King Richard And How Megastar Will Smith Became A Serious Actor

Will Smith is a megastar. He's an undisputed legend, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in Hollywood of the past 30 years. He is the only actor to have starred in eight consecutive films which grossed over $100 million in the United States box office. In 2013, Forbes named Smith the world's most bankable star thanks to movies like "Men in Black," "Independence Day," and the "Bad Boys" trilogy. Overall, his films have grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide (that's more than Harrison Ford, Daniel Radcliffe, and Leonardo DiCaprio.) Even in an era where intellectual property is considered more important than star power, Will Smith is a very big deal, an A-lister of such charisma that he can even lift the most abysmal of projects through sheer charm alone.

Everyone likes Will Smith and respects his hustle, but his actual acting isn't something that comes up in conversations with the same level of enthusiasm. That could change in a big way this year, however, as Smith currently finds himself in the enviable position of being the front-runner for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Actor. "King Richard" stars Smith as Richard Williams, the father and tennis coach of the legendary Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, "King Richard" is currently enjoying a slew of rave reviews and has won several accolades on the festival circuit. Smith has been Oscar-nominated twice before — for Michael Mann's "Ali" and for the inspirational real-life drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" — but he's never had this kind of momentum behind him, or the palpable sense that he could actually take home the gold. This is obviously still early days, and anything could happen between now and the ceremony in March, but buzz is everything and, for now, this is Smith's moment to shine.

What Makes Will Smith a Star

It's still a pretty rare occurrence in mainstream Hollywood film for the major movie stars who sell tickets and make billions to also be the ones who rack up awards and grace the shelves of the cineastes' DVD collections. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't make superhero movies, but his big acting vehicles are still hugely expensive endeavors that essentially act as tentpole titles. Robert Downey Jr. essentially gave up his eclectic indie work once he became Tony Stark, while Tom Cruise long abandoned projects like "Magnolia" and "Born on the Fourth of July" in favor of his invincible stunt spectaculars in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. The myriad Chrises have often struggled to prove their critical might in-between franchise fare. There are exceptions like Oscar Isaac, but the film world is still heavily defined by types: you're one or the other, and we're constantly surprised when someone shows that they can do both. This is something that Smith is familiar with.

It's easy to underrate the kind of acting that Smith excels at in his biggest movies: that brand of brash charisma that feels simultaneously snarky and sincere, with mile-a-minute wisecracking and elastic physicality. The best Smith blockbuster performances rely on his canny ability to be an everyman while simultaneously being the world-saving hero. Consider Agent J in "Men in Black," an experienced cop who considers himself street-smart but struggles to maintain his cool (in both senses of the word) when confronted with the terrifying reality of extra-terrestrial life. When he rants at an alien in "Independence Day" while kicking it like it's a spilt bag of trash, it's oddly relatable yet completely badass. These performances make a strong case for Smith being the perfect '90s Hollywood hero: sardonic but earnest, ready to fight but oft-unprepared, fun to laugh with and laugh at. He helped to lay the path for the current mold of on-screen heroism as seen in every superhero movie of the past decade.

Smith often has no qualms about unleashing his inner dork. He is the Fresh Prince, after all, a kid-friendly rapper whose in-song profanities can be counted on two hands. He did the Carlton dance and dressed like a belly dancer and wrestled with an alien giving birth. Amid that coolness is the canny self-awareness that Smith is probably the biggest nerd in the room at any given time (and nowadays, on his impeccably run social media accounts, he's all too happy to let his goofy dad flag fly high). These moments of slapstick or silliness help to puncture the self-seriousness that can often come with being the white-toothed almighty action man (see: Tom Cruise's weird run or Chris Hemsworth's Thor as the fish out of water muscle-head.) It's a kind of force that has elevated even his worst movies (and Smith has more than a few stinkers under his belt.) You can't fake magnetism. It's something you either have or you don't, and Smith has it. His best performances make good use of that, or they subvert it in unexpected and striking ways. He carries it over into those more traditionally serious performances too.

What Will Smith Makes of Being a Serious Actor

Smith established his clout early in his career with a standout turn in "Six Degrees of Separation," wherein he played a young conman who worms his way into the upper echelons of New York society. His youthful cockiness and unflappable self-belief empower him to spin increasingly ludicrous yarns that his hangers-on greedily gobble up, but he's also seductive, a wily and cunning figure whose agenda is just ambiguous enough to leave you questioning yourself. It's not hard to imagine an alternate path for Smith after this film where he became an indie darling over the king of the box office.

In "Ali," Michael Mann's oft-underrated biopic of Muhammad Ali, Smith comes as close as he ever has to a major physical transformation (much like the leading men of Hollywood's golden age, Smith has never needed to change his appearance to make an impression). Bulked up larger than he's ever been and sporting a sharp Ali-esque haircut, Smith nails the grandeur of one of sport's greatest showmen, but he shines when he's out of the boxing ring, battling verbally with the press, his religious advisers, and even the American government. Smith utilizes his well-oiled comedic talents for scenes where Ali plays up his persona for the cameras then dials it back when Ali tries to untangle his mighty legacy from his day-to-day reality. He gives speeches like a preacher then stares with quiet panic at a mural of himself, aware of all it symbolizes beyond his mere mortal existence. "Ali" landed Smith his first Oscar nomination, and deservedly so.

It often feels like Smith worries that the qualities that made him a star must be quashed in order for him to be taken more seriously as an actor, but such decisions frequently result in his worst performances. The portentous and ethically questionable "Seven Pounds" confuses manipulation for profundity and Smith's performance follows suit with a dreary display of teary eyes with no substance behind his watery gaze. You can practically see him counting the syllables of his Nigerian accent in "Concussion," which further dampens his natural determination that would have been perfect for the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the scientist who took on the NFL over its cover-up of brain damage in its football players. Sadly, performances like "Men in Black" don't get the sheen of greatness that the middlebrow adult-oriented drama roles do, but Smith's work as a megastar is entirely deserving of such critical acclaim.

"King Richard" sees Smith back in control of that crucial balance between megastar and serious actor, inhabiting the role of a committed, often blindly so, father with dreams beyond his family and community. Richard Williams is a bullish figure, the kind of man who writes a 78-page plan to raise two champion tennis stars despite his own lack of sporting prowess. His ego is major but he's also clearly insecure in ways that are easy to spot once you know how to look for them. It's the kind of role that Smith seems tailor-made to inhabit and he does so with such gusto that it's no wonder the Oscar buzz is growing. He doesn't try to conceal or downplay his own incredible appeal. Rather, he utilizes it to great advantage, doing something that only Will Smith could do. It's a joy to watch but also a sad reminder of how seldom one of our most adored stars is utilized to his greatest advantage. Here's hoping that "King Richard" — and any acclaim it inspires — changes that.