Even when Jada Pinkett Smith was still a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA), her mentor, theater department head Donald Hicken, knew his diminutive pupil was headed for stardom.
"What I remember most was that she was interested in everything: dancing, music, and acting," he says. "We had a student-driven variety show, and Jada took over the whole thing. She choreographed, danced, and acted. She was incredibly energetic."
Hicken was particularly wowed by Pinkett Smith's performance as the wife in Eugen O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon. "She was just fabulous, just brilliant," Hicken says. "When she focused, she nailed that piece with a kind of intensity that knocked me out, and I sat her down and said, 'You have this enormous gift. You have to work with it.'"
Pinkett Smith remembers his words well. Speaking from Los Angeles, she says: "Donald always told me that there was nothing I couldn't do. He told me that I had more talent in the tip of my pinkie than some people have in their whole bodies."
Though the BSA's most famous living alum (and wife of actor Will Smith) has since taken those talents to the big screen—with roles in The Matrix sequels, Madagascar, The Nutty Professor, and Scream 2—the actress is now heading back to the small screen where she got her start. (Her first big break came playing coed Lena James on NBC's A Different World.)
In TNT's HawthoRNe (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), she plays Christina Hawthorne, a tough but loving nurse in a Richmond, VA, hospital.
"I said I would never do episodic TV again," says Pinkett Smith, also an executive producer of the series. "But I needed this to grow. I thought it was a place I could sharpen my story-telling skills and my producing skills."
The character Christina hit close to home for the actress. Pinkett Smith's mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, worked for many years in women's health at Johns Hopkins and Sinai Hospitals, and, like Christina, was a single mother struggling to raise a teenager. "I really related to Christina's heart and compassion and her lifestyle," says Pinkett Smith. "Nursing is one of the professions that is rarely explored or talked about. They are the unsung heroes."
Pinkett Smith's roles include a long list of fiesty female characters, but she says fans will see a new side of her on the small screen. "This particular character's power is her compassion," says Pinkett Smith. "This is the first time you will see me play someone who is very vulnerable. In her line of work, these are high stakes, and a wrong move means somebody's life."
While Pinkett Smith has always adored acting, she says she once considered going to law school. Her mother, however, didn't buy it.
"When she told me that I was like, 'Oh, please,'" chuckles Banfield-Jones, who retired from nursing full time eight years ago to help raise her grandchildren in California but still maintains a home in Maryland. "I knew from a young age she belonged on the stage. I remember one time she did a community production of The Wizard of Oz, and she was Dorothy. She was singing 'Over the Rainbow,' and in the middle of the song, she forgot the words. Completely calmly, she said to the audience, 'Why don't you help me out?' And they did."
The same moxie that allowed a young Pinkett Smith to charm her way out of a flubbed performance now gives her the confidence to pursue her many and diverse off-screen interests. These include being lead singer/songwriter with heavy metal outfit Wicked Wisdom (they opened for Britney Spears on her European tour in 2004), a business woman with her own production company (100% Womon), a children's book author (Girls Hold Up This World), a fashion designer with a line of T-shirts and dresses, and a philanthropist with her own family foundation.
Explains Pinkett Smith, "I'm just one of those women who believes I can have it all. It's not easy—it really is quite a balancing act, and it takes a lot of communication with my husband and my kids, but it's possible. I wouldn't be whole without having a place to explore all those different ladies."
As far as Banfield-Jones is concerned, her daughter's most satisfying role is that of mother to son Jaden, daughter Willow, and stepson Trey.
"I am so proud of the mother she has become," says Banfield-Jones. "She has a great relationship with her children, and they love her dearly. Because I was only 17 when I had Jada, I don't think I understood what mothering was all about. I was selfish and immature. She waited until she was older and married with a husband who she loved and treasured so she could create a good family life. She is so multi-faced and talented, but the greatest joy I get is from watching her mother her children."