Issue Date: June 28, 2009
Jada sets the record straight
Yes, she's Will Smith's wife. Yes, she's an actress with a new TV show. But she'll never forget where she came from.
A winding road leads through a lush green canyon, past security guards with walkie-talkies, and up to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's private compound in the hills of Malibu, Calif. It's an image of perfection: the kind of place reserved for higher beings removed from the turmoil of everyday living.
Frankly, I'm surprised to be here -- most Hollywood celebrities keep their homes off-limits. I've done many interviews in hotel rooms (Harrison Ford) or at photo shoots (Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz), but rarely this up close and personal.
The occasion: Jada wants to promote her first starring TV role in "HawthoRNe," a new TNT series in which she plays the head nurse.
But clearly, something else is up. She ushers me past a dining room table that could easily seat 25 and into a small alcove. Then her intent becomes clear: "I want people to know who I really am," says Jada, 37, wife, mother, producer, occasional movie actress, heavy metal rocker and, now, TV star.
For one, "People think I am a hard-ass," she begins.
"They see me as this ball-busting, really hard woman. If I am on the red carpet, people will make comments like, 'We know who wears the pants in the house.' " She laughs, but she is obviously hurt.
After 11 years of marriage in which she has seen Will's career skyrocket, he casts a shadow over his 5-foot wife, literally. "Will is 6-foot-2," she says. "I do not wear the pants."
With an almost confessional zeal, Jada now wants to set the record straight about myriad misconceptions that have bothered her for years. She talks about everything from her troubled childhood to how she deals with women constantly throwing themselves at her superstar husband to her darkest days, when she was locked in the grip of alcoholism. And, for the first time, she talks about the rumors that she must be a Scientologist because she is one of Tom Cruise's closest friends.
Jada is clearly more complicated than her famously affable husband. "Will always says that he came with a brochure that says, 'White sand, clear blue water,' " she says -- meaning, you'd get the same sunny personality, day in, day out. "Then he's like, 'You, on the other hand, are a different brochure every day.' "
Jada grew up in Baltimore with an absent father and a teenage mother who was reportedly hooked on heroin. Her life easily could have sped toward an early death or jail, except that her grandmother stepped in to help. Her mother cleaned up her act and became a nurse. In fact, Jada draws on her mother to create her role in "HawthoRNe."
"You cannot believe what I lived through," she says. "I was wild. When I was growing up, it was like people are out here to get me, and I need to eat. I had a very base idea of living, and it was just like you've gotta do what you've gotta do to get what you need.
"Growing up without a father in the house, you become the substitute for the masculine energy ... " She hesitates. "... in order to just survive, to just make sure I wasn't victimized."
Jada escaped into an illness that has plagued her family for generations.
"I did a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking," she continues. "I am such an extremist. I can't do anything in moderation. That's why I don't drink coffee. I go all the way. If I am going to drink, I am going to get drunk."
She kept drinking even after she started dating Will.
"I don't think he noticed," Jada says. "I am a binge drinker, so I wasn't drunk all the time. He just thought we were having fun. Anything you put in front of me -- vodka, Johnnie Walker, Courvoisier -- I can drink it. And I would drink anybody to the ground."
Then one day, about 12 years ago, she found herself downing more than two bottles of white wine -- at home, alone, during the day.
"I was going to get a third."
That was the moment she realized she had a problem: "And then I stopped everything, because I come from a family of addicts. I've been to enough AA, NA and Al-Anon meetings to know and understand the experience for myself. I stopped drinking six months before we conceived Jaden [now 10], and then I got married."
The marriage has been a good one, but Jada admits she has had times of feeling restless, of feeling a powerful need to break out from her role as wife and mother. The result: She became lead singer of a heavy metal band, Wicked Wisdom.
"I started to feel trapped, so this was my rebel yell," she says. "The part you always see of me is this clean-cut Jada thing, politically correct Jada." But Jada says she wanted to show her darker inner side, "the Jada who could be in the grit, the grime, the gutter. It was such a departure for me that my nickname became Screaming Banshee."
A few moments later, Will, who has been upstairs reading next week's "HawthoRNe" script, walks into the dining room.
"I was just talking," says Jada.
"About my sensuality?" Will grins. "The power of my sexual whatever?"
She laughs and turns to me, joking, "Yeah, he does have women throwing themselves at him all day." Does she get jealous? "I wouldn't want to be with a dude who didn't get all that," she admits slyly.
Another subject she wants to set straight: persistent rumors that she and her husband are Scientologists, like their good friend Tom Cruise. She emphatically denies it, and she admits she thought it was a weird religion -- until she met Cruise.
"I'm not saying that I'm not a Scientologist because I think something's wrong with Scientology -- I want to be really clear about that," Jada says. But, she adds, "In knowing Tom, I realize it is a religion just like other religions. Tom is happy. And he is one of the greatest men I know."
Case closed -- for now.
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On playing a nurse:
"My mom is an RN. She's like, 'Your playing a nurse is hilarious' because she knows I can't stand the sight of blood or any physical pain."
On her history of alcohol abuse:
"I would drink Will under the table. Anything you put in front of me, I can drink it. I could drink forever."
"I had the same feelings everyone else had before I met Tom Cruise. [But] I am not a Scientologist."
On what she thought of Will at first:
"He wasn't my kind of dude. He was too nice."
On her "bad" side:
"There is a whole 'nother Jada: Jada is a wolf. Jada is a wild woman."
On why she got death threats when she performed at the heavy metal Ozzfest:
"I had three strikes against me: I'm black, I'm a woman and I'm a starlet."
Cover photograph of Jada Pinkett Smith: Robert Trachtenberg, TNT