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Interview: Collateral Beauty

STACK caught up with the all-star cast of Collateral Beauty to discuss life, death, grief, and Christmas.

When Will Smith signed on to play a hot-shot advertising executive in a Christmas movie about grief, he had little experience with death. In Collateral Beauty, his character, Howard, wrestles with the death of his child until he is visited by love, death and time in a clever twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – wrapped up in a big sparkly New York Christmas bow.

But for Smith, the grief became all too real as his father, Willard Smith Snr., was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in November 2016.

“My dad was given six weeks when we were filming,” Smith recalls when STACK meets with him and the Collateral Beauty cast in New York.

“But it was a truly beautiful time for he and I, as I was in Howard’s mind, studying and breathing all of the different religious bases for being able to find an answer for how we recover from this kind of loss. I was sharing that with my father through the experience. It was the perfect life/art confluence.

“I read everything from the Tibetan book of the Dead to Elizabeth Kubler Ross and everything that you’d possibly do to deal with the inevitable pain of death. I was able to share that with my father. The idea of that loss and that type of pain has changed me forever. It’s the ultimate human difficulty – how do you deal with death and loss?”

Celebrated Oscar-winner Helen Mirren wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or alarmed when she was approached to personify ‘Death’ alongside Collateral Beauty’s other two muses: Keira Knightley’s ‘Love’ and Jacob Latimore’s ‘Time’.

“I think because I was playing ‘Death’, I just wanted it to be as alive as possible. Whether that came out funny or not, it has nothing to do with me really, I was just trying to be as alive as possible," says Mirren, whose ‘Death‘ is an eccentric theatre actress called Brigitte.

"[Director] David Frankel and I had big discussions about who this person would be and he visualised her as this East-village, New York actress," she explains. "It’s not me exactly but it’s who I might have been if I hadn’t been as successful as I luckily was. I probably would have been absolutely ‘Brigitte’ because I started my career in theatre. I was incredibly serious about theatre, incredibly dedicated. So I think if my life hadn’t taken a different path, I think I probably would be Brigitte in theatre.”

Collateral Beauty’s all-star cast also features Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and Michael Peña as Howard’s advertising partners, and Naomie Harris as a grief counselor.

The cast embraced this quirky take on a traditional Christmas story, however Knightley was the hardest to persuade.

“I had a very young child at the time and had come to the end of a gruelling job and didn’t really want to work at the time,” she recalls. “I gave the script to my mom, mostly so she would say ‘No, don’t do that, stay at home with the baby and chill out’. But she read it and phoned me in tears, saying that nothing had made her feel like that for a long time.”

Smith was delighted that Knightley would capture the essence of love. “I’ve had huge life-changing moments almost all centred around love. I am a serious, hopeless romantic. I think the greatest experience of love I’ve ever had was when my daughter Willow was born and I took her and sat her down with Jada and… just looking at the two of them. That was the fullest that I had ever been; the maximum amount of love that I’ve ever felt; the happiest that I’ve ever been in my life. And I think subconsciously I chase that every day of my life.”

Collateral Beauty is in cinemas on January 12.

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