Like many of us at home, Will Packer thought the confrontation between Will Smith and Chris Rock at Sunday’s 2022 Academy Awards was a bit. But the show’s producer told Good Morning America on Friday (April 1) said he was disabused of that notion the second a stunned Rock came backstage and confirmed that Smith had hit him in the face in what has become one of the most viral, and controversial, moments in the award show’s 94-year history.
“He didn’t tell one of the planned jokes. He was immediately freestyling,” first-time Oscars producer Packer said of his friend Rock, whose joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, actress/singer Jada Pinkett Smith, he confirmed, was not in the original script. And though Pinkett Smith seemed peeved by the G.I. Jane 2 ad lib about her shaved head — she suffers from the autoimmune disorder alopecia, which causes hair loss — Packer told GMA‘s T.J. Holmes that he didn’t sweat it at first, even after Will Smith rose out of his front-row seat and began to walk briskly toward the stage.
“I said: ‘Watch this, he’s gonna kill.’ Because I knew he [Rock] had an amazing lineup of jokes that we had — we had him in the prompter,” Packer said, noting that Rock then dropped one of his planned punchlines in favor of the Pinkett Smith joke. Still, Packer said, he was confident because, “if there’s anybody that you don’t worry about going out in front of a live audience and riffing off the cuff, [it’s] Chris Rock. Nobody’s better.”
That positive feeling didn’t last long.
“Once I saw Will yelling at the stage with such vitriol, my heart dropped. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh no, oh no. Not like this,’” Packer said of the moment he, and the audience, likely both realized that this unscripted moment was very real. “But I’ve got people, everybody’s still in my ear, you know, saying: ‘OK, what are we doing on camera two? Is he still up there? Are we doing the best documentary category?’ And Chris was keeping his head when everybody was losing theirs.”
Soon, though, Packer said his heart was “in my stomach because of everything about it and what it represented and what it looked like and who was involved. All of that. I’ve never felt so immediately devastated like I did in that moment.”
After smacking a stunned Rock with an open hand, Smith went back to his seat and twice yelled “Keep my wife’s name out your f—in’ mouth!,” as the live feed dropped out to censor the expletives and Rock stood on stage in disbelief, stammering at first as he tried to present the nominees for best documentary.
Once backstage, just moments later, Packer asked Rock directly about what happened and if he’d really been hit. “And he looked at me and he goes: ‘I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali.’ It’s exactly what he said, as only Chris can, you know,” Packer recalled of the quip referencing Smith’s role as the former heavyweight champ in the 2001 biopic, Ali. “He was immediately in joke mode, but you could tell that he was very much still in shock.”
Packer also told GMA that it was an “absolute fact” that the LAPD were on hand, at the ready backstage to arrest Smith after the incident, despite conflicting, confusing accounts over the past few days about when, how and if producers asked Smith to leave the building. “The LAPD made it clear: ‘We will do whatever you want us to do, and one of the options is that we will go and arrest him right now,'” said Packer, who added that he assured Rock that he would have his back no matter what.
“I made that clear, like, ‘Rock, you tell me, whatever you want to do, brother,'” Packer said, noting that the LAPD came into his office and explained what Rock’s rights were in that moment, describing the attack as “battery” and letting Rock know that he could press charges and that they could arrest Smith if necessary.
While Rock has yet to make any public statement about Smith’s attack, Packer said that in the moments after the bizarre confrontation the veteran comedian/actor was “dismissive” of the options police gave him and insisted that he was “fine.” He also said that he didn’t speak to Smith, but the show’s co-producer, Shayla Cowan, told him that the Academy was taking steps to remove the King Richard actor from the Dolby Theatre; the Academy initially said Smith “refused” to leave when asked then a day later sources told Variety that he was never “formally” told to do so.
Adding to the confusion and strange optics, Smith remained in the theater and then took the stage a short time later to accept the best actor award for his work in King Richard. And while Packer said he was not involved in the conversations about asking Smith to leave, he “immediately” went to the Academy brass after chatting with Rock and told them that, “‘Chris Rock doesn’t want that,’ I said: ‘Rock has made it clear that he does not want to make a bad situation worse.'”
Adding another twist to an already hard-to-digest sequence of events, when Smith’s name was announced, many in the room gave him a standing ovation, which Packer attempted to unpack for GMA.
“I was in the room and I know a lot of those people, and so it wasn’t like this was somebody they didn’t know,” Packer said of Smith, the rapper-turned-thespian who earned his first best actor Oscar on Sunday. “It doesn’t make anything that he did right, it doesn’t excuse that behavior at all. But I think that the people in that room who stood up, stood up for somebody who they knew, who was a peer, who was a friend, who was a brother, who has a three-decades-plus-long career of being the opposite of what we saw in that moment.”
Packer also revealed that what he and, he suspects, many others, were hoping was that Smith would “make it better” during his tearful acceptance speech, which did not mention Rock or the incident, but instead featured multiple references to the actor “protecting” his female cast mates and his desire to be a “vessel for love,” before adding an apology to the Academy and his fellow nominees.
“It couldn’t be made right in that moment, because of what happened,” Packer said of Smith’s acceptance speech. “But I think we were hoping that he would stand on that stage and say, ‘What just happened minutes ago was absolutely and completely wrong. Chris Rock, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.’ That’s what I was hoping for. I felt like he was gonna win, and I was hoping that if he stayed, he [would say] that.”
As part of its formal probe the Academy said on Wednesday that Smith could face “suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.” Following many condemnations, including from the Academy, Smith took to Instagram on Monday to apologize to Rock. “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable,” he wrote; Packer said that Smith also reached out to him personally on Monday morning to apologize before his public mea culpa to Rock.
“[Smith] said, ‘This should have been a gigantic moment for you. And he expressed his embarrassment, and that was the extent of it,” Packer said. But, because of what Smith did say in his speech, the show’s producer now wishes he had asked the actor to leave the premises.
“Now, you don’t have the optics of somebody who committed this act, didn’t nail it in terms of a conciliatory acceptance speech in that moment, who then continued to be in the room,” he told GMA.
The LAPD confirmed to Billboard that so far Rock has declined to press charges. The comedian returned to the stage on Wednesday night in Boston for a stand-up show, at which he did not formally address the slap in his set, telling the crowd he didn’t have any jokes about the incident, but was “still kind of processing” what happened.
Watch Packer’s interview below.
EXCLUSIVE: #Oscars producer Will Packer tells @GMA what happened behind the scenes after actor Will Smith slapped host Chris Rock live on stage. @tjholmes https://t.co/AeoYcGkM32 pic.twitter.com/xe9E2cFo8N
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 1, 2022
EXCLUSIVE: #Oscars producer Will Packer tells Good Morning America about the frenetic aftermath of actor Will Smith slapping host Chris Rock live on stage on Hollywood’s biggest night. https://t.co/AeoYcGkM32 pic.twitter.com/8z35t8TPFw
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 1, 2022