Are Jada Pinkett Smith and the men of Magic Mike XXL about to revolutionize our very notions of sexual liberation, one slow jam-set pelvic thrust at a time?
“I had just come from Atlanta working on a project with CNN about human trafficking and how strip clubs can be gateways to trafficking,” Pinkett Smith told The Daily Beast one recent afternoon in Los Angeles.
The Gotham star turns in a commanding performance in the stripper sequel as Rome, the madam-emcee of a Savannah pleasure club where Channing Tatum’s “Magic” Mike once worked… under the nom de strip “White Chocolate.”
Rome was originally written for a male actor—the essence of Matthew McConaughey, who didn’t return for the sequel, still drips and drawls in the character’s flair for the dramatic—until Pinkett Smith came aboard.
“The selling point for me was when Channing said, ‘There’s a way in which men and women can engage in this erotic, sensual atmosphere and it be fun and responsible,’” she explained, describing her screen alter ego as an empowering presence for lady patrons eager for an eyeful, and often handful, of man candy.
“The idea that Channing, who has been part of this industry before and is now an influential movie star, wants to use this as an opportunity to elevate the energy of this particular world and try to inject it with responsibility—I thought, that is a radical idea.”
“Empowering” and “radical” aren’t the first words most people might use to describe a film filled with waxed chests and endless stripteases, where even co-star Amber Heard spends a good chunk of screen time helpless as Tatum thrusts his junk in her face to the velvety R&B sounds of 112.
But that’s how Magic Mike XXL’s new alpha female describes the oiled-up sequel, which sees producer-star Tatum and his entourage of beefy dancer bros (returners Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, and Adam Rodriguez) leave Tampa for One Last Road Trip to a stripper convention in exotic Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Pinkett Smith says she didn’t go full method for the film—no strip club visits for “research,” that is. But after shooting several performance scenes in which hundreds of female extras make it rain on her scantily clad cast mates, ogling the men take after take in the name of art, she’s got some ideas on how to strip real-life clubs of the sketchy stigma they carry.
“I wanted to take the information I learned from people who had been taken advantage of in these environments and try to through this creative endeavor create an environment where everybody feels exalted,” she said. “Everybody in this erotic, sensual play could have a good time. There was acknowledgement, validation, and most importantly, respect. That’s all the information I needed. I didn’t want my club to reflect in any way what exists right now.”
Pinkett Smith, who enters half of her Magic Mike XXL scenes greeting dollar bill-clutching women with the exaltation “MY QUEENS,” even posited one way to make real strip clubs, well, a little less pervy.
“With male strip clubs you have more women than there are men, so the energy never goes to dominance,” she said. “And if the energy doesn’t go to dominance, you don’t go to degradation. When you have more men than women in a sexually aroused environment men can’t help themselves but go into a space of dominance. If we had more women in female strip clubs than men—let’s say men had to come with a woman to enter the space—it would change.”
Meanwhile, the actress, producer, celebri-mom and sometimes musician says she’s left music on the backburner for now, even if her introductory scene in Magic Mike XXL—to the baby-making music of Jodeci’s “Freek’n U”—conjures familiar memories.
“I love Jodeci! I got married to a Jodeci song—‘Forever My Lady,’” she says, laughing. “You wanna talk about real ghetto? We had a group who Will was managing at the time sing ‘Forever My Lady’ a cappella. That was me and Will’s wedding song.”
Pinkett Smith’s rock star days, however, may be behind her. “I think I’m going to leave music to Willow and Jaden,” she sighed. “Music does not like being a mistress to anyone. You have to stay deeply connected to her, or she leaves.”
Unlike husband Will Smith, who strategized his career blockbuster movie stardom so meticulously, he admitted he’d been “broken” by the failure of his 2013 Jaden Smith sci-fi team-up After Earth, Pinkett Smith says she plotted her steady Hollywood rise through the decades—from the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society through the Matrix franchise—much less deliberately.
“For me, I think it’s a bit more simple,” she said. “I’m kind of a passion-driven person. I never really had a big ambition. I think that’s one of the biggest differences between us: Will really wanted to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but I never really had that aim. I just wanted to be able to make a living off of what I do.”
Pinkett Smith talks often in terms of reading “energies”—Tatum’s energy on set (“he likes to flow his light to others to help them shine”), or Magic Mike director and Magic Mike XXL DP/editor Steven Soderbergh’s (“brilliant” and “fascinating”). She displays a considered openness offscreen and online, sharing frequent down-home musings on life with her online followers, addressing open-marriage rumors on Facebook, or reminiscing over her close relationship with the late Tupac Shakur on Howard Stern.
And yet, a publicist watched like a hawk over our conversation nixing any and every mention of her family—frequent subjects of Hollywood gossip hounds thanks to everything from the Smiths’ rumored Scientology associations, infidelity rumors, Willow’s career, or Jaden’s clothing.
Even if the gatekeepers are just doing their jobs, there’s a sense that Pinkett Smith is trying to keep a channel open to her public, at least on her own terms. Channing Tatum has Reddit; Pinkett Smith has nearly 8 million fans on Twitter and Facebook.
“I just feel like we’re all going through so much, and sometimes it’s just nice to hear what somebody else is going through,” she said. “I’m going through some shit myself. I often like to try to talk about some of the things I’m going through so that people understand that they’re not alone, that all of us are in this together trying to figure out what this thing called life is all about.”
“At the end of the day entertaining is my job, but we’re all people,” she continued. “There’s no difference between me and you and everyone else. We’re all women and men trying to figure out, Why are we here? What is love? How are you married? How do you raise your kids? How do you deal with the loss of a friend? How do you deal with sorrow? What I do doesn’t make me immune to being a human being. Sometimes people misinterpret, but you can never allow that to give you fear and not to express yourself and be authentic to who you are. At the end of the day, that’s what’s most important.”