Jurnee Smollett began her career in Hollywood at the age of six. She’s starred on seminal programs such as “Friday Night Lights,” “True Blood,” and “Underground.” She’s also appeared in films such as “Eve’s Bayou,” “The Great Debaters,” and, most recently, “Birds of Prey.” Now, 29 years later, after she entered the biz, she’s finally earned her first Emmy nomination for her role as Leti Lewis in “Lovecraft Country.” And that begged the question: Did that long wait make this nomination even more special?
“I mean, it’s hard for me to know because this is my reality,” Smollett says. “I think it was incredibly meaningful for this project, which is so special to my heart. To have the work recognized in this way for this project, along with so many of my other collaborators and colleagues, was just so incredibly special. Honestly, because I’ve been doing it so long, I’ve learned to not do [the work] for this level of recognition. If I were doing it and chasing this recognition, I’d be in big trouble long ago.”
Smollett pauses and then adds, “A wise man, Denzel Washington, once told me, he said, ‘Jurnee, man gives awards, God gives rewards.’ And the truth of the matter is it is so incredibly thrilling to have the work seen and recognized and appreciated and nominated and all that stuff. But as artists, we get the rewards by actually showing up every day. Having the chance to collaborate with Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams and Aunjanue Ellis and Wunmi Musaku and to see the words that were created from Misha Green‘s brain, to play in this playground, to embody Leti f**king Lewis. I mean, I couldn’t experience a greater reward. It’s being able to be the vessel through which the story could come through that Leti could be brought to life. That’s the biggest reward.”
Frankly, most actors don’t plan their careers for the awards spotlight. If they love the craft, the fulfillment of getting to play in a big creative sandbox is the real reward. Smollett says that’s “abso-f**king-lutely” what drives her.
“This is my day off I’m taking to do and catch up with you all to talk about ‘Lovecraft.’ But when I tell you I get so energized by the work, even though most nights, I go to bed thoroughly worn out, feeling like I don’t know how I’m going to get up and do this the next day,” Smollett admits. “That’s how I felt with Leti as well. Every single night, I felt so thoroughly worn out and get so excited and energized to get up the next day and do it all over again. I think you have to truly love the craft to do it for as long as I’ve done it, to still be hungry, to want to continue to do it, because it is, for sure, not for the faint of heart. I really don’t do it for reckoning recognition. I really don’t do it for fame. I haven’t had that most of my career. I do it for the love. I do it for the high. I truly get an artistic high from what I do. And I feel so incredibly blessed to be paid to do what I do. I say all the time, the hurry up and wait on set that you have to do, that’s the stuff they pay you for. The actual storytelling, the act the part of it, that I would do for free any day.”
Smollett earned raves from critics for her work in “Lovecraft,” but despite solid ratings, the Misha Green created series was ceremonially, and somewhat surprisingly, not renewed for a second season. Smollett says she was “heartbroken,” but her longevity has taught her not to have any real expectations with a project.
“My only expectation is what I can control, and that is what choices I make as a character. Beyond that, as the actor, everything else is out of my hands,” Smollett says. “And that is the philosophy that I have with every aspect of the project, from marketing to the way it’s received, to reviews and critics, I don’t read reviews. It’s not my business. So whether the show is coming back or not coming back is so not up to me and so out of my hands that I really didn’t have any expectations for season two.”
With a pilot originally shot in 2018 and the eventual series filmed over nine months in 2019, “Lovecraft” was a big part of Smollett’s life the past few years.
“Leti was quite cathartic for me. And this often happens with me, characters come to me, and I feel that it’s a very spiritual part of my walk in life,” Smollett admits. “But the character helps me get to another point in my own growth. And I think there was so much more to explore in Leti. And selfishly, through Leti, I could explore those things in myself. If that makes sense. She came to me at a moment in which I was questioning. And sometimes I don’t even know that I’m even out of that period, where you’re you’re whole reality is flipped on its head. And you do question, what is reality? I mean, that audio of James Baldwin in episode one that accompanies our road trip. ‘What is reality? What is reality?’ And it’s a theme that Leti constantly has to face. What is her reality? She thought reality was one way. It turns out magic exists. There’s a whole nother world. And so, I feel very intimately attached to her.”
“Lovecraft” was Smollett’s second pairing with Greene after the aforementioned “Underground.” Free of her HBO commitments, the writer/director recently landed a new deal at Apple TV+. Should we assume Greene has given Smollett a heads up on on a potential third collaboration?
“No. No, she has not. She and I have such a fruitful creative collaboration,” Smollett says. “And, I mean, there are for sure some special things that might be in the future, but she has not said, ‘Hey, wait, sing up on my new TV show.’ [Laughs.]
Like many of her peers, Smollett has stayed busy over the pandemic. While she’s currently shooting the Apple TV+ limited series “Lou,” opposite Allison Janey, she spent a good chunk of last year in Australia filming Joseph Kosinski’s new Netflix sci-fi thriller “Escape from Spiderhead.” She lit up when asked about it.
“Oh, man, it’s going to be an epic adventure. I will say that,” Smollett says. “I love working with Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller, and Joseph Kosinski is such a visionary. And yeah, it’s going to be quite a wild adventure. I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve heard everyone’s high about it, so that’s pretty good. I think it’s not like anything Chris has done, which I think people will be excited to see. Yeah. I’m excited about it.”
“Lovecraft Country” is available on HBO Max.