To Jurnee Smollett, acting isn’t just a job. It’s nourishing. It’s spiritual. It’s everything. Case in point: Smollett was recently in Australia filming “Escape From Spiderhead” for Netflix, a sci-fi film in which she acts opposite Chris Hemsworth. Unlike in many places in the U.S., theaters and restaurants are open in Australia, so Smollett could have socialized and gone sightseeing. Instead, she was alone inside her rented house, missing her son and doing a one-woman production of the play “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” a two-hander by John Patrick Shanley.
“I found myself in full tears,” Smollett exclaims, laughing. “Like, no one’s in this house, [and I’m] full-on talking about how what I did was really bad; I did a bad thing. Full-on fucking tears, man!”
Drama, it turns out, is where Smollett finds joy and comfort. “I need that high; I need to exorcise that person that is in me,” she says. “I’ve never done drugs. I really don’t drink.” Instead, to her, there’s nothing like “bringing that character that’s in me already to life.”
Smollett, now 34, has been acting since she was a toddler; she got her SAG card at age 3. But it is her grounded yet intense performance as Leti on the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” that has helped catapult her into superstardom.
The Misha Green–created, Jordan Peele–produced series is based on the novel by Matt Ruff. It takes place in segregated 1950s America and features Black heroes who have to fight not just violent institutional racism, but also monsters, ghosts, and literal white wizards.
Smollett has lead billing on the show as Leti, or, to quote the show itself, “Letitia fucking Lewis!” And whether she is outrunning shoggoths, exorcising ghosts, or being interrogated by a racist white cop, Smollett is able to imbue Leti with a gravitas that makes the sometimes otherworldly scenarios that the character finds herself in feel real and visceral. The cast of “Lovecraft Country” has rightly received a SAG Award nomination for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series.
And that’s not the only high-profile, physically demanding role that Smollett took on in 2020. She played fan favorite Black Canary in “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” for which she did most of her own stunts.
For Smollett, the key to tapping into these larger-than-life characters is surrendering to the truth of the moment—and to whatever emotions that moment brings out.
“We ask our hearts to break,” she explains. “You go to work, and sometimes what is demanded of you is that you break your heart. And at the end of the day, you hope that the spirit can help you put it back together. It’s a very mystical thing, artistry. But it’s absolutely therapeutic for me.”
Smollett grew up the fourth of six siblings, all of them performers. She credits their careers to her mother, Janet, who loves the arts. The Turner Classic Movies channel was always on at home, and Janet loved watching her children perform. “For instance, instead of wanting gifts for Mother’s Day, she would want us to put on a show or a concert, do a play,” says Smollett, fondly. “It had to be, like, Broadway-ready. She wanted quality: Diana Ross costume changes!”
“I remember Sam [Jackson] would always make jokes and say, ‘You’re not really 10 years old—you’re a 40-year-old stuck in a 10-year-old body.’”
Her three older siblings got into the entertainment industry by chance; they lived in New York City, and some family friends who worked in the business encouraged the Smollett kids to get into modeling and commercials. “People always were telling my mom that they were cute and that she should put them in,” says Smollett. So it was that when she was 10 months old and on the set of one of her siblings’ shoots that a photographer asked Janet if the baby in her arms could be in the shot, too. After that, Smollett did commercials for Cheerios and Pepsi, and by age 3, she was in the union.
From there, she graduated to television. Her first appearance was on one episode of the NBC sitcom “Out All Night” in 1992. Then she appeared on “Full House” for 14 episodes as Denise Frazer, Michelle Tanner’s best friend. The role was originally written as a young white girl, but Smollett impressed the network executives. The family was approached about giving Smollett her own show, which became the ABC sitcom “On Our Own,” starring all of Smollett’s siblings. It aired for only one season.
During those early years, acting was just a fun pastime, “the way Little League is fun for kids.” It wasn’t until she starred in “Eve’s Bayou,” Kasi Lemmons’ Southern Gothic film, that acting became a calling. In the 1997 feature, Smollett played Eve, who witnesses her father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) cheating on her mother. Smollett’s performance as a 10-year-old girl who sees something extremely traumatic is both extraordinary and scary in its verisimilitude.
“I remember Sam would always make jokes and say, ‘You’re not really 10 years old—you’re a 40-year-old stuck in a 10-year-old body,’ ” Smollett recalls. That film marked the first time she felt her craft marry her passion.
“Being able to think as the character was the hook into understanding her, bringing her to life,” she explains. “That’s the high you chase after as an actor, to just be able to think their thoughts and feel their emotions. And that translates to your behavior, to the choices you make, how you communicate outwardly. Having that inner life is the goal.
“I knew what it was like to live in a home where your parents are in turmoil,” she adds, citing her parents’ own “tumultuous” marriage at the time. “It’s a very painful thing for a child to experience. So I had that life inside of me.”
Smollett won a Critics’ Choice Award for the performance. But it also gave her the foundation for her craft. She believes children are “the most truthful actors” because they naturally use their imaginations when they’re playing pretend with stuffed animals or acting out tall tales with their friends.
“It’s the adults around them…. They mess with the very natural instincts that children have,” she says. Fortunately, her mother was her first acting coach, and a pivotal figure in her development as an artist. So instead, “she allowed it to flourish in a way where I was able to learn how to just be.”
