Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1995 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Written By: Scott Poulson-Bryant
Photographs By: Jon Ragel
One big summer movie – Bad Boys. Two prime-time funnymen – Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Teaming up to bust caps as well as guts, Smith and Lawrence are an odd couple on the screen and off. Scott Poulson-Bryant talks with both of them about Blowing Up and Growing Up.
When you think about it, it’s downright unprecedented. Prime-time television’s biggest black stars—Will Smith of The Fresh of Bel-Air and Martin Lawrence of Martin—are starring in Bad Boys, a big-budget Hollywood action-comedy full of stunts and explosions and big, crowd-pleasing laughs. Two for the price of one. Call it Beverly Hills Cop 2 meets Miami Twice.
It’s easy to think these entertainers, who hold sway over their own hit network sitcoms, would have been at each other’s throats, throwing prima donna shade over the slightest of perceived slights. But according to both actors, things were smooth. “We basically ad-libbed every scene,” Will says. “It was two and a half months of two of the silliest guys in comedy doing exactly what they wanted to.”
In Bad Boys, they play two Miami detectives in the special narcotics division whose temperaments are 180 degrees apart: Will is Mike Lowrey, a flashy playboy; Martin is Marcus Burnett, a homebody family man with a mortgage to pay. After making the biggest arrest in the department’s history, the duo have to find the thief who stole $100 million worth of heroin from the station house, or they’ll lose their jobs.
Smith and Lawrence weren’t necessarily playing their roles from experience—offscreen they’re different, but not in the way the Bad Boys are. At the time of filming, Will was the married-with-child brother who wanted to focus on family values, and Martin was the recently dis-engaged rascal, doing his thing on the singles scene. Now, on the eve of the film’s release, it seems they’ve done another role reversal. Will Smith is grappling with an impending divorce from Sheree, his wife for more than two years, and with how it will affect their two-year-old son, Willard C. “Trey” Smith III. He says he’s not yet ready to talk about the situation, though he does note that the sudden death of his infant half brother, Sterling, took him back to Philly, where he now intends to spend more time. On the flip side, Martin Lawerence got married in January to ex beauty queen Patricia Southall. He and his wife are planning for children, and Lawrence, after a year of professional ups and downs, looks at the future with great expectations.
Everything’s happening so fast for these two transplanted twentysomething East Coast guys who found fame and fortune out West by doing their versions of black-boy cool for the masses. So fast and furious, in fact, that crammed schedules never allowed all three of us to meet at the same time. I had to wait endlessly for Martin. First he was just back from his Caymans honeymoon, then he said he had injured his back, then he was busy finishing his show’s “Player’s Ball” episode, featuring an array of blaxploitation stars. All that waiting, however, left plenty of time to chill with the very accommodating Will Smith.
We spent one day cruising around L.A., pumping Teddy Riley’s BLACKstreet tape in Will’s white Ford Bronco. I had been there last June when the media began its all-out assault on OJ, so driving along the freeway in this particular ride with a black male superstar at my side took on an almost surreal quality. “I had mine before all that started,” Will noted. But the irony didn’t escape him. When the ringing car phone signaled Will’s booming system to automatically pause, one thing raced through my mind: The rich really are different. But the price of livin’ large is steep out in this bright-lights, big-titty world, where dream seekers flock and where black boys, in particular, come to Blow Up, if not to Grow Up. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are trying their best to do both.
Caverting around the low-key set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wearing oatmeal colored linen and boots, Will Smith seems thinner in person, wiry almost, even though he had to follow an extensive workout regimen for his movie role. His face does its trademark dance between seriousness and just buggin’, the balancing act between sophistication and boyishness that has kept this 26-year-old in the public eye for the past eight years.
