Tupac, strippers, and Batman: Jada Pinkett Smith looks back on her most memorable roles
Jada's Trip Down Memory Lane
Whether she’s a hovercraft pilot, strip-club MC, or talk-show host, Jada Pinkett Smith, 47, has been impressing audiences with her larger-than-life presence for more than two decades. Now, ahead of Angel Has Fallen (out Friday), the actress revisits some of her memorable roles.
Menace II Society (1993)
Pinkett Smith’s casting in her film debut as young single mother Ronnie came thanks to a recommendation from the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who was set to appear in the drama before he was fired. Despite his dramatic departure, Shakur wouldn’t let his friend follow suit. "I was questioning whether I should do it or not, and Pac was like, 'Look, just because I’m not doing it...you should still do it,'" says the actress. "I probably wouldn't have done it without his blessing."
Set It Off (1996)
With limited time and budget, Pinkett Smith admits F. Gary Gray's drama about four best friends (Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise also starred) who go on a crime spree was "stressful" to film, but none of that stemmed from the group of leading ladies. "There’s always this idea that women can’t get along and there’s a bunch of divas, and it’s just simply not true," she declares. "We were all just right there for each other, busting our ass, and there’s no better feeling than having that kind of camaradarie with friends and women on a set."
Scream 2 (1997)
In Wes Craven’s horror sequel, Pinkett Smith followed in Drew Barrymore’s footsteps as the unexpected murder victim in the opening scene. The actress had only one request: make her death as horrific as possible. The legendary director obliged; her character dies in front of an audience that — so meta! — thinks her demise is part of their horror-movie experience. "It should be really dramatic, just painful to watch," says Pinkett Smith, whose bloody exit was particularly draining. "It takes a lot of energy to die in that way."
If it were up to her, Pinkett Smith never would have starred opposite her husband, Will Smith, in his Muhammad Ali biopic. "I was really terrified to take that role," she says of playing Ali’s first wife, Sonji. "I had never seen real-life couples successfully have chemistry on screen, and this was too important a film for Will. I didn’t want to mess it up." But director Michael Mann (with whom she’d reunite for 2004’s Collateral) wouldn’t take no for an answer — and she’s thankful for what was a "very fulfilling experience."
The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Will Smith famously passed on playing Neo in The Matrix, but his wife, who was originally up for Trinity, saw what her husband couldn’t. "I knew it would be revolutionary," she recalls. "I was like, 'Will, you’ve got to do this movie!' He didn’t fully get it, but I did." While Carrie-Anne Moss ended up being cast as Trinity, the Wachowskis wrote the character of Niobe in the sequels specifically for Pinkett Smith, who thinks it worked out for the best. "I thought Carrie-Anne was the perfect Trinity, and there was no way I could do what she did," Pinkett Smith says. "And that’s the only time in my career I’ve said that about losing a role."
As a comic book fan, Pinkett Smith was thrilled to step into the world of Batman and get the chance to go full villain in the Fox series. “That was one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played,” she reveals of crime boss Fish Mooney. "People would be like, 'Oh my God, you’re so nice and Fish is so mean.' And I’m saying to myself, 'Man, that’s play mean. I would hate for people to see the real serious mean me.' [Laughs] She was my fun mean alter-ego."
Magic Mike XXL (2015)
While she hadn’t seen the original Magic Mike, a call from star Channing Tatum quickly got her interested in playing powerful, seductive strip-club owner Rome in the sequel. Tatum told the actress that the role was originally written for a man, but he wanted to turn it into a female character — a notion that Pinkett Smith felt could "empower the female audience in their sexuality." Plus, a little eye candy never hurts. "On that set, I probably had the most fun of my career, just being around those fine-ass men all day long," she says with a laugh.
Girls Trip (2017)
For the surprise box office hit costarring Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall, Pinkett Smith got to do something different: be funny on screen. "I don’t do comedy a lot, so it’s not when I feel most natural, even though I feel like I’m a funny person in life," she says. However, while playing uptight divorced mom Lisa, the star felt she was "amongst women who knew how to create a safe space and support each other." And she's "hoping" they can do it again with a sequel.
Red Table Talk (2018-Present)
Looking to start "authentic conversations," Pinkett Smith teamed with her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, 65, and daughter, Willow, 18, to launch a talk show set in her own home. "It was time to talk about difficult subjects that people tend to shy away from," says Pinkett Smith. Buzzworthy guests like Leah Remini and Jordyn Woods helped the Facebook Watch show go viral, but it’s the evolution of her cohosts and the show’s impact on their relationship that make Pinkett Smith most proud: "It’s been a wonderful healing between the three of us."
Angel Has Fallen (2019)
Inspired by The Fugitive, the third film in the Olympus Has Fallen series finds Pinkett Smith starring as the Tommy Lee Jones to Gerard Butler’s Harrison Ford. "The material is a beautiful draw, but at this time of my life, a lot of the draw for me is the people I get to work with," says Pinkett Smith, who plays FBI agent Helen Thompson in the action-thriller. "And chasing Gerard Butler with a gun is not a bad way to spend my time!"