Neil Drumming
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

Will Smith has become one of the most bankable movie stars in the world, thanks in no small part to his irrepressible charm and self-confidence. So it had to have been a little worrisome for the 38-year-old actor to be told by his director not to be himself. ”The first thing I said to him in the first meeting,” says Pursuit of Happyness helmer Gabriele Muccino, ”was ‘I want you to be naked for this movie,’ meaning without filter, without the Will Smith things.”

Chris Gardner, the real-life former salesman Smith plays in the film, battled poverty and misfortune before parlaying a lowly internship at a brokerage house into a life-revitalizing career as a stockbroker. While Smith has successfully played a living person before — he received his only previous Oscar nomination for the 2001 biopic Ali — he has never portrayed anyone in such desperate straits. For a year, Gardner lived practically penniless on the streets of San Francisco with his young son, a humbling experience that nearly crushed the man’s spirit. ”I wanted to see this guy vulnerable and naive,” says Muccino, ”way different from the presence that Will has in life.”

In preparing for the role, Smith studied Gardner obsessively, right down to his mannerisms. ”There’s a point in the film where he had to sign my name to a contract,” says Gardner, noting that Smith made an ”exact replica of my signature.” But it’s not mere mimicry that makes this portrayal so moving. Smith, accustomed to saving the earth from aliens and killer robots on screen, here bundles his physical prowess behind severely hunched shoulders and convincingly world-weary eyes. When Chris Gardner finally begins to reverse his fortunes, the effort is as heroic as anything Smith has ever accomplished from the cockpit of a spaceship.

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