Jurnee Smollett: ‘The Past Few Years Have Been Heartbreaking’

Jurnee Smollett learned she had received a best actress Emmy nomination for her starring role on the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” when she was in the hair and makeup trailer for another project, the coming Netflix film “Lou.”

“I started screaming,” she recalled. “I was screaming, and crying.”

That joy was tempered somewhat when she heard that her first Emmy nomination — one of 18 for the critically acclaimed series — was also the first time two Black leads from the same drama series had been nominated in the same year. “I thought, it can’t be,” she said. “We’re still making firsts, in 2021? It was sobering, I’m not going to lie.”

That first season of “Lovecraft Country,” a horror drama which featured monsters of all sorts, from tentacled demons to racist cops, looked to be the start of something big — until it wasn’t. A much-anticipated second season never came to pass. Meanwhile, Smollett’s life, going back to the death of her father in 2015 after years of estrangement, has been beset by sadness and setbacks.

“The past few years have been heartbreaking,” she admitted.

But Smollett never stopped working, even in the midst of the pandemic. Among her forthcoming projects are “Lou,” a female-led thriller co-starring Allison Janney, and “The Burial,” a courtroom dramedy in which Smollett and Jamie Foxx square off as rival attorneys. She’s also preparing to reprise her role as Black Canary, the chanteuse superhero with pipes of steel she played in the 2020 film “Birds of Prey.”

Courtney B. Vance, left, and Jonathan Majors with Jurnee Smollett in “Lovecraft Country.”Credit…Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

And then there’s “Spiderhead,” a sci-fi thriller based on a 2010 short story by George Saunders, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” In the film, which premieres June 17, Steve Abnesti, the overseer of an eerily cushy island prison, is conducting drug-fueled psychological experiments on his charges, which include Jeff, a convict serving time for involuntary manslaughter, and Lizzy, a fellow convict who harbors her own dark secret.

Chris Hemsworth (the “Thor” franchise) plays the unctuous overseer, while Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) and Smollett play his two primary lab rats. “For a drama like this, a character-driven film where you’re really only talking about three characters, you need to have some heavy hitters,” said the director, Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Teller in the upcoming “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“Spiderhead” was shot in Australia in 2020, during the pandemic. Like the controversial Milgram experiment of the early 1960s, in which subjects were ordered by lab coat-wearing “scientists” to administer what they thought were painful electric shocks to other study participants, Jeff and Lizzy are urged to administer drugs with names like Verbaluce (instant verbosity!) and Darkenfloxx (pain beyond imagining!) to each other — you know, for science. (Smooth soundtrack jams from Chuck Mangione and the Doobie Brothers accompany the action.)

“Jurnee and Miles make a good on-screen couple for this because they can both play damaged,” Kosinski said.

The movie forced Smollett to question what she herself might do under similar circumstances. Would she administer excruciatingly painful drugs to somebody, say, Miles Teller, if someone like Chris Hemsworth asked her to? “I believe, in the comfort of my home, that I would say no,” she said.

In a video interview this month, Smollett, 35, looked back on an acting career that has spanned three decades, from sitcoms to feature films, with detours on the stage. “I’ve done this so long,” she said with a laugh. She talked about everything from childhood crushes (“Paul Newman, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes”) to motherhood (“It’s true what they say, that it’s your heart living outside of your body”), to how she got her name.

That name. Her parents, Smollett explained, both had names starting with J, so they decided all six of their children should, too. Smollett’s brother Jojo thinks “Jurnee” might be a play on Sojourner Truth, the 19th-century abolitionist, but Smollett’s mother has a different story.

“My mom was in labor for two hours, and I fell asleep in the middle of coming down the birth canal,” Jurnee Smollett said. “And my mom kept saying, ‘This little girl’s a trip.’ I guess I wasn’t ready to come out, and so she said I took her on a journey.”

Smollett’s earliest memories have been on sets and stages. At 3, she played Debbie Allen’s daughter — and Diahann Carroll’s granddaughter — on a pilot for an unsold series, “Sunday in Paris.” At 4, she was cast as Denise Frazer, Michelle Tanner’s pal, on the long-running sitcom “Full House.” The young actress resisted the persistent siren call of the Disney Channel.

“I was blessed because I wasn’t a child star,” Smollett said. “I was a kid who acted.”

Smollett with Miles Teller in “Spiderhead.”Credit…Netflix

Film roles soon followed. In 1996, she appeared in the first of them, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack,” alongside Robin Williams. “Robin Williams taught me how to improv when I was 8 years old,” she said. At 11, she was starring alongside Samuel L. Jackson in “Eve’s Bayou,” which also featured Carroll — Smollett’s second role with the pioneering actress before she had even hit her teens. “We were old pals by then,” she said.

Over the years, she has shared the stage of the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles with Cicely Tyson in a 2014 revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,” and played Angela Bassett’s daughter (the 2001 TV movie “Ruby’s Bucket of Blood”) and Denzel Washington’s pupil (“The Great Debaters”). That 2007 drama “was like taking a master class,” she said.

In 2018, Smollett was cast in “Lovecraft Country.” For her role as Leti Lewis, a young Black woman traveling through segregated 1950s America, Smollett drew inspiration from her maternal grandmother, who died before Smollett was born but whom the actress described as “always this mystical figure in our household.”

“One of my teachers pointed out to me this idea of blood memory,” she said. “Having that Black and Jewish ancestry, I come from survivors. It’s part of our DNA. My grandmother was a survivor, and her spirit is what I called upon when I approached Leti.”

Family has played a major role in Smollett’s life over the past several years. In 2015, her father, whom she had been estranged from for most of her life, died, only two years after reconnecting with Smollett and the rest of her family. “We reunited at my sister’s wedding,” she said. “It was the first time I had seen him in years. It was such a healing moment for my entire family.”

Four years later, her brother Jussie Smollett told police he had been the victim of a racist attack and was later charged with filing a false police report; in the end, her brother was sentenced to 150 days in county jail. Smollett declined to talk about the situation, but “it’s no secret how heartbroken my family is,” she said.

“I am so close to Jussie,” she added. “I love that man so much. He’s always been there for me, as all my siblings have. If I didn’t have my family, if I didn’t have my mom and my siblings, I don’t know where I’d be.”

And then in 2020, as the pandemic set in, Smollett filed for divorce from her husband, the musician Josiah Bell, after nearly 10 years of marriage. The two had a child together, Hunter, now 5. When asked what it’s like being a mom, Smollett clarified, “A single working mom!”

She explained: “It’s the biggest blessing and the biggest challenge, simultaneously. But I’m lucky I’m in a situation in which, as a working mom, I’m able to bring him with me wherever I go. I know not all moms have that benefit.”

In the coming years, Smollett hopes to be doing more producing. “‘Lou’ was the first film I produced, and I definitely see myself stepping more into that role,” she said. “I hope to usher more unique voices and filmmakers who are creating inclusive stories, centering folks who aren’t normally centered in these types of stories.”

Even so, Smollett isn’t giving up acting any time soon. “I’m very excited about the slate of films we have coming down the pipeline,” she said. “They’re dream roles.”

Those include the Black Canary movie, which is being written by the “Lovecraft Country” creator Misha Green. “Jurnee shows up on the day, and she has thought about 900 different ways to approach her character,” said Green, who also worked with the actress on the series “Underground.”

Yet even as Smollett looks forward, she’s trying to appreciate the present, if even just a bit. “I’m trying to find a balance between enjoying the now, because that’s something I struggle with, and always looking to the future,” she said. “I’m always like, OK, been there, done that. What’s next?”