Will Smith always comes across as a cool dude both on and off screen. Ad he’s kicked butt as an action star in such blockbusters as 1996’s “Independence Day” and 2020’ “Bad Boys for Life.” But truth be told, Smith’s afraid of water. He’s never slept in a tent. He’s not the outdoorsy guy. But Smith, who is one of the top contenders for a Best Actor Oscar nomination as the misunderstood father of tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard,” comes face to face with his fears in the new National Geographic/Disney + six-part series “Welcome to Earth,” which began streaming on Dec. 8.
The series features Smith as he goes on an adventure around the world with prominent explorers and gets up close and person “with some of the most interesting experiences on the planet.” In the trailer for the series (Smith is also an executive producer) the actor notes “I’m throwing myself into the unknown. There’s a new breed of explorers taking me to the ends of the Earth to discover hidden worlds that sit beyond our senses. Once you decode the mysteries, you can find crucial information about the world us.”
The night before the series premiered, an in person/virtual audience watched an episode of the series in which he travels in a submersible some 3,000 feet below to see with National Geographic explorer and marine biologist Diva Amon who hails from Trinidad. Smith doesn’t hide the fact that he’s initially petrified. “We met the day before our dive,” recalled Amon during a post-screening conversation. “He was witty, charming larger-than-life guy. The next day, we get on the ship and he’s a little reserved. Then we get into the submersible and he’s silent. Silent, right? It’s like pulling teeth, trying to be ‘Ok let’s chit-chat. And he’s like ‘Nope. Not having it, just need to concentrate on staying alive right now.”’
But as the nine-hour dive progressed, “we really saw him transition through fear, really overcome that fear. We started to see things and he got into the swing of things. You saw that all come out. You saw the excitement come out. By the time we’re on the way to the surface, he’s like ‘I did this. I’m ace.’ He’s cracking jokes. It was just a roller coaster ride.”
“What happened if you have to pee down there?,” queried Albert Lin, a National Geo explorer who has a high-tech prosthetic leg. “Well, so this is the interesting thing,” noted Amon. “Not only did he have this fear in his mind ‘if something goes wrong, no one is coming,’ but then there’s also this tiny fear in the back of your head and it goes through all of our heads-of course, there’s no bathroom and you’re in there for nine hours. There are various things we don’t have to get into!”
Lin was with Smith in the deserts of Namibia. He admits initially he had a “childlike awe” meeting the superstar “because you’ve seen him your entire life on the screen. I mean, I grew up with him. Then all of a sudden, we’re thrown into these crazy situations where like, for example, we were repelling 400 feet into this dark abyss of a cave and then we had to scuba dive within this cave to try to get down to measure these stagalites”
And who is the real Smith? “At the end of the day, he’s just this goofy, super authentic, really incredible. I remember this moment where I forgot to shave one morning, and he hands me his razor. I’m shaving and he’s picking fuzz out of my hair. Then we were trying to find a place to go pee together. It was like being on a bro’s camping trip. It wasn’t like he was afraid, or he was a celebrity doing something weird. He was genuinely just about [having] this amazing adventure of his life.”
Rounding out the Nat Geo explorer panel was Erick Weihenmayer, who was the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest. Weihenmayer and Smith hiked up to the active Yasur volcano on the South Pacific Island of Tanna Vanatu. “We repelled into the volcano with a volcanologist to set up sound equipment to really understand the sound waves of the volcano,” he explains. “Not just the stuff you can hear, but the sound waves that are so big, the human ear can’t really detect it. You feel it through your chest, through the cavities in your chest, through your brain. It’s like sonic booms that go shooting through your body.” And it wasn’t an easy trip. “We’re hiking up over these big volcanic rocks that in the recent past were gigantic magma bombs, the size of buses that shot a half-a-mile into the sky and explored over the landscape.
Weihenmayer found Smith “pretty brave. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I mean, he’s been saving the world for a long time, but this was real. I think I just respect him because he was so brave. He was like ‘Hey, man. I haven’t necessarily done all this kind of stuff.’ But he was so brave to get out there in the real world and explore. I said, ‘Hey, you could totally fit into one of my climbing teams.’ So, he told me he wanted to climb Everest. I don’t know. We’ll see if it happens.”
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