Smith’s office conveys the same sense of his multi-layered self. A big-screen TV is in one corner, the tangled joystick cords of a Sega video game in front of it. A mini-stereo rests on a low table, surrounded by cassettes. A plethora of gold and platinum DJ JazzyJeff and the Fresh Prince records line the far wall, a reminder of the up-and-down road that led to Will Smith’s current state of Blowing Up affairs. And adjacent to that wall hangs a huge painting—by a fan from Miami—of Will uncharacteristically in repose. It doesn’t seem vain for Will Smith to have a massive painting of himself in his dressing room. One gets the impression he needs his, more serious side to look down upon him, to bestow the necessary intensity to reach his goal: to be the reigning funnyman in the prime-time wars—which is as serious a job as any, as Martin Lawrence also well knows.
“What makes you an effective superhero is that you don’t want to be,” says Bad Boys costar Will Smith. “Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard— the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot.”
With five years of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air under his belt, Will Smith has the hip teen thing down. I ask him if he thinks he’s a natural clown—considering the comedic video persona of his early rap days and raucous appearances on late-night talk shows—and he laughs. “I’m just outgoing,” he says, then pauses, as if that doesn’t quite sum it up. Then he jumps right back in to answer, appearing to try out responses in his mind as he goes along. “I’m comfortable enough to impose myself on my surroundings,” he continues. “That’s the best way to describe it, really. It’s a gift. It’s the ability to impose myself on my surroundings without making people feel imposed upon.”
Good answer, I’m thinking, as he continues on, knowing innately that a good answer isn’t enough. Only a great answer will suffice. “But it’s always been like that. When I was younger, it was more about being different when everyone else wanted to fit in. I always wanted how I talked or my clothes to be different. Peer pressure never meant anything to me. If something was done one way, something in me resisted it.”
He pauses again and laughs. “It was the same way in my music. Something in me enjoyed coming to New York from Philly and people not liking us at first. When everyone else was trying to act tough and grab their dicks, the first thing anyone heard me say on record was, ‘Oh man, my eye! This guy just punched me in my eye for nothing.’ I enjoyed that. I strove for that. Oris is it strived? Or striven?” He throws his hands in the air, deferring to the writer in the room. “Whatever, just put it right in the article.”
Will Smith can make that kind of demand. In fact, you want him to make demands of you because he’s so demonstrative, acting out scenes from his life when words won’t suffice, rapping entire verses of “The Message” to make his point about rap’s changing style, reciting complete Tony Montana monologues from Scarface to illustrate a point you just made, challenging your taste in movies (“You haven’t seen Pulp Fiction yet?”), challenging you to one-up him (“Don’t you wanna ask me some more questions?”). But it’s almost more interesting just to observe Will Smith. He’s a perpetual performer, always doing his job, always giving his all.
Six years ago, though, the Fresh Prince nearly gave it all away, nearly lost the crown off his head. He blew up too big too fast, and it all came crashing down. He suddenly went broke. His first album, 1987’s Rock the House, went gold the following year. Then 1988’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper eventually sold 3 million copies, spurred by the single “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Next, And in This Corner merely went gold, before 1991’s Homebase, the return to Philly roots featuring “Summertime,” went platinum. His most recent album, 1993’s Code Red, went gold. The DJ. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince phone line, the first celebrity 900 number, minted money—in its day it was the second-highest-grossing line behind Dial-A-Joke. “In ’87-’88 I was rich,” he says. “In ’89 I was broke.”
Broke like, rich-folks broke? I ask. No dollars in your pocket, but a couple hundred thou tied up in investments and CDs? He laughs and shakes his head vigorously. “Nah, man. I was broke. Like, can’t-buy-gas, sell-the-car broke. Actually, you know what? Sell everythingbroke. I was a moron. I had the suburban mansion, a motorcycle, I was traveling the world. I was 18 and the world was open, and when the world is open like that it makes you crazy, you want everything. I wasn’t any happier with money, and I wasn’t any less happy when I went broke. It hurt, and mentally it was tough dealing with, but inside it didn’t change. I still had my family, and I could still have a good time. I could still laugh.”
