With her upcoming series about to boost her profile and platform, the actress and activist opens up about Hollywood harassment, the trauma of brother Jussie's public scandal, and how she's "no longer asking for a seat at the table. We're building our own motherf***ing table."
In the fraught, sweaty days following the police killing of George Floyd, Jurnee Smollett has been working through a battery of emotions: There was profound grief, then fear, anxiety and, now, rage.
"Oh, the rage," she howls, "the rage I feel in my body."
Smollett's gotten awfully good at channeling that rage, she says, convening with Black Lives Matter allies in church basements and Los Angeles streets whenever she can steal time away from her 3-year-old son, Hunter, for whom she doesn't currently have regular childcare. Still, she can feel it now, coursing through her veins, as memories the actress has tried so hard to bury come flooding back. The soda cans hurled at her. The cop cars she was thrust into. The dead fish placed on her family's lawn.
If it were not for the pandemic ravaging her city, Smollett would be taking Hunter with her, just as her mother once did her. During the Rodney King riots of '92, Janet Smollett had her children out in the street, holding up signs. Jurnee was just 5 at the time. That same year, she saw Malcolm X in a theater. "My mom would cover our eyes in certain parts," she says, "but she didn't want to shield us from our history." By 12, Smollett, already an actress, was volunteering at a social justice nonprofit. By 18, she'd become its youngest board member. At least once since then, the 33-year-old best known for roles in Friday Night Lights and Birds of Prey seriously flirted with the idea of leaving Hollywood behind.
"This business can be maddening," she says, settling in at a table and chairs on her sprawling back deck, her heavy eyes the only sliver of face not covered by a mask. "For all its liberalism, I've been in these spaces where these very powerful people do the fundraisers and write the checks for the Black or brown kids' scholarships, and then I know for a fact they go back into their staff meetings and they're all white." She pauses, letting her words hang there momentarily, and then she continues: "And if you do that, you're a hypocrite, and you're not actually anti-racist."
In an industry that often prefers to perform its activism — don't get Smollett started on those black squares that half of Hollywood seemed to plaster across its social media for a day in June — she is the exception. "Jurnee's truly a fighter for the people," says her friend Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. "She's unapologetic, loving and full of righteous fire."
When Smollett's latest project, HBO's Lovecraft Country, a highly anticipated horror, sci-fi, period mashup that revisits the atrocities of Jim Crow America, makes its debut Aug. 16, it will inevitably be trumpeted for its timeliness. The notion infuriates its star. "We're telling the story of heroes that go on a quest to disrupt white supremacy, and it's maddening that in the year 2020 it's still relevant," she says, adding that the series, from Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams and Underground's Misha Green, would be so had it come out on any day of any year since 1619 — which is not to suggest Smollett isn't immensely proud of the project, or ecstatic about the splash it's expected to make.
If the early buzz inside HBO is any indication, she, along with her co-star Jonathan Majors, will soon see their profiles soar. "Jurnee brings versatility, depth and nuance to every role," says Peele, who has cast her in multiple projects. He doesn't acknowledge the obvious, however: that her star has been eclipsed by that of her brother, Jussie, the embattled Empire alum who was accused of staging his own hate crime in early 2019 and then lying about it to the cops. The case is still winding its way through the legal system, but Smollett, agreeing to address the incident for the first time publicly, maintains her brother's innocence.
"It's been fucking painful," she says, choosing her words carefully, "one of the most painful things my family's ever experienced — to love someone as much as we love my brother, and to watch someone who you love that much go through something like this, that is so public, has been devastating. I was already in a very dark space for a number of reasons, and I've tried to not let it make me pessimistic. But everyone who knows me knows that I love my brother and I believe my brother."
On this early summer afternoon, Smollett's house, set back from the road, is eerily quiet. Her son is off with one of her siblings — all five, like her, former child actors — though the trappings of a toddler's world can be found everywhere: the cars, the toys, the bathtub in which his mom once birthed and now bathes him. Smollett filed for divorce from Hunter's dad, musician Josiah Bell, the day after Los Angeles' stay-at-home order went into effect in March, though the longtime couple quietly separated last year. If there's a silver lining to the pandemic, she says, it's been this time, free of the grueling demands of production, with her son.
