For decades, Jada Pinkett Smith has been plagued by misconceptions: about the dynamics of her marriage to Will Smith, about her bond with Tupac Shakur and, most recently, about the Slap at last year’s Oscars. But in her revelation-heavy 400-page memoir, “Worthy,” these discordant threads, and others, will be pinned to the ground in no uncertain terms.
Even devotees of her hugely popular web series “Red Table Talk” — where she and her daughter, Willow, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, delved into all manner of personal, social and cultural issues — will realize how little they know of Pinkett Smith. The book, out Tuesday from Dey Street, offered her a chance to provide context for a layered, complex journey that can’t be mined in 45 minutes at the Red Table, she told me in September at the headquarters of Westbrook, the entertainment company she founded with Will Smith in 2019.
“How do you captivate people, people who think they already know your story?” said Pinkett Smith, who turned 52 a few days after we sat there sunk into couches, looking out over an atypically drizzly Southern California sky.
In the book’s second to last chapter, titled “The Holy Joke, The Holy Slap, and Holy Lessons,” Pinkett Smith chronicles that infamous Oscars night, one of the most surreal of her life — when Smith stunned the world by marching onstage and slapping Chris Rock after Rock made an unscripted joke about Pinkett Smith’s closely cropped hair. She has alopecia, a hair-loss condition, which Rock has said he was unaware of. (It was not his first joke at her expense from the Oscars stage.) After returning to his seat, Smith yelled up to Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out of your [expletive] mouth!” Minutes later, Smith won the best actor Oscar for his role in “King Richard.”
She, like millions of TV viewers, scrambled to grasp what had happened. But part of her surprise came from a different place than those who’d tuned into Hollywood’s big night — it was at hearing Smith call her his wife. “Even though we hadn’t been calling each other husband and wife in a long time, I said, ‘I’m his wife now. We in this.’ That’s just who I am,” she told me, adding: “That’s the gift I have to offer, like, ‘Hey, I’m riding with you.’”
Smith and Rock had decades of disrespect between them, starting in the late 1980s, before either of them knew her, Pinkett Smith points out. “I didn’t judge Chris, I didn’t judge Will,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a spiritual clash.’”
“It didn’t have anything to do with Jada,” Banfield Norris told me during a video interview. “That was really Will’s pain.”
And he was in tremendous pain, and fragile, Pinkett Smith said. He had recently finished filming “Emancipation,” a hellish Civil War-era drama that was psychologically tormenting for Smith, who plays an enslaved man. (Smith has said that he “got twisted up” in the role, and “lost track of how far I went.”) “I knew in my heart that he needed me by his side more than ever,” Pinkett Smith said.
Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith at the Oscars ceremony in 2022. In her book, she writes, “It was easy to spin the story of how the perfect Hollywood megastar had fallen to his demise because of his imperfect wife.”Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
As for Rock’s Netflix special earlier this year in which he mocks Smith and Pinkett Smith, she said she isn’t bitter, but she was hurt. “I remember my heart piercing, my heart cracking, and I remember my feelings being so hurt,” she told me. “And then I remember being able to smile and wish him well at the same time.” (Among the many tidbits shared by Pinkett Smith in her book was that Rock had asked her on a date when he thought she and Smith had split. She corrected him, and they shared a laugh, she writes. Rock’s representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Pinkett Smith also unpacks the vitriol she received for rolling her eyes at Rock’s joke — a reaction that some suggested spurred Smith to storm the stage — to illustrate how women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. “It was easy to spin the story of how the perfect Hollywood megastar had fallen to his demise because of his imperfect wife,” she writes. “Blaming the woman is nothing new.”
“How is it that a woman can be so irrelevant and culpable at the same time?” she asks. “I had to think about the narrative out there of me as the adulterous wife, who had now driven her husband to madness with the command of one look. I had to take responsibility for my part in aiding that false narrative’s existence. I also had to chuckle at the idea that the world would think I wielded that amount of control over Will Smith. If I had that amount of control over Will, chile, my life would have been entirely different these damn near three decades. Real talk!”
By adulterous, Pinkett Smith is referring to her relationship with August Alsina, which she called an “entanglement” on a 2020 episode of “Red Table Talk” where — after the information surfaced, becoming a public spectacle — she and Smith hashed out the already years-old chapter of their lives. The conversation ended with laughter and a fist-bump to their slogan: “We ride together, we die together, bad marriage for life.”
