Will Smith knows Oscars slap may impact Emancipation 's success, has 'discomfort' in his heart over it

Prior to the 2022 Oscars, there were rumblings that Will Smith might give back-to-back Best Actor acceptance speeches. But then millions watched the unthinkable occur as the blockbuster star slapped presenter Chris Rock.

Smith went on to win for his leading role in King Richard, but any hope of making a return to the Oscars stage in 2023 was dashed. In the wake of the incident, the actor resigned from the Academy, posted a lengthy apology on his social media, and was given a 10-year ban for "unacceptable and harmful behavior."

Speaking to EW as part of an exclusive roundtable with his Emancipation costars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa, Smith acknowledges how the lingering focus on his actions last March have changed the way some may receive their upcoming Apple TV+ drama, about a real-life enslaved man immortalized in the notorious 1863 "Whipped Peter" photograph.

"The only discomfort my heart has around that is that so many people have done spectacular work on this film," he says. "My hope is that my team isn't penalized at all for my actions. I think [director Antoine Fuqua] and [cinematographer Robert Richardson] and Ben and Charmaine — everyone has done such spectacular work. 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."

Emancipation Will Smith and Ben Foster
Emancipation Will Smith and Ben Foster

Courtesy of Apple Will Smith and Ben Foster in 'Emancipation'

As for the film itself, "I had seen the image of Whipped Peter as a child, but as his story started to come into focus, I was moved in all of the most beautiful ways," Smith says of first getting the screenplay, which he calls "one of the greatest reads" he's received as an actor. "When you look at the brutality that he suffered, and then realizing that through that he was able to sustain faith, gratitude, and love in the face of those kinds of atrocities — I knew that I wanted to learn from Peter."

Emancipation will be released in select cinemas on Dec. 2 before streaming on Apple TV+ Dec. 9.

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