Will Smith says 'bottled' rage led to Oscars slap: 'Hurt people hurt people'

A slightly smiling man
Will Smith attends the premiere of "Gemini Man" in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, 2019. (Phil McCarten / Invision / Associated Press)
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Will Smith knows that his "horrific decision" to slap Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards casts a long shadow on his upcoming projects and appeared on "The Daily Show" on Monday to unpack his latest mea culpa.

While promoting his starring role in Antoine Fuqua's upcoming film "Emancipation," the 54-year-old actor sat down with host Trevor Noah for a 21-minute interview in which he addressed the infamous incident and its still-unfolding aftermath. The Oscar winner got an unprecedented 10-year ban from the Academy Awards.

The "King Richard" star found himself in sympathetic company with the outgoing host — who also alluded to the incident when hosting the Grammy Awards. They dissected what led Smith to storm the stage at the Dolby Theatre to slap Rock after the comedian made a dig about Jada Pinkett Smith's hair loss.

After discussing his upcoming NatGeo show "Pole to Pole," U.S. slavery and the Fuqua film — which he described not as a slave movie but "a freedom movie" — the two got in to the psychology behind Smith's actions on the night of March 27.

"That was a horrific night, as you can imagine. There's many nuances and complexities to it, but at the end of the day, I just, I lost it," Smith said, occasionally tearing up during the interview. “And I guess what I would say, you just never know what somebody is going through.

"You just don't know what's going on with people. I was going through something that night. Not that that justifies my behavior at all," he added.

"We just gotta be nice to each other man, it's hard," he continued.

The "Ali" and "I Am Legend" star, who went on to win the lead actor Oscar that chaotic night and delivered an emotional speech, told Noah that the "most painful" thing was that he "took my hard and made it hard for other people."

"And it's like I understood the idea where they say 'hurt people hurt people,'" Smith said.

Noah cited Smith's 2021 memoir in which he discussed how he grew up afraid of conflict and afraid to fight, and described the Oscars slap as a moment when Smith stood up for the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“It was a lot of things,” Smith responded. “It was the little boy that watched his father beat up his mother, you know. All of that just bubbled up in that moment."

Smith added that the moment was “not who I want to be.”

"I understand how shocking that was for people .... That was a rage that had been bottled for a really long time. But I understand the pain," he said.

"It was a mess. You know, I don't want to go too far into it to give people more to misunderstand," he added.

"But the one thing that's killing me: 'Emancipation' is Antoine's masterpiece ... and the idea that they might be denied because of me is like — ugh — that is killing me dead. And the thing that is so critical for me ... ," Smith said. "I just hope their work will be honored and their work will not be tainted because of a horrific decision on my part."

The "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" alum said he spent the last couple of months trying to forgive himself "for being human."

"Trust me, there's nobody that hates the fact that I'm human more than me," he joked. "And finding that space for myself within myself to be human, you know, I've always wanted to be Superman — swoop in and save the damsel in distress — and I had to humble down and realize I'm a flawed human and I still have an opportunity to go out in the world and contribute in a way that fills my heart and hopefully helps other people."

Smith has been apologizing for the incident for months and has kept a relatively low profile, even on his highly followed social media. But with the promotion of "Emancipation," which hits theaters Friday and begins streaming on AppleTV+ on Dec. 9, the actor hasn't been able to avoid questions about the controversy.

However, he did not discuss how his actions humiliated and violated the trust of sister tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, whose father Smith portrayed in "King Richard." Nor did he address the effects of his actions on the Black creative community, which has put the actor on "probation" since the slap.

In a separate interview with WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C., the actor said that he would "completely understand" if audiences chose not to see "Emancipation" because of him. Smith echoed earlier statements he made in a roundtable interview with Entertainment Weekly with some of the film's cast members.

"The only discomfort my heart has around that is that so many people have done spectacular work on this film," he said. "I definitely lose a couple winks of sleep every night thinking that I could have potentially penalized my team, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that everyone gets seen in the light that they deserve."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.