Pattern Recognition: Unpacking the Teachings of Will Smith

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and...

I’m a student of patterns. At heart, I’m a physicist. I look at everything in my life as trying to find the single equation, the theory of everything. – Will Smith, interview in New York Magazine

Look to the sky. See that orb? Feel its heat. Now observe how it traces an arc across the heavens. It does this every day. That’s a pattern.

Have you noticed? Best Actor Academy Awards are usually awarded to men who either play historical figures or characters with mental illness. Forrest Gump, Lincoln, the disturbed silent man from The Artist. Coincidence? Not on your life: that’s another pattern.

Screen actor Tom Cruise, now sadly better known for his personal lunacy than for his uniquely powerful cinematic running, is a Scientologist. Will Smith denies being a Scientologist but recently donated heaps of cash to the church. Now, instead of sensibly rapping about how parents just don’t understand, Smith says troublingly weird things in interviews such as, “You know, the forum of media that we’re in can’t really handle the complexity of things that we say all the time.” Is this another pattern? Hey, whoa, your words, not mine. Nice try, though, sneaky Scientology lawyer.

Patterns are everywhere, and if you’re multimillionaire actor and physicist-at-heart Will Smith, you are attuned to all of them. In that New York Magazine interview with Smith and his son Jaden, for example, you can find patterns within patterns. The interviewer would ask an innocuous question, phrased gingerly, as if to a mentally ill person, such as: “I’ve read that you believe life can be understood through patterns.” Or: “Do you see patterns too, Jaden?” The Smiths, then, would respond with answers that seemed like they had been carefully workshopped and focus-grouped for maximum batshit insanity. “I think that there is that special equation for everything, but I don’t think our mathematics have evolved enough for us to even—I think there’s, like, a whole new mathematics that we’d have to learn to get that equation,” Jaden Smith said philosophically. “I agree with that,” Will Smith added.

A man is born, grows old, becomes rich and powerful off his brand of charming freshness. Then he gives life to a boy, who agrees with all his father’s crazy ideas about the mathematics of the universe. Just a coincidence, or is there some deeper patterning going on?

Here’s a pattern: in most celebrity interviews, the subject trots out a few shopworn anecdotes designed to make him or herself look amusing and self-deprecating and vaguely relatable. I am a celebrity, they say, but I share your quotidian dreams and concerns and love of normal plebian foods like Whoppers and donuts and, er, sashimi. I am a flesh-and-blood human man or woman, just like you! Will Smith, in contrast, has a pattern of delivering off-message, self-aggrandizing Randian soundbites steeped in New Age philosophy with a special emphasis on pseudo-science. As he told a group of confused high-school students: “You open yourself up to the world of science and it speaks to relationships, it speaks to dealing with bullying. Everything in your life has scientific patterns to it.” Or: “Two plus two only equals four if you accept that two plus two equals four,” as he told a confused-looking interviewer a few years ago. “Two plus two’s gonna be what I want it to be.”

What is the deeper pattern here? What is the single equation to explain this kind of behaviour? Imagine you are a young rapper from Philadelphia, with a friend named “Jazzy Jeff,” who somehow figures out how to parlay his natural charisma into a career as the most bankable star in Hollywood. Now you live in Los Angeles, world capital of New Agey self-aggrandizement. Such an unlikely ascent! Is it pure, stupid luck? Or is it because you’ve tapped into something bigger? Is it because you are in tune with a larger equation? Think about it.

Is Will Smith a lunatic? What do the patterns say? Is his particular brand of movie-star parenting kind of off-putting but also totally fascinating? Become a student of the patterns.

But, also, is Will Smith not totally perfect in Independence Day? Did I not cry, watching I Am Legend on Netflix the other week, when Will Smith had to kill that German Shepherd, his only friend in the whole wide world? If you put Will Smith in a movie set in a vaguely ominous future and allow him to deploy his entire acting range—from infectiously overconfident Will Smith to lip-quivering-“I’m-sorry-uncle-Phil” Will Smith—will I bike to the theatre, smoke a joint, buy a cinema-sized box of raisin Glosettes and have the best goddamn night seventeen dollars can buy? Look to the patterns.

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Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and many other publications.