Jada Pinkett Smith -- actress, producer, headbanger and wife to the most popular movie star in the world -- is zeroing in on her discomfort zone.
As the lead of TNT's new medical drama, "HawthoRNe," in which she plays the chief nursing officer of a Richmond, Va., hospital, the petite actress is making a rare solo turn. In more than 20 films that include "The Matrix" franchise, "Collateral," "The Nutty Professor" and "Scream 2," Smith has usually worked with talented ensembles and had her showy moments, but has rarely been the headliner. Rather, in recent years, much of the attention swirling about Smith has spun around her marriage to Will Smith, their storybook romance and tabloid speculation about their private life and their supposed ties to Scientology.
Not only does "HawthoRNe" place Smith front and center, but it also lands her in TV history as one of the only African American women to play the lead in a weekly prime-time drama. Only Jill Scott in HBO's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" and Teresa Graves in the 1970s action series "Get Christie Love!" have preceded Smith in starring roles on one-hour dramas.
It's not an easy space for her to occupy. "How can I say this without sounding strange?" Smith, 38, pondered quietly, inside the secluded, resort-like compound she shares with Will Smith and their three children -- 8-year-old Willow, 10-year-old Jayden and 16-year-old Trey, his son from his first marriage. She was silent for several moments, mirroring the eerie quiet of the house, which is tastefully decorated with elaborate art objects and paintings.
Finally, she lifted her head. "This is scary for me. I've never liked being at the center," continued the Baltimore native, whose first big industry break came on the '90s sitcom "A Different World." "I know this is being marketed as the Jada show, but it really is an ensemble. I've never looked to be at the center because I feel stuff like that traps you."
Appearing in the series, which premieres Tuesday, also shows her willingness to tame her wilder side, an exploratory offbeat nature that has led her to pursue more unconventional projects such as fronting the heavy metal band Wicked Wisdom, as well as writing and directing a provocative film, "The Human Contract." (It is being released this month on DVD.)
Working on a TV show as a sympathetic, warm nurse is at the extreme end of the spectrum from "The Human Contract." But it marks a step toward her wish to reach a wider audience. That drive has brought a new dynamic into the Smith household, according to her husband.
"Jada has always been more of a wanderer," said Will Smith. "She is where she's going. I'm never where I'm going -- once I get there, I'm already bored and ready to go somewhere else. She's now opening up her ideas and goals to scrutiny, and that can be a very new and painful place to be. She is learning how to trust her team, to collaborate."
Her new role has reignited spirited discussions with her husband about her preference to blend in. "My husband has been baffled by this forever," she laughed. "I remember him asking me, 'Jada, what do you want? I don't understand why you don't want to be the biggest actress in the world.' But I never came to Hollywood for that. I really, really don't like boxes. I've only wanted to do what I want to do."
'The everyday hero'
Her series also represents a gamble for TNT. Establishing a distinctive identity in a landscape flooded with medical series, plus Showtime's new "Nurse Jackie" with Edie Falco, isn't going to be easy. Word of mouth on the show hasn't been great, and Tom Shales in the Washington Post suggested "HawthoRNe" is "a show in need of emergency care."
Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT, said he hopes audiences will gravitate toward the show's key distinction: It's about "embodiment of the everyday hero. Most medical dramas are about doctors, but anyone who has ever dealt with a hospital knows it's the nurses who are the main ones you have contact with."
In the show, Christina Hawthorne feels overwhelmed, grappling with her grief over her dead husband, a troublesome teenage daughter and the chaos of ever-demanding hospital patients, doctors and administrators.
The show represents a bit of a departure from popular dramas centered around antiheroes ("House," "Dexter") or TNT's aggressive female heroes ("The Closer," "Saving Grace") who have more than their share of personal flaws.
Smith, whose mother was a nurse, didn't want her character to have those traits: "Being that way was too easy for me. I can do edgy all day. Christina is an inspiration and very inspiring. I wanted to show the audience that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."