Will Smith took over hosting ‘Red Table Talk’ so he could focus on ‘Emancipation’

A man seated at a red table with three young people standing behind him
Will Smith, seated, with his children, from left, Willow, Trey and Jaden. The group just staged a “Red Table Takeover” to discuss the movie “Emancipation.”
(Jordan Fisher)
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Want all of the “Emancipation” promotion with none of the awkward questions about that Oscars slap that inevitably get posed to Will Smith? Then the movie star’s takeover of his family’s “Red Table Talk” series is just what the doctor ordered.

On Smith’s “Red Table Takeover” with kids Trey, Willow and Jaden — which started streaming Wednesday on Facebook Watch — it was as if the slap never happened. The sit-down began and ended with tales of Smith working on Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV+.

The actor described the moment he felt the character of Peter, a man who was enslaved, wash over him. It was the day they were trying on the leg irons and other chains, and footage rolled showing Smith getting chains locked around his ankles, wrists and neck.


“They put it on and I’m standing there and he goes to take it off and it doesn’t work,” Smith said. “So it’s locked on, and my heart jumps. And I’m like, oh no, oh no, oh no. “

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He sat there while the crew member who was helping him get into and out of the chains ran around looking for the keys.

“For 15 minutes I’m stuck there in the chains,” Smith continued. “So my heart is pounding and I’m like, ‘Will, do not freak.’ And I’m sitting there, and then, it’s like, I got it. ‘I’m Will Smith, with people running around looking for keys,’ and my heart is still pounding and I’m still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have that stuff on, barefoot, and nobody cares.”

Smith was clearly deeply moved by the story of Peter, who in 1863 escaped from a Louisiana farm and ran nearly 80 miles to Baton Rouge, La., where the Union Army was stationed. A photo taken of Peter’s scarred back became “the first viral image,” Smith said, after it was published in Harper’s Weekly and also copied and distributed by multiple abolitionists.

He said that other than when he did “Six Degrees of Separation,” a 1993 release, “Emancipation” was the closest he came to getting “lost” in a character.

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“I wouldn’t say I went too far with Peter — I just lost track of how far I went. Got twisted up in there a little bit,” Smith said. The danger in going too far with a character, he said, is that when it’s time to go back to being yourself, you’re not exactly sure who that self is anymore.


“You go into a state and when you go that one click too far, Will Smith disappears,” he said.

Will Smith did disappear too, in the eyes of co-star Ben Foster.

From Day 1 of shooting, Method actor Foster intentionally didn’t acknowledge Smith, didn’t speak to him, didn’t make eye contact with him, and it was that way for the whole six months they worked together on the movie. It wasn’t until Smith and director Fuqua were at the monitor one day, checking out the day’s last shot, that Foster suddenly walked up to him.

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“He comes to the monitor and he watches the shot. And Antoine says, ‘I’m happy. We got it.’ I look over at Ben. It’s his last day. He says, ‘Nice to meet ya, man,’” and then shook Smith’s hand.

The entire table dissolved into laughter. But Smith credited Foster’s behavior — treating him as if he was nothing — with clicking him into “the next gear of depth and focus” on the first day of shooting.

As for all the things Will Smith that are not related to “Emancipation,” the Oscar winner discussed last year’s slap in late November on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah.

During the 2021 Academy Awards, Smith notoriously slapped Chris Rock in the face after the comic made a lame joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. She has struggled with alopecia, a medical condition involving hair loss, and, after smiling first, Will Smith’s expression darkened and he stood up and did what he did in his wife’s defense.


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“That was a horrific night, as you can imagine. There’s many nuances and complexities to it, but at the end of the day, I just, I lost it,” Smith said, occasionally tearing up during the interview. “And I guess what I would say, you just never know what somebody is going through. ... I was going through something that night. Not that that justifies my behavior at all.”

Smith mentioned being a boy who watched his father beat up his mom, and Noah discussed Smith’s memoir, in which he described growing up afraid of conflict and afraid to fight. The host described Smith’s behavior at the Oscars as the actor standing up for the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“I understand how shocking that was for people .... That was a rage that had been bottled for a really long time,” Smith said on the show. “But I understand the pain.”

“Emancipation” is streaming on Apple TV+.

Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.