By the time she was Hunter's age, Smollett was already making a living on camera. Her first gig, a campaign for diapers, came when she was 10 months old. At 4, she landed a recurring role as Michelle Tanner's best friend, Denise, on the hit ABC sitcom Full House. Though the part had been written for a young white girl, the response to Smollett's casting was so positive, she was approached about her own spinoff — to which her mother said, "Well, I've got more kids." She was invited to bring them all in.
As is now the stuff of Smollett family legend, Janet Smollett paraded the tight-knit brood — four boys, two girls — before a cadre of white executives, for whom they performed "Shut 'Em Down" by Public Enemy. "I don't even think my mom was trying to make a statement, it's genuinely who we were," says Jurnee, the fourth in line, who assumed the role of Flava Flav for the rendition. "I remember the men just sitting there, not dancing at all — and then they fucking bought this thing." On Our Own, as the ABC family sitcom was titled, would be canceled after just one season, but not before making an impression on its Black viewers — she still hears from some of them.
Though Smollett insists she was more child actor than child star, it became something more than "a hobby," she says, when she landed a starring role opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Kasi Lemmons' acclaimed 1997 film, Eve's Bayou. As Lemmons recalls, it was a struggle to find a 10-year-old who could deliver the depth and weight that the R-rated drama required. "These children were coming in who were adorable and precocious, and I'm going, 'God, that's exactly what I don't want,' " she says. Then she met Smollett and instantly knew she was right for the role. "There's nothing indulgent about Jurnee's acting, ever — there's never a moment where you don't believe her."
Still, the work that followed was patchy, aided in no small part by Smollett's mother, who'd regularly turn down offers on her behalf, often for the simple reason that they didn't satisfy her taste. Among them: Jurnee's own Disney Channel show, a prospect that Janet Smollett wouldn't so much as entertain. "My mom would be on the phone with my agent," says Smollett, "yelling at her, like, 'I could go sell pussy on the corner if I want to make money, OK? I don't need to make money. My daughter's not doing it.' But that was my mom's mentality — "I will not pimp out my children" — and I'm grateful for that."
At points along the way, the paychecks would have been nice. Before their mid-1990s divorce, Smollett's father, a Russian-Polish Jew who passed away a few years ago, often worked two jobs, while her mom, a Black homemaker from New Orleans, was looking after the six kids. Very little, including the children's education, was farmed out. After they split, money grew even tighter, with periods when Smollett remembers only apples and carrots in the fridge. At the ripe age of 11, she took over the family's bookkeeping, for which her only credential was an aptitude for middle school math. She recalls regularly fielding calls from bill collectors, with whom she'd have to negotiate a payment plan to prevent the family's water from being shut off. If her age was ever questioned over the phone, she'd simply explain that she had a youthful voice.
The Smollett family dinner table was seen as a space to discuss politics and restorative justice, and, per Mom's rules, each of the kids would be of service. On the recommendation of her Bayou co-star Jackson and his actress wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Jurnee started volunteering at Artists for a New South Africa at 12, joining its board of directors a few years later. Like most things she commits to, she threw herself in completely, regularly making the rounds of the L.A. public school system, doling out sex-ed lessons to kids roughly her own age. Her presence in those settings could lead to confusion, since the students would often recognize Smollett for her other work. "They'd be like, 'Aren't you Tori from Roll Bounce?' " she says, a smile peeking through her mask. "And I'd go, 'Yes, we'll take pictures after. I need you to know how to put a condom on.' "
For an actress who got her SAG card at 3, Smollett's résumé isn't nearly as long as it should be. Part of that is due to lack of opportunity, she reasons, particularly at the upper echelons, where there simply aren't as many roles for Black women; the other part she attributes to her own lack of interest in the types of roles that often come her way.
"Being the girl on page 33 that's killed in a horror film was something I was consistently offered and, I don't judge others, but I couldn't do it," she says, adding that playing "the girlfriend" or "the best friend" wasn't especially appealing either. Then there were the parts that Smollett would lose because, until Lovecraft, she was pretty steadfast in her refusal to do nudity — at least when it wasn't critical to the story, and, save Lovecraft, she never believed it was.
