I’ve always had a soft spot for Jada Pinkett Smith, especially back when she was just Jada Pinkett and was just starting out as a film actor in such works as MENACE II SOCIETY, THE INKWELL, JASON’S LYRIC, the HBO film IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK, and even the first NUTTY PROFESSOR movie. She a performer who has worked very hard keep things versatile and even a bit weird, and the results have been mixed but never dull. From SCREAM 2 and Spike Lee’s BAMBOOZLED to Michael Mann’s ALI and COLLATERAL and two MATRIX films (and voicing Gloria in the MADAGASCAR movies), Pinkett Smith is defiantly unpredictable and full of more energy than a nuclear power plant.
Her latest unexpected turn happens in MAGIC MIKE XXL as club owner Rome (a part originally written for a man, with Jamie Foxx cast for time), whose talents as a crowd motivator and emcee are required by Mike (Channing Tatum) and his legion of male strippers. Pinkett Smith ends up becoming the film’s secret weapon and manages to bring a level of eroticism to the film that I’m guessing Foxx wouldn’t have touched.
After minimizing her workload for a couple of years to raise her children, Pinkett Smith is on something of roll right now, having apparently just ended a season-long run on the first season of “Gotham” as crime lord Fish Mooney, a character who she played big early in the season, but as Mooney’s began to lose her control of her various businesses, the larger-than-life personality began to taper off. In the season finale, it appeared Mooney was killed, but as we who read comic books know, no one ever really dies in them.
I sat down with Pinkett Smith recently to talk both about MAGIC MIKE XXL and her run on “Gotham” (naturally she was evasive about returning), and she was ever bit as interesting and fun to chat with as I’d hoped. Please enjoy my talk with Jada Pinkett Smith, who was sitting on a window ledge in her hotel room in front of a large window with Lake Michigan in the background. It was actually a rather striking image to walk in on.
Capone: Hello. How are you?
Jada Pinkett Smith: I’m good, how are you?
Capone: Good. Great to meet you.
JPS: Nice to meet you.
Capone: That’s a great view of you sitting there with the lake in the background.
JPS: It is a good view, isn’t it?
Capone: The roles of Rome and Fish Mooney are both sort of larger than life. Do you feel like this is a new chapter in your career, or do you feel like you never sort of went away?
JPS: Oh, no. I definitely went away a few times. [laughs] Definitely.
Capone: Do you recognize that you’re making a huge splash again right now.
JPS: Really? Am I? That’s awesome. I think that’s awesome of you to say. I probably never really look at it that way. I just really love having the opportunity to do great work, fantastic work. I think I’ve been blessed that Fish Mooney came along, and then while I was filming Fish Mooney, MAGIC MIKE came along. So it just becomes about being open to it. I think in this part of my career, I’m not as precious as I have been. I feel like I have a lot more freedom. At 44, I feel like I have earned the right to pretty much do what I want and have fun, because in any earlier part of my career, I’m sure doing Figh Mooney wouldn’t have been an option.
Capone: Because it was TV or because of the character?
JPS: I think because people were like, “Why would you go on someone else’s show? Do a show of your own.”
Capone: Which you did with “Hawthorne” [her series on TNT, from 2009-2011] for a couple of years.
JPS: True. My whole thing is, that doesn’t matter. Look at this role. Look at this opportunity. How do you give that up? I could care less about all of that. [Fish Mooney] is a great role, you know what I mean? I took it and had the best time of my life with it.
Capone: With the role of Rome, I read about how this role was originally written for a man.
JPS: Jamie Foxx.
Capone: I didn’t realize they actually had someone specific in mind. How did it get to you, then?
JPS: I keep asking Channing. I’m like, “How do you go from Jamie Foxx to Jada Pinkett Smith?” I’m not getting the connection [laughs].
Capone: Maybe he was already in the “Js” in his Rolodex.
JPS: [laughs] That’s right. “J- J-. Oh, Jada!” But what he did say was that once the situation with Jamie didn’t work out—I think it was a scheduling situation—he said, “You know what Jada? When I thought about doing this in Vegas, I always thought it should be a female emcee. I always thought that.” Then he’s like, “When that came to mind, you came to my mind immediately.” And I’m like, that’s crazy. Me and my people. I think what he said to me that roped me in was the fact that he wanted to use this opportunity to bring a sense of responsibility to this aspect of adult entertainment. And I thought that was radical, especially since I had just come from Atlanta doing a CNN documentary about human trafficking and how sometimes strip clubs can be a gateway. And I’m like, these particular industries are going to exist. It’s not about them existing. How about if we really did try to elevate them? So I was like, “That’s a radical idea, Channing. I’ll take that ride with you.”
