Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Gerald McRaney Interview, FOCUS
Will Smith is a master of misdirection in the world of deception in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s smart and sexy heist drama, “Focus.” In Nicky’s (Smith) profession, trust is a currency and it never pays to lose focus. All that changes when he meets the gorgeous Jess (Margot Robbie), a novice con artist who steals his heart and throws him off his game. Opening February 27th, “Focus” also stars Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Robert Taylor, and BD Wong. Apollo Robbins consulted on the film, conceiving and choreographing the original sleight-of-hand maneuvers.
At the film’s recent press day, Smith, Robbie and McRaney discussed the appeal of their roles, their chemistry together, how Apollo taught them the tricks of the confidence trade, what got them into trouble when they were young, the challenge of playing a role that required both seriousness and sexiness, their experience shooting on location in Buenos Aires, the complexity of the film’s clever signature scene in the VIP skybox at the Super Bowl, the craziest thing they’ve ever bet on, the fine line between a con artist and an actor, and the multi-layered love story that’s at the center of the film.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Will, how are you feeling right now?
WILL SMITH: I’m feeling fantastic. Wonderful. We’re very excited to be here. We all had a brilliant time together. We were in New Orleans and New York and Buenos Aires. Our fearless directors can’t be here with us today, but it was as much of a party as making a movie could possibly be.
Q: What did you take away from the movie and learn from Apollo and apply to your personal life?
SMITH: For me, the huge take away from this film is how everything is perception, how reality almost does not matter at all. When you’re talking to a person, it only matters what they are perceiving. You need them to perceive you as a loving husband. You don’t necessarily need to be one. I mean that’s always a good road if you actually are one.
GERALD MCRANEY: It’s easier that way.
SMITH: It’s easier. But how important the perception, what people are perceiving will dictate what their life and ultimately what your interaction is.
Q: Will, when you walk into a room, you own it. When you’re on stage, it’s all yours. Have you always been confident?
SMITH: I think it’s the opposite. When I was doing “Ali,” it was the first time that I realized that he would say, “I’m the greatest. I’m the greatest.” But when we talked, it was because how much like the greatest he didn’t feel. So, it was almost a mantra for himself. That’s sort of a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve wracking for me sometimes to walk into a new space. My experience is if I just let myself go, it’s a whole lot easier. Rather than letting the voices of “Oh my God, ‘Focus’ may not be as good as ‘Enemy of the State,’” rather than letting all those things come in, I like to leap.
MCRANEY: Will has one of those big personalities that when he comes into a room, he brings a lot of energy with him. But quite often when people like that come into the room, they suck all of the oxygen out of it. Will brings an extra supply. He puts oxygen into the room in good measure. That’s one of the great things about working on this movie. I had an acting teacher years ago who observed and he found it very interesting that when people want to compliment an actor’s work, they say, “He gave a good performance.” And that’s what Will does. That’s what everybody up here does. They give a good performance. That’s why it was so much fun working on this movie.
Q: What stuff did you do as a kid?
SMITH: Oh I did some stuff. There just wasn’t no Twitter back then.
MCRANEY: Remember the statute of limitations.
SMITH: Oh right! It’s seven years in California. (Laughs) I’ve always been a jokester. The thing I got in trouble for when I was little was always making a joke. It was always doing something, setting up a prank, being silly when I should be paying attention. But it was very different with “Focus.” I’m so glad I didn’t know these things. Oh my God, I’m really glad that I didn’t know some of these things when I was young. I think my general disposition on life is, “What’s funny about it?” When something happens, the first thing that’s in my mind is what’s funny about it. It’s a little bit different than that when you can have the powers of manipulation.
Q: Margot, tell us about your experience on this film? You were with all these guys who were possibly lying to you.
MARGOT ROBBIE: I had a great time. I seem to keep doing films that are like a boys’ club and I’m the only girl. It’s fun rolling with the guys. They’ve been really great. It’s like I inherited a bunch of older brothers. They all took me under their wing and were really wonderful.
Q: Will, we’ve seen you be funny and do dramatic parts, but we don’t get to see you do sexy that often like you do here. Margot and you had some wonderful chemistry going on. How comfortable was that for you?
ROBBIE: Will, you can put your shirt back on? No, no, no! Any excuse to get the shirt off.
SMITH: I think I’m coming into a different time in my career. I’ve always been the goofy kid growing up. I always enjoyed the comedic aspect of relating to women, and even on camera, it was always the funny take on it. This is one of the first times in my career where it was full on, steamy, grown man-ness.
ROBBIE: And emotion.
SMITH: And emotion. Yeah, emotion. It’s funny because it’s actually an uncomfortable space for me. I’m having to settle into that. My natural instinct is always when you set a moment in that way and it’s really serious, that’s the perfect time for the joke. So, to be constantly pulled away from that and just live in the seriousness and the sexiness of a moment was a little uncomfortable for me.
Q: Margot, how was it for you?
