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INT: Chris Gardner

12.14.2006

When the studio carts out the real life person they just made a movie about, that's a good sign. People don't usually support their slander pieces, so clearly Chris Gardner stands behind THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS. In 1981, Gardner took a competitive internship at the Dean Witter brokerage firm. That would have been fine, but he had a family to support and already massive debt to pay off. But he persevered, even when forced to live on the street with his child.

Now, Gardner is rolling in it. He wore one of many sharp suits, having retired a millionaire. He doesn't look much like Will Smith, but we can suspend disbelief.

Chris Gardner

Why did you start writing your book while they were already making this movie?

First of all, can I talk about the book a little bit and why we decided to do the book. I got approached by some folks who are now my agents, Jennifer Gates, after she saw the first 20/20 piece we did with Barbara Walters. She approached me with the idea to do a business/life lessons book. I thought that could be interesting. It's a different kind of book. You can confine where you have to go with that book.

A little while after that I was getting an award from an organization from the National Fatherhood Initiative in Philadelphia . And they had an emcee who wanted to keep the program rolling and he kept citing all these statistics, and he kept citing these things over and over: if you were born in this house, if you're from this family, if you lived in this neighborhood, this is who you're going to turn out to be. I sat there and I kept saying silently to myself, "That's bullsh*t." I said it silently to myself to a point where I stepped up to the podium to get my award, you know what came out of my mouth.

I felt it in my heart and I'm so glad that I said it, because in a room full of 1,000 people, so many people came up to me later and said, "You know what, I'm glad you said that because I'm from that family and I lived in that house and I'm from that neighborhood, and just like you, I made a conscious decision to go the other way." The last guy that night to come up to me was this guy with an incredibly rich voice said, "Yes, a lot of it bullsh*t, isn't it?" And it was James Earl Jones. So if Darth Vader says it's bullsh*t, it's bullsh*t.

It was then that I said, "I can do this book. I gotta do this book. To do this, I've gotta own this. I'm probably the only person in here like this. I have all the stuff in my head in this nice little tight boxes that had the same thing on them: do not disturb." In the process of doing the book, you take the lid off of one box and it's connected to another box, and all this stuff comes out. That's how the book came to be, and it was just a coincidence. These things happen simultaneously, it was not planned. I would like to also say, I'm so happy I got a chance to do the book. As great as this film is, and personally, I could not be happier, I'm biased, of course.

Do you look back and think, what if I made another choice?

No. No. No. One of my favorite people in the whole world, Dr. Maya Angelou, once said to a similar question, "I wouldn't take nothing from my journey now." No. I honest to God believe that if you change one thing, it changes everything that happens afterwards. No, I wouldn't change anything.

How did you stay inspired? Where does it come from?

I attribute all of that to my mother. I'm studying and developing a concept right now that I'm calling spiritual genetics. To do this book, I had to look as deeply as I could into my mom's life and my family, again, I may be the only person in this room that this happened to, my family invented the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that later was adopted by the Clinton Administration. I had to really dig into where did I get this stuff from in me, what made me think I could do these things.

I don't know if any of your guys read the book, and if you haven't I would encourage you to, but one of the first stories I tell in the book is one of those life altering experiences, that had it not happened, maybe I'd be a different guy. Briefly, I'm home alone, about to watch a basketball game. It was unusual that I'd have the television to myself. My mom was also home. The announcer is hyping the game and talking about all the money these ballplayers are going to make and the great lives they're going to have and all this great stuff, and I said out loud to no one, "Wow, one day that guy's going to make $1 million." And my mom was on the other side of the room and she heard me and said, "You know what? If you want to, one day you can make $1 million."

Until she said those words, it had never entered my mind as a possibility. But after she said them, it was just a matter of finding the right venue. To answer your question as directly as possible, I have to attribute all of that to her. She had so many of her own dreams, denied, deferred and destroyed, but she still instilled in me, her child, that I could have dreams. And not just have dreams, but to have the responsibility to make them come true.

Is there a way to teach your kind of work ethic to the whole society for people who don't have parents instilling it in them?

I don't know if there's a way to teach passion. I got lucky, man. I found something I absolutely love. That's something I talk to people about all the time: forget about money. Find something that gets you so jacked up that you can't wait till the sun comes up because you want to go do your thing. You can't wait till the sun comes up because you want to go DO it. Forget about money. The work ethic is directly connected to the passion.

Talk about your experience at the Glide homeless shelter. And whose idea was it to have Cecil (the reverend) in the film?

Actually, I think that was my idea. Reading the first script, Steven Conroy, a brilliant writer, something was missing. If I recall correctly, I called one of the producers, I called Todd, and I said, Todd, if there was no Cecil Williams, then there would be no Chris Gardner. And he agreed with me so Cecil Williams was written into the script. The funny thing was that when it was time to audition actors to play Rev. Williams, when they found who they were going to be playing, they all declined out of respect. So we had to get the reverend to play himself and he did a good job.

What does it take to have the attitude of, as Will says in the movie, don't let anybody tell you you can't do something?

Again, it goes back to passion. I keep saying that word over and over. I remember the day we shot the scene and we had some intense discussions on which way that should go. We all agreed, it was Jason's idea that this man could not chop down his child's dream, and the world had thus far done him. It was Jason who said this cannot be that kind of story. I'm thankful to Jason for that.


