Will Smith is trying to solve a difficult problem. Between takes in the filming of Six Degrees of Separation, he huddles in one corner of a dingy New York City apartment with Australian director Fred Schepisi (A Cry in the Dark), bowing his head in deep concentration.
While crew members quietly dismantle the lights and cameras and set up for the next shot, Schepisi and Smith continue what has become a daily preoccupation. Suddenly, Smith's baritone breaks the silence. ''Bam!'' he booms, pumping his fist in the air and jumping back to reveal a small electronic chessboard that has been the focus of their attention. ''I blocked your check, baby!'' Surprising those who think they have him pegged is nothing new for Will Smith, who, at 25, has built a thriving career largely by being a quick learner. By 1989, at the age of 20, Smith had already made and, thanks to excessive spending, lost his first million, which he had earned as half of rap's good-guy group D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. The next year, he emerged as NBC's golden boy with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the hit sitcom that executive producer Quincy Jones had developed just for him. And last summer, he brought his boyish wit and hyperkinetic energy to the big screen as the wisecracking best buddy of Whoopi Goldberg's daughter in the Goldberg-Ted Danson comedy Made in America. But now Smith is taking on a serious role and a different persona in Six Degrees, based on John Guare's acclaimed, inspired-by-fact 1990 play. He plays Paul, a hustler who cons his way into the Manhattan apartment of a wealthy couple (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) by convincing them he's the son of Sidney Poitier and a schoolmate of their children's. Knowledgeable about art and literature, Paul wangles an invitation to stay the night. But when they find him the next morning in bed with a man he picked up in Central Park, the layers of his carefully constructed identity begin to fall away. ; Paul's seductive powers and remarkable ability to transform himself-from street kid to passable preppy-seem to mirror the same traits in Smith. In an industry that is quick to typecast, Smith has consistently succeeded in reinventing himself, crossing media with apparent ease. But his easygoing, arrested-adolescent exterior conceals a relentlessly driven husband and father (he married Sheree Zampino in 1991; their son, Willard Smith III, is 13 months old) who can be both intensely circumspect and disarmingly naive. Says Channing, ''That kind of gravity, which is surprising in Will, is very good in the character.'' Casting the very popular and very mainstream star of Fresh Prince made financial sense for a film that might otherwise have rated as art-house fare. But that didn't allay fears that Smith would be way out of his depth amid a New York-based, largely theater-trained cast.
''Everybody got excited about Will, but I was a little more cautious,'' admits Schepisi. ''I interviewed a lot of actors. But Will tried to convince me that he'd do whatever it would take, would go through whatever process, was sure he could get himself prepared. That confidence and charm was everything the character should be. (He was) worth taking a chance on.'' At Schepisi's request, Smith trained with both an acting and a dialect coach at least three days a week for three months before rehearsals began. ''This character had to learn to walk and talk and act,'' says Smith. ''And I had to learn to walk and talk and act to play him.'' By the time shooting started, Smith had sharpened his acting skills-but he hadn't toned down his boisterous side. ''Will is used to driving the set on Fresh Prince and keeping up enthusiasm,'' says Schepisi. ''On the first day, just before a take, he let out some wild yells and clapped his hands. He was deafening the sound people and everyone else around him. Finally, Donald took him aside.'' ''I have this childish energy that manifests itself in noise,'' says Smith, tapping his fingers on a small Formica table in his trailer, parked outside a run-down tenement where Six Degrees is filming. ''Donald grabbed my hand and kissed me on the cheek and said, 'Shut up.' That was cool. I'm totally fine with someone who says, 'I think it's time to work now.' '' ''Will was wonderful,'' says Sutherland, who, like Channing and playwright Guare, had never heard of Smith before working with him. ''He's just younger. I wanted to sleep on the set. I'm an old guy.'' Despite Smith's commitment to the role, he has recently had to answer for balking at one pivotal scene: a fleeting on-screen kiss with Anthony Michael Hall, who plays the prep-school kid infatuated with Paul. Just before the scene was to be shot, Smith told Schepisi he wouldn't go through with it. The director was forced to use a stand-in and show only the backs of the actors' heads. ''It was very immature on my part,'' Smith says now. ''I was thinking, 'How are my friends in Philly going to think about this?' I wasn't emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film. In a movie with actors and a director and writer of this caliber, for me to be the one bringing something cheesy to it '' Smith trails off, clearly angry at himself for failing to finish the job. ''This was a valuable lesson for me,'' he says a moment later. ''Either you do it or you don't.'' In recent years, Smith has had to learn lessons a lot tougher than that one. In 1989, after spending all his money gambling in casinos, traveling with a huge entourage, and buying everything that caught his eye, he found himself broke. ''Everything my parents taught me was out the window as soon as that cash hit the bank account,'' he says. ''There's nothing more sobering than having six cars and a mansion one day and you can't even buy gas for the cars the next. It's really just last year that I finally paid off the IRS.'' Smith hopes to capitalize on Six Degrees by using his Fresh Prince hiatuses to make films and records. Though he says his music is still the most important aspect of his career, his latest album, Code Red, is on the low end of the pop charts. Given that fall from favor with the rap-buying crowd, his diversification into the world of serious acting is well-timed. But Smith, who maintains ''the music is going very well for me now, too,'' is approaching the next phase of his career with the same characteristic mixture of caution and abandon he brings to chess, a pastime he's been passionate about since he was 12. According to Schepisi, ''Sometimes (Will) would make a move and then say, 'I have to consider that one. I may take it back.' '' ''I don't plan that far ahead,'' says Smith of his career. ''I just want to be totally prepared when opportunity comes.'' *