ROBBIE: It was awful, but at the end of the time, someone has to do it. (Will laughs) No, it was great. Will made it very, very easy.
Q: What was your experience like in Buenos Aires?
ROBBIE: We found that everyone in Buenos Aires was extremely passionate. They were exceptionally excited to see Will so the first day of shooting was a little tricky. (to Will) Do you remember that? It was like a wall of people.
SMITH: I’d never been to Argentina. That was my first time so it was a little [crazy]. Passionate is a good word. People were very, very passionate and energized.
ROBBIE: Yeah, passionate, but there was such a vibrancy about that city. We just had the best time. It was such an infectious sort of energy as well. So I hope it seeped into the scenes a little bit because we were definitely feeling it.
Q: Can you comment on the “55” scene that takes place in the VIP skybox during the Super Bowl? I thought that was absolutely amazing. You two looked like you were sweating it.
ROBBIE: Yeah. It was stressful. Even knowing what was coming at the end, you were still so stressed doing it. It was exhausting.
SMITH: That Super Bowl scene is probably going to end up being the signature scene of this movie. It’s just so clever. That was a part of the beauty of what Apollo brought to the film. We say the word “con,” but it’s so far beyond con. It is a deep and powerful perception of how the human mind works. It’s human behavior and those ideas are just so intriguing and exciting. And just as an actor, there’s one scene going on, so you’re playing one scene. But then there’s another scene that’s the real scene that’s actually going on. And then, beneath that, the audience is getting played in the scene at the same time.
ROBBIE: It’s manipulation. There are layers and layers. It’s kind of hard to keep your head straight.
SMITH: It’s such a great opportunity to be able to do that. It’s an honor to be in a scene like that.
Q: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever bet on?
ROBBIE: Remember when we played poker?
SMITH: Oh yeah.
ROBBIE: I won ten pumpkins off Will in a game of poker. I didn’t know how to play and Will was teaching me how to play poker.
SMITH: Always a mistake. And I was like, “Oh my God, the beginner’s luck thing really is real.”
ROBBIE: We just kept rolling and I just kept winning.
SMITH: How is your first hand of poker a full house? (Laughs)
ROBBIE: We quickly realized that betting with money wasn’t fun for us. What else did I win?
SMITH: It was ridiculous. You won ten pumpkins.
ROBBIE: It was coming up to Halloween so I won ten pumpkins.
SMITH: It was a series of things and I couldn’t win a hand and it was really frustrating.
ROBBIE: That was high stakes gambling.
SMITH: She was like, “So wait. If you have four, is that better than three?” And I said, “Yes. Your four is better than my three. It is.”
Q: Con artists take on a persona that makes you believe things that aren’t real. Is there a fine line between a con artist and an actor?
SMITH: Now what is that supposed to mean? My uncle is in your car as we speak because you wouldn’t expect that from my family. (Laughs)
MCRANEY: Yeah, but I know you and I would.
ROBBIE: I think it really does go hand in hand with acting sometimes. It’s a lot about emotional manipulation, and that’s precisely what we do to try and evoke an emotion out of the audience members and make them emotionally invest in something. That just raises the stakes. People care so much more all of a sudden. If you can achieve that, your conning is going to work out a lot better.
MCRANEY: I just do it to avoid real work. It’s been a successful con for years.
SMITH: Part of what was exciting for me about taking this role is how everybody is running a con. Every single person in here right now is running a con. We’ve chosen our clothes. We’ve done our hair. We’ve done what we think…
MCRANEY: Don’t make hair jokes.
SMITH: Sorry! We’ve done our hair or….
MCRANEY: Or not!
SMITH: Everyone wants to be perceived a certain way to gain the things that they have decided are the things they want in their life. At the center of this film, there’s the idea that lying and loving don’t go together. So, until we are willing to actually show that we have warts and show that we’re scared and that we’re not all the things that we’re working so hard to be perceived as, until we’re willing to let it all go and be authentic, that you actually can’t have the very thing that you’re doing it for, which is the love and connection with other human beings. For me, that’s what was so exciting. It’s like, “Oh my God, everything’s a con! Everything!”
Q: Will, what was the appeal of doing “Focus”? You have a number of very high profile movies coming up for you.
SMITH: For me, this film really marks a transition in my life and emotionally in my career. After the failure of “After Earth,” a thing got broken in my mind, because I was like, “Oh wow, I’m still alive. Oh wow, actually I still am me even though the movie didn’t open Number One. Wait! I can still get hired on another movie.” All of those things in my mind, my entire Mr. July, Big Willy Weekend, Number One, Eight in a Row, all of that thing got collapsed and I realized I still was a good person. So when I went into “Focus,” I completely released the concept of goal orientation and got into path orientation: this moment, this second, these people, this interaction. It is a huge relief for me to not care whether or not “Focus” is Number One or Number Ten at the box office. I have already gained everything that I could possibly have hoped for from meeting the people that I met and from the creation of what we did together, and it’s just painting. I’m going to paint and some paintings are going to be fantastic. Others are going to not be so good, but I no longer measure the quality of myself on whether or not somebody else thinks what I painted is beautiful.
