HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
"Hancock is not your average superhero," says Will Smith, the star of Columbia Pictures' new action-comedy, Hancock. Smith says that he was attracted to the film by the chance to bring an original, unique story to the screen -- Hancock, a superhero movie that expands the boundaries of the genre by stressing human emotion. "There's this idea that 'summer' movies are about action and that 'fall' movies are about character," he says. "Well, what happens if you take a powerful, dramatic story with rich character arcs and set it in a world with all the bells and whistles of a July 4th movie? Why can't you marry those and get the best of both worlds?"
The way that Smith and his fellow filmmakers -- producers Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, and James Lassiter, and director Peter Berg -- would do that was to introduce the character to audiences in an unusual way. The movie would not focus on how Hancock got his powers or chose to use them; instead, Hancock would cut a universal figure as a man in the middle of his career who hates his job and wants out. His superpowers, far from a blessing, have given him an attitude that cuts him off from the public that should be his biggest fans.
"There's only one person who could pull that off," says Goldsman. "I can't even conceive of Hancock without Will Smith playing him."
"Will was excited to play a superhero," says producer James Lassiter. "When we saw this script, we thought it was the perfect way to do this kind of movie -- an irreverent superhero you haven't seen before. Hancock is an exceptional, interesting character that breaks the mold."
With Smith on board, it was an easy task to convince Peter Berg, acclaimed for his work as director of Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, to direct the film. "Will is one of the few movie stars who have a real confluence of skills," Berg continues. "He's talented, he's fearless and he's extremely honest. When those three elements come together, the person can play almost anything, and Will is certainly willing to try anything."
According to Michael Mann, the result is the perfect match between star and material -- a film that delivers what audiences expect from Will while also engaging them in surprising ways. "We set out to make a movie that moved between being profoundly funny and irreverent to sexy and romantic, to thrilling and then wonderfully heartbreaking. Will Smith's power as an actor is in his ability to inhabit the states of mind of this complex character in such profound ways. He is the center of gravity..." says Mann.
"Hancock is complicated," says Smith. "Every day, he wakes up mad at the world. He doesn't remember what happened to him and there's no one to help him find the answers. He has good intentions, but has trouble connecting to the world around him.'"
Smith says that the film is rooted in a profound human emotion. "Hancock is like the high school quarterback with all the talent in the world who can't get his attitude right," Smith continues. "He doesn't realize that the reason his team isn't winning is because his love and comprehension of the game is out -- he doesn't understand the beauty of teamwork. Being part of a group, interacting with other people, is the central, human idea. For Hancock, he finds himself in a totally isolated place until he meets Ray Embrey, who brings him back into the fold of society."
Jason Bateman takes on the role of Ray, the bleeding-heart PR exec. "When Hancock saves his life, Ray wants to pay him back by teaching Hancock how to conduct himself more appropriately and clean up his image. But for Ray, it's not just about image control -- he actually wants to teach Hancock how to be a better superhero."
"I had a lot of room to explore Ray because he is such a trusting soul," adds Bateman. "He wears rose-colored glasses, he is naïve, and he thinks he can see beyond Hancock's hard, crusty shell to his soft and chewy insides up until their relationship becomes a bit more complicated. All that made Ray a rewarding character to play."
"Charlize Theron is the musical note that fits perfectly with Will and Jason Bateman," says Goldsman. "We needed three people, all of whom the audience would want to see win; it was a real balancing act."
For her part, Theron was attracted to her role for a multitude of reasons. First, of course, was the chance to re-team with Smith, whom she'd worked with on The Legend of Bagger Vance. "Will plays the part so beautifully," she says.
Theron was also impressed by the script, which she found had rich and compelling characters. Where her husband, Ray, sees only the superhero that Hancock could be someday, Mary comes from the perspective of the average Angeleno. "She is fed up with Hancock's bad behavior which, on the surface, appears to be totally irresponsible and destructive," she says. "She is adamant that he not disrupt the idyllic life she's created with Ray and their son. But when Hancock starts to show some signs that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that he might turn his behavior around, and she still doesn't accept him, then you start to question why."
The filmmakers also raise the emotional stakes by adding Jae Head to the cast as Aaron, the Embreys' young son. Although the 11-year-old stars in Berg's series "Friday Night Lights," the filmmakers read more than thirty young actors before settling on Head. "Kid actors can be tricky," says Berg, "but Jae is untouched and uncorrupted. He lives in Texas, where his dad is a high school football coach and his mom is always with him. You get the feeling that he's just as happy being a ball boy for his dad as he is hanging out on set with Will Smith. He's a perceptive kid that's gone through a lot in his life and he understands that every day is a gift; he has a great attitude. He throws himself into everything."
Berg used his own family tradition of making spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday evening to illustrate the family's close bond. Every Thursday night the Embreys celebrate "spaghetti madness" making sure to spend at least one night a week at dinner together rather than allowing work, school or other distractions to take precedence over sharing family time.
"I ate maybe 20 plates," Head says about filming the family dinner scenes. "I forgot to eat breakfast that morning because I was so excited to get on set, so at the beginning I was happy to eat. But by the end of the day, I felt like yelling, 'Don't say the word 'spaghetti' to me!'"