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For Jada Pinkett Smith, it's all lessons, not regrets

Jada Pinkett Smith is an actor, singer-songwriter, talk show host and producer. Her new memoir is called <em>Worthy.</em>
Michael Tran
AFP via Getty Images
Jada Pinkett Smith is an actor, singer-songwriter, talk show host and producer. Her new memoir is called Worthy.

For years, Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband, actor Will Smith, appeared the epitome of Black love — showing up on Oprah with their children, and standing side-by-side on red carpets and at awards shows. But Pinkett Smith says she and her husband were actually mismatched when it came to how they expressed their love and affection.

"Will really believed, 'OK. If I make it big in this world, I can provide everything for you and the family,'" Pinkett Smith says. "For him, that is the biggest love language: To protect and provide."

Pinkett Smith says her husband's focus on providing for the family stood in the way of the "masterpiece of connection" she was trying to create. Last week, Pinkett Smith shocked fans when she revealed that she and Will Smith have been separated since 2016. Keeping the news of the separation private gave her time to work through "a lot of anger and resentment," she says.

"I never got the relationship I wanted," she explains. But, she adds, "It's funny about Will and I – even if the marriage wasn't working, there was still this level of friendship and deep connection between us ... and I didn't want to make a bloodbath of our separation."

Though they are separated, Pinkett Smith asserts that she and her husband are not divorcing: "No matter what, Will and I are always family, that's not going to change ever. ... I love him. He loves me. We just gotta figure it out. And we're in the process of doing that."

In the new memoir, Worthy, Pinkett Smith writes about her marriage, her career in Hollywood, her upbringing in Baltimore and her friendship with the late rapper Tupac Shakur. She also chronicles her struggle with depression and her efforts to better understand and accept herself.

"At the end of the day, what I had come to realize in this time of separation is that there was no 'masterpiece of connection' to make without me having a relationship with myself," she says. "I couldn't look to Will to be the substitute for my relationship to myself, an intimate relationship with myself."

The highlights below have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview highlights

/ Harper Collins
Harper Collins

TM: Your book begins in 2012, shortly after your 40th birthday. You're alone and afraid and fragile. And this is new information for those who know your persona because you come across as so strong, so sure in yourself. What was it about 40 that was the turning point for you?

JPS: I just hit a wall and I think not seeing anything in front of me, no future, nothing. It's like I'd never seen my life past 40. But up until that point, I'd been really in a deep struggle with depression, and I really felt a lot of shame around that, too, because I felt like ... you have everything. What is wrong with you?

And when you say you didn't see a future past 40, was it because you didn't even see the life that you had created thus far as something that was attainable?

Living fast in Baltimore and just having that kind of youthful idea, like, you live fast and burn out fast. Right? And so many people that I came up with hadn't made it. I always thought I would never make it to 40. I just never imagined it. And I didn't even recognize, until I had reached 40, that I had had in my mind that, "Oh, you won't be living long anyway." For so many different reasons.

You mentioned in the book how really in your early 20s you had a breakdown. You got on Prozac. But you still kind of had this "keep it moving" attitude. ... You knew you suffered from depression [but] really didn't understand what that meant.

At that particular point in time, we really didn't have a lot of information around mental health. ... I didn't have a real understanding of what that meant. So once I got on Prozac, I was feeling better, and then I met Will. And then Will became my new Prozac. ... [It was] this romantic whirlwind of a storybook relationship. And it made me believe that I was OK. I found the thing.

You have alopecia and [at the 2022 Academy Awards] Chris Rock made a joke about your look, calling you G.I. Jane, and Will walked on the stage and slapped Chris. And you initially thought you were seeing a bit.

I thought I was seeing a skit because he had been going back and forth backstage all night. ... The stage was really low. So when he got up and walked on stage, I thought to myself, did he not tell me that he saw Chris backstage? Because even how Chris reacted when Will walked on stage was like, "Oh, here's Mr. Smith." I was like, Oh, this is interesting. He didn't say anything to me. And then when he swung and Chris slipped the shot. He ducked back and there was no contact made because I didn't see Will make contact. And Chris was still standing. You got to understand, I've seen Will knock professional fighters down. He played Muhammad Ali and he's a heavy hitter. And so I was like, there no blood. Chris is still standing. ... And then when he turned around and he started walking back, I was that this is not a skit. Something's not right.

Somehow you were vilified in all of this.

Yeah. [It] was very interesting. How a woman who is seemingly so irrelevant can be so culpable at the same time. ... People love to make Black women feel that they don't matter, you know what I'm saying? And just kind of that social attitude that women, Black women are the least protected and seemingly the least relevant. And of course, we're proving that to be completely wrong these days of what's happening, but that I could somehow, by the movement of my eyes, make Will do something against his will or make him do something at all. ... I'm like ... if I could have made Will do anything, you know, these last three decades would have looked very different.

