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A teary Will Smith opens up to Trevor Noah about the 'rage' behind his Oscar slap

Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images
Actor Will Smith's success at the 94th Oscars was largely overshadowed by his behavior earlier in the ceremony, when he slapped comedian Chris Rock over a joke about Smith's wife's hair. In a new interview, Smith says that bottled up rage led to that moment.

Will Smith revisited his infamous Oscar night for the first time in his first major TV interview since slapping Chris Rock onstage last March.

Speaking to Trevor Noah on the Daily Show on Monday night, Smith described how he "just lost it" over Rock's joke about Smith's wife's hair.

"That was a rage that had been bottled for a really long time," he said, prefacing his comments by saying his emotions didn't justify his behavior.

"I guess what I would say is you just never know what someone is going through. I was going through something that night. ... It's like when they say 'Hurt people hurt people,' you know?"

Smith said his biggest challenge over the past eight months has been learning to forgive himself "for being human."

"I had to humble down and realize that I'm a flawed human and I still have an opportunity to go out in the world and contribute in a way that fills my heart and hopefully helps other people," he said.

Throughout the 20-minute interview, Noah spoke nearly as much as Smith, offering absolution and affection as a teary-eyed Smith nodded along.

"You are one of those rare breeds of people who've spent more time in the spotlight than out of it," Noah said.

Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The moment that actor Will Smith (right) slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage has continued to divide the national discourse over celebrity behavior.

"I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I don't want that to define you. I don't think it should define you. I don't think that any one of us in life deserves to be defined by our one f**k-up."

Smith was on the show to promote the new film Emancipation, a dark historical drama in which Smith stars as a runaway slave.

The film's director Antoine Fuqua has repeatedly defended Apple's decision to release Emancipation this December, even as the Smith slap still dominates the Hollywood discourse.

Speaking on a morning talk show earlier this week, Smith said he'd understand if audiences choose to skip seeing the film to boycott his behavior.

"I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready," Smith told journalist Kevin McCarthy on Good Day DC.

"My deepest concern is my team. ... The people on this team have done some of the best work of their entire careers, and my deepest hope is that my actions don't penalize my team. At this point, that's what I'm working for."

He echoed that sentiment on The Daily Show, saying he didn't want his actions to "taint" the film's reception.

Expanding on how he disappointed those around him, Smith shared a story about how his 9-year-old nephew reacted to seeing the slap on TV.

"He had stayed up late to see his Uncle Will. We're sitting in my kitchen, and he's on my lap and he's holding the Oscar. And he's just like, 'Why'd you hit that man Uncle Will?' " Smith said, pausing to wipe away tears.

"Why are you trying to Oprah me?" he joked to Noah. "Look, it was a mess. I don't want to go too far into it to give people more to misunderstand."

Smith's popularity with fans was built in part on his cheerful demeanor. He told NPR's Fresh Air last year that he crafted that image to cover up childhood trauma, including watching his father beat his mother when he was 9 years old.

His appearance on the Comedy Central show, which averages 370,000 viewers per episode, was Smith's first major television interview — and one of his first public appearances — since the March 27 Oscars.

Noah characterized that night as one of the best and worst nights of Smith's life, let alone his career.

The actor won his first Academy Award for best actor for his performance in King Richard, but the famed smack and its aftermath overshadowed his success.

Smith later resigned from the Academy, which also banned him from all its events for the next 10 years.

Smith eventually did apologize to Rock, in a video posted to social media this July, but Rock said at the time he wasn't ready to discuss the incident.

He's since reportedly joked about the incident at various stand-up performances.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.