It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jurnee Smollett has been acting her entire life — she booked her first role in a diaper commercial at 10 months old and got her SAG card when she was just 3. While child stardom infamously comes with certain baggage, Smollett’s spent the intervening years building a prolific career on film and television. Her IMDb page is formidable, to say the least. Now 36, Smollett’s no longer content to let others call the shots for her — she’s done waiting for a seat at the table and ready to build her own. Fortunately, she’s learned from the best in the industry, citing Samuel L. Jackson, Kasi Lemmons, Diahann Carroll, Debbi Morgan, and Denzel Washington. She not only stars in but executive produced her most recent project, Lou. If anyone is in a position to “change the data” in Hollywood (especially concerning representation for Black women in film), it’s her.
Listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to hear her discuss the 25th anniversary of Eve’s Bayou, the responsibility of being an artist, getting comfortable throwing her hat in the ring, and more.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and I’m editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this show, I get to talk to people that we love and admire, or some that we just find interesting. We’ll explore how they found their path and what maybe have gotten in their way, and how they’ve brought others along now that they’ve arrived.
Jurnee has been on screens since before she could talk. Her career spans three decades, from sitcoms, to thrillers, to feature films. She’s done it all, and she’s only 36. This summer, she starred in the Netflix film Spiderhead alongside Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. In her latest film, Lou, she plays a desperate mother on the hunt to find her kidnapped daughter. We talked about her journey through Hollywood, breaking through being pigeonholed in her career, and Lou, which is out now on Netflix. Hi, Jurnee. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jurnee Smollett: Thank you.
Lindsay: I always start by asking this question. The show is called In Her Shoes, so I have to ask every guest about the pair of shoes that you’re wearing right now, or your absolute favorite pair.
Jurnee: I’m barefoot because I don’t like people wearing shoes in my house. But from the time I was 17, the pair of shoes I would wear the most were these combat boots I bought from an army store in Santa Monica. So beat up, but my go-to boots for everything. Traveling, put some jeans on with some holes on it. And then I recently found a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes that are like a version of these army boots that I’m obsessed with, so they have now replaced my $20 pair
Lindsay: You really leveled up. And what would you say it’s like to be in your shoes at this moment in life? What has that walk been like?
Jurnee: My path has been beautiful, rocky, twisted. We’ve had some detours that we didn’t know were going to happen. What’s the saying? You make plans and God laughs.
Jurnee: It’s a hike, but my calves are strong. We stay doing leg day to be able to make it up the hills and endure the rough terrain. But I’m enjoying the scenery, I got to say.
Lindsay: Obviously you’ve been in Hollywood for a very long time. At this point, how do you decide what roles you want to take or what you want to spend your time on, and how you want to move forward?
Jurnee: Honestly, it’s really about instinct. Yes, I have done it for my entire life, literally. I’ve been in front of the camera since I was 10 months old. But I’m in a space where I feel like I’ve only just begun, I’ve only scratched the surface, which is the oddest thing to get folks to understand, and it’s not really for them to understand I guess. But I think I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been. I’m hungry to grow, I’m hungry to work with filmmakers that inspire me and challenge me. I think I’m also becoming more and more in touch with what’s not for me, and making peace with that too.
I’m in that space in general in my life, not just with my career but in all spaces. I’m understanding that if something is not helpful, productive, or nurturing, you have to let it go. And so how do I take on characters? I think I’m hungry for stuff that I haven’t done yet. I’m very hungry to explore just the different sides of who we are within our womanhood. I’m just seeking the challenge. That’s it. It’s essentially that.
Lindsay: I love that, “seeking the challenge.” I should write that on my mantra mood board that I have at home. I will.
Jurnee: I love that.
Lindsay: Eve’s Bayou turns 25 this year. Such an incredible film and instant classic. I believe you were 11 at the time?
Lindsay: 10, wow. What do you remember about filming that? Is it weird to look back on that film, given the big cultural presence that it’s had?
