Tough as Nails

Jada Pinkett Smith is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses, but more than that, she is a survivor, a mother and a role model

Tough as Nails

Cover star

Shot exclusively for American Way on May 27, 2015, at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles / Don Flood

One hazy morning at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, Jada Pinkett Smith gives an impromptu lesson on how to consume one’s breakfast with weaponized fingernails.

The polish is a demure taupe, far from the brushed-steel blue or sooty crimson favored by Fish Mooney, the club owner and crime underboss she played during the first season of Fox’s Gotham. But the knifelike contours and battleship design of those acrylic claws look just about as lethal. To safely consume one’s egg-white omelet or side of kale, Pinkett Smith demonstrates, one must pinch one’s fork with great delicacy.

At the time of this interview, it had been only weeks since Fish Mooney met her apparent demise on Gotham — the hit crime saga about Batman’s coming of age in a nightmare city he’ll one day redeem. In the season finale, the callow Penguin threw her into Gotham’s harbor. Elegant, manipulative, cunning and murderous, Pinkett Smith’s character was a fan favorite, but the actress had committed to only one season, so officially, she’s done for. But she isn’t ready to part with those nails.

“I don’t know, I can’t seem to get rid of them,” Pinkett Smith says, lifting her right hand, turning it at the wrist and gazing sentimentally at her talons. I love Fish so much. I’m not really ready.”

Recently, audiences saw Pinkett Smith in Magic Mike XXL — in a role that involved a lot less mayhem. She played the flamboyant proprietress of a private ladies’ club, a woman who happens to be an old flame of Channing Tatum’s supremely talented male stripper. Pinkett Smith admits to being a little on her guard when director Gregory Jacobs and Tatum himself called to talk about the project, since, at the time, she had just completed a CNN special about ex-strippers. But she liked Tatum’s take on the subject matter. “Channing told me, ‘Jada, this is an art form I used to participate in, and I really believe there’s a way to have adult entertainment and make it responsible,’ ” she recalls. “And I was on board for that idea, because strip clubs are going to exist, but how can we help them exist in a way that is more celebratory and more responsible?”

Preparing for her role involved some remedial education. “Before I did the movie, I hadn’t gone to a male strip club,” she says. “Male strippers didn’t interest me one bit. But of course I wasn’t going to mind if Channing and Joe [Manganiello, Pinkett Smith’s co-star] were doing the stripping. I’m like, ‘OK, well, this might be a different experience.’ ”

“You wait when You feel something’s not right for you.
You wait to take the shot.”

At age 43, Pinkett Smith is slender, athletic and about 5 feet tall. Boldly drawn wings of mascara swoop above her light-brown eyes. She wears a beige Pucci blouse with epaulets and a gold, pencil-thin snake ring on her right pinky. In conversation, she moves easily from King’s English to inner-city Baltimore slang. She punctuates her observations with no-nonsense stares or explosions of laughter.

Unlike her famous husband, Will Smith, who is in theaters blithely saving the Earth from calamity seemingly every other year, Pinkett Smith has been less a consistent Hollywood brand than a shape-shifter. She had her big-screen breakthrough as an aspiring chemist who falls for Eddie Murphy’s title character in the 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor. In Collateral, she played a federal prosecutor with self-esteem issues who narrowly escapes Tom Cruise’s paid assassin. The actress gave voice to Gloria the hippo in Madagascar and its sequels. And while she hasn’t built a career on it, she has made her own contribution to saving humanity, as a pistol-packing martial-arts master and hovercraft pilot in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

“I have really no interest in roles that keep me in a box,” Pinkett Smith says. “I’m not interested in just playing the pretty girl, or what people depict as being ‘tough’ or ‘street.’ I do love playing those gritty characters, as long as I’m given diversified ways to play them. Coming from the streets of Baltimore, I know there’s a lot of variation even within that world.”

Adrienne Banfield-Jones named her daughter after her favorite soap opera star, Jada Rowland, heroine of CBS’ bygone series The Secret Storm. Jada Pinkett was born while her mother was still in high school. “A 17-year-old child with a baby” is how Pinkett Smith describes her. Until she was 12, while Pinkett Smith lived with her mother, her grandmother was extremely involved in her upbringing in Baltimore’s Park Heights area, which for decades has suffered one of the highest per-capita crime rates among Baltimore neighborhoods. “My grandmother made sure I was trained,” the actress remembers. “I had tap dance. I had ballet class. I had to learn French. I had to play the piano. She just wanted me to be the most well-rounded child.” At 3, Pinkett Smith had her stage debut as the Wicked Witch of the West in her preschool’s production of The Wizard of Oz.

Pinkett Smith’s grandmother, who was a social worker, was interested in all aspects of personal enrichment. “She was an atheist,” Pinkett Smith recalls, “and she was like, ‘If you want to believe in God, you have to pick your own god.” After her grandmother’s death, Pinkett Smith had to rely more on her mother. As a nurse working the graveyard shift, Banfield-Jones couldn’t provide the kind of supervision her daughter had benefited from before, and Pinkett Smith continued to feel the full impact of the violence and poverty of her neighborhood — only now, without the sanctuary her grandmother’s home had provided.

“So many people I lost on the streets,” she says, “and even just my own life, when I think back to who I was, living in Baltimore and what my ideas of survival were, and the kind of activities I was involved in at 13 years old. I was going to jail or I was gonna see a grave. Those were my two choices, because you get caught up in a mentality.”

