At Manhattan’s trendy Essex Hotel, actor Will Smith is dead serious. It’s disconcerting. This face that has morphed from bright-eyed rapper into clean-cut thespian in 15 years before the camera, is devoid of its signature boyish smile. It’s obvious that Smith’s recent portrayal of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Columbia Pictures’ biopic ALI (opens nationwide Dec. 25), has had a profound effect on him. Jada Pinkett Smith, his wife, who co-stars as Ali’s first wife, Sonji Roi, says that Smith’s change transcends the physical (he gained 30 pounds while undergoing 14 months of intensive training). “Playing Ali brought him closer to what means most to him and who and what he needs to be. It’s been an incredible experience for him in that way.”

Smith, who likens his initial boxing style more to Steve Urkel than The Greatest, finally cracks a huge smile when reminiscing about his first encounter with the champ after three months of training. “For 15 minutes when he walked through the door, I went off. ‘Who is this chump? Get this chump out my training camp! You too ugly to be in here with me! I’ll fight you right now!’ He just stood there and smiled.”

Expect to see Smith reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones for Men in Black 2 (Columbia), the sequel to the 1997 blockbuster. And then expect to see him doing bigger and better things. “I feel like I was meant to do more than entertain,” he says. “I’m not sure what yet, but I really feel that.” Co-star Jamie Foxx, who plays Ali’s friend and trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown agrees. “In Africa, those people were looking at Will like he was the Messiah. I said, ‘You have so much power’. So when he talks about being the president I say, ‘Man, you could really make that happen.’ And if he needs somebody to help out…I’ll throw the after-parties!” cornered the on-screen champ and talked to him about “The Greatest,” going “home” to the Motherland and his first on-camera love scene.

What attracted you to this story on Muhammad Ali and inspired you to spend almost two years developing and researching his life?

I’m 33 years old and anyone younger than me has no idea who Muhammad Ali is. They know he’s a boxer, but they have no idea what he means to America, more specifically Black America. Muhammad Ali’s belief in his God was really simple but profound. And that’s the thing I got attached to, the simplicity of Muhammad Ali and his convictions. War had been declared on Black America — fire hoses and dogs — domestic terrorism. [His] point of view was, ‘I’m at war right here, so I’m not going to go over 10,000 miles and fight some war over there, when my women and children won’t be safe here’.

This movie covered Muhammad Ali’s life from 1964 to 1974. How did you prepare physically and emotionally?

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Mostly research and study. There was a good seven months that I lived everyday as Muhammad Ali. Director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) broke down training into a three-tiered syllabus. The first tier was physical, the second the mental and emotional space of Muhammed Ali and the third was spiritual training by Islamic teachers. Generally, I walked around at about 195 pounds, and I peaked at about 223. We traced why his voice sounds that way (in the mental and emotional sense) back to Baptist preachers who he had seen growing up. That’s why he put certain emphasis on words — he would ride up and down and then get dramatic. We found three or four Baptist preachers and I studied the inflection in their voices. Following Michael Mann’s layout allowed me to be free and open with the dialect.

Your wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, said she noticed a change in you since doing this film. Did delving into the champ’s belief system make you reassess your convictions about life, religion and your beliefs?

I am a profoundly changed man after working on this film. In terms of religion, it strengthened my conviction that my relationship has to be directly with God, not through a Baptist preacher, or Muslim cleric, or any Jewish rabbi. It further strengthened my conviction that I want to be a man of God, not a man of any one specific religion. I want to be welcomed in all those places where I can make contact with good people.

This was your first trip to Africa (the African scenes were shot in Maputo, Mozambique), and you had to recreate on-camera Ali’s first reaction when he visited the Motherland, and his realization of what he meant to African people. Were your feelings and thoughts similar to Ali’s as you walked the streets?

I [had] a tornado of emotions! When we first got off the plane, one of the baggage handlers said, ‘Welcome home, Brother,’ and I was done. I was like [covering his eyes as if crying] ‘All us American brothers ain’t soft like this, Brother, just let me get this out and I’m gonna talk to you in a moment’ (laughs). Then the first day, 10 African women greeted us and I was like, ‘Ohmigod!’ 10 dimes — 10 perfect 10s! I was almost angry like, ‘Why didn’t they tell us you all were here?’ I was embarrassed that I didn’t know there were tall buildings in Africa and I was like, ‘How come I didn’t know that that existed? How come I was scared?’ I was really disturbed to the point that Jada and I are looking for a place in Johannesburg because I refuse for my kids [Trey, 7, Jaden, 3 and Willow, 1] to be as dumb as I was.

This was your first love scene, and luckily it was with your real-life wife. What was it like making love with your wife on-camera?

Jeez! Pretty good, man. Oh, you mean in front of the camera? (laughs) I was happy that I was able to have my first love scene with my wife because she’s (unfortunately) a professional at them. She’s been doing them for years. Actually, she was directing me! We’d be kissing and she’d whisper in my ear, ‘Don’t make your mouth so big, it’ll look monstrous on-screen. It’s a close-up, make your mouth smaller!’ I was like, ‘Good looking out, babe, thanks.’