"I've sat with directors and they'll say, 'This is what it is,' and you try to listen and understand, but if I don't trust that they truly believe it's essential to the plot, if it's like, 'Dude, you actually don't care for him to get naked too?' then I know what this is, and it's a no for me," says Smollett. "I'm very aware of the over-sexualization of the Black female body — this perverted fascination that predates me — and so the notion that I would ever contribute to that weighs very heavily on me."
Still, there were powerful roles (Samantha in The Great Debaters) that begot other powerful roles (Jess in Friday Night Lights), though none forced Hollywood to stop and take notice like Smollett's performance in Underground, the slave uprising drama that ran for two celebrated seasons on the tiny cable network WGN America. Smollett had been drawn to the project, in part, because of a connection she felt with its co-creator, Misha Green, one that was clearly mutual. By the time Smollett came in to do chemistry reads with her potential male co-stars, Green leaned over and said, "We're going to be best friends." As it turns out, she was right — just not initially.
"We did the pilot and I hated her," Smollett acknowledges now, and Green doesn't disagree. "We proceeded to be the worst of enemies for the first two months of shooting," says the showrunner. "It became the joke on set: 'Oh, it's a Jurnee scene, that means she and Misha are going to be arguing for 20 minutes before we start.' " Much of it boiled down to communication style — how an early whipping scene should play out almost caused a knock-down, drag-out fight — and the pressure that came with the show being a major first for both: Smollett's as a lead, Green's as a showrunner.
"There were kinks that had to be worked out," explains Green, recounting, by way of example, her own realization that "Oh, maybe I shouldn't just go [to Jurnee] in the middle of the scene and say, 'That ain't it.' " Once the two found a common language and realized their goals were aligned, they became the best of friends, just as Green had predicted. For that reason, and a few others, her follow-up, Lovecraft Country, should have been Smollett's many months before it was.
The actress had been tracking the adaptation of Matt Ruff's 2016 novel, inspired by the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, from the moment Green signed on. And once her friend slipped her an early script, "I was so wildly convinced that there was no fucking person who could play Leti Lewis but me that I became obsessed," says Smollett, recalling the agony she put herself through, since Green, who holds little back, hadn't said a thing about wanting her for the role. "I was like, 'What the fuck, does she not see that I am Leti Lewis? Does she not think I can stretch and do a different character?' I mean, I was freaking out, literally losing sleep for months."
At the same time, Green was working through her own internal process, agonizing over the fact that she, too, felt Smollett was perfect for the role. "I just didn't want to be one of those people who only works with [actors] they've worked with before," says Green, who'd eventually stop fighting her instincts. By February, five months after Smollett read the first draft, the part was hers. After shooting the pilot in summer 2018, Green went off to write the remainder of season one, leaving Smollett a window for Birds of Prey, her first go-round in the superhero universe.
By Smollett's count, she had to endure four rounds of auditions and 30-plus chemistry reads for the Suicide Squad follow-up. "I left being like, 'Fuck them,' " she says, a perspective that lasted right up until they called to tell her she'd landed the role of Black Canary. Margot Robbie, her producer and co-star, remembers it all slightly differently. "We saw hundreds of actors for her role, and so many did incredible auditions, but when you saw Jurnee, it just drove everyone else out of your mind. I drew, like, 10 stars and exclamation marks next to her name," she says, having recently found her notebook from the audition process.
Then came the blowback, from a small but vocal group who were peeved that a Black woman had been cast as a character written white in the comics. Speaking about the undue controversy for the first time, Smollett says, simply, "It brought a rage out inside of me, which was great for Canary."
By early 2019, Smollett was back working on Lovecraft Country, for what would prove to be one of the most challenging shoots of her career — and only in part because of the exceedingly dark subject matter. By then, her personal life had started unraveling. Her marriage of nearly a decade was falling apart, and her brother was now at the red-hot center of scandal, with the family name suddenly splashed across every newspaper in the country.
