'Ali' knockout Jada Pinkett Smith comes out swinging in favor of her husband and kids

By Allison Hope Weiner
Updated November 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Jada Pinkett Smith walks into an L.A. Macaroni Grill sporting the latest in baby wear on her chest — her sleeping 3-year-old son. With Jaden resting comfortably on her tiny 5-foot frame (year-old Willow is home), she manages to take a seat, eat lunch with one hand, and engage in passionate conversation.

A little more than 10 years after a part on the hit TV sitcom A Different World led to starring roles in such movies as A Low Down Dirty Shame, Set It Off, and The Nutty Professor, Pinkett Smith says she’s happy now to focus on family and take supporting roles. This season, she’ll be seen opposite Will Smith, her hubby of nearly four years, in Ali, and she’ll (presumably) be dodging slo-mo bullets in the two upcoming Matrix sequels.

EW In Ali, you play the champ’s first wife, Sonji. What made you take the role?

PINKETT SMITH [Director] Michael Mann convinced me…. He said this movie is going to be epic, important, and you’re the only person who can play this role. You’ve got a natural quality that’s her…. Will said the same thing. Sonji was comfortable with who she was. She was a good girl, but she had to play by her rules.

EW What were her rules?

PINKETT SMITH Basically to do what she wanted to do. [Laughs] She loved Ali to death, but she didn’t want to be a Muslim. She liked wearing tight clothes. She was quick with her tongue…. She couldn’t make that transformation into his religious beliefs. They had to let each other go.

EW Ali has been described as a story of an unformed black youth who transformed himself into a spokesman for Islam. Is that what you think it’s about?

PINKETT SMITH It’s about an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, and how much you can take before you break.

EW Do you think Muhammad Ali would be as popular as he is today if he weren’t sick and could speak publicly about his political and religious beliefs?

PINKETT SMITH I think [he’d still be popular]. There’s a charm about Ali that is undeniable…. I’m sure there are some people who still might look at him [as a draft dodger]. But even if you don’t agree with Ali’s views, you have to admire that he stood for what he believed in. Because, mind you, it wasn’t that he just decided not to fight in the Vietnam War and everything was all lovely. They made sure that this man could not have a livelihood.

EW What is Ali like today?

PINKETT SMITH He’s a little bit slower, but he’s still flirting and talking crap and doing all the Ali stuff.

EW In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, how do you think the public will respond to the movie’s depiction of Ali’s conversion to Islam?

PINKETT SMITH I have no idea. Islam is such a beautiful religion. We can’t slide back into that history where we believe a group of people are all one way.

EW So who do you play in the Matrix sequels?

PINKETT SMITH I play Niobe, who has a huge presence. She’s strong and kicks ass…. I had to bulk up quite a bit. I did four months of training in Oakland and will continue training when I go back to Australia [to film] in January.

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