The truth is the Smiths weren’t together in the traditional sense when she was with Alsina, nor are they now. But they are not in an open marriage, nor are they uncoupled, polyamorous or divorced. They are something else altogether: life partners in family and business, long maintaining an agreement they call “a relationship of transparency.” In recent years, they’ve lived separately. As a 50th birthday present to herself, she bought her own place, moving out of their Calabasas compound.
In a way, her new home, also in Calabasas, closes the loop on a dream that started before they dated, when she was renovating an “old-world tiny” farmhouse on the outskirts of Baltimore that sat on an expanse of land that she envisioned filling with rescue dogs and cats, and a horse for her mother. During that time, she’d gotten a phone call from Will Smith, who’d recently split from his first wife. “You seeing anybody?” he’d asked her. “Uhm, no,” she replied. “Good,” he said. “You seeing me now.”
Ultimately, it’s family that anchors their union. It’s the reason they married in 1997, while she was pregnant with their son, Jaden. “We wanted to create a family we never had, and we did that. And we enjoy our family,” she said. “For us, our marriage is like a cornerstone of that for now. Who knows in 10 years.”
“We’ve tried everything to get away from each other, and we just don’t,” she added, laughing.
Shortly after that 2020 episode, Pinkett Smith, in pursuit of “clarity and emotional sobriety,” became what she calls an “urban nun of sorts.” She meditates and reads texts like the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran or the Bible daily, and abstains from sex, alcohol, violent entertainment and unnecessary spending.
Pinkett Smith is centered and self-assured, yet being hitched to Smith’s bullet train has made it almost impossible for her trajectory not to be affected by his.
“That’s not unique to me,” she stressed. “That’s just a patriarchal construct.” Not to say that it hasn’t irked her, particularly when it’s interfered with her professional identity: Harvey Weinstein, for example, once wouldn’t pursue a project of hers unless Smith attached his name to it, she said. “I’m like, pause, I’ve been doing this before,” she remembered thinking. “That’s when it would bother me. It was like, I’ve been doing stuff before I married this dude.”
On that Friday morning last month, Pinkett Smith seemed to be channeling her younger self, when she was a regular at Baltimore clubs like Fantasy and Signals in the 1980s, earning a reputation as a formidable battle dancer — mixing hip-hop and house, the Running Man and the Cabbage Patch. With pink hair, Girbaud baggy jeans and fresh white Reebok Princess sneakers, she was “considered tomboy-cute,” she writes. “They didn’t see me coming.” When we met, she was still rocking white Reeboks, though well worn; a hot pink Telfar tracksuit; a cropped blonde pixie and an assortment of earrings framing her makeup-free face. Small in size, with an expansive presence.
“Worthy” documents an eventful life, which she recounts chronologically, book-ended by a harrowing story. “This isn’t going to be a fluffy journey,” she wants readers to know. “I’m going to drop you right into one of the darkest moments of my life, and then we’ll backtrack.” In despair after her 40th birthday, in 2011, she began scouting California cliffs that might be suitable to drive off, something higher and steeper than what she’d seen on Mulholland Drive. Somewhere that would appear accidental. She’d tried to adhere to the rules of life but was empty: “Those boxes I’d been checking had not delivered the gifts that had been promised.”
“There’s been so much that has gone on in Jada’s life that she kept close to the chest,” Banfield Norris said. “Most people just had no idea what was going on and the pain that she was suffering. I had no idea.”
A conversation with the father of two of Jaden’s friends presented Pinkett Smith with a potential new way to heal. Her told her of his life-changing experience on ayahuasca, and she’d soon set out on a four-night trip. The potent psychedelic presented her with a vision of a panther that would lead her deep into the jungles of her mind. At a critical juncture, she was plunged into a pit of sneering snakes who taunted her. “Mother Aya,” she writes, “is showing me all the unloved parts of myself needing light and love.” After that experience, she’d never again contemplate suicide, she writes. Pinkett Smith continues to integrate ayahuasca into her life. About a year after the 2022 Oscars, she held a friends-and-family session — Smith included. “You’ll have to cut off your spirit’s wrist to break free of our Divine handcuffs,” he told her as it wound down.