Capone: He could just labelled you an emcee and let you do your thing. But we see you in two very different circumstances in this film being an emcee. At the end, it’s more about getting the crowd riled up and getting these women screaming; but when we first meet Rome, that’s not what you're doing. You’re mellowing things out a little bit and making it sexy. She knows how to read a room, and yoiu cater your performance to the mood. Can you talk about making that adjustment?
JPS: Oh yeah. When she’s at her house, in her little queendom, the purpose of that is much different than when she goes to do the convention. She looks at her house like her church, because to her, she believes that eroticism and sensuality are pathways to enlightenment, right?
Capone: She’s a guru.
JPS: [laughs] Yeah, you know what I mean? So her approach to everybody in the house is much different. It’s a much more laid back tone. It puts you in a state of relaxation, and she also feels that in an energized, intimate setting that’s so sexually charged, it’s important to keep that foundation of calm and having everything in a certain order. But when we get the convention, that was a party. It’s too big of a space to try and take that approach, so all she’s trying to do now is bring a sense of inspiration and joy and acknowledgment and validation to this group of women. She wants to take them on a fun ride for the night.
Capone: Rome’s house was supposed to be in Savannah, right?
JPS: The house itself, yes.
Capone: Do places like that exist?
JPS: I don’t know. I have a feeling they might pop up.
Capone: Is this a real thing?
JPS: I don’t think so. I think it was really their idea to put it in an intimate setting like that. I think it was something that Channing devised in his mind. [laughs]
Capone: It feels like we’re looking into the future, maybe. It doesn't feel like a completely real place. I particularly like seeing Donald Glover in that setting, because he’s not built like the other guys, but he sells it with confident and a strong voice. Then seeing Michael Strahan, who I didn’t recognize at first. Then when he smiled I went, “I know that gap.”
JPS: That’s right! [laughs] “I know that.”
Capone: Did you ever see the script as it was written for a man? Because I’m guessing the history has to be a little different with Channing.
JPS: Oh, yeah. I saw it.
Capone: How much did they have to change it?
JPS: Oh, we changed it a lot. If Jamie had come in there and kissed Channing on the lips…
Capone: That’s a very different movie.
JPS: A different movie, yeah. [laughs] So we changed it a great deal.
Capone: Did you give much thought to her history with Mike? Did you just come up with a whole backstory for how they were as a couple and how they broke up?
JPS: Oh, I absolutely did. Oh, yeah.
Capone: Can you give me some examples?
JPS: Well first of all, the fact that he was younger than I was, and I think that she was really trying to have a strong hold on him in an appropriate way. She saw this young talent and she knew that eventually she was going to open the club that you saw that she had. And Channing was young, and he wanted to go into the world and experience things, and he got an offer from the Mathew McConaughey character, and he left me to go work with him. We had been through a lot.
I think it was more of an ego thing for her, because I think she felt like she had this young kid wrapped around her finger, and he just proved her totally wrong. But they were really good friends. They were more like homie/lover friends. And I think that she just felt really done wrong, so when he comes back and she hasn’t heard from him, and he’s asking her for something, she’s like, “You’ve got a lot of damn nerve walking up in here.” But that was really the back story.
Capone: Were there any of the guys who you were particularly impressed by in terms of the way they looked and moved?
JPS: Yeah, I think all of them, because they all worked super hard. Adam [Rodriguez] worked really hard. We all stayed and watched Adam’s performance. He had this flip he had to do, and we were just like, “Oh my god. Come on, Adam. Hit it, hit it, hit it.” And he did it and it was like, “Yeah! He did it!” They all have worked so super, super, super, super, super hard. I was really impressed with all of them. None of them are really dancers besides Channing and Twitch [a.k.a. Stephen Boss, who plays a new character named Malik].
Capone: In the bigger picture of the two MAGIC MIKE films, what do they say about male empowerment in this environment and female empowerment in this environment? Did you think about it on a philosophical level at all?
JPS: I didn’t really think about the two together. I thought about it more on the female side. But what I saw—in seeing the movie and actually experiencing it—is that there’s this beautiful reciprocity between the feminine and the masculine and this beautiful sense of validation and acknowledgement and uplift-ment. When we get in synch, when the masculine and feminine gets in synch in that way with that exchange, that two-way communication, man, it probably is one of the most beautiful interactions in the world. It’s very possible for it to exist in a sexually charged environment. Most of the time, when you think about a sexually charged environment, you think that only the men are reaping the benefits, and that’s just not true at all, especially when men come with the sensitivity to communicate with a woman in a way to bring her into the dance, versus using her as a way for only pleasure and joy, but to be in a communication with her to bring one pleasure and joy, because then she’s going to receive pleasure and joy as well. It’s kind of like how sex is. [laughs] It’s got to be a two way street.
