Five-minute chat with Hollywood legend Will Smith about his role as the Genie in Disney’s live-action Aladdin

I recently had the absolute pleasure to attend Disney’s Aladdin press conference and meet the cast as well as film makers from this fast-paced live-action version of the classic animation: writer-director Guy Ritchie, Will Smith as the larger-than-life Genie; Mena Massoud as the charming scoundrel Aladdin; Naomi Scott as Jasmine, the beautiful, self-determined princess; and composer Alan Menken. 

As always with events like this attended by hundreds of journalists from around Europe, I had to fight for my question for Will Smith but here it is.

Monica Costa: Will, you talked a lot about the emotional side of this film, everybody crying on set. What about the funniest moment during filming? I can imagine only big fun moments with Will Smith.

Will Smith:        The funniest moment … Yeah, we had a really good time. There was a dramatic moment after Jafar had thrown Aladdin into the water towards the end of the film. We all walked back in and Jafar was with the Sultan, and saw that Aladdin was still alive. The Genie (me) walked in and we all knew Jafar tried to kill him. Mena had to walk right up the middle. He looked at Jafar and talking to the Sultan he was supposed to say, “He’s not who he seems to be”. But his line was, “Him nom whom he seem him is”. What?! Marwan had to respond … “Oh, I’m not who I’m saying I is?”

Mena Massoud: And Will actually made T-shirts.

Will Smith:        That’s right. I got T-shirts to say “Him nom whom he seem him is”. And that was one of those terrible acting moments, when you start laughing… it’s this crazy thing that happens with actors and you start giggling. You can literally shut a set down for three hours. Like, you just can’t, you never can say the line again. You can see a laugh in the eyes. But I was like, that was one definitely for the African-American audience, we appreciate them. ‘Him nom whom him seem him is.’

Monica Costa: It sounds like that might have been the funniest moment for everyone. Apart from you, Mena.

Naomi Scott:     He was tired. It was towards the end of film.

Mena Massoud: No, it’s all good. I’m glad I could make everyone laugh.

Will Smith:        That was fantastic.

Mena Massoud: For me, you know, one of my funniest moments and something that I can cross off my bucket list is the improv scene Will and I had together. It’s known as the ‘jam scene’ now. Guy (Richie) was kind enough to block this scene and create a lot of space between the royal family, Prince Ali and the Genie. He just let us riff a little bit, and I got to improv with Will. It was hilarious. We were playing with concepts and this actually made the film, but Will does a bomb dropping. And in my Aladdin brain, I went, “Aladdin wouldn’t know what a bomb is”, it’s before that. So, we were just riffing off ideas like that. It was just great.

Will Smith:        Yeah, that was very funny.

Alan Menken, Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud, Will Smith and Guy Ritchie attend the press conference to celebrate the release of Disney’s “Aladdin” on May 10th in London, UK

The press conference continued with great insights into making a live-action movie full of props, costumes, special effects and music.

Question:           You must all be on a high after the reception the film had from everyone.

Guy Ritchie:       Alan and I sat together last night when we watched it. And the truth is that, that’s the first time I’ve seen it in its full incarnation. Alan and I cried five times. We held our hand throughout.

Question:           Did you sing along?

Guy Ritchie:       I had my daughter there who did.

Alan Menken:    Guy’s daughter was adorable. I was sitting a little bit down from them and she was dressed up as Jasmine. You know kids, they can’t lie. She was up on her feet the whole time dancing, screaming. It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Question:           What a wonderful experience for you as a filmmaker though, a new experience to have. It’s a different type of film, and to get that reaction.

Guy Ritchie:       The great thing about making a family movie, which I’m not familiar with, is the warmth that radiates from such a positive and generous spirited film. I’ve never had that reaction from a film before. The film’s not cynical, and leaves you with a sort of very positive taste, and that’s my greatest takeaway from it.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets the larger-than-life blue Genie (Will Smith) in Disney’s live-action adaptation ALADDIN, directed by Guy Ritchie.

Question:           Will, there’s so much to talk about your character, the Genie. We know that you can do it all: you can sing, dance, do the comedy, the drama … But what is it like being given the opportunity to do all of that, in one role?

Will Smith:        Yeah, that was spectacular. Just the singing, dancing, drama, comedy, action, the adventure is everything that I’ve cultivated as a performer for the last 30 years, to be able to do it in one film, and for a big chunk of it to be CGI. The great thing with the CGI is you get, you get two, three and four opportunities to get it right. You do it one time in rehearsal and if you like it, then you do it on set. Then you go into motion capture and try something different. So, there are many opportunities to be able to get it right. I loved it. The idea that Princess Jasmine wanted to rule, right? That was a new storyline that was added from the visionary mind of Guy Ritchie. That idea that she wanted to rule, was such a delicate and fantastic way to be able to create the modern element of this character, where she was in a world where that’s ridiculous. A woman can’t be Sultan. A woman isn’t allowed to rule, and then she was fighting for that position. And then the song Speechless, I think, is the signature of this version of the film. And I just wanted to applaud you …

Mena Massoud: Maybe the signature of a generation.

