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Paul De Gelder Reveals How Will Smith Confronted His Fears For Shark Week's Off The Deep End - Exclusive

There's plenty of action on Will Smith's resume — from the Bad Boys franchise to Independence Day. But when it was time to conquer his fear of the most famous underwater predators for 2020's Shark Week, Smith called upon real-life action hero Paul de Gelder. An Australian military veteran who lost an arm and a leg (literally) to a nine-foot bull shark during an elite diving training mission, de Gelder is one of the increasingly famous faces of the Discovery Channel's popular shark programming block. He turned his personal tragedy into triumph, as an animal advocate (yes, including sharks), public speaker, and the man who helps movie stars feel safe in the ocean. 

The A-list actor and musician's journey into open water is documented in full on Will Smith: Off the Deep End, airing Tuesday, August 11 at 9 PM ET on the Discovery Channel. De Gelder personally worked with Smith, MMA star Ronda Rousey, and boxing legend Mike Tyson for this year's Shark Week, which will also see celebrity appearances from Shaquille O'Neal, Adam DeVine, and Snoop Dogg.

Looper had the chance to speak with de Gelder in an exclusive interview ahead of the release of Will Smith: Off the Deep End. During our chat, de Gelder revealed what it was like to work with Smith, and how he helped the multi-talented star overcome his fear of sharks.

Conquering his fear of sharks was on Will Smith's bucket list

"Knowledge dispels fear" is an old adage with a special impact for de Gelder, as it serves as a guiding principle for his work with sharks. 

"My shark attack was so widely publicized, that every time there was another shark interaction, the media would come to me for a comment," he explained to Looper. "And so at the risk of sounding like a dummy on television, I figured, well, I'd go and do my research. The more research I did, the more I realized how little we had to fear of sharks, and how much they have to fear from us." 

One of Smith's producers worked with de Gelder on another project, so when the Fresh Prince mentioned that overcoming his fear of sharks was on his bucket list, she knew just the diver for the job. (Smith made the revelation in a 2019 episode of his "Bucket List" Facebook series, saying his fear of sharks began with the 1978 blockbuster Jaws.)

A trip to the Bahamas was organized, with de Gelder handpicking his own shark feeders, shark wranglers, and camera people for the adventure. Smith's easygoing charm and affability immediately put de Gelder's crew at ease themselves. 

As de Gelder shared, "He was just a really, really nice guy. Very calm. Making you feel welcome and comfortable, which is hard to do around a living icon. I'm used to seeing [stars like Will Smith] 10 feet tall on the cinema screen. And all of a sudden, I'm walking down a pier next to him, having a conversation. So [it was] very, very surreal. And that all happened through him wanting to overcome his fear."

Working with Will Smith, Ronda Rousey, and Mike Tyson for Shark Week reminded de Gelder that celebrities are just like everybody else when it comes to anxieties and life's big questions.

"I guess we put these superstars on a pedestal a little bit because they've got all the money and all the fame, and we think maybe they've got it all worked out," de Gelder reasoned. "But [seeing] the human side of Will — having a conversation with him at the end of the pier about fear, death, and overcoming adversity — that really put a human element to this person. Seeing the human side, and [his] consideration for the things that I was trying to teach him about death and fear, I got a lot of respect for him from that, for being open to listening to just some guy to him, pay attention to it, take it on board, and then utilize it."

Paul de Gelder on Will Smith's shift from fear to fascination

One of the biggest misconceptions de Gelder often confronts is the idea that sharks are mindless killers, swimming around looking for people to eat. 

"Ninety percent of the media that comes out about sharks will only come out when someone's been attacked. So everyone has this preconception, thinking as soon as they get in the water with sharks, then they're going to attack. But then they see [my crew and I] get in, and the sharks aren't even interested, and it blows their mind," de Gelder told Looper. "They're really not that interested at all in humans specifically. They're curious animals because they're always looking for opportunistic feeds, so they're going to explore things with their mouth. But that doesn't mean that they're attacking you. It just means that you can put your hand on their head, push them away, and they'll go, 'Okay, that's not food, that could be another predator, I'll look elsewhere.'" 

To see a person go from nervous and tense to relaxed is de Gelder's favorite thing about teaching people to swim with sharks. For him, the most rewarding part of making Will Smith: Off the Deep End was observing that transformation in the twice Oscar-nominated actor. 

"It was really cool to see such an incredible shift from fear to fascination in Will — comparing when he was about to get in to when he got out. He said it was the best thing that he's ever done in his life; nothing will ever top it," said de Gelder. "I think that's a great example of how when you face your fears, sometimes they're not as bad as you think they are."

As much as it may seem counterintuitive for a shark attack survivor to become so fond of sharks, de Gelder's personal journey is demonstrative of the freedom from fear offered by knowledge and experience. 

"There's nothing wrong with doing something when you're scared," he pointed out. "I think that's something a lot of people put the brakes on. They get scared, so they don't do it. But what's the problem with being scared while you do it? That just builds character — it builds strength, [and] you feel better about yourself. Never let fear stop you. Use it as a motivator."

Will Smith: Off the Deep End airs Tuesday, August 11 at 9 PM ET on the Discovery Channel.