Jurnee: I wouldn’t say it’s weird. I don’t often look back, until someone asks me to. The Tribeca Film Festival had a reunion with myself and Kasi Lemmons, and Meagan Goode and Lynn Whitfield. And one of the things Meagan and I were talking about was working with Kasi at such a young age and having the image of a Black woman at the helm of this story. I don’t think we realized at the time how radical that was. And I think one of the biggest blessings that I gained from that experience is that image, of having a Black female filmmaker, and that being normalized for me.
It made me hold the industry to a standard subconsciously, because while it took a long time for me to then work with another Black female filmmaker, unfortunately, it was always in my head as my norm. That’s my default. Working with Samuel L. Jackson, Kasi, Lynn, Diahann Carroll, Debbi Morgan — all these legends — I learned so much about the craft at 10 years old, and I don’t know that I would still be doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t done that film. Because I do believe that that’s when I fell in love with the craft. That’s when I fell in love with the process of stepping into a character, losing yourself in a character. I think it was the first time I learned the art of thinking like the character, thinking the thoughts of the character. I think that film, and Kasi and Sam especially, their hand prints are all on my instrument.
Lindsay: Ten years old is so young. When did that actually set into your mind, the okay, I have a different standard of what I want to do as you got older? When did you feel like it resonated to you, how big a moment that really was, and the kind of roles that you wanted to go after then in the future?
Jurnee: I don’t know that I realized, necessarily, how big or small it was. It’s more so that it just put me in touch with a deeper level of what we were capable of as instruments, as artists. And so it just made me hungry to constantly try to achieve that, or experience that high that you experience as an artist.
I also have to give my mom credit. My mom really made me study the craft and study the greats, and kind of held me to a standard. She had me reading the autobiography of Katharine Hepburn when I was 13 years old. I was studying the Sidney Poitiers, the Spencer Tracys, the Jim Kellys. I probably have seen more classic films than I’ve seen current ones. For that I have to give my mom credit. She was a bit of a cinephile, a bit of a snob in that sense. And so she instilled in me a level of taste. That’s really what it is. It’s not that I realized, Oh, this is a moment that I have to live up to. It was more so that she helped me cultivate a taste. And so while I haven’t always hit the mark, I’m not going to lie, it’s always been my goal. I always go into a project with the desire to just tell the truth. Because these films that I grew up watching, the Paul Newmans of the world, the Marlon Brandos, these are actors who just try to communicate the truth.
Lindsay: You talk about having the right taste, but the factor you can’t control is that the industry has moved at its own pace, and especially as far as diversity, not nearly as fast as we would like. What has that been like, to be pigeonholed, or audition for roles that you really want, or just feel like that needle isn’t moving as much as you needed it to?
Jurnee: Here’s the thing. We’ve come quite a ways; however, we’ve got so much more work to do. I can remember moments in my career where I wanted to quit, in my teens and early twenties. I definitely had that moment where I didn’t want to do it, specifically because I was getting, “Oh, we’re not willing to go ethnic on that role” or “She can’t audition, but maybe if the role opens up.” What the fuck does it mean for a role to be closed or open? The data supports how dismal it actually is. It’s pretty dismal for women of color. Women of all kinds, but specifically women of color. Stacy Smith at USC does these incredible studies, in order for us to be able to just have the data and be able to look at how sometimes dismal can be in the industry. And there’s a study she did recently where across the 1,500 top grossing films from 2007 to 2021, 3.4 percent of the leads were Black girls or women. — 3.4 percent over 1,500 films. Think about that.
Lindsay: A very small number.
Jurnee: It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. So there’s still quite a lot of work we have to do, and I try not to get too caught up in that. I try to just keep my head down and do the work.
Lindsay: How do you balance that, though? How do you perfect your craft and just work on being a creative, but then also deal with the challenges and the realities of the industry?
Jurnee: You have to surround yourself with a great team. Within the past year and a half I’ve shifted drastically within my mentality about the industry. Wanting to mount films and wanting to put films together has become my focus. Not waiting for a seat at the motherfucking table. My mother always would say, “You’ve got to build your own table.” And so that’s literally the mind space I’m in right now. I don’t really need approval to create my art. I can actually seek out the writer that I’m a fan of, I can seek out the filmmaker that I’m a fan of, I can put these things together and find myself being in that space more than ever.
