Stretching out

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."

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'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."

The series is meant to be "a valentine to caregivers," said John Masius, the creator of the drama, who previously produced another medical show, NBC's "St. Elsewhere." Masius, the father of two disabled children, added, "Most of the activity around my boys has been from people who weren't doctors but were people who were committed to being with them on a daily basis for an extended period of time."

Added Sharon Hall, executive vice president of drama development for Sony Pictures Television, which is producing the series: "Though Jada is one of the executive producers, she approaches every scene like an actress, searching for the 'want' of every character." On the "HawthoRNe" set at the shuttered Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, Smith was intense and focused. In a scene where her character is being simultaneously hounded by the parents of a young patient, hospital administrators and an anxious homeless woman, her face is almost gaunt.

"I didn't know Jada at all before this," said costar Michael Vartan. "When you first meet her, she has this very businesslike demeanor. It's only after you get to know her that you see the kooky, zany side."

Working on the high-stakes series has been rough, Smith conceded: "I can honestly say this is the hardest I've ever worked."

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Humble roots

But at home the following morning, after a long day's shoot, Smith is lively and contagiously energetic, using broad gestures to illustrate her points. She looks only a few years older than the feisty characters she played early in her film career, strong roles that contrasted with her 5-foot-tall frame. She is dressed in a lime green velvet athletic suit, and her hair is tucked under a black leather hat.

Although she attracted notice in romantic roles in "Menace II Society," "The Inkwell" and "Jason's Lyric," one of her big splashes was playing a plucky assistant in 1994's "A Low Down Dirty Shame," nearly stealing the movie from Keenen Ivory Wayans. Later hits ("Set It Off," "The Nutty Professor") were mixed with clunkers (1998's "Woo," her only other main lead).

Sitting in her luxurious living room, Smith is candid about the difficult process of reconciling her beginnings with her current circumstances. "You have to remember I'm a sister girl from Baltimore," she said at one point. "Coming from these very humble roots to this place, for Will and I to do this together, is huge. . . . We've had to learn a lot of things through trial and error. People often think because you're successful it excludes the painful side. It doesn't. It only heightens it."

She and her husband are an unusual couple, she said. "We're constantly challenging each other how to reach for our higher selves. Nobody I know would have expected me to marry Will, and nobody he knows would have expected him to marry me because we are so opposite. Yet we're perfect for each other."

With her focus on "HawthoRNe," she's had to take a break from her band, where she mixes screeching vocals with quirky dance moves.

She is aware she raised more than a few eyebrows with her music, and that fans might be even more bewildered by "The Human Contract."

The film stars Paz Vega, Jason Clarke and Idris Elba in a story about a troubled advertising executive who becomes involved with a beautiful but mysterious woman. In addition to scenes of rough sex and explosive violence, all of the characters are in emotional crises.

"Art should never be limited -- the beauty of art is that it gives us the freedom to go places where we wouldn't go to in our normal lives," said Smith. "Inside, I'm just so many different people. I go from the pretty girl on the red carpet to the singer at Ozzfest, spitting in the crowd. That's Jada."

Told that the film could be called "kinky and twisted," Smith almost jumped from her seat with glee -- " 'Kinky and twisted' -- I LOVE IT!"

Although she would have liked for the film to have received a theatrical release, she is fine with it going straight to DVD. "It was bad timing for that," she said. "Because of the economic climate, there's just less movies being released. And it's an extreme movie. In this emotional climate, there's only certain types of movies people want to see."

In fact it's hard to think of a project more diametrically opposed to "HawthoRNe" and its warm, idealistic central character.

"I like unconventional stories," said Smith. "But I realize that I need to get a greater understanding of the universal mind if I want to develop my storytelling skills. It's about striking those emotional chords so that no matter what, no matter where you tell the story, the emotion penetrates the human soul. My husband is really good at gauging that pulse of an audience. I am not, and I have to get in touch with that."

And of her pioneering status as a female African American lead?

"I feel like the ultimate has already happened -- we've got an African American family in the White House," she said. "If America can vote in an African American first lady, they dang sure can tune in. . . ." She paused, laughing so hard she couldn't finish the sentence.

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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