The filmmaker was one of the ones rallying around Smith in the wake of the shocking moment, stemming from a G.I. Jane joke Rock made at Jada Pinkett Smith's expense, reportedly unaware she has alopecia. Perry also defended his own actions, saying he wasn't "comforting" Smith but "de-escalating" the situation.
"There's a difference between comforting and de-escalating, that's number one," Perry told Gayle King Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival via People magazine. "And I left early to get to Chris to make sure he was OK. Being friends with both of them has been very difficult."
Perry said he was "there close up" on March 27 — as he was paying tribute to Sidney Poiter during the in memoriam segment — and what Smith did "was wrong in no uncertain terms. I made sure I said that to Will."
Perry said when he and Denzel Washington "walked over to" Smith, "he was devastated. He couldn’t believe what happened. I'm looking at this man in his eyes going, 'What are you doing? This is your night.' And to get all the way to this moment, winning an Oscar, that was one of the crowning moments of his career that he wanted so desperately, and to have something like that happen..."
Smith, of course, went on to be awarded the Best Actor Oscar for King Richard soon after, taking the stage and making an acceptance speech. He received a standing ovation.
Perry said he thinks Smith, who has apologized publicly to Rock and was banned from the Oscars for 10 years, "is very much in reflection of trying to figure out what happened."
However, he pointed to part of Smith's 2021 memoir Will in which the future Ali star recalled, at age 9, witnessing his father punch his mother in the side of the head so hard she collapsed. Smith wrote that he long felt like a coward for failing her and not standing up his father in that moment. He contemplated killing his father to avenge his mother.
"I know that feeling of being a man and thinking about the little boy," Perry said. "If that trauma is not dealt with right away as you get older, it will show up in the most inappropriate, most horrible time. I know Will. I know him well."
Washington, who helped de-escalate alongside Perry, previously said of the high-profile incident, "There's a saying, 'When the devil ignores you, then you know you're doing something wrong.' You know, the devil goes, 'Oh, no, leave him alone, he's my favorite. Don't bother him.' Conversely, when the devil comes at you, maybe it's because you're trying to do something right. And for whatever reason, the devil got a hold of that circumstance that night."
Smith, who resigned from the the Academy amid the scandal, apologized to the Academy and show attendees (but not to Rock) while accepting his Best Actor trophy during the fated ceremony. After, he celebrated his win at an Oscar party with his family, dancing to "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." The next day, he publicly apologized to Rock ("violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive"), but said, "Jokes at my expense are part of the job, but a joke about Jada's medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally." Once the Academy issued the ban, he apologized again, calling his actions "shocking, painful and inexcusable. The list of those I have hurt is long and includes Chris, his family, many of my dear friends and loved ones, all those in attendance and global audiences at home."
On Red Table Talk earlier this month, Pinkett Smith broke her silence about the situation in an episode dedicated to alopecia. She said she she hopes Smith and Rock "heal, talk this out and reconcile. With the state of the world today, we need 'em both, and we all actually need one another more than ever."
She faced criticism for her comments, including from former co-star Vivica A. Fox, who said she was disappointed she took "no accountability" when video from Oscars night seemed to show Jada laughing at her seat after the slap.