With the legal case ongoing — prosecutors dropped all charges against the actor in March 2019, only to have a grand jury revive the criminal case 11 months later — Smollett is limited in what she can say. What she does offer is how "maddening" it is for someone so outspoken to be told she "can't talk," and how horrific the whole ordeal has been for her fiercely close family. Still, Smollett insists her defense of her brother has not impacted her professionally, arguing instead that she has felt supported. "We are blessed to have a community of people who know him," she says, "and know that he wouldn't do this."
Looking ahead, Smollett says she's counting on her family's resilience, and Jussie's resilience, to get them through. "I mean, fuck, man, I look at him sometimes and I'm like, 'He's so strong,' " she says of her brother, who moved in briefly to look after her following her divorce filing at the beginning of the lockdown. The other Smolletts — who've established careers in the food, tech and nonprofit worlds — have been in close touch too. As to how Jussie's been biding his time, "he's staying creative, as creatives do," she says, "singing, writing, working on music."
In truth, it's not all that different from how Smollett's been spending her time of late, holed up at home, sifting through scripts she'll either produce or star in. She credits the Time's Up movement with giving her the confidence to stretch herself creatively and the sisterhood of friends and mentors for empowering her. It's Shonda Rhimes, for instance, whose advice often reverberates in her head: "I'm so tired of women like you who don't own your power," the Grey's Anatomy creator once told Smollett, urging her to speak up about her needs, particularly as a working mom. "You're Jurnee fuckin' Smollett." And Reese Witherspoon, whose convincing plea for parity at HBO ensured that Smollett is now being paid the same as her male co-star for the first time in her career. She'll never forget the call from Nina Shaw, her attorney, about the unexpected salary boost: "Well, this is rarely a call I get to make …"
Smollett has since learned she didn't make as much as her Underground co-star, Aldis Hodge, despite the fact that she had first billing on the WGN show. "Why give me that and then give me less money than my male counterpart? It's wild," she says, shaking her head. For all that Underground did for Smollett's career, it also left her with a few ugly memories of the lingering inequities of being a Black woman in Hollywood — a profile that can be utilized and minimized in equal measure. Like the time an executive walked into her trailer as she was readying for a marketing shoot and said, disapprovingly, of her natural curls, "So, what are we doing about your hair?" It took all Smollett's strength not to lose her cool. "This was a project about enslaved people, there'd be no way for me to straighten my hair, which is what he was suggesting — a hot comb didn't exist," she says, her frustration still apparent. "There are just so many ways in which this industry will try, subliminally or overtly, to erase your Blackness."
These days, Smollett walks on set and makes her needs known, whether it be a trailer for her son or a hairstylist who fundamentally understands Black hair. "And I don't apologize," she says. "I'll be like, 'Listen, this fake-ass sexual harassment meeting that we're having, I'm going to raise my hand now and let you guys know that the standards that they're setting are bare minimum.' " She didn't have to make any such calls on the very female set of Birds of Prey, but on Lovecraft Country she "for sure" reached out to the producers to make clear that so much as sexual banter would be off-limits. Smollett only wishes she had had that kind of power, never mind the awareness, earlier in her career.
"I don't know that I can confidently say that I worked on one job prior to Lovecraft — from the time I was 12 on — where I hadn't been sexually harassed, whether it was by an AD, a co-star, director, producer …" she trails off, cognizant now of how deeply sad the confession is. As we keep talking, she'll think of a few exceptions, and ask that I amend her earlier statement. Still, it was not until Smollett started sitting in rooms with other women that she realized her experiences were hardly unique.
"Like, a guy saying before we're about to do this love scene, 'Hey, your tits are going to be hanging in the wind,' is not OK," she can plainly see now. Without getting specific, she says there was one instance so bad that she not only recognized it, she asked to be removed from the project. "And they let me out," she says, though her then-agent's response to the alleged behavior — some variation on, "Oh, you know, he's just being a man" — can still fill her with fury.
The days of stomaching such behavior are over, however, at least on Smollett's watch. There's a new guard now, she says, a group of powerful women — Shonda, Misha, Ava, Jurnee — who are like-minded in both their desire and their motivation for meaningful change. "And we're no longer asking for a seat at the table," says Smollett. "We're building our own motherfucking table."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.