The real Will Smith and Chris Gardner

What was your relationship with Will?

I've been asked that question a few times, and there have been some surreal moments on this part of the journey. First one, I go to meet Will. I go to his house. I'll never forget. They sent a car to pick me up because it's one of those places up in the mountains you would never find. I guess that's the idea. We finally get close to the house and I look up at this tree and say to myself, "That's the biggest housecat I've ever seen." We sat down, talked and chitchat, and Will says to me, "Man, we don't have a cat that big. That was a mountain lion." That was kind of freaky.

When I first met him, we go to the house with the idea to discuss the script. I take along the script, and my notes, but I also brought along a picture of my son and I sitting in front of the house where we first lived in after living on the streets a year. I say to Will, "We can talk about the script or we can talk about these two guys. What do you want to do?" You know what he chose. Let's talk about these two guys. We had a great conversation, a couple of hours, just he and I. Someplace in the conversation, he started looking at me like this [leans back and holds hand to chin.]

He had begun to study me. It made me uncomfortable. I'd never been studied. I made a decision from the beginning I would trust him. I said to him, "I'm going to be as open as I can and I'm going to trust you as an artist to pick and chose, slice and dice, cut and paste, whatever artists do to tell stories." I'm very happy to tell people what they ask me about Will, what kind of guy is he: regular, sweet, kind, humble loving guy, but he has a sick, twisted perverted sense of humor. When he's comfortable with you, he'll say things and you think, he's serious!

What was going through your mind when you saw the film?

The same thing that was going through my mind last night when I saw it. I still haven't seen the whole film. That's a luxury I have right now. When life is happening in real-time, there ain't no pause button. At the movies, you can say, I'll be back. I'm not apprehensive. The best I can describe it, while they're shooting a scene, which is an accurate portrayal of where you are, you're comfortable with that. When I'm seeing that scene, I'm seeing the 360 degrees around. When I watch the film, I'm seeing it in 3-D. There are moments where you have to say, well, hold up.

Were there things that really happened to you that weren't in the movie?

No. You've got to accept you only have so many frames on a reel of film. That goes back to the reason why I feel so good that I got a chance to write the book. It's all out there. The movie, as good as it is, focuses on the darkest year of my life. I don't know how many of you have children, but if see yourself on the street with a baby tied around your back, that's deep enough.

How old is your son and what's his impression of the film?

He's 25, and when you're 25 you don't have impressions. He is just so cool. He was so young [1 or 2 years of age in real life], you know what he remembers, am I'm so thankful because maybe I did that thing right, he remembers that we were together every day. That's what he remembers. He remembers a lot of moving, he'll admit that but he remembers we were together every day. As I've said many times, there are folks who live in multimillion-dollar houses with their children and their children can't say that.

What did you think of the decision to age him up in the film?

I understood that. You've got to give these guys some license. My son was 2 years old when we were going through this. Did we have dialogue? Yeah. But there's obviously more you can do when the child is a little older. Give them some license. But I gotta tell you I saw one scene last night where my son says something to me that is probably the most important thing he's ever said to me in his life when he says, "Papa, you're a good papa." In the book, I had a chance to talk about where I was emotionally; how frightened I was. To have this boy at 2 years old stand up and say, you're a good papa, and have that incorporated into the script and the movie, that was the big thing for me.

The movie doesn't even address the possibility of racism. Did really nobody ever mention the odds of being a black stockbroker in 1981?

When and if you read the book, and I encourage you to do it, I did have some experiences of that nature. They're unavoidable. This is where we are and it's real. What's important, the biggest "ism" I had to deal with wasn't racism. It was "place-ism." When I was trying to pursue my career on Wall Street, in the book I had an opportunity to talk about "place-ism." I'm not from a politically connected family. I hadn't gone to college.

I had no money of my own. Who's going to do business with you? That's place-ism, that's not racism. That's the biggest "ism" I had to deal with and that's an "ism" that can affect anybody in this room. The racism thing was secondary. My love for what I had an opportunity to do, and my love for my child, and my commitment minimized everything else. In my life, have I had to deal with (racism)? Yeah, I have and probably will continue today. I'll probably go outside right now and can't get a cab. Actually, Sony's got a car waiting for me. [Laughs]

What do you say to homeless people who can't see your film?

That's a whole separate issue. The truth is the situation might be worse than anyone in this room realizes. Twelve percent of all the homeless people in this country have jobs and go to work every day. Some communities that number is as high as 30 percent, and that number ain't all black. They've got jobs and go to work every day. A couple of things I gotta share: Will and I went for a series of walks prior to filming and I took him late at night, no security, just he and I, and I showed him all the places where we used to have to sleep, he and I.

I took him to the bathrooms, the train stations and the parks. One of the first things he said to me was, "You know, a lot of these people are dressed to go someplace." A lot of them were dressed to go to work. One of the coolest things happened on filming of PURSUIT. This was a big-budget film. I don't know what the final number was. But one day we hired 250 homeless people to be themselves for scenes at Glide. A day's work for a day's pay. Two days. A couple comes up to me on the set and said, "We're both working. We've been trying to get off the streets for six months. We've saved everything. All we needed was another $500 to get a house, and we made that $500 working on this movie." That for me was the coolest thing in the world. What do you think: $50-60 million gets spent and $500 gets a family off the street. That's a big deal.

Source: JoBlo.com

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