Thirty-seven floors above Los Angeles, in a suite overlooking downtown, two half-naked actors struggle through a delicate scene. Paz Vega (Spanglish), wearing only a man’s V-neck and fuzzy slippers, tries to lure a bare-chested, presumably postcoital Jason Clarke (Showtime’s Brotherhood) away from his laptop. Suddenly, into this intimate moment charges Jada Pinkett Smith. With a tank top revealing her sculpted shoulders, the actress’s beauty easily rivals Vega’s, but Pinkett Smith is not here to play the other woman.

“Cut, cut, cut,” she barks. “When you come in, it should be like this.” She demonstrates a coquettish little sashay for Vega. The Human Contract, which stars Clarke as Julian Wright, a troubled executive who falls for an enigmatic free spirit, marks Pinkett Smith’s screenwriting and directorial debut. It may surprise some to see the actress step behind the camera—especially after strong performances in Collateral and Reign Over Me—but Pinkett Smith insists she made the transition out of necessity.

“I lost interest in acting because the roles and the stories were just not there,” she explains. “And that’s not just for Black women. It’s across the board.” It took her three-plus years of agonizing over plot and character, but Pinkett Smith eventually penned Contract, a dark, psychological drama she describes as a “coming-of-age story for a middle-aged guy.” At first she thought to take on the role of the seductive Michael Reed (played by Vega), but in the end, she decided the only way to deliver her vision intact was to direct the movie herself. She found the learning curve steep but ultimately invigorating. “I really feel excited about a craft again,” says Pinkett Smith. Contract’s stars sense her energy. For them, their director’s helming style is unobtrusive, but “she’s there when you need a firm hand,” says Clarke. Like at this moment when, after coaching Vega further on her sexy shimmy, Pinkett Smith trains her analytical eye on her male lead. Julian is rebuffing Michael’s advances rather harshly. “Still too grumpy?” asks Clarke. “We’re getting there,” assures Pinkett Smith with a laugh.

Credit: David Strick