Pete Wentz talks to Jaden Smith about virtual reality and fatherhood

Jaden Smith might not seem like an obvious choice as the opening act for a Fall Out Boy tour. What does the son of one of the world’s most famous actors have to do with an emo institution seven records deep into their career? Quite a lot, it turns out. Last fall, the actor and musician appeared on a string of dates in advance of the band’s latest release, M A N I A. The record, which came out last week, swerves toward synth-pop and even dancehall, courtesy of a left-field feature from Nigerian sensation Burna Boy. In this context, Smith seems like an appropriately galaxy-brain choice for a supporting act. He even appeared in the band’s video for “Champion,” which offered a warning about the thrills and perils of virtual reality. Pete Wentz and Smith both share a fascination with technology; it’s just one of the things they talked about when they jumped on the phone for a wide-ranging conversation last month.

JADEN SMITH: Hey, what’s up!

PETE WENTZ: What’s up man, how’s it going?

SMITH: Everything’s going really good bro. I’m really happy right now man, I’m just stoked off life. Just got out of a studio session and my girlfriend’s going to Vienna, so I’m about to take her to the airport right now.

WENTZ: That’s dope. I saw your tweet today, “Travel Is So Expensive Cause They Don’t Want You To See The World,” and it’s so true how when you go around and you see, like, I’ve learned so much more about myself from just going around the world. Being in Tokyo, or spending time and seeing other cultures. I thought that was really interesting.

SMITH: No, I mean honestly I have to really thank you because you’re such a big reason why I’ve been able to travel so much the past year. Because the M A N I A tour was some of the most fun that I’ve had this year and it’s definitely the most traveling I’ve done this year. Even just, not even going far, some place like Denver. Just seeing how people live there.

WENTZ: Totally. One thing I think about that all the time—when you’re landing in another country and they give you a customs form and they’re like, “What is your occupation?” I’m always like, “What should I put?” But then I was thinking about it today and I wondered, “I wonder what Jaden would put?”

SMITH: If I’m going through an airport, I’m gonna be like, “Oh, I’m a musician.” Just so I don’t have to talk to the person for so long. But if you were asking me, I would be say I’m just an overall creator. That’s what I go by—an overall maker. Somebody that just makes things.

WENTZ: Totally. You know what I remember? When we were on tour and you talked about being at Ozzfest, and I was wondering—because my parents, well, my Dad’s a lawyer and my Mom was a school administrator. Do you have a first moment of seeing your parents perform and realizing, that’s what they do?

SMITH: Man, that realization. That’s such a good question. That realization that I had with my parents—it took me a long time. I remember being able to talk and put complete sentences together before I knew exactly what it was that my parents did.

WENTZ: Right.

SMITH: I thought my dad was a scientist when I was young. Seriously. Because people would come up to me and they would be like, “Your dad is the smartest person that I’ve ever met.” And I was so young, so I’d be like, “Well he just put me on a time out, so I don’t agree.” I would listen to what people were saying about him and about my mom, like, “Your mom is a goddess, your mom is everything, I wouldn’t be here without her,” because they were constantly helping people and putting them in positions so that those people could support their families. I saw everybody constantly coming to my house, talking to my parents for a long time and then, I would think, “I guess he’s a scientist.”

WENTZ: [Laughs] Yeah, ‘cause as a kid you put it together yourself in your head. My older kid, he thinks it’s okay that I’m in a band, but he really cares if I make the pancakes right for him. It’s dad first, and then whatever I do second. Which is kinda cool. Kinda grounding in a weird way.

SMITH: Yeah it is. It’s super grounding. But something that’s weird is, I would watch my Dad’s movies when I was young too, like how your kids are there with you on tour.

WENTZ: Right.

SMITH: I would watch my Dad’s movies, and it would really confuse me, and it would make me think, “Oh, does everyone do this?” Do everyone’s parents make movies? It took me until I was six years old before I realized the correlation between, okay, if I go somewhere with my dad, a bunch of people are gonna bother us. And if I don’t, then they won’t. And I put it all together when I was six or seven years old, right when I started working on Pursuit of Happyness (2016). And then I started noticing that I would go to the playground and people would start coming up to me and being like, “Hey, are you..?” But at that point in time I looked so similar to Willow that we kinda got away with it. And I could say no, and then they would be like, “Oh, that person over there looks just like you, too.” ‘Cause me and Willow were really young. We’d be the same height, and we both just had afros, and we would just wear whatever we want.

WENTZ: Right. I could see people thinking you were twins. I could see it still. The funny thing that I talk to my older kid about is—we talk about you, and he knows movies and he knows Batman. When I talk to him, I’ll say, “It’s really cool that Jaden is super smart, and super talented, and he can dance, and he has these songs. But maybe one of the best qualities about him is that he’s really nice.” I think that that’s one of the great qualities that I don’t know if everybody knows about you, you’re just a super nice guy.

