TV & Movies
Jurnee Smollett’s Heart Is Healing
“So much in my life was being destroyed in order for there to be room for rebirth,” the actor tells Bustle.
Elegant in loose, silver-gray satin pajamas, Jurnee Smollett saunters ahead of me like a seasoned chanteuse at the end of a long, sold-out show. It’s late in the afternoon, and she’s just wrapped the photo shoot for this piece. Her hair is laid soft and straight to just beneath her chin; her eyes are liquid and lined. She doesn’t look much like her most recent role from Netflix’s new sci-fi film Spiderhead, in which her character, Lizzy, is mired in grief while serving a prison sentence at a slick, high-tech facility. In the movie, based on a short story by George Saunders, the prison’s island setting belies its twisted mission, and as Lizzy uncovers the truth about it, she’s increasingly frantic and distraught.
Instead, in an empty conference room, we sit in low-slung ergonomic chairs, and I wait while she finishes up a call. “I’ll call you when I’m done. OK. Love you,” Smollett says into her cell, in a warmly reflexive tone that immediately indicates a family member is on the other end. “My sister,” she confirms with a smile, draping one leg over the other. At just 35, Smollett emanates a sort of composite, earned serenity — guided in part by a reverence of her family’s bond.
There are six Smollett siblings, and Jurnee falls right in the middle. They are a mighty tribe of activists, chefs, and creatives who are fiercely loyal to each other. The Smollett matriarch, Janet, an activist and sometimes coach to her actor children, met their late father, Joel Smollett, Sr., in the Bay Area, where they were both involved in the civil rights movement. They split when the kids were still young — right around the time Jurnee got her breakout role in Eve’s Bayou, a critically acclaimed film from first-time director Kasi Lemmons.
It’s a hauntingly good performance by Smollett, who played 10-year-old Eve Batiste, the second child in an affluent Creole family in 1960s New Orleans, who was dead set on reconciling the messy moral cipher of her father’s infidelities. “There were parts of my life that I could access and relate to with Eve,” says Smollett, who was 10 at the time of filming. “This [was the] period when my parents were splitting up, and it was quite tumultuous. I knew what it was like to want your family to stay together, but also not want them to, because you wanted that peace.”
After Eve’s Bayou, when Jurnee Smollett was a teenager, she considered giving up acting altogether, having already seen how the film industry can tokenize Black actors. Executives would say they didn’t want to go “ethnic” for the role, but would let her know if “it opens up,” Smollett recalls. “It’s closed, is what they’re saying, and that ‘no’ was infuriating — I come from a mother who worked with Angela Davis. My mother is an activist. You can’t say that sh*t to me.”
At age 20, Smollett visited South Africa with a nonprofit artist organization, a trip she ultimately cites as pulling her back to acting. In Johannesburg, she saw how the country invested in art as a way to reconcile with its violent past. If Hollywood didn’t see use in her art, she realized, the onus was on Hollywood, not her.
Within days of returning home, she got a script for The Great Debaters, starring and directed by Denzel Washington. She was called in to be the reader for another actor — not for a role herself — but intended to wow Washington anyway. She spent hours in the library reading up on the main character, Melvin B. Tolson, a Black professor and debate coach in Texas. “I was like, ‘This is my chance. You think I’m here to be the reader?’” She laughs, adding that once the read began, she put her knowledge on display, going rogue and improvising off script. Washington called her manager the next day.
Smollett had recurring roles in shows such as Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and True Blood after that, but the tenor of her career changed when she teamed up with the screenwriting newcomer Misha Green, who cast her as the lead role, Rosalee, in her 2016 historical drama Underground. The 1850s series, co-created by Joe Pokaski, follows a group of slaves who rally to escape a Georgia plantation by way of the Underground Railroad. A lot of people told Smollett not to take the part. “People were very critical of the concept of doing a ‘slave drama,’” she says. “But in the meeting with Misha, [she] said to me, ‘This is not a slave drama. This is actually a prison bust. This is the story of the revolution. This is the story of the uprising. This is the story of our folks who fought back.’ And I was like, ‘Ooh, I’m hungry for that.’”
It was a shared hunger, says Green. “We were both digging for that ancestral feeling of — that’s it,” she tells me over the phone. A few years later, when Green went on to develop the horror drama Lovecraft Country for HBO, she again cast Smollett in a lead role.
In Lovecraft Country, which premiered last summer, Smollett plays Letitia “Leti” Lewis, a Black woman in 1950s Jim Crow America who’s being relentlessly chased down by racist terrorists and supernatural monsters. The role earned Smollett a first Emmy nomination after 29 years in the business — one of 18 nods for Lovecraft Country, including for Outstanding Drama Series. She stars alongside Jonathan Majors, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, and the late Michael K. Williams, with whom Smollett was very close.
They say through destruction comes creation, and so much in my life was being destroyed in order for there to be room for rebirth.
As Leti, Smollett is at her finest, wherein there seems a direct lineage between Leti and Eve — the characters, and also Smollett as their proxy. They are merciful kin, ancestral sistren. Eve and Leti, and Smollett too, need each other across these sets and stages, dark bayous and racist New England towns, because being fearless can also be devastating.
