Jada Pinkett: Angels On Her Shoulders
Twenty years ago, Jada Pinkett was an up-and-coming actress. The Nutty Professor had just raised her profile and she was dating Will Smith just as Independence Day made him a movie star. The two would eventually get married, but at the time Pinkett was in no hurry to tie the knot. In this interview from the December 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, Pinkett discusses her ties to Cher, Prince and Tupac, what made her crack up on the outtakes from The Nutty Professor and why she used a butt double for Set It Off.
I’m well aware that Jade Pinkett is brand-new megamovie star Will Smith’s girlfriend. I’ve also heard that she grew up knowing the late Tupac Shakur. But when she tells me about accompanying The Artist Formerly known as Prince to see Boyz II Men in concert. I begin to think there’s no end to the pop culture icons she’s in with. Apparently, Ms. Pinkett’s tight enough with the Purple One that they’d be on a first-name basis, if only he had one.
“What do you call him?” I ask.
“Nothing, don’t call him anything, just look at him when you acknowledge him.”
“What would happen if you slipped and said, ‘Hey Prince, you want some gum?”
“I don’t know. I never did. You don’t have to say his name. You’re right there with him.”
“What if you call him on the phone…”
“He calls me.”
“…and he says, ‘”Hi, Jade, this is…'”
“They say, ‘The boss wants to speak to you.'”
“But wouldn’t that be Bruce Springsteen?”
“Bruce is not calling me.”
Well, Bruce Springsteen is about the only one who’s not. Hot off last summer’s big hit The Nutty Professor, Jada Pinkett’s got a dance card that’s filled for months in advance. Right now she’s in Set It Off, a ‘hood pic she shares with Queen Latifah and Vivica Fox. Next comes Woo, a romantic comedy for Party Girl director Daisy von Scherler Mayer. And she costars in Cher’s directorial debut, the third segment of the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk, playing a young woman who tries to convince her roommate (Anne Heche) not to have an abortion.
“You know,” I tell Pinkett, “a few months ago I was doing an interview at a sidewalk table on Beverly, and this girl walked by wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Cher Rocks!’ I thought it was so cool I asked her where she got it. She said she’d worked on a movie Cher directed, and everyone on the project got one. Was that project Walls?” I’m bringing this up because I’m hoping Pinkett can get me one of those T-shirts.
“Wait a second,” Pinkett says, “Were you at Red that day?”
“That was me!”
“That was you?” I gasp. “I thought the woman was, like, a gaffer or something. No offense.”
“Well, I was looking all raggedy, but that was me,” says the 25-year-old actress, who’s looking anything but raggedy today in her pleated black miniskirt and matching low-cut top. “How strange is that? I wear that shirt all the time. Cher’s my girl. I love me some Cher, She’s so real. You know, she just comes with the realness. She’s like, ‘Look, I don’t have time for no bullshit. I’m trying to be down, are you?’ She is the shit.”
So, Jada Pinkett and I–and her personable Rottweiler, Indo–have obviously been brought together on the patio of a restaurant in the heart of Hollywood by Fate–the sort of Fate that demands I ask at least one question about Cher before getting to Pinkett’s stuff.
“So,” I ask, “did Cher ever trot out any old Bob Mackie numbers on the set?”
“She wore lots of things to the set,” Pinkett laughs, gesturing wildly, her lavender fingernails leaving streaks of color in the air (she’d be great to have on your team in a game of charades).” Cher’s like me, we hate bras. Hate bras.”
“So do I,” says our waiter, whose contribution to the conversation thus far has consisted solely of reciting the day’s specials. “I’m glad to see you’re not wearing one today.”
Normally, I’m not one to encourage repartee from the help, but since he’s just managed to get us firmly on the subject of breasts without my having to say anything, I’ll forgive the guy. Hell, I might even tip him extra.
“Has your dislike of bras ever gotten you in trouble?” I ask.
“The only time was when I did Rosie O’Donnell’s show,” Pinkett recalls. “I had on this really tight white T-shirt and my nipples were showing and I was like, ‘Well, it’s so white it’s going to look flat on TV. You’re not going to see any nipples.’ Oh my God, they had a fit. ‘No, we gotta find you a bra.'”
