Ever since her breakthrough performance in Eve’s Bayou, Jurnee Smollett has made notable appearances on everything from The Great Debaters to Friday Night Lights. Most recently she starred on co-creator Misha Green’s short-lived WGN America series Underground and was enlisted to play Black Canary opposite Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey. The actress’ latest role is alongside Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, reuniting her with Green for an wild tale of horrors faced by an extended Black family in 1950s Chicago, where racism and supernatural creatures are abound.
“It’s a story where the hero or heroes are on a quest to dismantle white supremacy,” Smollett says of the timely and topical series, which has garnered buzz for centering the Black experience within the horror genre.
On the series, Smollett plays the free-spirited yet strong-willed Letitia Dandridge, who initially joins Atticus Freeman (Majors) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) on a road trip through the Jim Crow America, where they encounter shoggoths and pagans, before tackling various supernatural beings on her own in later episodes.
“She’s so buoyant [but] she’s also a woman who struggles with a lineage of trauma that she’s inherited from her mother,” Smollett says, explaining that she channeled her own family into the part. “I never met my grandmother, but when I approached the character I thought of my grandmother a lot. She was nicknamed ‘Showtime’ and she was this woman who really wouldn’t let folks in the 1950s or ‘60s erase her. She fought to maintain her dignity, which was such a radical act to me growing up and hearing these stories.”
While Leti’s battles may be fictional, the racism she experiences on the series is rooted in reality, a reality that many of the cast, including Smollett, faced growing up. “I can relate to the isolation you feel when you are the only Black family in an all-white neighborhood. A fish was put on my family’s lawn when I was young, on the day of the Million Man March,” she recalls. “I know what it’s like to have that fear of driving while Black while a police car rolls up beside. It’s personal, these stories we’re telling.”
And in order to bring to the horrors seen on screen to life, Smollett was required to go “dark places.” She put her whole body -- “physically, mentally, spiritually” -- into the role. “This character cost me a lot, I’m not gonna lie,” she says. “I definitely was in the hospital a few times for it, but that's just because of what Courtney says to me. He’s like, ‘Jurnee, the problem is you just throw your whole body into things.’ But that is who I am as an artist.”
The series also marks her first major horror project since appearing on the final two seasons of HBO’s vampire series True Blood, cementing her new status as one of the genre’s esteemed scream queens, something the actress has never thought of herself until now.
“I’m such a fan of the genre of horror, of social thriller, of sci-fi, whatever you want to call it. But it has been frustrating for me as an artist because the roles you’re offered as a Black woman are so dismissive and not really central to the plot,” says Smollett, who recently said she never wanted to play a girl who dies on page 33 in a horror movie.
But now, “it’s just incredibly exciting to have voices coming along, like a Mischa Green, like a Jordan Peele, [who are] flipping this classical genre on its head, deconstructing and centering Black voices in it, because we've been shut out for so long,” the actress says. And when it comes to flipping something that was inspired by the racist and controversial author H.P. Lovecraft, she adds, “It’s a real honor to be a part of something that centers our voices in such a radical way.”
While Lovecraft Country may be garnering Smollett much-deserved attention, it’s also paired with the HBO Max debut of Birds of Prey, which has fans buzzing again. When the movie first premiered in theaters, she expressed to ET her admiration for the DC Universe, saying “I love Black Canary so much,” adding an opportunity to do a sequel “would be an honor.”
Now fans are calling for a Black Canary spinoff, which would potentially the vigilante nightclub singer explore more of her backstory or new adventures. “I did see the love from that, it meant so much,” Smollett says of the Twitter campaign. But when it comes to suiting up again, she says, “You gotta ask the suits. I mean it’s not up to me... I mean, come on, who wouldn’t? Any person would die to play the character and I’m no different.”
Smollett adds that after enjoying her experience on Birds of Prey as the character, “I would do it again if asked.”