“I’m thankful for the Hollywood scrutiny,
that that’s my problem.”

Enrolling in the Baltimore School for the Arts after junior high didn’t alter her trajectory much. She remembers being an indifferent student there. She regards her diploma as a gift from teachers who saw enough potential to allow her to squeak by. She had been accepted to a school for the arts in North Carolina but had little intention of going there. Then one day at the city’s largest public-housing project, two men grabbed her and pointed two 9-millimeter pistols to her face. “I’m thinking, ‘Are they going to kidnap me?’ ” she recalls, “and all they do is take my money and my jewelry.”

The decision about whether to leave Baltimore was no longer hers. “My mother is close to my age,” Pinkett Smith explains. “Some of her friends know my friends, and word had gotten around quick about what had happened. My mom packed up my suitcase and said, ‘I’m personally driving you to North Carolina tomorrow. You’re getting out of here.’ She probably saved my life.”

Pinkett Smith didn’t stay in North Carolina long, leaving for Hollywood at age 17. She took part-time jobs in a record store and a doctor’s office, calling in sick to go on auditions. Within three months, she began landing guest parts on 21 Jump Street and Doogie Howser, M.D. She was invited to join the cast of NBC’s Blossom as star Mayim Bialik’s best friend, an offer she regarded as less than the opportunity of a lifetime. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’ll die in this role,’ ” she remembers. She weathered a lot of heat when she turned the job down.

“Let me tell you,” she says. “People in this industry were like, ‘Are you frigging kidding? This little nobody is saying no to a hit TV show? How dare she?!’ ” She was told she’d never get work again, but two weeks later, she did well at an audition for A Different World, the spinoff of The Cosby Show, and became a series regular. “That’s when I learned you wait when you feel something’s not right for you. You wait to take the shot. It was at a time when young and black was very hot in Hollywood. Doors were opening the way they’d never been open before.”

At 19, she auditioned for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but the powers that be decided she was too short to play Will Smith’s girlfriend. When her career took off, the producers decided to waive their height criteria. Pinkett Smith was in North Carolina shooting a film called The Inkwell when Will Smith “flew in to try to convince me to play his girlfriend on his show,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m done with TV. I’m not interested.’ And he was like, ‘Not interested?’ And I’m like, ‘No, not interested. I’m so sorry.’ ” In real life, she proved less elusive. The two married in 1997.

Smith’s movie breakthrough came a year before their wedding, with his turn as the marine pilot who beats back an alien invasion in Independence Day. While he churned out blockbusters, Pinkett Smith’s selectivity brought her more in the way of featured roles and stolen scenes than starring parts. Some of her most compelling performances have been far from Hollywood — as when she appeared with her speed-metal band Wicked Wisdom on Late Show With David Letterman, nearly unrecognizable in an oversized red sweatshirt and big hair as she snarled vocals. She took the group through a tour of the Deep South. “We played in cornfields and shacks. To go into those communities where the stereotype is that all underprivileged white people are racist and to find out it’s not true taught me a lot about this country.”

Another lesson Pinkett Smith has learned about the country is its boundless appetite for dirt from a celebrity marriage. The gossip sites are still doing a banner business alleging affairs with the couple’s co-stars, Scientology connections and a half-dozen divorce filings. “Every year there’s a new one, and I’m like, ‘Here we go. Get ready. Are ya holdin’ on tight?’ ”

Pinkett Smith describes the ups and downs of their wedded life in less scandal-sheet-friendly terms. “Marriages go through shifts,” she says, “and relationships go through shifts because in life things shift. So people are automatically like, ‘What’s going on? They must be getting a divorce.’ Well, no. But when people feel those shifts and there’s a mystery, they have to fill it with something.” As her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, and 17-year-old son, Jaden, have become recording artists and actors, the gossip fascination has extended to them.

When asked how she weathers the Hollywood storm, Pinkett Smith returns to the trauma of her youth — the grinding poverty, the violence, the two pistols pointed at her face. “If you really want to know,” Pinkett Smith says, “I’m thankful for the Hollywood scrutiny, that that’s my problem. There are mothers out there losing their sons, their husbands, their daughters. I’m blessed. So scrutinize me. I’ll take that any day over what the majority of my people are dealing with on a daily basis. I dare not complain. Hollywood scrutiny has nothing on what I’ve survived just to be here.”

Jada’s many faces

Jada Pinkett Smith’s career has spanned genres and roles. Here are a few of her most memorable appearances on TV and up on the big screen.

Although she got her start in 1991 on A Different World, a spinoff of The Cosby Show, Pinkett Smith took to the big screen in the 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor, in which she played Carla Purty, who falls for Eddie Murphy’s Sherman Klump.

In 1997’s Scream 2, the actress joined a club that would ultimately include Drew Barrymore and Liev Schreiber as she became another opening-act casualty of Ghostface, the iconic killer in Wes Craven’s megahit, self-aware slasher franchise.

Pinkett Smith enlisted with Keanu Reeves to save Zion in 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Her Niobe packed a punch.

In 2005’s animated Madagascar and its sequels, she voices Gloria, a jolly hippo who, along with her Central Park Zoo friends, discovers what life in the wild is like.

Fish Mooney, Pinkett Smith’s fearsome mob leader on Gotham, may have given up the ghost (and an eye), but her legacy lives on.