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At 22, an Actress Who Already Has Strength of Character

FAST TRACK: Up and Comers in Arts and Entertainment * One in a Series

October 18, 1994|ANNE BERGMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somewhere on the set of "Demon Knight" someone is tinkling a piano. Jada Pinkett pauses between sentences and closes her eyes, reminded of her grandmother. "She used to play," Pinkett softly explains as she cocks her head to one side, soaking in the melody.

Pinkett's reverie--while not completely out of character--is unusual only because it may be one of the few chances the 22-year-old actress has found to just be still.

"I haven't had a vacation in four years," she says later from her trailer, which is strewn with Japanese comic books. "I barely even have time to talk with my own mother!" Not that Pinkett's complaining, but she has been busy, sustaining a steady pace because, she says, "This is the time to put in the hard work."

Since first becoming known in 1991 when she joined the cast of NBC's "A Different World," Pinkett appeared in the Hughes brothers' "Menace II Society" as a young, single mother and in Matty Rich's "Inkwell" as the elusive love interest.

She has spent the rest of her time filming the recently released "Jason's Lyric"; the upcoming "Low Down Dirty Shame," directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, due Nov. 23 (she plays a partner to Wayans' private investigator), and "Demon Knight," a horror film directed by Ernest Dickerson, which has a tentative release date of Jan. 14.

In "Jason's Lyric," Pinkett plays Lyric, a woman who literally brings music to the life of Jason (Allen Payne).

"Lyric was a fun character for me because I got to touch on the strength of her femininity," she says. "So many young women these days take on male characteristics as a defense mechanism. Within Lyric I was able to search and find my strength as a woman. She's very healing."

"Jason's Lyric" director Doug McHenry initially didn't cast Pinkett as Lyric--although she was a finalist--because not only did he want to cast an African American woman with a darker complexion, he was unsure if he'd be able to elicit steamy romance between Payne and Pinkett because off-screen the two were "already like brother and sister."

So McHenry cast another actress, but within a week of shooting changed his mind and hired Pinkett.

McHenry remembers that on the first day he took her to This Is It (an actual soul food restaurant in Houston in which Lyric waits tables in the film) where he had her serving food along with the waitresses so "she'd know what it was like to work 12- to 14-hour shifts and then go home on the bus with aching feet," he says.

"It's a difficult role," McHenry says of Lyric. "She's not a ghetto queen or a girl from the 'hood with baggy pants. In most movies you either get the pristine type, where there's nothing wrong with them, or you get the girl who can curse and drink with the best of them. You never get an in-between."

Calling Pinkett the "finest actress of her generation," McHenry adds, "I don't think people understand yet the range Jada has."

Today, with her hair shorn close and bleached (a la Wesley Snipes in "Demolition Man") for her role in "Demon Knight" as a troubled young woman confronting her personal torments, Pinkett reflects upon a quality common to all her characters: inner strength.

"I always tell people that it's not about attitude," she says mimicking the posture of a hip-hop girl looking for a fight. "The black women in my family, their strength comes from here !" Pinkett continues, slapping her hand to her heart.

For as long as she can remember, Pinkett has wanted to be a performer. "I took piano, tap and ballet," she says, "and I would construct these performances for my family at Christmas and Thanksgiving. At every single family get-together, I'd round up my cousins and give some major performance! It was a tradition."

Pinkett credits her grandmother, who died when Pinkett was 14, with encouraging her talents and enrolling her in classes. "Anything I wanted to do," she says, "and my grandmother would tell me that I was the best, even if I wasn't."

Named Jada after her mother's favorite soap-opera actress, Pinkett grew up as an only child in Baltimore. Although raised by her mother, a head nurse at a clinic in Baltimore's inner city, Pinkett remained close to her father, who now runs a construction company.

Pinkett concentrated on dance and choreography at the Baltimore School of the Arts and, after graduating, became a theater major at North Carolina School of the Arts. A few odd jobs, a chance meeting with Keenan Ivory Wayans and some random bit parts later, and Pinkett found herself auditioning for "A Different World." She caught the eye of director Debbie Allen, who cast her as Lena James, a regular character with both street and book smarts.

"Some of us do this," Pinkett says, "because we're artists, and some of us do this because they want to be famous. I'm not in this game to become famous because there's really nothing else I could do. I'll always be in this business because I can't imagine doing anything else."

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