Q: A lot has been said about the chemistry between you and Margot in the film. Was that instantaneous when you guys first met? And are you excited to play with that chemistry again in your upcoming “Suicide Squad”?
SMITH: It was pretty instantaneous. Margot walked into the audition. We were in New York. She had flown in from Croatia. It was a pretty long flight and her luggage was lost. So, she only had the clothes that she had worn on her backpacking trip.
ROBBIE. It was quite a long journey and they were actually wet clothes. I’d been swimming right before getting the call that I needed to come. It was six in the morning and I’d been swimming and then I got the call saying, “You need to be doing an audition with Will Smith tomorrow in New York so your flight’s booked for tonight.” I was like, “Tonight?! Oh my God!” I rang the lady at the hostel I was staying at and asked, “How do I get off this island? I need to get to the mainland.” And she was like, “Oh there’s only one boat a day and it leaves in 20 minutes.” I was like, “Oh my God!” I grabbed all my stuff, left half of it probably in the hostel, and then raced off, got this catamaran, then got a bus, and got another bus to get to the airport, waited 8 hours, and then I went to France and then New York. By the time I got to New York, I’d now not slept for well over two days.
SMITH: And you probably hadn’t done your hair?
ROBBIE: Yeah. They lost my luggage and my audition was about seven hours away. So, I’m walking to the audition in wet sneakers and ripped denim shorts and a pajama shirt, which is the only dry thing I had before they lost my luggage. I had just swapped it. And then, I was like, “I cannot meet Will Smith in my pajama shirt.” So I went to Topshop and grabbed a top and then walked in and still looked horrendous.
SMITH: No, you looked amazing. I thought to myself, “Wow! She really doesn’t want this job.” (Laughs)
ROBBIE: She’s put in a lot of effort…
SMITH: …to not get this job. (Laughs)
ROBBIE: Will was late. I’d come from Croatia and Will was late.
SMITH: You know, there was traffic coming from Queens. But it was fantastic.
ROBBIE: Do you remember I called you a dick in our first scene.
SMITH: I know. I just didn’t think I was as good, but you said it. That’s what she adlibbed. That was fantastic.
ROBBIE: And everybody in the movie. It was great.
SMITH: What line was that?
ROBBIE: It’s throughout the movie. I don’t know what’s ended up in the cut of the movie.
SMITH: It’s in there. I wasn’t going to tell that story, but that was the actual moment. As soon as she said it, that’s when I knew. We’re adlibbing because I’ll go off the script every once and a while. So that’s a big test. If you go off of the script, can a person go with you? So, in the middle of the audition, I went off script and she adlibbed back, “Oh you’re such a dick!” “Hold on there! I’m Will Smith! You don’t say that!” It was absolute, complete fearlessness and complete comfort.
ROBBIE: It was fun.
SMITH: It was. And you can’t create chemistry. You either have it or you don’t. And when she walked in there, it was really palpable. I’ve never used that word in public before but it felt good. It’s great in the movie. It was palpable.
Q: Gerald, you’ve compared Margot to another legendary screen icon.
MCRANEY: Yeah. I compare Margot’s work in this movie and other things I’ve seen her in, but in this one especially, she reminds me of a very bright Marilyn Monroe with that great beauty and an incredible sense of comedy and ease. I told Margot when we were working that the last time I met a woman that beautiful who could do comedy, I married her, so to watch out.
Q: Would you agree that with all this wonderful deception and con and magic, the bottom line is there are many levels of love in this film and it’s also a love story?
ROBBIE: Absolutely. John (Requa) and Glenn (Ficarra) always said from the beginning that at the core of it, it was a love story, and that what they do best is tell love stories. I think it’s pretty amazing that we didn’t lose that with all the heists and things that were happening around it. That was the most important part of the story.
MCRANEY: But again, their script was so masterfully crafted and they are so good at what they do that they kept bringing us back to that theme that it really is all about love.
Q: We’ve seen how convincing you can be playing other people on screen. Have you ever tried to pull this kind of thing off in a real life scenario to convince somebody that you’re someone else?
ROBBIE: I started working on a TV show in Australia straight out of high school so I missed the whole university experience. So I would just go to all the university parties with all my friends and if anyone was like, “Do I know you?,” I’d be like, “Yeah. I’m studying here.” “Doing what?” “Oh, Marine Biology.” So I’d just make up a different [major]. That’s the only conning I’ve done. I would just pick a new student I would be every time I went to these university events so I didn’t feel like I missed out on the university experience. It was kind of fun.
SMITH: It’s been difficult for me for a few years to pretend to be someone else.
MCRANEY: I used to try and convince girls I was Paul Newman. It didn’t work.