Will Smith’s Ali co-star Paul Rodriguez claims he took a “verbal slap” from the actor almost every day while working on the 2001 biopic. Will Smith attacking Chris Rock at the Oscars has gotten many to weigh in about what happened, including many of the actors’ fellow Hollywood stars. One person who wasn’t surprised at all to see Smith lose his temper is actor Paul Rodriguez, who previously worked with Smith on the 2001 biopic Ali. In the Muhammad Ali biopic from director Michael Mann, Smith played the famous boxing champion while Rodriguez portrayed his cornerman Ferdie Pacheco.
According to Rodriguez, Smith had relentlessly bullied him on the set while making the film. In a new interview with The Sun from the aftermath of the Oscars, Rodriguez says he was treated very harshly by Smith for no evident reason, though he was conversely kind to other actors on the set. All in all, Rodriguez thinks of the experience as a “nightmare,” feeling that the emotional injuries were much more painful than a physical slap would have been. As Rodriguez says:
“Chris Rock only took one slap at the Oscars … but I took a verbal slap from Will Smith every day. And sometimes I think the emotional injuries are just as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones. That movie was meant to be a huge stepping stone in my career, but for me it ended up being a nightmare because of all the sickening abuse I got from Smith. He was evil to me but nice to everyone else. It was sort of like Jekyll and Hyde.”
For Rodriguez, it was a tough situation, as he went into the project very excited after landing the role in the film. He was also looking forward to seeing Smith again, as he’d previously worked with the actor in the 1993 comedy Made in America and had a much better experience. Rodriguez says that while Smith was initially kind once seeing him again, at some point it was like someone had flipped a switch, resulting in Smith either outright ignoring Rodriguez saying cruel remarks to him in passing, allegedly inspiring the other actors to do the same to remain on Smith’s good side.
Things came to a head when Rodriguez said he came very close to simply walking, unwilling to endure any more of Smith’s alleged verbal abuse. Rodriguez claims he only stayed when co-star Jon Voight talked him down by explaining that Smith is a “method actor” who was under a lot of pressure. But when nothing changed, Rodriguez personally approached Smith in an effort to bury the hatchet, but that didn’t turn out very well, either. Rodriguez says Smith brushed this off and told him to just “shut up and stand there.”
Things never improved between Rodriguez and Smith, but there was one more surprise that would feel like a gut punch to the former. When the film was released on Christmas Day in 2001, he was “heartbroken and embarrassed” to see that all of his lines had been cut, reducing his once-sizable role to little more than an extra. Rodriguez described feeling devastated having family and friends calling him to say they barely spotted him, even though he was a featured name in the credits. Rodriguez believes his role was reduced as a way of Smith getting back at him one last time, a result of the two not getting along on the set.
Paul Rodriguez Says Will Smith Was Verbally Abusive on the Set of ‘Ali’
“When he turned around [after the slap] — that smug, that look like that. I’ve seen that look before. I feel like I got slapped everyday with the verbal abuse,” Paul Rodriguez tells Inside Edition of his experience working with Will Smith. While Will Smith waits to find out what action the Academy will take over his slapping Chris Rock for joking about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, others wait to see what the impact might be on the new Oscar winner’s career. At least one of his former co-stars says he’ll never work with him again.
Comedian Paul Rodriguez says he’s experienced Smith’s rage up close while on set of the 2001 film “Ali.” Smith packed on 35 pounds of muscle to play the boxing legend. His startling transformation into Muhammad Ali earned him his first Oscar nomination.
“When he turned around [after the slap] — that smug, that look like that. I’ve seen that look before. I feel like I got slapped everyday with the verbal abuse,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez says during filming, Smith became a real life “Jekyll and Hyde.”
“I’d be walking around and he would hurl some insult. You know, I just kept it in. What am I going to do?” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was cast as Muhammed Ali’s boxing ring physician Dr. Ferdie Pacheco — a role he traveled all the way to Africa to perform for the rumble in the jungle scenes.
Rodriguez says the real-life doctor showed up on set, and that’s when things turned nasty. The doctor allegedly ranted that his character didn’t have a big enough role. Rodriguez says the doctor hurled racial slurs at Will Smith.
After that, Rodriguez claims Smith took out his anger on him.
“Will Smith says, ‘You better be careful. You’re far away from anyone who likes you.’ I go, ‘Where does that come from? What do you mean I’m far away?’ He goes, ‘Ain’t no Mexicans here in Africa.’ I said, ‘What?’” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez even kept a diary of the traumatic experience.
“The insults just continue — that look of impunity. And I’m saying to myself, it went from one of the happiest moments of my life to a horrible situation,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s scripted role was cut, and he was basically reduced to that of an extra.
“I had lines. I didn’t audition to be an extra here. It was humiliating,” Rodriguez said.
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