Acting coach Will Smith explains how the Oscar-winning star got his start

  • Acting coach Howard Fine has taught Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Salma Hayek and others.
  • He taught Will Smith before the rapper made his debut on the hit sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
  • Smith is banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years after slapping Chris Rock at the 2022 ceremony in March.

This essay is based on a conversation with Howard Fine, owner of Howard Fine Acting Studio and Fine Online. Insider spoke to Fine in December, three months before Will Smith shocked the entertainment industry — and the world — by slapping presenter Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars on March 27. On April 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences banned Smith from attending the Academy Awards or any other Academy event for 10 years. Smith will keep the best actor statuette he received this year for “King Richard” and remain eligible for Oscar nominations and awards.

When I first met Diana Ross in 1994, she was about to start work on the TV movie “Out of Darkness,” a gritty drama about a medical student who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Ross was looking for an acting coach to help her prepare, but she wanted to meet first before signing up for private lessons.

One of the first things I asked him was, “How do people respond to you?”

“They’re either cruel, because they want to prove they can control me or manipulate me, or they’re overly complimentary because they’re afraid to say anything,” Ross said.

I told her that my goal would be to have absolute balance, and she loved it.

Ross had an incredible work ethic, recording our sessions and addressing every note I gave him. She even spent several days in a psychiatric hospital. And when she rehearsed, she did it without make-up, her hair down: she wanted be this role, a character who sometimes lived on the streets. (She received a Golden Globe nomination for her work.)

After each session, Ross would ask to use the bathroom.

“I have to be Diana Ross again,” she said.

Thirty minutes later, she came out with big hair, full makeup, in a wonderful outfit. In came the paranoid schizophrenic homeless persona, out came the glamorous Diana Ross that audiences knew.

For the past 38 years I have coached Brad Pitt on the set of “Interview with a Vampire” and Will Smith for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Concussion”. I helped Gal Gadot with his audition for “Wonder Woman,” and worked with Chris Pine on his audition for “Fat Pig,” the Neil LaBute play he was playing when he landed the lead role in the Captain Kirk in “Star” by JJ Abrams. Hiking.”

All of these stars shared the qualities I learned that are the hallmarks of good actors: avid readers, emotional sophistication and availability, physical and mental focus.

How Will Smith went from rap star to TV and film icon

When I first met Will in the early 1990s, he wasn’t famous as an actor. He was playing with DJ Jazzy Jeff as Fresh Prince when one of my students, Jeff Pollack, approached me.

“You know, Howard, I have this idea for a show, and I’m pitching it to the network,” Pollack said. “There’s this rapper, and we want to turn him into an actor. Do you want to start working with him?”

So I did. Will came to see me regularly for private lessons and attended my classes several times a week for over a year. He was a deep thinker right from the start and a huge fan of movies, actors and craftsmanship.

The series launched by Jeff became “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, which ran for six seasons and launched Will’s acting career.

I currently teach about 300 students online and in my studio with two other instructors in Los Angeles – a small miracle considering the challenges of the pandemic.

Acting coach Howard Fine teacher

Very good to instruct two students during the course.

Howard Fine

Our six-week technical course, which meets twice a week, gives me the opportunity to spot raw talent that needs development or spot issues. We go through eight stages of script analysis and role preparation before moving on to an exercise called the “neutral scene,” which is just a page of words I wrote.

Students need to create a time, place, circumstance, relationship, conflict for the scene so they can understand that it’s not just the words they say, it’s what informs those words.

We also do emotional recall exercises where students take inventory of their whole life, from their earliest memories to the present day, for the ups and downs. They learn to retrieve experiences and use them as sources for their work. Every character they are going to play can already be found within them, because inside each of us is a smart person and a stupid person, an outgoing person and a shy person.

Being a great actor really means knowing who you are

In that same production of “Fat Pig,” Scott Wolf played a man who dates an overweight woman but ends up breaking off the relationship because he’s embarrassed about her weight and people make fun of him for it.

The “Party of Five” actor, who I also coached, was having trouble seeing himself in the character and the character’s need to fit into society, so I started asking him questions. “Where do you buy?” “What kind of car do you drive?” “Describe your wife to me.” He has answered.

After a while, he said, “Okay, I’m like that character.”

Very often we don’t want to see each other. But being a great actor really means knowing who you are, from light to dark.

One of my current students, Austin Butler, came to me eight years ago with the desire to do a play. He was very young and had just finished a job with Nickelodeon, but the opportunity finally presented itself – an audition for Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” with Denzel Washington. We worked on it, callback after callback after callback, and he booked it.

Austin received rave reviews, attracting the attention of Quentin Tarantino and a chance to audition for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” This led to an audition for Baz Luhrmann for a film he is developing about Elvis Presley. Austin took the lead.

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