The Anishinabek Nation in Canada interpret the term “blood memory” as an “ancestral connection to language, songs, spirituality, and teachings.” Black folks in America share this kind of bone-deep, sense memory, which allows us to read DNA instructions for survival while also demanding we carry the history of survival with us. This has long been the expectation of Black women. “Like, just by existing at that intersection of multiple identities, you go, ‘Oh, this side wants me to yield to this, and then this side wants me to yield to that,’” Smollett says. “But there are no parts of me left.”
While working on Lovecraft Country, Smollett’s world got very intense, very quickly. In early 2019, Smollett’s older brother, Jussie, was charged with filing a false police report saying he’d been the victim of a racist attack. The case, for which he pleaded not guilty, went to a crushingly public trial and was relentlessly scrutinized in the media.
“Everything was breaking apart,” she says of the time period in which she filmed Lovecraft Country. “They say through destruction comes creation, and so much in my life was being destroyed in order for there to be room for rebirth. I definitely feel that working through stuff with Leti added a level of integrity and strength and courage for me to be able to use my own voice.”
While Leti is audacious, she also walks through the world alone. “That’s her attachment style. She’s an avoidant,” Smollett says. “Jurnee is not, Jurnee tends to attract people who are avoidants. But I think honestly, my attachment style might be anxious avoidant. I might have a little bit of avoidant in me. And oftentimes, folks have [an avoidant] attachment style [because of] trauma that happened, which teaches you to never give someone power over you to hurt you.”
Leti’s trauma comes, in part, from her broken family, which is, ostensibly, the opposite of Smollett’s own experience — until, of course, it isn’t. “It’s wild, because I can absolutely relate to that sense of isolation. Like, my heart was put on the floor after I gave it to this person. They smashed it, then they drove a bus over it, and then pressed reverse,” she says.
Smollett is as private as she is professional, and I don’t press, but the timing suggests she could be referring to her ex-husband, the singer Josiah Bell. The two divorced in 2020 after 10 years of marriage, and they share a son together, Hunter, who is now 5 years old.
During that prayer, I got a vision. And I saw my adult son, and I didn’t know I was having a son.
“Having Hunter,” Smollett’s face lights up as she begins, “I have to say, when I first found out I was pregnant, I was so terrified. You go through all of the emotions — all your stuff just comes up, right? Like, are you worthy? Are you capable? All those questions as to whether or not this real divine responsibility is going to be too much for you to bear.”
She pauses and smiles knowingly, because we’re mother to mother now, and there’s a certain alchemy that occurs between Black mothers when we get to talking about our children. “It was early in my pregnancy,” she says. “Hunter’s dad, Josiah, and our pastor, they were praying over me and our pastor was leading it. She just held her hands on my stomach, and during that prayer, I got a vision. And I saw my adult son, and I didn’t know I was having a son. I didn't know what the gender was, because it was too soon to know. But I saw him. And in that moment, that vision gave me so much peace, because I knew he—”
As the mother of a Black son, I am moved to finish her sentence: “That he would make it to adulthood.” Our eyes lock, and then we keep it moving, as Black women do.
When she was pregnant with Hunter, Smollett’s approach to acting shifted. Before, she’d accepted that a bit of somatic weathering comes with the job. “Even if your mind knows [the story is] not happening, your body does not — your body is really experiencing this,” she says. But when she was pregnant and filming Underground’s second season, she wouldn’t sacrifice her body for art as cavalierly as she’d done before. “I felt obligated to not stay in character, like to protect him,” she says of her son. “And I talked to him a lot — [I said] ‘OK. We’re about to do this.’” Green wrote the pregnancy into the script and allowed Smollett’s midwife on set. She went into labor nine days after filming wrapped.
As we come to the end of our time together, I tell Smollett I’d read a recent New York Times interview with her in which she discloses having had a heartbreaking couple of years. I ask how her heart is now.
“Oh, that's a good question,” she says. “I think my heart is healing. I’m in a season of rapid transition and growth. I find myself pouring everything into my art and into Hunter. I’m trying to be kind to myself, because I trust that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and that the wounds and the heartbreak or whatever, they’re part of my path.”
For Smollett’s immediate future, she’s booked and busy on her own terms: She joins director Maggie Betts’ The Burial, about a family who runs a funeral home; and the J.J. Abrams-produced kidnapping drama Lou, opposite Allison Janney, for which Smollett also serves as executive producer; and she’s also teamed up again with Green for a third project, to develop Smollett’s Birds of Prey character Black Canary into a standalone HBO Max film.
“I’m just in a space where, honestly, I don’t give a f*ck to do the dance anymore,” Smollett says, shoulders relaxed, no worries, “And I’m not really about the destination.” She grins, a bit goofily. “You know what I’m going to say, right? It’s about the journey.” We both laugh, and reach across the table for each other’s hands instinctively, a nod to Eve, Rosalee, Leti, and the ancestors.
Photographer: Elena Mudd