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The creative freedom of Jada Pinkett Smith

Dancing with her own shadows on ‘Gotham,’ road-tripping with Queen Latifah — this woman is everything

Actress, producer, social justice activist, half of one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting power couples with her husband Will Smith, and mother to the brilliant Jaden and Willow, Baltimore’s own Jada Pinkett Smith wears many hats. She started off in A Different World, 1993’s Menace II Society, and 1994’s A Low Down Dirty Shame, and has brought her intense grace to films such as 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. This fall, she reprises her role as Fish Mooney on Fox’s Gotham, and recently wrapped production on the Malcolm Lee-directed Girl Trip, which follows four friends to New Orleans as they attend a music festival. Pinkett Smith’s Set It Off (1996) co-star, Queen Latifah, also stars in the comedy.

“One of the reasons I decided to do Gotham in all honesty was for the creative freedom. I met with Bruno [Heller], the creator of the show, and he basically told me, ‘I want to collaborate with you on the creation of this character.’ First of all, I love comic books, and I felt like black women don’t really get the opportunity to play roles like this — and on top of it, to participate in creating them.

“I’m always looking to break those stereotypes of what a black woman is. A character like Fish Mooney resonates with everyone. So, it’s great to give women a place where they can dance with their own shadows. Women are always supposed to be the moral compass of society, or we always have to be so sweet and nice and cooperative. And the minute that you’re not, you’re a bitch or you’re not the woman to be around. Because Fish Mooney is so unapologetic with her get-down that it’s refreshing — there’s freedom within her.

“I’m always looking to break the stereotypes of what a black woman is.”

“Let me tell you, as soon as I put on that wig, Fish Mooney has arrived! [Laughs.] That’s real talk! And once I have the costume and the makeup and she’s all done? Jada is not to be seen. Fish is there, and I love that. It makes it easy in that way. If I were still dressed as Jada trying to play Fish, I might have had to use a different tool to get to places I need to go to play her. The fact that I literally have a costume to transform into someone else physically is really helpful, and that’s been a lot of fun.

“And my character in Girl Trip is the complete opposite of anything I’ve played before. She’s kind of a frumpy single mom with two kids who lives with her mom and she hasn’t had a man since her divorce, which is like two or three years, and she’s just kind of lost her groove. She’s kind of a nerd, kind of a square compared to what she was in college, where she was the one dancing drunk on a table giving a show. It’s about friends working through their relationship and supporting each other … It’s a comedy.

“The creative freedom of working with these women [Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish and Regina Hall] on set is different because we have a certain knowingness. If I’m in a scene with La, I understand her flow and she understands mine, so it’s easy to create dialogue off the top of our heads. There was a lot of that on this film … we worked together to deepen our characters. Having creative freedom as an actress means everything. To be able to have the space to look at a character and interpret the character versus being told beat by beat what the character is — is amazing. When you’re working with people who trust you, and have the intelligence to communicate that — it’s really freeing. Trust is sooo big. People will come to me and say, ‘You tell us what you want to do with this.’ I’ve been really blessed in that way throughout my career.”

Jill Hudson is the senior style writer for the Undefeated. She is an evolved nerd, a caffeinated shoe fanatic, and a maker of long lists and perfect martinis.