We’ll eschew the obvious pun about “What an incredible Jurnee”, or “Long Day’s Jurnee into Night”, and state the obvious, which is that long-time fave Jurnee Smollett is having an incredible year, between Birds of Prey and giving one the year’s best performances as Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis in the must-see series Lovecraft Country, streaming now on HBO and Crave. Let’s just say that our journey to speak with the immensely talented and intersectional multi-hypenate was a necessary one, and it was a thrill to chat with her during the recent Zoom video junket for Lovecraft Country. The following is a condensed and edited version of our video conversation.
Brief Take: Leti is a force of nature, in the best way possible, but she also fights every force of nature there is – human nature, fire, water, spirits. As an artist, did you have a favourite moment on set?
Jurnee Smollett: I don’t know that I had a favourite. Misha (Green), what she demands of us as artists, I mean it’s like everything in the kitchen sink, you know? [laughs] I love Leti. She’s so buoyant and she’s a bit of a tornado when she comes to town. This wandering spirit, this disruptor was very fascinating to me. The fact that she was so ahead of her time – to be Black and female in 1955 and to be so unapologetic for who she is. I was just so fascinated by what was her engine? What drove her? She really suffers from this feeling of displacement, which is something I can relate to in just feeling that, as a woman and as a Black American, has this place really evolved as a place for us? James Baldwin talks about it being a shock, as a Black American, when you realize that this is your birthplace and yet it has not evolved as a place for you. So Leti is just trying to carve out her place and is so fuelled by this need to be her whole true self, in search of a home, in search of her tribe. It’s familiar to me, this is a very familiar woman to me. This is my grandmother, you know? This defiant disruptor who by any means necessary is going to maintain her dignity, in spite of her oppression and her conditions. I had a lot of fun playing her, I really did, but it also cost me a lot – physically, emotionally, spiritually. It cost me a lot to play her.
This is your second collaboration with Misha Green, after Underground. Do you have an unspoken short hand when working with each other now?
JS: Yes. When we began Underground, we had quite a bumpy start in which she and I did not like each other at all. [laughs] We actually hated each other initially, on the pilot of Underground. The content of the show demanded so much and we didn’t want to screw it up, frankly. But by the time we got together with Lovecraft, we had this free hand going. I understand her writing so well, she understands my process so well, and for sure knows one little tiny word or note that she can give me to help open my world up. I’m grateful for that because the story required so much that if we hadn’t had that initial experience, I don’t know where we would have been, but it could have derailed us. We just understand each other’s process so well by now.
As an artist, do you feel like you have an obligation to talk about issues, such as racism, through your work?
JS: I guess I don’t look at it as an obligation. I tend to be drawn to roles or narratives about the ‘other’, I’m curious to explore that. I don’t really choose roles based on historical content or social content, I just choose it whether or not it moves me. With Lovecraft, this was a project where I was coming off of Underground with Misha and it had just been cancelled, and she just kind of casually sent me the script, but she wasn’t sending it to me as ‘I’m offering this role to you’ or anything like that, it was ‘take a look at what I’ve been working on’. And it just instantly was something that I desperately had to be a part of. When I read the character of Leti, when she’s introduced and as it goes on, I was just so drawn to her and connected to her on a deeper level, I just had to play her. I was losing sleep over this project because Misha didn’t offer it to me. I mean she wasn’t actively casting it or anything like that, but still! I was fielding offers from other projects and letting her know about it, and she was telling me to turn everything down, that they weren’t good enough, but she was never bringing up Lovecraft as an option for me. So I was literally losing sleep over this role trying to figure out “why in the hell is my friend not offering this role to me? What do I need to do?”. As an artist, you just know. You know when your body has to be a part of something. And this is not a project that you take lightly. I mean we were working 16, 17 hour days, right? You know this is something that’s going to cost you a lot and maybe I’m just this weird artist, but that’s the shit that inspires me. That’s the stuff that gets me out of bed every day, wanting to do more. So I didn’t choose it specifically because of the content but I also come from the heritage that I come from, right? I am my mother’s daughter and my mother met my father in the Civil Rights movement being an activist. So the story is ancestral for me, it’s familiar for me, these are my people, these are my family. So I felt called to tell it, I had to tell it, I wasn’t going to allow anyone else to tell this but me. [laughs]
How important is representation to you and how does it affect society on a micro and macro scale?