So you grew up in Baltimore. Your grandparents were a big part of your life. Your parents, Adrienne Banfield and Robsol Pinkett Jr., were high school sweethearts and married shortly after your mother got pregnant with you at 17. Your mother has been in recovery for quite a while. ... But when you were growing up, you describe her as a full-blown, high functioning heroin addict who was holding it all together. What did that look like?

My mother was at one point a head nurse at a woman's clinic and was deep in her heroin addiction. ... You would see my mother, and she would be really well put together: sharp, beautiful. You wouldn't really recognize her level of dysfunction unless you were inside her world. ... But on the outside, you'd never know.

You, after watching her, said to yourself, What is going to be my hustle? You were creative. You liked lots of things. You were an actor. You were going to this wonderful school where you were you were acting and auditioning for things, but you also were selling drugs. And I want you to paint a picture for us of how selling drugs would seem like a viable option for you at that age.

In our environment, we didn't have doctors, lawyers, professionals that were in our neighborhoods. ... We had hustlers. They were the role models because they had the cars, they had wads of cash. They had protection and security. They were loved. So for me, I was like, I want that. I want it now. And it was something that you could have instantly. And so in my mind at that time, that's what I believed I needed to have power, safety, security, love.

What were you selling?

I was selling crack. Crack cocaine.

We grew up in a war zone. So here's the deal: Drugs was going to be part of your life. You could use drugs. You could be a drug dealer's girlfriend. You could sell drugs. There was no not having a relationship to drugs. And so you just figured out well, what relationship do you want to drugs? Of course, when I think back in hindsight, in the mindset [and] the clarity that I have now, it's just like, "What is that?" And I have remorse for a lot of my activity back then. But at that time, I was so immersed in a different mindset and in a different kind of environment, that there was this level of survival for me. Survive by any means.

The way that you were treated in Hollywood during those early days, you describe it as being kissed on one cheek and then backhanded on the other. What did that look like?

Blackness was celebrated on screen, but Blackness was not celebrated offscreen. And so that was one part. And then the other was: I was really rough around the edges. So there was always something wrong with Jada. ... Like, she's too hairy.

We have to talk about this on NPR. I just have to. Because being hairy in the Black community —

That's sexy! I'm hairy! I have a little hair on top of my lip. My legs are hairy. My arms are hairy. Some Black actors are like, "Never shave your legs. Make sure you never shave your legs." Then you have the Hollywood community like, "Oh, she's so hairy! Wax her immediately." ... It was my hair. It was my attitude. It was the way I talked. Just one thing after another. I just had to figure out how to play the game in a way that wasn't going to steal who I wanted to be.

One of the most enduring stories about you is that you and the late rapper Tupac Shakur were not just childhood friends. ... He was one of your best friends and the two of you met during orientation sophomore year at the Baltimore School for the Arts. ... Little known fact: He wanted to make a rap female rap group and have you in it.

He had me part of the female rap battle group. And I did one rap battle because I couldn't rap at all. And I did one rap battle. We won. And I was like, That's it. ... He wrote me a rhyme. When I was writing the book, I had to go through like all of my letters and what have you. And I still have letters from him, like, from high school, and so I found a rap that he had written for me at that time and it was awful. ... He probably had to really simplify it. Because I just couldn't rap.

Your relationship with Tupac wasn't romantic. ... How would you describe it?

I think some relationships you just can't really give a title to ... it encompasses so much. It's like he was like a father to me at times. Sometimes he was like a brother, a big brother. Sometimes he was like a little brother. Sometimes he was like a platonic boyfriend. Sometimes he was like my nemesis, you know? And he was so many things to me.

The last time you all saw each other, you had a fight. You all never spoke again because a year later, he was murdered. It's one of your biggest regrets.

I don't know if I would call it a regret. It's definitely a big lesson. I don't really have regrets. I can have remorse. Situations can give me big lessons. That was a big one.

Just a lesson around pride and taking time for granted. I really thought Pac was invincible at that time. He had been through so much and he had survived so much already. Things that people know, things that people don't know. But he has survived so much, and I never thought in a million years that we would have that argument and he would be shot and actually die. I really learned not to allow my pride to keep me from communication and reconciliation. And so even now, as morbid as that might seem, like if I'm in a deep conflict, the first place I go to, if I'm in a deep conflict with somebody, I go, if you on your deathbed, if this person was on their deathbed, would this moment matter? And most of the time it's no. ... And that rectifies it right there.

Do you ever think about what your friendship would have evolved to had he not been murdered?

I do believe [Tupac] and Will would have been really good friends.

Oh yeah. One thing's for sure. I do believe he and Will would have been really good friends. I really believe that. I believe they would have been really good friends. They would have had a lot to offer each other. I think he would have adored my children. I think one thing that people don't know about Tupac is that he loved kids. He loved children. And it would have been nice to see his daughter or his son.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, the midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the award-winning podcast Truth Be Told and a regular contributing interviewer for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.