Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter, Angela Lansbury - Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith is about to join some pretty exclusive company when her new weekly TV series, HawthoRNe, debuts Tuesday on TNT. Like those other actresses who made their reputations in feature films, she is coming to TV as both star and executive producer of a series designed to showcase her talents.
The trade-off is a simple one: The TV network or cable channel gets a film-caliber star who will attract new viewers, and the star gets a steady paycheck and control of the material in which she appears. British TV had been doing it for years in limited-run series with performers such as Helen Mirren (Prime Suspect), but cable Channel TNT seems to have adapted the model best for American television with Sedgwick's The Closer, which started a new season last week, and Hunter's Saving Grace, which returns Tuesday with new episodes.
Pinkett Smith, who started in TV full time in 1991 playing a college freshman on Bill Cosby's NBC sitcom A Different World and made her name in films with Menace II Society and The Matrix Reloaded, says she sought out producing duties to try to evolve as an artist.
"I needed to kind of sharpen my storytelling skills," she says. "And I needed to get back into a grind, because I felt like I was getting too comfortable. And so, I needed to jolt myself. That's the only way I keep myself inspired and keep myself growing and learning. So I really wanted to throw myself into an area that I have to really work at to understand. ... And I must say that I feel like I've grown quite a bit on many different levels."
And if you think the offer is made to every marquee actress, check out the credits for Edie Falco's Nurse Jackie that premiered last week on Showtime. Falco, who stars as a nurse in that drama just as Pinkett Smith does in hers, is only the hired on-screen help. And in the cases of Sedgwick and Hunter, both started as producers in their first season. Pinkett Smith is the first to arrive as an executive producer.
For her part, Sedgwick says one of the most important aspects of being a producer is that it allows her "input" on her character during the writing.
"It's really about the writing," she says. "The writing is still interesting to me, and I'm really grateful for that. It could be really challenging if you feel like you're bored and going over the same character points. I don't feel like we're doing that, in part because it is such a collaborative writng process, and I am a part of that as a producer."
Pinkett Smith says she meets every week with the writers "to talk about the script" - a chance to accelerate her study of the "mechanics of storytelling" and to make sure she connects with the words and actions of her character, a single mother of one and director of nursing who is not afraid to confront those in authority to help her patients.
Tuesday night's pilot, which was written by series creator John Masius (St. Elsewhere), opens with Christina Hawthorne trying to save a patient who is threatening to jump off the roof of Richmond Trinity Hospital in Richmond, Va., the fictional hospital setting for the series. Her actions immediately bring her under fire from her superiors, and she doesn't back off an inch.
"Christina will do what is necessary, no matter whose toes she has to step on," Pinkett Smith says. "And it gets her into trouble quite a bit. ... I know there are a lot of shows coming out with nurses, but what we're trying to do is show how nurses go over and beyond for their patients - that nurses are patient advocates. And I don't think there has been a show in a long time that really explores the life of a hospital through a nurse's eyes. And I would say, my mother helped show me that."
That was another thing that attracted Pinkett Smith to Hawthorne: the chance to play a nurse, the real-life career of her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1984 from what was then Coppin State College.
Banfield-Jones, who worked at Sinai and the Johns Hopkins hospitals in Baltimore, served as a role model for Hawthorne, according to Pinkett Smith.
"She grappled with whether she should go to medical school or do nursing or what have you, and she decided to go for nursing. And just watching her sometimes, it amazes me," Pinkett Smith says. "She was there with me a couple of times when we had some medical emergencies in the house with the kids, and she automatically went into this analytical mode of focus. She is just a great problem solver. And that's one of the characteristics I gave Christina. My mom is very organized and very confident, and I took that from her, too."
Banfield-Jones, the daughter of a Baltimore anesthesiologist, says the family tree is steeped in medicine, and that her daughter couldn't have helped but pick up some of it as she was growing up.