The Rosie show notwithstanding, Jada Pinkett and all her assorted parts are enjoying more visibility than ever before. Though she’d done a solid string of films before last summer– The Inkwell, Jason’s Lyric, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight, Menace II Society–her turn as “the girl” in Eddie Murphy‘s comeback comedy The Nutty Professor pushed her into the Big Time.
“That was a fun movie,” she says. “Even though my character didn’t do much–she basically smiled and looked pretty–that was very different for Jada. I think people are really starting to see me in a different light and I need to start seeing myself in that same light. Leading Lady. Whoa, OK.”
”I just saw the movie last night,” I say. “In the outtakes in the closing credits, what are you cracking up at?”
“Eddie was being nasty.” she says. “He said, ‘I bet you got a hot ass. I would love to have a hot-ass sandwich.’ I was laughing because he was being crude.”
“Your new one, Set It Off, is obviously not another mainstream comedy follow-up to Professor.”
“It’s about four L.A. women who are dealing with oppression in one form or another. They make a bad decision to get out of the squeezes that they’re in–which is to rob banks. It’s basically Thelma and Louise Wait to Exhale. I was happy to be part of a movie that was about us as women. They’re always talking about what the black man has to go through and his struggles and you never see our side of the story.”
The film is set in the harsh world of the ‘hood, complete with gangsta slang, low riders and guns, guns, guns, “I was like, ‘I’m ready to be in a movie that’s got some guns. I’m ready to shoot at somebody,'” says Pinkett, who learned how to fire a gun two years ago for her own protection, “just in case the wrong person comes my way one day. I don’t play that. I’m too small to take chances. I’m not one to be a victim. I’m one to victimize.”
“What kind of gun do you have?” I ask, as though I actually know something about the subject.
“A nine,” she says, then adds, at the sight of my blank look, “a nine millimeter.”
“Oh, sure,” I say, moving quickly to the one facet of gun culture I’m well versed in.
“When I saw Set It Off, I liked the way you girls incorporated wigs into your disguises so you could toss your hair around like ‘Get Christie Love.'”
“We gave you a little hair movement with the gun,” she says cockily. “Though I never even saw one show of ‘Get Christie Love.’ I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV as a child.”
Jada (her mother got the name from an actress on the soap opera “The Secret Storm”) grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of a nurse and a contractor. Her parents split when she was an infant, and, though she considers her father a “friend and an associate,” she was raised by her mother. She credits her extended family, particularly her grandmother, with having a major influence on her life.
“My grandmother was a social worker. At a very early age she taught me about the birds and the bees, about masturbation, about everything. I brought books home from school and she sat me right down and put it all on the table.”
Pinkett went to high school at the Baltimore School of the Arts, which she describes as being like the school in Fame, though she doesn’t recall ever bursting into a spontaneous production number in the middle of the cafeteria. “That was the disappointing part,” she laughs. “I was a very bad student. My high school diploma was really a gift. I got into the North Carolina School of the Arts and everybody was so happy they basically allowed me to graduate.”
Pinkett describes her younger days as being a bit out of control, what with the odd motorcycle accident and her ever-changing hair colors (“I’ve had every color–blonde, blue, purple, fuchsia, red, black, sandy brown–everything”). And, of course, boys.
“Did your first time live up to the hype?” I have to ask, since our waiter’s not here to.
“I loved it,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “From my first experience on, I have been out of control.
“Everybody was telling me, ‘It’s going to be awful.’ I had a good time from that day forth.”
Though they never dated, one of Pinkett’s high school class mates was the rapper Tupac Shakur. “He was really right with my boyfriend, weekends we’d hang out. If he got into trouble with his mom, he’d come spend the night at my house, stuff like that.”
“Did the two of you have a sense that you were both destined for big things?” I wonder.
“Yeah, we knew,” she says reflectively. “It’s strange. He knew it about me and I knew it about him.”