JS: For one, storytelling is so innate to us as human beings. As kids, you know I watch my son and my niece and they play ‘family’ and they create all these worlds – they’re writers already, they’re actors already. And yet, it frustrates me and breaks my heart how difficult it is for me to find programming for them that shows them themselves, in which they can see their world reflected back at them. I’m oftentimes showing my son cartoons with animals, frankly. There’s a few cartoons I can show him that have some Black or Brown babies or characters in it, but there’s not much. And if there are, they’re the sideline character, and I see the impact that representation has at that level on him, on my niece, on other kids that I know. I know what impact it had on me, when your hair is different, your bodies are different, your complexion is different. It’s not a bad thing to be different, and yet when you don’t see yourself, sometimes it is subliminally communicated to you that your differences are bad. Your parents have to do so much work, my Mom had to do so much work to counteract the messages that I was being fed from the media. Not just film and tv, but all media – magazines, endorsements, campaigns, music, music videos…the gamut of it. Our female and Black children, in particular, are being overly saturated with very harming messages and that is part of the systemic racism that we must dismantle. You cannot see the image of a President being Black or if you cannot a lawyer or whatever the occupation is, if you don’t see that at a young age, if you don’t see yourself in those people, how can you be that? You can, and they do, but it’s unfair that they should have that extra obstacle. For me, I think art is so powerful. It’s what makes me so excited about a project like Lovecraft Country because I love sci-fi, I love thrillers, I love horror! I grew up watching Silence of the Lambs and Star Wars, I love Stephen King, and yet I have felt, as an artist, shut out from these genres because when I would be offered a role in these genres oftentimes I was the Black chick killed on page 33. And that’s not very enticing as an artist, right? So I’m so encouraged by where we are now when we see more voices take on genres like this, when we see a Misha Green take a genre that we all love and radically re-imagine that genre by centring Black voices in that genre. It’s just very encouraging. We have a lot of work to do, you know I could talk about this forever, the stats and data is abysmal in our industry. It’s abysmal. The Annenberg Center at USC, Stacy Smith, I think there’s a stat that she talks about which is like from 2007 to 2019 in over 1300 films, one per cent of the directors were women of colour. What the fuck?! I mean that’s abysmal. And TV in 2018, 2019 was eight per cent. Oh! You see, it’s quite problematic, it’s abysmal. But I’m encouraged because we have women like Misha Green and Cathy Yan and Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay that are saying “we don’t need to ask for our seat at the table any longer, we’re going to build our own table”. Clearly I can talk about this forever. [giggles]
Have you ever had a supernatural encounter yourself and what are your feelings about the supernatural?
JS: I mean listen, there were a few earthquakes here this morning in Los Angeles and it feels quite supernatural when you feel the whole house shake. [laughs] That’s the first thing that comes to mind, honestly. I have to say, in episode three when we tapped into the more demonic spirits, it definitely affected me and required certain rituals on my part to shed that. I do believe that it’s real and I felt it, you could feel it on set at times. It’s a very dangerous thing to tap into, I’m not going to lie. I think, as artists, because our intention was to shine a light on the spiritual warfare that Black Americans are engaged in, it felt necessary. The story is very ancestral, I talk about that a lot. As being both Black and Jewish, I have blood memory and this visceral connection to the oppression of my people. There were moments that I for sure felt like “ok, I’m feeling it vibrating through my cells right now”.
Lovecraft Country airs on Sundays at 9pm ET on Crave