Jada Pinkett Smith is just about every sister’s girl crush. The screen siren commands every room she enters, on and off screen. At least that was my experience when she arrived for our one-on-one interview at the St. Regis hotel in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead section, after screening her latest flick.
Sporting a graduated bob hairstyle and svelte physique, in strolls Jada Pinkett Smith, an actress whose career I’ve admired since she first appeared on the NBC sitcom “A Different World,” nearly 25 years ago. From Lena James to Fish Mooney (“Gotham”) to Gloria (Madagascar) to Christina Hawthorne (“Hawthorne”) — take a breath — and so many roles in between, being in this experienced thespian’s presence gave me butterflies.
To what do I owe this pleasure? Believe it or not, the sexually charged, pelvic thrusting to the tune of classic R&B bump-and-grind hits, muscle flexing, man candy flick Magic Mike XXL. In it, Smith plays Rome, the tough and guarded mistress of a Savannah, Georgia, mansion that is virtually a girl’s playhouse, and should I say the hot spot for queens’ night out? And, Rome is Magic Mike’s old flame. (Smith and her dreamy co-star Channing Tatum’s on-screen chemistry set hearts on fire. As if audiences needed anything additional. )
Magic Mike XXL, which opened in theaters July 1, features a spellbinding dance showcase that ranks among the most festive Fourth of July fireworks celebrations. The performers will light up your night. The male strippers give you a performance so thrilling, you’re left in awe. And, the final sequence is explosive.
Accepting this role in Magic Mike XXL seems a little out of alignment for an activist like Smith who’s taking an active stand against human trafficking. She’s the founder of Don’t Sell Bodies and this July will be releasing a documentary to air on CNN on the subject and strip club culture, which she’s discovered is the gateway to sex trafficking. CNN hasn’t announced the official air date or the name of the documentary.
“I had some reservations because of my work in human trafficking,” she confides. “I went into this role cynical. Oftentimes, we look at sexual energy as an energy that should be used when having sex.
“What I realized in my human trafficking advocacy is that the sex industry is going to exist. There is no way to eradicate this. The clothing industry is going to exist. There is as much trafficking in the clothing industry, in the chocolate industry, in the coffee bean industry. Instead of focusing on eradication, I wanted to bring the idea that no matter what someone is doing, they should be treated as a human being. I wanted Rome to embody an energy, which shows that a woman can have a sense of self-respect, dignity and demand that from whomever she deals with in a sexually charged environment.”
Stage and screen favorites Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn don’t reprise their roles. In the follow-up film are Adam Rodriguez and Gabriel Iglesias and some very handsome stars have been added to the lineup, including Smith (of course), Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino, Stephen “tWitch” Boss and Michael Strahan. They bring quite a bit of diversity. Andie MacDowell and Elizabeth Banks liven things up as well.
Who knew Strahan had a side to him that croons, “I want to freak you?”
Smith jokes, “Michael Strahan gave me life!”
“No matter what someone is doing, they should be treated as a human being.”
In the film, Rome teams up with Mike and his crew for their final road trip and she brings her crew along for the ride to the stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The result is a gorgeous display of glistening biceps, triceps and gluteus … and did I mention six-pack abs? The dancing is complemented by the banging soundtrack that features Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Jodeci’s “Freek’n You,” Childish Gambino’s “Marry You” and Matt Bomer’s “Heaven.” By all accounts, it’s a Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatic tour de force. Magic Mike XXL completely redefines and elevates stripper culture — destigmatizing it in a broad sense.
Adding Smith to this sequel breathed new life into the film. She has a special kind of swag. Rome is bossy, classy and wielding an imaginary horsewhip of seduction.
“The role was actually written for a guy. It was originally written with Jamie Foxx in mind. There were scheduling difficulties. I got on a Skype call with Channing and Greg [Jacobs] who is the director of the film. Channing said he wanted to change the role from a guy to a girl. He really wanted to infuse a responsibility in this component of adult entertainment. I was like, that’s a radical idea. That’s a wonderful challenge. I am down for that,” shares the Baltimore native.
Did she have fun filming it?