Not long after arriving in L.A., Pinkett met actor Keenen Ivory Wayans, with whom she would later costar in A Low Down Dirty Shame. Though he rejected Pinkett’s suggestion that he hire her to do choreography on “In Living Color,” he did take the time to give the Hollywood novice some words of wisdom. He said. ‘Don’t expect anything from anybody. Don’t ask. Just do it.’ I’ve lived by that advice ever since.
“One of my first auditions was for a TV show that was set in the projects,” Pinkett continues. “The role was this girl who was getting beat up by her boyfriend. The producer, who was black, told me I was too light for the role, that he didn’t think a woman who looked like me would be in a position like that. It was the most ignorant shit I’d ever heard in my life. But it was a great experience, because I knew right off the bat what I was dealing with. All you gotta do is tell me what I’m dealing with so I can act accordingly. That’s all I need. Just put it in my face. And it was put smack-dab in my face, like, ‘Can you handle it?’ I said, ‘Oh. hell yes, I can handle it.'”
Pinkett’s big break came when she read for Debbie Allen and got a part on the sitcom “A Different World.”
“Debbie looked at me and she said, ‘Sweetheart, you got angels on your shoulders.’ And I was like. ‘Whoa, she’s right. I do have angels on my shoulders.’ I don’t know why I’ve been chosen to have this wonderful life I lead, but ever since she said that to me, it’s happened for me and it’s not all ’cause Jada’s so fabulous. There is a higher power that’s been looking over me for whatever reason.”
“What did you think the first time you saw yourself on the big screen?” I ask.
“Well, I never look at the physical,” she replies. “That’s going to be what it is. If I’ve got a big nose or a big head, I can’t do shit about it anyway.”
“When you started making decent money as an actor, what’s the first luxurious thing you bought?”
“I’ve never been one to do that.” she replies. “I’m just now buying luxury stuff. There’s nothing I love to buy more than jewelry. Diamonds. I could just wear jewelry and nothing else.”
One piece of jewelry Pinkett says she won’t be sporting anytime soon is a wedding ring. Though she believes her relationship with Will Smith is built to last, she sees no reason, at the moment, to make vows to that effect.
“I’m not one of those women who’s dying to get married.” she says coolly. “I don’t romanticize about marriage. Marriage is some work. Everybody’s talking about Will and me getting married, and it’s, like, he just got divorced. There’s some things that we need to figure out as far as why that happened, because if I get married, there ain’t going to be no divorce. The only reason I would get married is if I’m ready to have kids. No time before that. Will and I are just enjoying this life that we have together. It’s fine just like this.”
“How long have you been together?”
“A year and some change. We were friends first, and then the love thing came second, and that’s how it still is. When he was going through his difficulties in his marriage and I had just broken up with Grant Hill, the basketball player–I like big men–we just kind of came together. It took me by surprise. To me, Will just used to be a goofy, lanky, plays-too-much guy. He used to get on my nerves. Then we went to dinner one night and I saw something totally different in him. He was stressed about his marriage and he was talking about all these different things, and I was, like. ‘He’s a man now. He’s got a kid. He’s been married. He’s actually grown up,” It kind of grew from there, slowly but surely.”
With Pinkett enjoying the success of The Nutty Professor and Smith shooting into the stratosphere with Independence Day, one has to wonder how dramatically the couple’s lives have changed in the last few months.
“It’s different, but it’s not crazy,” Pinkett says. “It’s under control. We just adjust and find the balance within this new place. It definitely gets scary. It makes you think. ‘Ooh, maybe you shouldn’t be walking by yourself anymore.’ But I like to experience. That’s part of what we do as actors. You don’t want to isolate yourself. You just have to relax and have some faith in people.”
OK, so we don’t need to worry about the couple’s physical safety– Pinkett could be packing heat, let’s not forget–but what about the equally dangerous effect superstardom can have on a young actor’s ego?
“You have to check yourself every single day,” Pinkett states firmly. “You gotta go, ‘First of all. Jada, the world is not centered around you, darling.’ Will helps me with that, and I help him with that too, like, ‘OK, Will, you saved the universe, it’s cool, but let’s bring it on down just a little bit.'”
“What did you think of Independence Day?” I ask.
Pinkett smiles mischievously. “To be honest, I liked it, but I wasn’t crazy about it. The effects were great, and of course my man looked really great.”
