How Will Smith Became Famous and a Master of the Monster Blockbuster

Will Smith enjoyed success at a young age. His Fresh Prince albums made him a rap star in his 20s, as did his TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But it was the leap to movies in the mid-’90s that made Smith one of the most famous people in the world. Films like Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men In Black were part of a calculated decision for how Will Smith became famous.

Will Smith with arms wide open
Will Smith | Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

Smith discussed his plan at the 2007 press junket for his film I Am Legend. He outlined how he designed his career to get where he was then and still is today. 

Will Smith said his family motivated him to be the best 

Smith said his family planted the seed in him very young. First, he just tried to impress his grandmother. 

“My grandmother just thought that I was just the greatest,” Smith said. “She always had us playing the piano and doing recitations at church. There was a look of pride that my grandmother would have in her eyes that became the fuel that I need for  life. Like, I need my woman and daughter and mother and women in general to look at me with that look.”

When Will Smith became famous 

How Smith became famous wasn’t luck. He made a plan of action and executed it. 

“I actually don’t consider myself a huge risk-taker,” Smith said. “I’m a student of the patterns of the universe. So if I can figure out how something is seemingly risky but I’ve got the numbers on my side, I get really comfortable with taking a leap.”

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys
L-R: Martin Lawrence and Will Smith | Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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Smith had help. His manager, James Lassiter, helped Smith figure out exactly what kind of movies would make him the biggest star.

“I said, ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world!’” Smith said. “And he’s like, ‘OK, we should probably figure out what they do, and plot a course.’ So he went and got the top ten movies of all time at that point, and we looked and we tried to figure out what were the patterns.”

The models of success 

In the early to mid ’90s, the top 10 movies included E.T., Jurassic Park and Terminator 2

“The top ten movies of all time, ten out of ten were special effects movies,” Smith said. “Nine out of ten were special effects movies with creatures. Eight out of ten were special effects movies with creatures and a love story. So Independence Day is not really a hard call to make when you look at the numbers.”

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in MIB
L-R: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones | Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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Men In Black followed with Smith policing aliens in a comedy. It didn’t always work. Wild Wild West may have broken the formula by going back in time, but Smith bounced back with I, Robot.

“Then it becomes about execution,” Smith said. “Can you get into that artistic place where you’re advancing an idea? Advancing a genre? And you can spend your energy in the most difficult area rather than bumping your head around ideas that have already been proven or dis-proven. All of that to say, I look at the patterns, so I’m using my maximum amount of energy in that last 10%.”