smith clearly needs to be making more movies with the Tarantinos of the world and fewer with the Shyamalans and the Sonnenfelds.
Stop meddling with scripts.
Then again, if Smith truly wants some sort of exciting, career-reinventing role from Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell or Christopher Nolan, he needs to be willing to submit to those helmers’ exacting visions … and recently, it seems that Smith prefers directors whom he can steamroll. The production of Men in Black 3 famously fell apart when Smith insisted on mid-movie script changes from his own personal writer, and Smith also gets a prominent “story by” title card in the credits for After Earth, which isn’t exactly going to sweep the WGA awards. If Smith fancies himself a filmmaker, that’s one thing — he’d hardly be the first actor to move behind the camera — but real auteurs aren’t going to let him rewrite their movies. Instead of always tailoring scripts to read the way he wants them to, Smith would do well to emulate Cruise, who’s done his best work in the service of visionary directors who push the A-lister out of his comfort zone.
What was Will Smith thinking when he took a four-year sabbatical from the big screen after the 2008 dud Seven Pounds? Ostensibly, he spent that time working as a hands-on producer for Jaden’s remake of The Karate Kid, but four years is an eternity to spend away from the movies. When you take that much time off — as problematic performers like Mike Myers and Chris Tucker have in the past — it invites the sort of skepticism that can be hard to recover from. More to the point, audiences are fickle: If they haven’t seen you in something lately, it becomes harder to convince them that they should see you at all. Cruise knows as much as any A-lister that consistency is the name of the game, and he’s starred in a movie nearly every year since he first began working in Hollywood. It makes it easier to recover from the flops, after all, if there’s a potential comeback vehicle coming down the pike next year.
Will Smith, you’re supposed to be fun! Why, then, have you recently come across as a numbers-obsessed autodidact who’s willing to watch hours of TED Talks back-to-back and can’t stop talking about patterns? We didn’t like it when Tom Cruise spouted off about psychiatry and postpartum depression, and we don’t love it now, either. It’s no surprise that the best-received thing Will Smith has done all year is his utterly delightful Fresh Prince reunion on British television: As we watched Smith perform the classic Fresh Prince theme song — with D.J. Jazzy Jeff and a dancing Carlton in attendance! — we caught a glimpse of the charming star he used to be, and can hopefully be again.
* The original version of this post slightly misinterpreted a Will Smith quote. It has been updated with a different quote.