As Jada Pinkett Smith returns to the Madagascar franchise for a circus-themed adventure, she talks to SUSAN GRIFFIN about marriage to Will Smith and their super-talented children
WHEN you’re one half of a Hollywood power couple, it doesn’t hurt to embrace what little down time you get together.
That’s why, rather than party hard for their September birthdays, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith - who both act, sing, write, produce, direct and generally hone their business empires - packed themselves off to the mountains for a few days.
“We spent time in nature and just reflecting on what we want for ourselves this year,” says Pinkett Smith, 41, who returns to voice the hippo Gloria in the third film of the Madagascar franchise this autumn.
“It’s very funny because our wedding anniversary is on New Year’s and we always use that as reflection on how we’re going to journey through the world together next year too.”
She and the man formerly known as the Fresh Prince have been married for 15 years. Together they have two children, Jaden, 14, and Willow, 11, and Pinkett Smith is also stepmother to Trey, 20, (“my bonus son”) from Smith’s first marriage to actress Sheree Fletcher.
Much like Gloria, who she considers to be “the momma” of the Madagascar pack, Pinkett Smith likes nothing more than embarrassing her kids with a whole heap of mamma love.
“Now my sons have got girlfriends coming into the house and I’m like,‘You’ve got to give mom a kiss before you leave’,” she says, laughing.
“They’re like, ‘Oh mom!’ But I don’t care who they’re with, OK, whether it’s their friends or girlfriends, it doesn’t matter to me.”
The voice emanating from the phone is calm and soft and it’s difficult to imagine the same woman belting out rock songs as she has as the lead singer in metal band Wicked Wisdom. She’s even appeared on stage at Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest.
Born in Maryland, Pinkett Smith studied dance and acting at school and college before auditioning for the role of Smith’s girlfriend in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air in 1990.
Deemed too short to play opposite the gangly funnyman, her big break came a year later when she landed a role on Bill Cosby’s long-running series A Different World.
During the Nineties, she starred opposite Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor and made an impact as an unfortunate victim in the opening sequence of Scream 2.
But she’s probably best-known as the take-charge Niobe in the hugely successful Matrix sequels before joining Tom Cruise (a fellow Scientologist) in 2004’s Collateral.
A year later, she lent her voice to Gloria in Madagascar. “She’s kind of the glue,” says Pinkett Smith of the hippo alter ego she returned to three years later in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
“I used a lot of my maternal instincts for her but she’s also pretty sassy and has a lot of strength and a lot of confidence. She’s very comfortable in her own skin and being who she is.”
In this third adventure, Gloria and her friends Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) and Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer) are determined to return to their zoo in Central Park.
But when their journey back goes awry and they wind up being chased by a dogged animal control officer across Europe, the crew decide to go under cover in a down-and-out circus in the hope of making it home.
“The thing I love about all the Madagascar movies is they’re fun but they also have a lot of heart,” says Pinkett Smith.
“They always deal with really simple, central issues; relationships and how one relates to oneself and to the world.”
And that, she stresses, is relatable across the board, whether you’re an adult or a child.
“I think the animations tend to have a lot of layers that children can understand and also adult themes that can keep a grown-up’s attention as well.”
There’s no doubt she’d return to the billion-dollar franchise for a fourth time should she be asked, but in the meantime Pinkett Smith is keen to work on a movie with her other half. And it could happen as soon as next year.
“Will will be directing and I will star in that with him,” says the actress, of a film about the Bible’s brothers Cain and Abel.
“I play a woman who has been by [Cain’s] side for 5,000 years and another woman comes between us,” she explains.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic because we do know each other so well and for a very, very long time so we can push each other in ways that other people cannot. That’s what makes me so excited about working with Will.
“He’s going to make me stretch and get beyond my comfort zone. He and I can always do that for each other.”
Through her production company 100% Womon, Pinkett Smith wrote, directed and co-starred in The Human Contract and was an executive producer on The Secret Life Of Bees and TV series All Of Us.
She’d like to direct more, having recently helmed the music video for Trey’s song Find You Somewhere, which stars all three of her kids.
“Trey created this song and as soon as I heard the song I just had the vision so I sat down with the kids and explained it to them.
“They were like, ‘Oh my God mom, you should direct it!’ I was like, ‘OK. I’m on it’,” she laughs
But then her kids are her muses, she says. “They inspire me creatively in so many different ways, and I love creating with my family.
“There’s a lot of talent in our group and this was a fantastic opportunity for me.”
It’s little surprise that ambition runs in the genes. Jaden has already starred in two movies, The Pursuit Of Happyness alongside his dad and Karate Kid, which was produced by his parents.
Willow meanwhile starred in I Am Legend (again with dad) and became a pocket-sized pop star after signing to Jay-Z’s label at the age of 10.
“There’s a great exchange between us,” says Pinkett Smith of her relationship with her children. “I never have to show them who’s boss.
“Will’s been here 44 years, I’ve been here 41 years, and they’ve been here less than that, so they respect the wisdom and the knowledge that we have to offer them.
“But I listen to what they want and I listen to their desires and incorporate them into the creative process.
“I think what makes it cool for them is that there’s no dictatorship when it comes to creating art.”
:: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted opens in cinemas on Friday, October 19.