Actor and singer Marc Anthony (right) joins Jada Pinkett-Smith… (Darren Michaels, TNT Photo )
After more than 20 years in TV and feature films, Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith could hardly be blamed if she wanted to slow down and ease back a bit.
It seems as if the Baltimore School for the Arts graduate has been working nonstop on the national stage since her breakthrough TV debut in 1991 as a member of the cast of Bill Cosby's hit NBC series, "A Different World."
But at 39, the wife of actor Will Smith and mother of two children — who are already launched on their own show-biz careers — sounds like she is pushing herself harder than ever. Work, work, work — that's what she's most interested in talking about. And she is constantly referring to "growth," "challenges" and what she's "learned" behind and in front of the camera in her latest project.
Two years ago, she launched the TNT medical drama, "Hawthorne," as executive producer and star — playing the role of Christina Hawthorne, a hard-charging director of nursing at a Virginia hospital. In the early episodes, she seemed to be in virtually every scene — and doing most of the heavy lifting.
With the start of the third season Tuesday night, viewers will see Pinkett Smith and one of the most diverse casts on television take the series to a new level of intensity. There's some extra onscreen pop this year with the addition of singer Marc Anthony, who makes his presence felt immediately.
But the motor that drives "Hawthorne" to a new dramatic high is Pinkett Smith's performance. It's raw, unsettling and totally absorbing. It is the stuff of which Emmy nominations are made. (No spoiler plot details here.)
"I think I have grown with this series, both as an actor and as a producer," Pinkett Smith says. "This year, I really get to sink my teeth into the character with extreme situations. I get to explore emotional ideas that I haven't had the opportunity to do in my career as of yet, and that's what excites me — taking this character who I care deeply about on this journey."
One of the reasons for Pinkett Smith's deep attachment to the character of Christina Hawthorne is that her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, a Baltimore-area resident, is a nurse.
Banfield-Jones, who earned her nursing degree from what was then Coppin State College and worked at Sinai and Johns Hopkins hospitals in Baltimore, served as a role model for Hawthorne, Pinkett Smith said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun when the series debuted.
"She grappled with whether she should go to medical school or do nursing or what have you, and she decided to go for nursing," Pinkett Smith said. "And just watching her sometimes, it amazes me."
Banfield-Jones said that her daughter did her own research for the role as a director of nursing, but she did note one similarity between herself and Christina Hawthorne.
"Our personalities are kind of the same — we both have control issues, so maybe there is some of that," she said when the series opened.
Now, two years into the series, Pinkett Smith says her mom is still an unofficial adviser on the role: "She's my mother, so she gives me her opinion about everything — absolutely!"
While the work ethic might have been ingrained in her Baltimore home life, it is one that Pinkett Smith and husband carry on in their life as one of Hollywood's most widely known power couples. She says their shared orientation to work and life helped make it possible for her to take on the added duties of being an executive producer even as she played the lead in a weekly drama. And now, it helps her again as the role becomes more demanding this season.
"For us, working hard is just a lifestyle," she says. "I know it's probably a difficult thing to understand, but it's just a way of being. You know, this is what we do. This is what we've always done. For us, it's not foreign or stressful, it's like being in the gym. You know, you go to the gym, and the more you work out, the more weight you can take on. It's the same with life. And you can take it on with ease. It's not a problem."
Despite the youthful images both she and Smith still project onscreen, she speaks with the maturity and authority of seasoned veteran when asked how she and her husband managed to reach a point where they, rather than others, control their images in films and TV.
"I wouldn't say 'control,'" she begins. "I would say we have come to points in our careers where we can put together teams that share the same vision. We have the ability to execute a vision."
Pinkett Smith says that ability comes with experience.
"I mean, between the two of us, we have 40-plus years of experience," she says. "And that's not counting the rest of the team members, which, I think when we calculated, it came out to like 80 years of experience. So for us, individually and as a team, we know what we want. So we just create situations to be able to execute our visions. And that is definitely part of the professional journey for me with 'Hawthorne.'"