He rebounded in a new arena-prime-time TV as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, post-Cosby sitcom with a nod to The Jeffersons: movin’ on up with a hip hop twist. Then, through sheer force of will, Smith made it to the big screen in 1992, debuting in Where the Day Takes You as a wheelchair-bound street kid. His role in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America (and the screams of teenage girls on the set) led to his landing the plum role of Paul, the sad, confused con man in the critically acclaimed film version of the Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation. In the process, Will Smith’s screen persona grew exponentially, acquiring layers of resonance devoid of the street corner histrionics usually demanded of young black male actors.
As Smith copes privately with the dissolution of his marriage to a woman who shunned the amusement park of the klieg lights, his public persona enters the high-stakes world of shoot-’em-up, make-’em-laugh, big-bank movies. And he may have just found his Axel Foley—the role that will give him a defining big-screen image. Produced by the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer team behind Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop series, Bad Boys stretched Smith in ways he’s never been stretched before.
“With all that jumping and shooting when you’re making an action movie, you realize that it’s a stunt, not a trick,” he says. “And it brings out all that testosterone. I saw how the situation brings that stuff out in people. Everybody has an action hero in them; everyone wants to kick in a door and shoot somebody.” On the other hand, he says, “I knew it had to be as real as possible, because what makes you an effective superhero is that you don’t want to be. Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot. People can’t relate to a guy who just jumps in front of bullets.”
Martin Lawrence knows that too, considering the potshots he’s taken in public over the past year. Coming on the sitcom scene more than two years ago as Martin Payne, Lawrence instantly became the quotable cock of the walk with a bop in his step. He was the leading man in Martin (the funniest post-hip hop black show on the air) and did double duty as the host of the successful Def Comedy jam.
But somewhere along the line, Martin lost its stride. Year No. 2—the 1993-94 TV season—was supposed to be the one in which its star, Martin Lawrence, Blew Up, bringing his candid ghetto realness to the moviegoing, record-buying masses with his first concert film, You So Crazy, and comedy album, Talkin’ Shit. Things didn’t quite work out that way. The endearing wannabe who played Bilal (a.lea. Dragon Breath) in the House Party movies seemed to morph into a larger-than-life, self-made superstar from the ‘hood, whose comeuppance was—like Tony Montana’s—just around the corner.
First, there was his battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over the NC-17 rating they slapped on his concert film, You So Crazy. Of course there was race issues here (why a brotha gotta get the NC-17?) and censorship issues (why a brotha gotta get told what to say?), but what got lost in all the hoopla was that this comedic performance didn’t meet the high standards he had already set for himself. Neither did his next notorious public moment.
Last winter, on his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig, Lawrence brought Def Comedy Jam to Lorne Michaels’s crib. It was a debacle. Spraying the small stage with the scent of his insecurity and nervousness, Lawrence littered his opening monologue with scatological references that play fine on cable but shocked NBC’s brass. He subsequently found himself at the center of a media storm regarding his not-ready-for-network language and subject matter, which ultimately led to his being de-scheduled from an appearance on Jay Leno.
Looking back at the whole situation, Lawrence believes he was “set up” by the SNL people (“They kept telling me, ‘Do what you do.’ And I did.”) and admits to a certain nervous energy that informed his antics. He also says that after so many black folks came out to see him at Radio City Music Hall in New York earlier that year, he anticipated playing to a more racially mixed studio audience. Yet ultimately he chalks the disaster up to youth, to being intimidated by the history and mythology of the once-cutting-edge late-night dinosaur. But for a minute there, it looked like Martin Lawrence was about to be taken out like just another sucker MC.
Lawrence wasn’t going to let that happen. He laid low after enduring those storms, held back on public appearances, broke up with his then girlfriend, actress Lark Voorhies, and concentrated on Martin—which was still being talked about, although two years into its run the funniest thing people were saying about the show was that it wasn’t funny anymore. (And exactly where was Sheneneh, anyway?) Lawrence also started looking for a movie script that would have a “buddy-buddy feel to it, but something that was real, that would be good for my audience and work for other audiences as well.” Which was probably a good move for him: That way he wouldn’t have to carry the burden, or the risk, alone—as he did in his concert film and on SNL.