SMITH: That means so much to me. Positivity, thank you. But I actually have a question for you, bro. With this new album coming out, I remember on tour on some of the nights you would say like, “We’re not just trying to make another album, we’re trying to make your favorite album.” And that really, really, spoke to me because that’s such a big statement. And I just wanna know what that means to you.

WENTZ: Yeah! So when we started making the record we’d gotten about six or seven songs in and I remember calling Patrick and being like, listen—the songs that we have are fine, but I don’t really wanna go out and miss my family for three months and say, this record’s “Okay.” So we scrapped it, entirely. The day after we had that conversation, we came up with this song, “The Last of the Real Ones,” and it drove the direction of the record. When you’ve been doing this for 15 or 16 years, you gotta have new perspectives. I’m super proud of this album; we worked with this guy Burna Boy, from Nigeria, and it’s very world-based. The way technology works now, you can get on a phone through an app and talk to a kid in Nigeria, which is so cool. I didn’t have that 15 years ago. The thing I like about this record is, there’s paparazzi pictures of me just going to get coffee all the time. And people are like, ‘What does this guy do? He goes out and gets coffee all the time. Does he do anything?’ But you put out some art into the world and people are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s what it is.”

SMITH: Yeah.

WENTZ: What do you think is a big misconception that the world has about you?

SMITH: People think for some reason that I don’t care about creativity and art, or helping people. So I would say that the biggest misconception is, when you think about me, when you think about my name, I don’t want you to think about design, or clothes, or music. I want you to think about a person that’s just trying to help people. This Christmas I [gave] away 100 pounds of clothes.

WENTZ: I feel, as a person who’s gotten to know you, that would be a crazy misconception. Because I think that you’re a person that cares about humanity and pushing humanity forward more than a lot of people that I meet your age. What’s your favorite Batman movie, by the way? I need to know. I need to know.

SMITH: [Laughs] You ask the best questions. My all-time favorite really must be the Dark Knight Rises (2012). With Bane.

WENTZ: That was so sick. That trilogy is insane.

SMITH: I’m not sure, but I think I started crying from excitement at the end of that movie. Ok, I have a really hard question for you. What’s your favorite movie of all time?

WENTZ: My favorite would probably be that movie Drive (2011), with Ryan Gosling. I like the soundtrack, I love the visuals. I moved to L.A. twelve years ago or something, and the movie’s a love story about the city. You see all of the city. What’s your all time favorite?

SMITH: My favorite movie right now is Valerian (2017). I’ve been working with a lot of mood boards lately, and Valerian is so full of moodboard concepts. If you’re thinking about your next music video, or if you’re thinking about anything visual, you gotta watch Valerian. My all time favorite movie ever is definitely the Twilight series.

WENTZ: Oh yeah!

SMITH:Movies influence so much. And I’ve just been realizing it lately, people will watch movies and it might change their whole life. People that watched the first Star Wars (1977) when it came out, they’ll never be the same. That affected them.

WENTZ: Dude, I’ll tell you this. Pursuit of Happyness (2006) really, really, really, affected me. I spent a lot of time, about three years, where it was just me and my kid. And we would be hanging out, and it was like, now I gotta go do this, now I gotta go do that, and he would come to work with me. Obviously it’s not the exact same thing cause I’m a guy in a band, but I thought about it a lot when I was watching that movie.

SMITH: That means a lot man, thank you. So I have a question—how do you feel about virtual reality?

WENTZ: I think that if used in an artistic and creative way, it can be the future. I think that when it becomes a thing where you’re creating an avatar, and you’re not actually living your life, that can be super damaging. There’s a lot of times when I’m on social media, and then I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a whole world outside of it.’ What about you?

SMITH: I really agree with you. I mean, here’s the deal. If you’re gonna use virtual reality to have a doctor look at somebody’s heart in 3D, so that they can perform surgery on them, then virtual reality is dope. If you are using virtual reality to give someone a course on physics to explain what an atom is, or how a nucleus works, or how electrons create the shell, and atoms are 99.9% made out of nothing and empty space—

WENTZ: Totally.

SMITH: You need virtual reality to understand high level science, or high level math. It’s very helpful to explain third and fourth dimensional things that people are constantly addressing in quantum physics. But, as soon as you’re creating an avatar and you can live and you can start to feel sensations on VR, that has gone too far. It’s almost a drug, and it cannot be used recreationally. It should only be for educational purposes, and that’s it. This is not something to do for fun.

WENTZ: Totally. Because people get addicted to it, the way you get addicted to drugs. It’s the same feeling.

SMITH: I believe you can overdose on virtual reality. I feel that you can stay in the sensations of the game so much that you just forget to eat and you literally die. In the game.

WENTZ: Yes, 100%.

SMITH: That’s so extreme. But give it five years, cause I’ve been autopiloting in the Tesla the whole conversation that we’ve been having.

WENTZ: [Laughs]

SMITH: If I can autopilot this whole conversation, who knows what’s gonna be happening in five years.