Will Smith Recalls The ‘Deeply Dehumanizing’ Experience Of Filming Emancipation

Will Smith in Emancipation
(Image credit: Apple)

Actor Will Smith has had a long and wildly successful career spanning multiple industries. And while the last year was all about The Slap, his professionally comeback is here with the release of Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation for those with an Apple TV+ subscription. The trailers have shown the powerful performance that Smith gave as protagonist Peter, and he recently recalled the “deeply dehumanizing” experience of filming the historical action drama.

Will Smith filmed Emancipation prior to the infamous Academy Awards, and it seems like a real contender for this year’s Awards Season. He recently hosted his own episodes of the Red Table Talk, where he spoke to his three kids about the process of filming the recently released movie. During that honest conversation he revealed the way he transformed into his character, and the way one specific prop made a huge impact. As he put it,

I was getting called the N-word a hundred times a day by very good actors. It’s rough, it twists your mind up. You have to be really careful because you definitely twist your mind up. There’s a magic moment as an actor you look for. The best way I can describe it is you feel the character wash over you. It’ll be wardrobe, it’ll be a scene, it’ll be the dialect. What happened was we were trying on the neck chains. Six weeks before we’re shooting, they’re trying to get the right size, the right weight.

Talk about feeling the weight of your role. Will Smith has been open about how emotionally raw he had to get throughout filming Emancipation, and his hesitation with playing a slave on screen. And it sounds like the production design, specifically the chains themselves, were the catalyst to this sense of immersion.

But a powerful as they might have been, Will Smith made it clear that the experience of being chained like this was a “deeply dehumanizing” experience for him. And considering that he spent six months filming Emancipation with the rest of the cast, it no doubt took its toll. As he shared:

As soon as those chains went on I was like ‘Got it.’ It turns off your agency. You don’t want to step, you don’t want to move, you don’t want to look anybody in the face. It’s deeply dehumanizing.

This visceral experience with chains on Emancipation got further elevated during his fitting, as they got stuck on the actor/producer/recording artist. While sharing this memory on the Red Table Talk with his family, Will Smith revealed the immediate physical reaction he had while realizing he was stuck in the chains.

So they put it on, and I’m standing there. He goes to take it off and it doesn’t work. So it’s locked on, and my heart jumps. And I’m like ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no.’ And he’s running around looking for the keys and for 15 minutes I’m stuck there in the chain.

It sounds like this sense of fear and anxiety was a real lightbulb moment for Will Smith while filming Emancipation, specifically when reflecting on the experience of the real-life person he was portraying. In his words,

I’m Will Smith with people running around looking for keys and my heart is still pounding, and I’m still scared. Imagine what it was like for Peter to have that on, barefoot, and nobody cares.

Talk about dehumanzation. Will Smith’s performance in Emancipation shows how that paid off, and there’s been a ton of praise coming his way. It should be interesting to see if he gets any nods this Awards Season, especially since he’s not actually able to attend the Oscars for decade. 

Emancipation is streaming now on Apple TV+, and playing in select theaters. Be sure to check out the 2023 movie release dates to plan your trips to the theater in the New Year. Will Smith has a few major upcoming projects still coming down the line, including Bad Boys 4

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.