“I did. To realize how much sexual energy can bring so much joy, it opens up so many gateways to creativity … to the soul, without actually engaging in ways we were told we should in sexually charged environments. And, that was really surprising: to be able to look at all these beautiful people and not think about sleeping with anybody. Just basking in that energy was just joyous. We were on that set for hours and no one was tired of being there and working. It was so much fun. It was just a joy. It is really a beautiful communication. It’s awesome. That’s what I learned. I really realized, maybe Channing’s right: maybe there is a way to be entertained in this adult way responsibly.”
This film is especially important and personal for Tatum, who has been a part of the adult entertainment industry.
Smith adds, “Entertainment in this realm doesn’t have to be about degradation. It should be about celebration and exaltation. It was something that I wanted to explore and because Channing was a male entertainer at one time, I thought it was a beautiful partnership. There are certain ins and outs that he understands about the industry as a whole and there was a certain knowledge I was bringing from my human trafficking advocacy. It’s really radical but I felt it was important to take a shot.”
“To realize how much sexual energy can bring so much joy, it opens up so many gateways to creativity …”
Smith found art in the dancing. It spurred her to a different level of awareness for women in the industry. The film changed her perspective. “I started thinking about the women who are in this industry. And how pole dancing has competitions, classes for exercises … it has become the new new. But for women who pole dance, there is such a stigma. And I had to really look at that. There’s definitely a way to bring an elevation to that game,” she ponders. “I think we need some time to figure out how to elevate that energy. Magic Mike is the opening of the doorway. It’s a beautiful art if we treat it that way, because you know we can get raunchy, too.”
Smith shared that the film taped in 28 days and when she came on board, production was already underway. She is especially grateful to Tatum, who gave her the freedom to do her thing. This clearly resonated on screen. It’s why she was so relatable.
“I felt a strong camaraderie with the women and at my club. I felt they were my girlfriends. I felt like I had known them since I was in high school. You can get into a room filled with women and it can get tight. We didn’t have any of that. We were all so happy to be together and let go in this way in such a safe environment with these beautiful guys who were there just for us. It was like Burger King; we were going to have it our way. It was just a really beautiful way to be with other women. It was fantastic. I am glad the camaraderie translated. That was really important to me,” she says.
The queens who visits Rome’s stable are treated to sweet a serenade by Childish Gambino, tWitch and Tatum bringing R&B lyrics to life, and Manganiello fulfilling women’s metal fantasy in a Nine Inch Nails groovy way.
Final Fast Facts
On working with this cast …
“TWitch is phenomenal. Donald Glover is fantastic. Working with Channing is really great. He really gave Jo a platform. He gave Matt a platform … everybody. There are some people in his position who want to keep the shine for themselves, but he’s really giving in that way. It was a pleasure working with them all.”
On Wicked Wisdom …
“Being a frontwoman for a metal band gave me all the practice I would need to be in front of any audience no matter what I’m doing. I did use what I learned from my band in how to move a metal crowd. Right now, that is probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. It doesn’t get any more difficult than that. No matter what they thought about me before I got on stage, they were moving before I got off.”
What does she want audiences to take away from the film?
“I wanted to embody the essence of self-knowledge and assurance that I think every woman that is a part of this industry must have. I feel women have to feel empowered in these erotic, sexual platforms; these sexually charged environments are as much spaces where we belong as men. I wanted Rome to bring that [nuance]. Women have as much a right to explore these areas as anyone.”
Who empowered Jada Pinkett Smith to own her sexual identity?
“You know who taught me that first? My grandmother. She was talking to me about sex since I was 6 because she had been taken advantage of. She was one of the first women in Baltimore City to advocate for sex education in school. She was one of the first teachers to teach sex education in the Baltimore public schools. Because of her and what she taught me, I have had a blessed sexual life. I am going to leave it at that.”
What exactly spurred her to advocating against human trafficking?
“It was my daughter [Willow]. She came to me and was like, there are people in this country who are selling children my age for sex. I went on the Internet and saw that it was true. She said, ‘I really want to lend a voice to this.’ I said, ‘Well, let me help you be a buffer.’ It’s how it all started.”