Top of his game 

Will Smith rises to the occasion to play Ali

To borrow an expression from one of his own rap hits, Will Smith has been gettin' jiggy wit' it in so many of his movies, some people may have lost sight of the fact that he can be a competent actor, when given the opportunity. Lest anyone forget, before he ruled the Hollywood box office co-starring with all the computer-generated creatures of Independence Day (1996) or Men in Black (1997), Smith held his own admirably opposite real actors like Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 screen version of a heady John Guare play.

But even that couldn't prepare Smith, 33, for the daunting task he undertakes in Ali, director Michael Mann's ambitious if disjointed biopic about 10 years in the life of boxing champ Muhammad Ali. Spanning 1964 to 1974, the film chronicles Ali's rise to the top of the sports world, in addition to touching on some of the controversy surrounding his conversion to Islam and his outspoken views against the Vietnam War.

As the actor gushingly puts it, "This is the most complete performance I've ever been given the chance to display. It feels like the peak. What else can I possibly do? I feel like I've given everything I have to give, like I can't do any better than I've done in this film."

Creative Loafing: Do you anticipate any post-Sept. 11 backlash to this film? Is this the right time for any movie with a Muslim protagonist? With all the current "United-We-Stand" fervor, is there a chance audiences might be turned off by Ali's more divisive attitudes about Vietnam?

Will Smith: You know, there were the patriots who fought and died in Vietnam, but there were also the patriots on the home front who stood against the government and the war in Vietnam. Our country was established by a militia. Our flag was originally designed as an anti-imperialist symbol against the British. The whole foundation of our government is set forth in order that someone like Ali could have the freedom of speech to fight against what he felt was wrong. I think he was the ultimate patriot, and I think the film gives off that sense of patriotism.

What's your first memory of the real Muhammad Ali?

I was born in 1968, so by the time I was old enough to be cognizant of the boxing world, Ali had already retired. Everything I really know about him came from the research. That's what was most important to communicate in the film. For people my age or younger, who may have only a vague recollection of his boxing career and who may have no idea what he meant to black America, it's really important to understand what he continues to mean to America as a whole.

What does he mean to you?

What attracted me from the beginning was this concept I refer to as the complex simplicity of Ali. I mean, his point of view about the whole Vietnam issue was that war had been declared on black America right here at home, that there were basic principles that needed defending in our own back yard, so why go 10,000 miles to fight some other war way over there? It's a pretty simple concept, really, but the complexity of American society at the time made everything seem a lot more profound.

Talk a little about your physical transformation into Ali.

I generally walk around at about 195 pounds, and I peaked in the movie at about 223 pounds. Any time you change your body like that, it's grueling. Michael Mann and I took a three-tiered approach in preparing for this movie. First, we concentrated on the physical training -- learning to fight, developing a certain physical appearance. Secondly, through that physical training, it became easier to understand more about Ali's mental and emotional space. And the last aspect was spiritual training, basically meeting with an Islamic studies professor and trying to reverse-engineer Ali's discovery of Islam.

What's it like having sex with your wife ...

Now, hold on there just a minute!

... in front of a film crew? (Jada Pinkett Smith plays Ali's first wife in the movie.)

Oh, in front of a film crew! Hey, this was my first movie love scene, and I was more than happy to be having at it with Jada. Unfortunately, she's a professional when it comes to love scenes, because she's been doing them for years. She kept whispering little tips in my ear: "Psst, don't open your mouth so wide."

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