On Her Own Terms

Baltimore-born actress Jada Pinkett Smith isn't waiting by the phone for the next plum role. Now, she can make the call.

August 07, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

She's got it made on the home front, with two kids and a handsome husband who's one of the most beloved movie stars on the planet. She's got it made professionally, having just opened in a big summer movie alongside Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. And she's got it made when it comes to ambition, having reached a point in her career that allows her to be selective when considering future roles.

Certainly, this is a good time to be Jada Pinkett Smith.

"Oh, it's a great time to be Jada right now," the 32-year-old actress says. "I'm the happiest I've ever been, and I'm a very blessed girl."

Most people would be inclined to agree. She and her husband, actor-rapper-force-of-nature Will Smith, are securely ensconced as one of Hollywood's premier power couples (since Cruise and Nicole Kidman are divorced, they may well be No. 1). Collateral, in which she has a small, but vital, role as a lawyer who catches the eye of Jamie Foxx's cabbie, opened yesterday in 3,100 theaters nationwide to generally favorable reviews. She and Smith serve as executive producers of the UPN comedy series All of Us, which they created and based on their family life. She's on the cover of this month's Redbook magazine, looking resplendent in pale green.

Not bad for a Baltimore gal raised in a Park Heights neighborhood she once characterized as "a neighborhood full of desperate, uneducated people who were brought down and oppressed by their lack of opportunity. I look back and go: `How did I make it out of there?'"

When it comes to opportunities, Pinkett Smith has clearly made the most of hers, from her years as a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts to a two-year stint on NBC's A Different World (she'd unsuccessfully auditioned for Smith's sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but apparently made quite an impression on the star) to her breakout movie role as an inner-city girl dreaming of better things in 1994's Jason's Lyric.

And yet ... well, it's a very small "and yet," for Pinkett Smith sounds genuinely happy about the way her life and career are going. Still, she's been part of the acting business long enough to know the pressures she'll continue to face as an actress, as an African-American actress, and as an African-American actress not willing to accept just any part that comes along.

"The thing about [acting] that people have to understand is, it's hard for women in general," she says, taking a few minutes to talk over the phone while being driven from a Thursday-morning appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly to an interview on CNN. "You have to ask Jodie Foster ... why she only does a role very five years. There are just no roles out there for women in general."

True, she allows, Halle Berry's much-vaunted Oscar win for Monster's Ball two years ago opened the door a crack wider for women of color in Hollywood. But nothing changes overnight.

"I believe that, yes, there have been some changes, and slowly but surely, Hollywood has evolved," Pinkett Smith says. "But it's a slow process. We as women really need to step behind the scenes and do more writing, more producing, so that our voices are more authentic."

But that's about as desperate as she is willing to sound. Unlike many less serene actors, Pinkett Smith is not actively seeking her next job, anxiously waiting for the phone to ring and for her agent to say she's landed a plum role in some potential blockbuster. In her last five films (Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Ali, The Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions and Collateral) she's been memorable in small roles; it's been a while since she's played a lead. And that, she insists, "is a choice.

"That's not a problem for me, as long as I can continue to do great work, and work with great people, and work with great directors," she says. "I couldn't care less if they're [roles] of one line or a hundred. Pretty much the films that I get offered are very limiting, are very stereotypical. Most people are willing to take more of a chance on me doing something different in a supporting role."

All of which explains what she found so attractive about the role of Annie in Collateral. In a touching, tenderly written scene toward the beginning of the film, she's picked up as a fare by Max (Foxx), who quickly sizes her up as someone he'd like to know better. Not just because she's attractive, but because he senses she's a person of substance who could use a little respite from her frenetic reality. He's right, of course; she's a prosecuting attorney rarely able to let her guard down. But with Max, she does, setting up a relationship that will reap dividends for both of them before the film is over.

"Have you ever seen me do anything like that on screen before?" Pinkett Smith asks with enthusiasm. "For me, it's just having the opportunity ... to play such a well-rounded, well-developed character in such a short amount of time. That character was more developed than most starring female roles I've seen of late."

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