Will Smith:        Yes, it is. “I will not go speechless”. That was fantastic and that’s when I knew that we were winning. The day you did that I was like, “Okay, this movie is going to work.”

Naomi Scott:     The song called Speechless was written by Alan Menken, who’s won 8 Oscars. Do you want to say anything, Alan? How did you get any work done?

Alan Menken:    I wrote the song with this team of Pasek and Paul, who wrote The Greatest Showman, and La La Land, and Dear Evan Hansen. They very talented. We wrote this song, and when we delivered it, it pushed everyone to go, “Okay, now if we can earn this song, we’re going to have to really also lay into that journey of, of Jasmine, and how she’s really kept silent, and how she has to find her voice”. So, it was all of that came together in a pretty organic way.

Naomi Scott:     It was weird the timing of when we filmed that song, as well. There was a lot going on in the world, that I felt like, related so much to that moment.

Alan Menken:    Me too.

Naomi Scott:     I definitely performed that song, I really took that on. I wanted it to be raw and angry. I didn’t want it to be, kind of this pretty performance. So, it was a very emotional day and … I remember that after the first take, I was like, it was like finished and obviously I just felt emotional and you, you came up, but I had to do like a lot more takes. So, I had to kind of conserve my energy and Guy came up to me, and he just looked at me and I went, “No, go away, go away, go away”. Because you were about to start to cry. And I was like, “I can’t”. I was like, “I’ve got to do this three more times”. So yeah.

Will Smith attends the European Gala Screening of Disney’s Aladdin on May 9th at London’s ODEON Luxe in Leicester Square, London UK.

Question:           When I was watching the film, I definitely got a 90’s hip hop vibe from the Genie. If he had any anthem, any song, what would the anthem be?

Will Smith:        The anthem, the Friend Like Me is ridiculous. When we first went into the studio, I was really concerned about how I would get my signature onto the film. And then we started messing with, Friend Like Me which was the first song, and there’s a hip hop breakbeat, by the Honeydrippers called Impeach the President. It’s like a hip hop breakbeat staple. So, I had them grab the drum loop from that, and started messing with Friend Like Me over that. For me that song was essential to open the Genie up within me. That song was the one that really showed me that I could find the Genie in a way that would satisfy the nostalgic yearning of the audience, but also be able to add a new flavour.

Question:           This role of the Genie is an iconic Disney character, made great by the late great Robin Williams. Did you feel this pressure to create homage for him? And how did you feel that you could put your own spin on it to where, audiences around the world would make this the new icon?

Will Smith:        Yeah. You know, I was terrified with that. You know, it’s like, when you get that call, “Hey, you know, we’re gonna redo Aladdin Will, we want you to be a part of it”. You know? It’s like, “Hey Will, we’re thinking of redoing the Godfather”. You know, “We’re thinking of you for the Al Pacino role”. You know, like, dude, you know, you just, you don’t want to go anywhere near those kinds of roles. It’s like there’s … Robin didn’t leave much room for improvement in the Genie. So, the first thing that I thought about was that it was going to be live action. I knew that would be some opportunities and it would look and feel different, being live action. And then the next thing, what I discovered in the process is that, you know, Robin Williams actually revolutionised what you could do in an animated film. It’s like, before that time, nobody was really using that amount of current references and things like that. He sort of created this omnipresent Genie, who had been forward and backward in time and had the full scope and breadth of time, and human experience, to draw from for comedy. So that was revolutionary.

Alan Menken:    Robin in animation, went into the studio, he would do one take, another take, another take, and they cut them together. You had to go and do it, right in real time.

Will Smith:        They captured something that marked people’s childhood. So, what I wanted to do was to find a way to create an homage to Robin into the performance that, with the songs and everything, that people would still connect to, but then be able to add that new hip hop flavour.

Guy Ritchie, Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Alan Menken attend the photo call to celebrate the release of Disney’s “Aladdin” on May 10th in London, UK

Question:           We see you on the Internet, you are partying this landmark, and you are doing your bucket list challenge, and you did also a party for charity. Is this landmark important to you? When you reflect on your career and your life, do you have any insights you want to share about being 50? The Fresh Prince at 50.

Will Smith:        There’s a big part of turning 50. I’ve turned a corner in my life, and this film marks a re-emergence from me. I took a little over two years off away from film, to study and learn and grow and sort of re-adjust my priorities. The bucket list really sort of illustrates how I want to be in the world. I want to be with people that I’d love to be with, in places that I love to be, doing things I love to do. And this is the perfect equation for me.



Related features: 

Win 1 of 10 copies of the Aladdin original motion picture soundtrack

Film review: Disney’s live action Aladdin out on 24 May 2019


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