“Once you actually hear your own voice, you can’t unhear it. Once you taste your own agency, your own power, you can’t unknow it.”
By the time she was 12, Smollett had complete autonomy over what kind of roles she would take. She doesn’t have a degree in acting (though she has worked with multiple coaches), but her natural talent was so prominent that, while on the set of the 2007 film “The Great Debaters,” about a Black college debate team in the 1930s American South, director-star Denzel Washington would ask her for input into her character.
“He would ask me all the time, ‘Well, how would you do it? How would you say it? Trust your instincts,’ ” she says. “That gift of a coach, a director, any collaborator to empower you to trust your instincts is so precious.”
All this work from a young age, and still Smollett’s résumé is not as long as you might think. She has never hesitated to turn down work that doesn’t fully employ her talents or feel meaningful to her.
“The stuff they were writing was very frustrating,” she says of a memorably lean time in the 2000s. “For me, it was often the girlfriend. I don’t mind playing someone’s girlfriend if she has agency [and] a full inner life. But the writers were too lazy to create that.”
During that time, she found purpose in activism. She has long worked with Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit organization fighting to combat HIV/AIDS. She met Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She realized that she didn’t need to act onscreen to be happy. These days, the advice she gives young artists is: “Don’t wait. You can create in your apartment; you can create in your room.”
In the late aughts, Smollett began getting better roles, and was a series regular on “Friday Night Lights” and “True Blood.” But the turning point was in 2016, when she got cast as Rosalee, the lead character on “Underground”—a slave who discovers her courage and voice while escaping bondage. “Underground” was canceled after only two seasons, much to the consternation of fans. But Smollett became good friends with co-creator Misha Green, who later cast her in “Lovecraft Country.”
When she first read the script for “Lovecraft,” one of her initial reactions was, “Oh, this is going to disrupt shit.” Smollett smiles at her choice of words, before adding, “I am drawn to stories that feel fresh, that feel like they’re subverting societal norms.”
That subversion includes speaking very directly about horror and sci-fi godfather H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, and how his monsters were a metaphor for his fear of Black people. (He even wrote a poem in which he called Black people “beasts” and “semi-human.”) It also includes putting Black heroes at the center of sci-fi and horror—genres in which those characters are usually sidelined at best and killed off as collateral damage at worst.
Smollett loves genre storytelling, but she hadn’t played those roles before because she had only been offered “the Black chick killed on page 37.” Her wait paid off, because Leti is anything but a throwaway character; her agency is powerful.
On one episode of “Lovecraft Country,” Leti buys a house in an all-white neighborhood that she turns into a boarding house for the Black community. Her white neighbors respond by burning a cross on her front lawn. In a scene that can only be described as iconic, Leti walks down the street with a baseball bat, in a party dress and heels, and smashes their car windows.
The sequence was filmed in only two takes, and Smollett got so immersed in the moment that she cut her hand on shattered glass and didn’t even realize it. She says she channels “blood memory” in moments like that—similar to when she played Rosalee on “Underground.” “These revolutionaries that we come from, the superheroes that we come from—that’s in my DNA,” she explains. “Our people had to survive slavery. I’m Black and Jewish. It is a lot of shit we had to survive, right? And so that spirit of survival, that spirit of triumphing over tragedy…I tried to really channel with Leti.”
That process still isn’t easy, though. Playing characters who are experiencing trauma forces Smollett to relive her own trauma, as well, whether it’s inherited or from her own life (such as the time someone put a dead fish in her family’s yard).
“There are for sure moments that it’s just like, even after ‘Cut,’ even after they wrapped, I’m still on the floor of my trailer crying,” she admits. She says this with a hint of sadness, before declaring, more resolutely, “But because I still believe in the art of storytelling, and I do believe in bringing your body and your spirit and your mind to the altar, it’s a part of the sacrifice.”
(And following such episodes with a long bath and some music—“putting on Rihanna and fucking dancing”—also helps.)
Smollett has a deep relationship with religion and spirituality. She believes her acting is a gift from God, and she also says that the roles she takes usually come at a pivotal time in her life and help her evolve into her next stage. The role of Leti came at a time when Smollett was feeling overlooked, when she was living for other people’s expectations rather than listening to herself. At the time, she was a new mother, faced with all of the pressures that society places on women.
As she puts it, visibly frustrated: “You’re supposed to be a mother, a wife, an executive, [and] a boss bitch, and not have acne or ever struggle with weight—and then never complain about those expectations. You’re just supposed to suck it up and perform it all in an effortless manner. And it’s bullshit! It really is bullshit.”
This is partially why Smollett has now gotten into producing, inspired by creators like Green, Peele, Ava DuVernay, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Margot Robbie, all of whom have created narratives about Black people and women that had not been seen before and finally gave Smollett the type of work that she was craving. She has realized that if she wants to continue feeling that high, she’ll need to take a more active role in the business: “Society hasn’t actually evolved a space for women to just be their full, authentic selves. And we can’t really wait for society to evolve. We’ve just got to do it ourselves.”
While she’s got some projects in the producing pipeline that she can’t speak about yet, Smollett enthuses that, in the meantime, there’s “no more waiting for the phone to ring!”
“Once you actually hear your own voice, you can’t unhear it. Once you taste your own agency, your own power, you can’t unknow it.”
This story originally appeared in the March 11 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Gari Askew on 2/17 in LA