Jada Pinkett Smith knows a thing or two about strong women. And while most of her fans would point to Niobe in "The Matrix" trilogy or even Gloria in the "Madagascar" films as evidence of that, it's her mother - who raised her on her own while working as a nurse at a women's clinic in Baltimore - that turns out to be her true source of inspiration. It's no surprise then that for her return to television Jada finds herself revisiting that very field alongside a network known for its dramas featuring female leads - TNT. The end result: "HawthorNE," premiering tonight at 9:00/8:00c. The actress, along with her co-star Michael Vartan, recently took a break from production to chat about the draw of working for cable, executive producing a television series and the involvement of a certain very famous husband.
So why television? "I really felt like I needed the experiences that TV can offer," Smith admits. "There's a certain level of intensity. There's a gradient of storytelling, story structure that I needed to, needed some help with. I have a husband who we like to call the ghost producer, one of the ghost producers on the show. And so right now, [as] one of his students - I hate to say it while he's here - one of his students he's a fantastic story structuralist and so right now I'm learning from him just how to structure story in a way that speaks to the universal voice. And just kind of understanding how to hit those human emotional chords that resonate universally no matter what country you're from, what your economic status, none of it. So I really need this television grind, to be in the gym, I call it being in the gym, every day, every week [to] create a movie basically."
Vartan, who plays Dr. Tom Wakefield, the Chief of Surgery at the show's Richmond Trinity Hospital, points to Smith's involvement as one of his primary reasons for signing on: "I read the script and I thought the writing was fantastic and of course found out Jada was attached to star and so immediately that was it for me to be honest. Then I found out she was an executive producer and that was a comforting notion because I'm a big fan of hers period but I have great confidence in her storytelling ability and in her creative vision and knowing that she had a lot of power and say over some of the things that would take place on the set on a daily basis."
Smith's character, Christina Hawthorne, like her TNT predecessors is astonishingly good at her job, but has a somewhat troubled personal life. Recently widowed, Christina finds herself raising her teen daughter (Hannah Hodson) on her own, and not necessarily making the best decisions in the process. "[I see them as] two women who are trying to grow up together," Smith reveals. "Christina had her at a very young age and Christina doesn't always make the right decisions, which is what I like, you know? I don't think Christina is as good of a parent as I am in real life. [Laughs.] My kids would have to be the judge of that. I think there's going to be some very interesting dynamics and storylines between Christina and her daughter."
Also adding some tension is the presence of her late husband's mother (Joanna Cassidy), a member of the hospital's board. "We're going to dive into some of Christina's backstory as the show goes on and we'll find out, you know, her story will unravel: what happened to her husband, why there's tension there with her and her mother-in-law and all those things."
Smith however is quick point out there won't be too many serialized elements. "Basically each episode is standalone, meaning that you can come into the middle of the season of 'HawthoRNe' and be able to enjoy that particular fifth episode. But we do have storylines that continue as far as the characters and their relationships with one another but we don't have a lot of crossover storylines. We do have characters like Isabel [Aisha Hinds] for instance, the homeless woman that you see [in the pilot], she'll have quite a few different stories that we'll deal with that close at each episode but that her emotional arc continues throughout the season."
So what's in store for Christina over the next 10 weeks? In addition to guest spots by Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Michael Ealy and Cloris Leachman, Smith admits "she's going to have to find love again. We have some interesting areas where we might go, interesting places, we'll see." Would one of those avenues be Mr. Vartan? "Will's given his stamp of approval on Michael so it really can go anywhere," Smith teases. Vartan, an avid hockey player, however is pinning his hopes on something else: "I think Tom Wakefield will eventually break into the NHL," he jokes. "I've been pushing that storyline with the writers. Jada keeps blocking it."
And what about an appearance by Mr. Smith? "Will's come on the show, he's an extra in one of the episodes so just see if you can catch him," Smith laughs. "Just walking by, doing a drive by. And we could hardly afford that. [Laughs.] So we'll see. It was a very costly drive by."
In addition to starring in and executive producing the show, Smith sees herself as having a third hat: ambassador for the nursing profession. "It's been very important to me because... the nursing community has really felt like they've been misrepresented on television so TNT has been very sensitive and my team [makes] sure we've screened it and I always try to explain to people it's television so you do have to take things to the extreme because sometimes real, real life is not that interesting."
As for keeping things interesting, TNT, and cable in general, has gotten a reputation for putting on shows you don't usually see on the broadcast networks. "Personally I just feel that the major networks just don't have creative programming," Vartan admits. "One show will break out every season and it will be a hit - and justifiably so because it's a good show with a great cast and a good story. And for the next several years every other network will try and bank on that same sort of formula. And audiences are a lot more mature now than they used to be and they catch on that. They don't want to see the same idea rehashed in a different way, they want to see something inventive and new. So I think cable TV allows the audience to sort of pick and choose what they want to see but the programming is very creative and different and they can take a few more risks because they can say words like shit. And not that that's the be all end all, but when you're in a scene and you can say those words it adds an element of realism. Because we speak like that in real life. I don't know about you but when the shit hits the fan I don't say, 'Oh shoot!'"
Catch "HawthoRNe" tonight, and every Tuesday, on TNT at 9:00/8:00c.