*This is not the first time Will Smith has played a real life person, but this is definitely his finest hour, playing Dr. Bennet Omalu. A Nigerian immigrant, Omalu discovered a brain disease, CTE, that escaped the many doctors who examined NFL plalyers, alive and dead.
A brilliant and courageous neuropathologist, Omalu defied all odds in becoming a game changer. Playing the role of Omalu, however, took a toll on Smith and it was months before he could shake that experience he said at the Crosby Hotel in New York City.
Will, what was your preparation for this role?
I watched him completely dismantle multiple human bodies. Watching an autopsy, watching Bennet do an autopsy, was the most powerful insight. Music was playing and he referred to the bodies as his patients. The idea of being a threshold guardian who is delivering souls from this world to the next was a serious job, not on a scientific level but on a spiritual level for him.
It’s a spiritual responsibility to deliver these souls to the other side. Once I got hooked into that almost paradoxical nature of science and spirituality, it deeply opened the wellspring to the inner truth of Bennet.
Did you relate to his sense of spirituality?
My grandmother was really my connection to God. She was the most spiritually certain person that I’ve ever met in my life. Even to the point that when she was dying, she was happy. She was really excited about going to heaven. So I had a deep, profound emotional comprehension of spirituality. I connected a lot with Bennet. I feel that with Bennet, the scientific part was the new addition. My grandmother wasn’t a woman of science; her spirituality came from the bible. And then Bennet connected the parts, reconciled them for me.
How hard was it for you to shake this role off?
In terms of shaking off the role, it was quite heavy. We were shooting in Pittsburgh so every day the family members of some of the deceased players would be there. For example, the actual woman who did the slides for Mike Webster was there. So, we were really immersed in the emotional weight of what was going on. The series of autopsies and having to confront mortality was a constant presence.
One Friday I had seen three autospies and I just wanted to keep going because I knew it was something that Bennet would do everyday so I wanted it to be natural for me. It was aroud 2 p.m. and we called the morgue. They said, ‘Sorry. There’s no bodies. You guys can come on Monday morning.’ But by 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, they had three bodies.
So it was like three people at 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon had no idea that their autopsies were going to be done at 8 a.m. It was just that constant barrage of the reality, that frailty of humanity. It took a very heavy toll on me. It took me probably three or four months to really just shake it off completely where you’re not dreaming, images aren’t popping up and all of that. There’s a certain weight that stays with it.
Syndicated Entertainment journalist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]
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