The memoir, Smith said in an email, kind of woke him up. She had lived a life more on the edge than he’d realized, and she is more resilient, clever and compassionate than he’d understood. “When you’ve been with someone for more than half of your life,” he wrote, “a sort of emotional blindness sets in, and you can all too easily lose your sensitivity to their hidden nuances and subtle beauties.”
The situation seems ripe for a vulnerability hangover, I suggested to Pinkett Smith.
“I’ve gone through such a gauntlet of some of the harshest criticism with things that aren’t true, and had to sit in that. So I can totally sit in dealing with what is true,” she said.
“What people think of me as putting myself out there, I don’t think of it that way,” she added, after some contemplation. “After you’ve had two  millimeters to your head, and you survive that, your capacity totally just …” she paused to make an explosion sound.
Pinkett Smith writes of a few brushes with death early in her life when, as a teenager in Baltimore, she found success selling drugs, with aspirations to become a “queenpin.” It was a “distorted reality,” she writes.
Pinkett Smith eventually moved away from dealing and her hometown. She attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts before moving to Hollywood, where she’d become best known as an actress, starring in the “Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World” (a role Debbie Allen wrote for her) and in movies like “Set It Off,” “Menace II Society” and “Scream 2,” then later “Collateral,” the “Matrix” sequels and “Girls Trip.”
The memoir introduces people who populated her world along the way: her grandmother Marion, a world traveler and freethinker who significantly shaped young Jada; her absentee father, Robsol Pinkett, a poet and addict who zigzagged through her life; Banfield Norris, a nurse who had Jada as a teenager and would struggle with heroin addiction; and a bevy of friends, especially Tupac Shakur, whom she met at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Their friendship would be the deepest of her life, and his murder in 1996 was one in a string of sudden losses that would contribute to Pinkett Smith’s depression.
She has never talked extensively about her relationship with Shakur before. People have long assumed that it was romantic, but it wasn’t. In “Worthy,” she playfully recollects a time when they’d tried to kiss as teenagers: They’d both recoiled in disgust and dissolved into laughter.
“We were both orphans in a certain manner, and we really tried to compensate for that with one another in our relationship and really take care of each other the best we knew how,” she told me, just weeks before an arrest was made in his death. “We just had a deep loyalty.”
“Pac’s whole thing was because I knew him when — when he wasn’t Tupac,” she added. “The guy who was poor, the conditions that he lived in. And I was rocking with him anyway.”
In “Worthy,” she reveals that he’d proposed to her in a letter while incarcerated at Rikers in the mid-1990s for groping a fan. “Did Paclove me?” she asked. “Yeah he loved me! But I promise you, had we got married, he’d have divorced my ass as soon as he walked through them damn gates and got out.”
He just needed someone to do time with him, she said, and Pinkett Smith’s ride-or-die mentality is carved in her bones. It’s the same instinct that kicked in during the Oscars debacle.
Threads of loyalty, protection and safety wind their way throughout the memoir, and Pinkett Smith implores readers to learn from her hard-fought lessons. Each chapter ends with what I started to call “guidance pages.” Look inward, she urges, and ask yourself questions like: “Can you recognize patterns in your life and relationships that stem from inherited trauma cycles?” Each of these pages opens with a quote meaningful to Pinkett Smith, whether it be from Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” a defining book for her; the poet Ntozake Shange; the psychoanalyst Carl Jung; or the actor Steve Martin.
“My biggest hope for the book is that it’ll just be oxygen for people who need it,” she said. “I didn’t want to talk about this journey and not give some bread crumbs of how I got out of some of the stuff I was in, because it’s intense stuff.”
As we prepared to say goodbye, the sun broke though, transforming the gray vista below into a California postcard. She was reminded of perhaps the wisest words passed to her, about 15 years ago, from the actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee: “Laugh now, because you are going to laugh later.”
“When she said it to me, I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about,” Pinkett Smith recalled. “I was like, laugh now? This [expletive] ain’t funny.”
But lately, the meaning of those words hits hard. “Ruby was right,” Pinkett Smith said. “A lot of dark times that I can look at and smile at.”
“At the end of the day, when you’re on your deathbed — or Chris is on his deathbed or Will is on his deathbed or whoever — all this doesn’t matter,” she said, gesturing to something beyond what was in the room. “And so just learning how to exist in that pocket right now. Not waiting until I’m on my deathbed. Let’s just do it right now.”