Capone: Were you jealous that you didn't get to dance a little bit?
JPS: It’s so funny you say that. I was. I’ve got to be real with you on that. I was. Let me tell you, there were a couple of times Channing threatened me, and I almost took Channing up on it. I’d come to him and I’d have these ideas, “When she’s giving you a hard time, you should do this,” and he’s like, “Okay, keep talking and I’m going to put you up there and give you a routine like I gave Amber [Heard].” And I’m saying to myself, “It’d be different doing a routine with me like that than Amber.” [laughs] So I did have those moments when I did wish I could have had a little bit of a dancing moment, but it was best that I didn’t.
Capone: She looks like she was being mauled in that scene. I don’t think you would have played it the same way.
JPS: No, that’s what I told him: “You’re not going to get an Amber out of Jada.” But that was part of the role, though.
Capone: Let me ask you about “Gotham” real quick, before they throw me out of there. You had a one-season commitment with them, I know you’re being a little cagey about if you’re coming back or not, but do you want to come back to it? It seems like the way it ended, the possibility might be there. Would you like to get back in that?
JPS: You know what, here’s the deal… sure. Just so everybody knows: Fish Mooney was there for that season to really facilitate Penguin’s rise. We had no idea, in all honesty—the writers, the producers—that Fish would catch on, especially because she wasn’t part of the comics and all that. We were like, “Ok, we can use her for this. That’ll be fun.” So, would I love to come back as Fish Mooney? Oh my goodness, sure.
Capone: You and Robin Lord Taylor [who plays Penguin] got great together. You played off each other.
JPS: Oh, we did. Fish Mooney and Penguin are serious business. So we just have to see where the story goes. If there’s room for Fish, if there’s any more story for her… That’s really the question. Is there any more sorry for Fish? Because she did what she’s supposed to do.
Capone: I know that people were giving you a little grief at the beginning of the season because you were playing it big, but what’s fascinating is when she has her downfall in the second half of the season, you drop that completely, and we realize we needed to see her in that mode, because when she falls, she drops that facade quickly.
JPS: Well, I knew coming into the game about the fanboys and fangirls, so I was already prepared for all the criticism. People didn’t really know who Fish was to really have a backstory on why she was that big. The fact that this woman was putting on a huge facade to really cover up her deep sense of insecurity. It was her defense mechanism. As you saw when she fell, that peeled away, and you got to see some of the real Fish Mooney. I was like “Just wait a little while. Get to know her a little bit. If you still hate her by the end of the season, okay. I’ll give you that.”
Capone: You went to Comic-Con last year, right?
Capone: Was that the first time you had been?
JPS: I think that was my first time.
Capone: So of that group, you were the most famous person. I remember hearing reports out of that and people wondering “Who is this character?”
JPS: Yeah, who is she? Nobody knew.
Capone: Which means you actually had a rare experience in a comic book-based property of creating a character from scratch.
Capone: Tell me about that process.
JPS: That doesn’t happen, ever. Right? For me I was like, wait a minute, hold on. Actually I was trying to keep my cool when I was sitting there with Bruno [Heller, the show’s creator]. Bruno was like, “We’re really interested in you with this role, and she’s not really developed, and we’d love your input.” And I’m sitting there buzzing. And he’s like, “Would you be interested?” And I’m like, “I’ll think about that. I really will. It sounds like a really good idea.” And I get in the car with my agent, “I want it. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. I know you don’t understand, but I’m a real comic book fan and I get to create my own character.” It was ridiculous. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because I love comic books. I always have. So to me, I feel like I really got to leave an imprint on Fish Mooney and the world of Gotham in a small way.
Capone: Did you get to pick hair colors too?
JPS: Oh, everything! That was the thing with Bruno and Danny [Cannon, executive producer]. They really trusted me with that, too. I’d come in and I shaved my hair for real on the side.
Capone: That’s right, you did.
JPS: No, that one was fake. But I did it for real for them. I literally shaved all my hair on the side. I had this bowl cut. Oh, yeah. It was a trip. Bruno was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe Jada actually shaved her head.” I was like, “It’s just to try. If you all don’t like it, we’ll put a wig on it,” and that’s what we did. I said, “Hair grows back. Don’t worry!”
Capone: Well, I hope you do make it back in there somehow. It was great to meet you. Thank you very much.