When Jada Pinkett attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, she always showed up late. And on Friday, three years after graduation, she still arrived at school late -- but this time it was for an interview and she was in a white stretch limousine.
Back in town for the weekend, Ms. Pinkett, who stars on NBC's "A Different World," visited friends, talked to former teachers, and was interviewed six times. Everyone, it seemed, was eager to talk to the woman who grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore, then went to Los Angeles and made it big.
Ms. Pinkett, 20, and two other actors -- Ossie Davis of ABC's "Evening Shade" and Karyn Parsons of NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" -- presented awards Saturday at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference, which honored blacks in science and engineering. Ms. Pinkett joined "A Different World" last fall as Lena, a college freshman from the Baltimore projects who is studying engineering. The show has meant newfound attention, which scares her, she said.
"Today everybody wants to be a part of what I'm doing, but tomorrow, when 'A Different World' is gone, I'll be gone . . ." said Ms. Pinkett, sitting in a secluded room of the school in flared, baggy jeans and a T-shirt from the movie "Juice."
Nonetheless, the fleeting nature of the business doesn't turn her off. "I can't understand why a lot of people in my business get high [on drugs]. I get such a high performing."
When Ms. Pinkett visited the school Friday, students flocked around her, begging for autographs -- even those who had never met her. A former teacher teased her about the limo. She seemed to sink back into the comfortable, familiar atmosphere, gesturing animatedly and adjusting the hood of her black velour jacket.
"This is where it all started," Ms. Pinkett said happily, "where I started to focus all my creative energy. . . . I learned a lot of valuable lessons in this school."
But she went on to note it's not easy learning to act: She told of the daily rehearsals, which she said exposed her like "raw flesh," and how her heart still thumps when she's on stage.
Stage fright or not, her teachers said they knew she'd go far.
"Everyone recognized the same thing about [her] . . . a degree of intensity you just don't see at this age," said Donald Hicken, the head of the theater department.
Ms. Pinkett recalled her favorite story, when Mr. Hicken told her, "You have more talent in the tip of your pinkie than a lot of people have in their whole bodies." She laughed and held up her finger.
Ms. Pinkett's mother, Adrienne Banfield, a nurse who now lives in Columbia, also had some adjusting to do. In a phone interview, Ms. Banfield said, "You know, there's no instruction book on how to be a star's parent."
She always was a ham, her mother said. At every family gathering, Ms. Pinkett's grandmother had the children perform, and it was here that Ms. Banfield recognized her daughter's ease on stage and in front of the camera.
When she was 10, Ms. Pinkett landed the role of Dorothy in a local production of "The Wizard of Oz." But as she began to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," she froze. "I was so nervous, 'cause I can't sing," she said. "So I said, 'Hey, I forgot the words, guys. Can you all sing along with me?' " The audience joined in.
"It was instinct," she said.
After a childhood of tap dance, ballet lessons and auditions around Baltimore, Ms. Pinkett enrolled in the Baltimore School for the Arts. After graduation, she attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, and following the first year, she went to Los Angeles to stay with a friend of her mother's. She never came back.
A few commercials and appearances in "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "True Colors" and other programs led to a guest starring role in "A Different World." Ms. Pinkett then was asked to join the show.
While in Baltimore, she turned to Mr. Hicken for advice on how to pursue films and theater. "You've gotten yourself some power, some authority. So now you can say to your people, 'I'm going to do a play because I need it artistically, I need the growth,' " Mr. Hicken told her.
Ms. Pinkett has just returned from New York where she met with director John Singleton, of "Boyz N the Hood" fame, and read for his new movie, "Poetic Justice." But Ms. Pinkett turned it down, dissatisfied with the portrayal of women in the movie.
She laments the roles of black women in new films -- alcoholics, prostitutes and drug addicts -- so she's now writing her own scripts. "I want to portray positive black women and keep longevity for us in the industry," she said. "Once this opportunity is gone, I'll be out there struggling just like the rest of them."