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Jada Pinkett Smith on female empowerment and 'Magic Mike XXL'

The actress, musician, and advocate on years of bringing strong women to life on the silver screen

It is not unusual for actress Jada Pinkett Smith to play strong female characters. She's been at it for more than 20 years. Starting her career in guest roles on shows such as "True Colors," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," and "21 Jump Street," Smith's breakout role was Ronnie in the 1993 urban classic Menace II Society. Since then Smith has starred in more than 25 films and three television series, including "A Different World," the Matrix trilogy, Madagascar, and most recently as mob boss Fish Mooney on hit Fox television show "Gotham." Smith continues to add to her provocative repertoire as the seductive club owner Rome in Magic Mike XXL, the long-awaited sequel to Magic Mike.

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The film's story takes place three years after the original. Mike (Channing Tatum) has hung up his thong and now owns the custom furniture business he dreamed of. When the old crew stops back in town, Mike decides to ride along with his former group of male entertainers for one final performance at the annual stripper convention. A snag on their journey leaves them in need of a new emcee to be eligible to compete, so Mike makes a pit stop in Savannah to seek the help of Rome.

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Smith says the role was originally written with Jamie Foxx in mind, but Tatum — also one of the film's producers — imagined something different. "Whenever he thought about Magic Mike in Las Vegas, he imagined a woman as the emcee," Smith says.

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Production on the film was underway before Smith joined the cast. She thinks her late start provided the bandwidth to create the savvy, seductive club owner. "I had a lot of conversations with everybody, but they really just gave me all the freedom in the world," Smith says. Tatum and director Gregory Jacobs trusted Smith with the role and she didn't take that lightly. As the founder and spokesperson of Don't Sell Bodies, an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking, Smith initially had some reservations about taking on such a provocative role.

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"What I realize from my advocacy is the sex industry is going to exist, there is no eradicating it. ... So instead of focusing on shutting the industries down, I had the idea we should bring some responsibility to it," she says. "I really wanted Rome to show a woman can have a sense of self-respect and dignity and demand that from whomever she's dealing with in a sexually charged environment. Entertainment in this industry does not have to be about degradation and what it should be is about celebration and exaltation."

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It was Tatum who changed Smith's way of thinking about the adult entertainment industry and helped lay the foundation for creating Rome. "Channing has been a part of this industry because he was a male entertainer at one time, and I thought it was a beautiful partnership," Smith says. "There's certain ins and outs he understands about the industry as a whole and there is a certain knowledge I was bringing from my human trafficking advocacy. It's a radical idea, but I thought it was important to take a shot."

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Another important aspect of Rome in the film centers on her ability to sway a crowd. Whether the setting was Rome's own club or at the stripper convention, Smith felt she was amply prepared to take the stage. Since 2002, Smith has been the frontwoman for the nu metal band Wicked Wisdom, who has opened for Britney Spears and performed at several music festivals.

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"I used what I learned from my band on how to move a metal crowd. That was one of the hardest things I've ever done," she says. "You can put me in front of anyone now and I can move the crowd because it doesn't get any more difficult than that."

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XXL has a unique balance between the fantasy created by male entertainers and the reality of the guys behind the performances thanks to very candid scenes showing what happens backstage and along their journey to the competition. While most of these moments can be accredited to Reid Carolin's script, the cast relied on improvisation to keep it authentic. "One of the things I love about this movie and working with Channing and everyone is that it was fluid that way," Smith says. "You had your scene for the day but that was just the blueprint. It just showed you where you need to get to, but we did a lot of ad-libbing."

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Outside of entertainment, Smith has been working on a documentary with CNN to illustrate the connection between exotic dancing and human trafficking. Last year she and the crew shot several scenes in Atlanta, including several strip clubs and a visit to the Wellspring Living Center, a facility committed to helping victims of domestic sexual human trafficking. According to Smith, the project will premiere on the network this summer.

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"I realized strip clubs can be a gateway to trafficking," she says about the experience. "It's what really encouraged me to do this movie because I really feel that it shows a woman can have self-dignity and self-respect in this adult entertainment industry. There's a certain amount of dignity a woman must embody and it takes a lot — you have to be a heck of a woman! But the more we empower ourselves, I swear we can transform those environments."

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At 43, Smith embraces all of the life lessons she's learned from her long-spanning career as an actress, singer, and advocate. "I think as soon as I turned 40 is when real self-acceptance landed on me. I've been working hard in my 20s and through my 30s. Then in my 40s it was like, "Dang, now I know what self-acceptance means!"

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Smith also jokes that being called a "MILF" isn't a bad thing.

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"I love the idea that people can see an older woman as attractive because I feel that as we get older we do become more attractive," she says. "As a young woman you're thinking that everything you are is on the outside, but as you get older it's your wisdom that makes you attractive. I just love that people can recognize that."

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