How Will Smith's 'terrifying' nature doc fits new phase of life: 'I'm seeking discomfort'

"Welcome to Earth" is a fresh take on the nature docuseries.

Will Smith does more than just lend his Grammy-winning voice to the six-episode series from National Geographic now streaming on Disney+. Smith, 53, partners with an explorer for each episode, examining a different part of the globe. He descends into the frigid crack of a glacier in Iceland, pets a 12-foot tiger shark in the Great Barrier Reef, and submerges thousands of feet below the ocean's surface in a small, bubble-shaped submarine.

"In a movie, my stunt man would've did that," the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" star jokes in the episode "Speed of Life" after crossing over one of Africa's crocodile-infested rivers, his feet dangling from a harness as he's pulled to safety on other side. The Oscar nominee, who frequently traveled for work but rarely experienced a location, decided after he turned 50 to really dive in. Figuratively and literally. In the 2019 Facebook Watch series "Will Smith's Bucket List," Smith went diving with sharks in the Bahamas and skydiving in Dubai. The show planted a seed for "Welcome to Earth."

“This is the perfect way just to spend my life," he declares in the episode "Beyond Fear." "Everything is new, and there’s a little bit of fear all the way through.”

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Smith reveals to USA TODAY that he's "always had a fear of nature" that stemmed from an upbringing in Philadelphia that offered mostly "concrete playgrounds," and a severe reaction to a bee sting at 13 that inspired his severe (and comedic) face swelling seen in the 2005 rom-com "Hitch."

"I just didn't want to live and die in this lifetime being scared of some of the most beautiful things on this planet," he says. "One of the things I talk about in my book ("Will," a memoir released in November) is that fear keeps you from being able to see beauty. Fear is blinding, and when you're fearful, you can really get caught in thinking that life sucks. The importance for me of overcoming fear is to be able to experience the magnificent beauty that is this planet, that you're gonna see in the show."

Smith remembers the "terrifying" moments he spent rappelling into the crater of Mount Yasur, an active volcano in the South Pacific.

"It just seemed like a bad idea," he says with a laugh. "Then it shifted to night, and the only light was the lava that was spewing up 50 yards over our heads."

Still, the actor, seen most recently in "King Richard," counts it as "one of the most amazing experiences" from "Welcome to Earth." "There's something that's really close to wonder and awe in fear," he says.

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Will Smith, volcanologist Jeff Johnson and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer climb Mount Yasur in the Disney+ nature series "Welcome to Earth."
Will Smith, volcanologist Jeff Johnson and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer climb Mount Yasur in the Disney+ nature series "Welcome to Earth."

In the series, Smith pushes himself beyond any expectations he had for the kid hailing from Philadelphia. While on the surface it seems he's investigating the world around him, the exploration sparks an internal shift.

"These experiences are analogous to life's circumstances," he says. "It's spiritual; it's not just scientific. It's getting out onto that edge where science and spirituality become (indiscernible) from one another."

Smith understands life "is a mystery, and if you can't get your head around stepping into the unknown, if you can't get your head around living with uncertainty, it's really hard to be happy.

"This is way out of my comfort zone," he adds. "I'm seeking discomfort."

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Will Smith and explorer Dwayne Fields climb into an ice hole on Breidamerkurjokull glacier in Iceland.
Will Smith and explorer Dwayne Fields climb into an ice hole on Breidamerkurjokull glacier in Iceland.

Smith, it seems, has also been chasing vulnerability and authenticity, recently opening up about his life in candid revelations shared in his memoir, his YouTube series "Best Shape of My Life," and the Facebook Watch series "Red Table Talk," hosted by his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, their daughter Willow Smith and Smith's mother-in-law Adrienne Banfield-Norris.

"I feel like my life needs to be firewood for people's dreams," Smith says. "I'm offering it to be observed and kicked and prodded and dissected because I feel like I've experienced enough things that now it can be useful. ...So if there's an opportunity that I can help someone avoid a pitfall, or I can help someone achieve their dreams, I want to do that. It's like what else is there for me to do with my life other than offer it to fan the flames of other people's dreams or to use as a warning sign for potentially destructive roads?"

Smith's interview takes place during a break for his coming film "Emancipation," in which he portrays a slave trudging through Louisiana swamps toward freedom. But what will come next for Smith is as clear as the "1,000-year-old swamp mud" he's been walking through.

"This is the least sure I've ever been in my life of the next move," he says. "I usually have an end of-the-year meeting with my whole team, and I lay out the plan for the next year, and then we reconvene in January. Everybody's had time to think about it. We lay out the schedule."

But Smith believes he'll forgo these meetings and lean into life's uncertainty.

"I'm gonna follow the spirit," he says. "I'm going to travel, and I'm going to see things, and I'm gonna find that next phase of my life."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Smith: Disney+'s Welcome to Earth 'is way out of my comfort zone'