“It’s all about that scene where he drags the alien through the desert,” I say.
“He was ripped,” concurs Pinkett. “I was, like, I can’t wait to get the laser disc. When Will and I want to have a romantic night, before he comes home I always watch the scene in Bad Boys when his shirt is hanging open and he’s running down the street in slow-mo. He’ll call me on the phone and be like, ‘I’m on my way home,’ and I’ll be like. ‘Well, you know what to expect because I just watched that scene in Bad Boys. I’m going to be nice and ready when you get here.'”
“Does Will have a laser disc of you that serves the same purpose?”
“He was watching Jason’s Lyric in his trailer the other day. And he made me come down to the set of Men In Black at, like, 12 o’clock at night because he was missing me.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you guys worked together?”
“People are asking us to work together left and right now,” she says, “They wanted me to do Independence Day and I couldn’t do it because of The Nutty Professor, but we really had to sit and think about that.”
“What does he think of Set It Off?”
“Will hasn’t seen it yet.” she says, starting to laugh. “He’s all worried about the love scene. He’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch it.” I’m like. ‘Will, you better get over that crap.’ He’s going to trip. He’s going to be, like. ‘Now, you know your butt is not that big. That is not your butt.'”
“You mean when Blair Underwood drags the necklace way down your back, that’s not you?”
“That’s a body double. Everybody will think it’s my butt and let me tell you, I’ll have some more fans, because that girl had a whole bubble butt. The reason I asked for a double is, I wasn’t really pleased with how the love scenes turned out in Jason’s Lyric and I said to myself, ‘That’ll never happen to me again.’ Also, now I’m in a relationship. When I was single, I was like, ‘Bring it on. Any one of y’all. Can you handle it? That’s what I’m asking you.'”
“If you could be Will Smith for one day…”
“I wouldn’t want to be Will Smith for one day.” Pinkett says, cutting me off. “He’s got way too much stuff going on in his life.”
“Even if you could spend the whole day buying Jada jewelry?”
“No, because he’ll do that on his own,” she laughs.
“Let’s pretend you’re single,” I suggest. “Say there’s some guy you want to attract who’s never heard of you, and he’s going to rent one of your movies…”
“Jason’s Lyric” she purrs before I can even finish the question, then laughs. “No. I’m just kidding. I’d probably have them watch A Low Down Dirty Shame. Most of the time you know a woman can give you a little sexuality thing, but I’m a woman that can make you laugh, I’d want the guy to know that.”
“Does it turn you on if a guy can dance?”
Pinkett looks around the restaurant, then leans across the table and whispers, “Will can’t dance. He’ll probably kill me for saying that. My baby can’t dance.”
“But he had a career in music,” I say, ignoring the list of boogie-impaired pop stars that’s running through my head: Whitney, Mariah, the aforementioned Cher.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Pinkett continues. “The myth is if you can’t dance, then you can’t get it on, but that’s just not the case, because my baby can’t dance but the bedroom activity has not suffered. I think it’s cute, because he tries to be all smooth and get his little groove on. It never works.”
I’m beginning to appreciate the name Pinkett has given to the production company she’s created for herself: “100% Women.”
“I’m trying to get behind the scenes into directing, writing, producing,” she says. “With actresses, you want to see a hot girl for a certain amount of time, then you gel tired of seeing her tits and ass and you want to see some new tits and ass. So I figured you got to branch out.”
With that, Pinkett branches out her arms and sighs, preparing to dive back into her busy life on the A-list.
“What work are you most proud of?” I ask as she collects her things.
“I’m not really proud of anything individual,” she says reflectively. “I’m proud of this, like, cruising that I’m doing. And I really enjoy how people respond to me. They’re not looking at me like, ‘She’s hot, I’d really like to get with her’ It’s coming from a real pure place. I’m really proud of that.”
With Indo the Rottweiler in tow, Pinkett flashes a final smile and bids me farewell. When the waiter comes to retrieve the check, he says, “She’s great, huh?”
“Jada rocks,” I summarize, In fact, I’m thinking of getting shirts made.
Dennis Hensley interviewed Craig Sheffer for the September issue of Movieline.