Jada Pinkett Smith Plays Nurse

On a set in Inglewood, Calif., will Smith busts out of his trailer door and yells at the top of his lungs, "Woman, come rub my feet!" He's speaking, loudly and in jest, to his dynamo of a wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who proceeds to dismiss him by saying, "Don't pay that fool any attention—he has no sense." She should know. She is his boss. In a bit of role reversal, Smith is working on the set of his wife's new project, Hawthorne, a TNT drama about a nurse in your typically (make that stereotypically) chaotic urban hospital. Pinkett Smith, 37, is both the show's star and co–executive producer (along with Will). If the show succeeds, she will arguably become the most powerful black woman in prime-time TV. Before Hawthorne and HBO's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency debuted a few months ago (starring Jill Scott), it had been 35 years since an African-American woman was the lead in a TV drama (Teresa Graves in Get Christie Love!). (Story continued below...)

None of this history is lost on Pinkett Smith, who at all of five feet tall prides herself on climbing mountains others couldn't master. "As a woman—and as an African-American woman—I hate it when I'm told what I can't do," says Pinkett Smith, who would include touring with her own metal band, Wicked Wisdom, on the list. "I think as women, and as black women for sure, we are given limits. I have no limits. Hey, they told me a marriage to a movie superstar would never work either."

In Hawthorne, Pinkett Smith plays Christina, a tough-talking single mother and widow who's juggling almost as much as the actress herself, and with at least as much fire. "I wanted this character to be a woman who was about taking care of her patients but who also isn't taking any mess," says Pinkett Smith. "My mom was a nurse, and I watched her come home every day with the problems of her patients still on her mind. I wanted that compassion to be there, too." The one thing she knew she didn't want was a show that looked familiar. The cast of Hawthorne is unusually large and diverse, and there's a hint that her character is in an interracial relationship with a hotshot (and hot) doctor, played by Michael Vartan. "I want this character to experience everything and it not be an issue about color," she says. "Every day is not about that." But Hollywood hasn't been nearly as good about opening the door to black writers as it has been with black actors, and Pinkett Smith has had a hard time finding a multiracial staff, much to her dismay. "I think as African-Americans, our stories are so, so specific, but within that specificity is a universal truth that resonates with all people," she says. "That's what we have to find and get out there."

That is, if she can find the time. Next month she's off to China, where she's coproducing a remake of The Karate Kid starring her son, Jaden. The husband, the two kids, the movies (she also coproduced The Secret Life of Bees) and now, hardest of all, an hourlong TV show to pull together every week—it's a wonder she doesn't need a doctor herself. Pinkett Smith has been so busy working on Hawthorne and all the rest that she and Will had to turn down an invitation to Washington to visit those nice people who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "We're trying to get it together right now, and it's going to work because my husband has a serious crush on Michelle Obama," Pinkett Smith says. "What can I do—he loves a smart and beautiful woman, so we'll get there." Consider that a shout-out from one power couple to another.

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