It would be easy to pick apart Will Smith’s appearance on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman,” looking for portions that haven’t aged well since “The Slap.”
The episode – one of six from the Netflix show's fourth season released Friday – was shot in January, two months before the Oscars. Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock at the movie awards after the comedian likened the close-cropped haircut worn by Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, to Demi Moore's in “G.I. Jane.” Pinkett Smith has spoken about her battle with alopecia.
You might snicker when Letterman compliments Smith as “introspective” or introduces him to an audience at Los Angeles' The Comedy Store as “America’s friend.” Or cringe when Smith, who portrayed legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in a 2001 biopic, gives Letterman tips on fighting, or when he playfully tells Letterman, “Don’t say nothin’ ‘bout my mother, Dave,” when the conversation turns to Smith’s mom, Caroline Bright.
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Now there’s no question that Smith’s violent assault of Rock was wrong. Smith himself has apologized to Rock publicly, admitting he was “out of line”in a March 28 Instagram post. “I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be," he wrote. "There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.” Smith also apologized to The Academy, resigned and has been banned from Academy events for a decade.
It's easy in hindsight to sift Smith and Letterman’s conversation for moments to critique. But what if your higher self didn't reach for the low-hanging fruit? To me, the interview perfectly conveys how complicated and layered humans are and reiterates that no one is perfect, not one of us entirely good or bad. It dives into a life instead of dwelling on a heated, inexcusable moment.
Smith, when talking about his November memoir “Will,” opens up about the deeply felt notion that he lacked courage. “The first line of the first chapter is, ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a coward,’” Smith tells Letterman. “When I was 9 years old, I saw my father beat up my mother, and I didn’t do anything. And that just left a traumatic impression of myself as a coward.” (Could a desire to replace that narrative with one of hero have played a role in The Slap? I can't help but wonder.)
Letterman himself has been accused of sexual favoritism and admitted to his “Late Show” audience that he had sex with women on his CBS show's staff. Yet here he is, steering this nearly hourlong episode, a conversation between two imperfect people who can still provide insights given their knowledge and experience.
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Smith also has wise words for the career-obsessed and perfectionists. His father and namesake, he tells Letterman, instilled in him that “99% is the same as zero,” which Smith was finally able to shake in counseling. His therapist told him, “Mathematically, 99% is almost as far from zero as you could get.”
Smith learned, as he relentlessly pursued box-office success, that “When you set your sights on material success, there actually is nothing that’s enough. No. 1 movies were much more of an addiction than they were a fulfilling, emotional endeavor,” he explains. “I wanted to be the best, but I correlated being the best with being able to have the love in my life that would make me feel safe.”
Smith says examining his life has enriched his abilities as an actor.
“Life is so exciting to me right now, because I can reach people differently than I’ve ever been able to reach people, largely because of my pain," he says. "I’m really ready to dive into my art in a way that I think will be hopefully fulfilling for me and helpful for the human family.”
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Smith shared a similar sentiment in a conversation with USA TODAY last December, while promoting his nature docuseries "Welcome to Earth."
“I feel like my life needs to be firewood for people’s dreams. I'm offering it to be observed and kicked and prodded and dissected, because I feel like I've experienced enough things that now it can be useful,” he said of the decision to share so much of his personal life. He said when he dies he wants to be buried without a casket so he can "be food for some worms and ants. It's my new perception of being useful, of being helpful."
And while our interview also happened months before the infamous slap, I would guess that Smith would welcome his low moment to be used as a cautionary tale.
“If there's an opportunity that I can help someone avoid a pitfall, or I can help someone achieve their dreams, I want to do that," he said in December. "It's like, what else is there for me to do with my life other than offer it to fan the flames of other people’s dreams, or to use as a warning sign for a potentially destructive road?”
Roads can lead to demise or redemption. But I would like to think the weight of Smith's life – the totality of his 53 years as America's "Fresh Prince" and, as Letterman said, "friend" – could tip the scales in his favor.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Smith’s David Letterman interview offers more than cringe