He found Bad Boys, a movie that was, ironically, originally slated to star former Saturday Night Live clowns Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. In the box-office-friendly blend of action and comedy, perhaps Martin saw the opportunity in his first starring role on the big-screen to follow that other foulmouthed black funnyman who found fame on TV. Eddie Murphy, the post-Pryor model of black comic as household name, has already primed the box office for Lawrence and his generation’s brand of raw good humor. Maybe Martin Lawrence too had found his Axel Foley—a role that could establish him as a cinematic franchise with Badder Boys and Even Badder Boys to follow. As creative and fluid as his work can be, Martin’s savvy very much includes keeping the business plan in full focus.
“I called him Martin Lawrence King,” says Smith of his costar. “It’s really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity.”
Sitting in his small office in the Martin bungalow on the Universal lot, with fake African masks adorning the end tables—”I don’t know where they’re from,” he says casually—Martin Lawrence, dressed in a black turtleneck and gray plaid slacks, comes off less like a creative dynamo than as the Hollywood hyphenate he is: sitcom star, executive producer, sometime writer, and soon-to-be feature film director. He’s very wary, even difficult, toward the press these days. Like other stand-up-to-sitcom stars, Martin fought through the usual creative control issues, in part by firing longtime manager and show cocreator Topper Carew, reportedly before a live studio audience. When asked about that incident, his reply is, “I have the utmost respect for him, but I don’t wanna go there.”
Ask Lawrence if he likes having more power on the set, and he looks at you with a blank stare and asks, “What do you mean by power?” Then he adds, “I have more say, so if I don’t like something, we won’t do it. If I do like something, we do.” Does it make work more difficult with more responsibilities behind the camera? “You have to be the judge of that,” he replies tersely. “If people are saying the show’s suffering because of it, maybe I’m too much involved in the business.”
While making Bad Boys, it wasn’t hard for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to find a working rhythm, even though both guys are more accustomed to having straight men than being them. “You never see two brothers from different networks getting together to do something like this,” Lawrence gushes. “But we had a lot of fun. We worked hard together. Since both of us have comic timing on the sitcoms, we knew it was just a matter of getting together and finding out how we complemented each other.”
“That’s the beauty of working with another comic,” agrees Smith. “You go in in the morning and you have no clue what’s about to happen. I’m used to changing lines on my show, and he does the same thing. It was like a tennis match. He would say something, then I’d toss a line right back.”
Smith was also taken with Lawrence’s devotion to the social and cultural impact of their collaboration. “He has a lot of interesting insights,” Smith says. “I called him Martin Lawrence King. It’s really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity. We’d talk for hours about whether our coming together would mean anything to young black kids. Would it mean anything that we were being strong enough for it to work with no problems?”
Which begs the ego question. Compared with Will’s accessible playfulness, Martin is guarded and defensive in person. Yet on-camera, he invariably thrusts himself centerstage, as if demanding his costars catch up to his manic energy. His mercurial reputation precedes him. When I mention that he’s regarded as a taskmaster, Lawrence replies, “I feel everyone should come to the project as I do. If you don’t care as much for it as I do, why are you there?”
When I ask Will Smith, “Do you have a big ego?” he replies, “Yeah, I have a huge ego, but I don’t impose it on people. You have to have a big ego to be an actor. But I have control over that, because I don’t like how it feels when other people throw their weight around. That experience makes me struggle really hard not impose myself on people for selfish reasons. Ego drives you. I think it’s really important. But you have to control your ego; you can’t let your ego control you.”
When I ask Lawrence the same question, he looks at me for about 20 seconds before responding. After a bit of verbal jousting and nonanswers (“Do you think I have one? What defines a big ego?”), I ask him how he’s changed as a result of having a hit TV show, a wedding that was covered by the tabloids, and a big summer movie about to drop.
“I’ve grown up a little more,” he says, “though I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully grown-up, ’cause I ain’t trying to lose the kiddish things in me, ’cause that’s what I love. I love to bug out and be spontaneous and talk some shit. I changed for the better, and I’m steady trying to get better at what I do. But by the same token, I talk shit. We all do. “Spoken like a true bad boy.