The first film I was actually a part of the producing team on was Lou. J.J. Abrams and his whole Bad Robot team brought Allison Janney and I on as producers, and honestly I learned so much from him, and felt so inspired after that to just not wait. So I think that’s the space I’m in. There’s so many filmmakers, there’s so many content creators, there’s so many folks who inspire me, and I think the more that we continue to try to usher stories forward for us, by us, I think that’s how you change the data, essentially.
Lindsay: I’m very fascinated by how transformative it is behind the scenes to really get into character in depth. Birds of Prey, I’m thinking of. I was a huge fan of Lovecraft Country, and very sad that it’s no longer on TV. I know a lot of the roles have just been so hefty. What is it like when you take on a new role? Even with Lou, what was it like to get yourself in the mindframe? How different is your life when you’re taking on a new role, and what is that like behind the scenes?
Jurnee: I always start with research. I always start with asking myself certain questions and then trying to, by any means necessary, answer those questions. Who is she? What does she want? How is she going to get it? What’s the environment around her? Who’s her family? Who’s her mama, who’s her daddy? I learned something from Denzel Washington that I still do now, and that is to know every fucking thing about your character. The things that you do not see on screen, you got to know it. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the audience knows it. They’ll feel it.
And so for instance with Lou, part of my research was I spent a lot of time at the Jenesse Center for domestic violence survivors here in Los Angeles. It’s an amazing organization founded by Karen Earl, and Karen gave me so much access to her and the therapist and lawyers there, but also some of the survivors that I was able to interview. Hannah, my character, having been a survivor of domestic violence isn’t what the movie’s about, right? It’s a part of the backstory. It’s a part of the plot. But for me, it just was so important to try to get that right, even if it’s one scene or two scenes or whatever it is.
So I always start with research. With Leti, it’s a period piece, so you’ve got to research that time. You’ve got to research that era. Who were the writers, the thinkers? What kind of music was around during that time? Oh, Carmen Jones had just come out. Oh, Lorraine Hansberry was writing A Raisin in the Sun. This is the culture that Leti is being surrounded by. And so yeah, she’s going to have a certain bounce, a certain confidence, a certain radical boldness. My grandmother, although I never met her, she was a massive influence and inspiration for me with Leti from Lovecraft Country. So yeah, I’m one of those actors. I’m just constantly trying to pull from everywhere and everything in order to give me confidence that this is truthful.
Lindsay: What drew you to want to do Lou? I’m assuming also — I mean, it’s a film that’s written and directed by women and has a plot centered around a powerful woman. What was that starting process like? And for you to produce as well as act in it, what made you comfortable wearing both hats?
Jurnee: It was actually my manager, Adam Marshall, who sent me the script, because he was trying to educate me on the writer who wrote Lou, Maggie Cohn, who he represents. He was just sending it to me to go, “Hey, this is a great writer.” As I’m putting different projects together, I’m constantly asking, Who writes in this genre? Who’s a great voice in this space? And so he was just sending it to me to educate me on her work, and then I was like, “Yo, she’s dope, but the role of Hannah? Come on, man. Hi, hello.” I had just wrapped Lovecraft Country, and J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot were producers on Lovecraft. And so I immediately emailed J.J., “Can I throw my hat in the ring?” And he was so amazing and gracious and was like, “I think you’re amazing. I think you’d kill it. But I’m not the director. You’ve got to meet Anna Foerster.”
And so I met Anna, and I was initially attached just as an actor. But after attaching myself as an actor, I had a lot of character notes for the script. And yeah, I got to give J.J. credit. He wanted to empower all of us to have a voice at the table, and so it was his team that offered to make me an executive producer. It was such a collaborative experience. I was so impressed by J.J. and Hannah Minghella and Jon Cohen, who work at Bad Robot, and how hands-on they were with every detail. I kid you not, if there was a scene that needed to be rewritten, J.J. was giving notes the night before. I was able to have a real collaborative experience with all the creatives. I think that’s why J.J.’s work is so elevated, because he does not put his name on something that he’s not actually involved with. He’s in the soil with you. I learned quite a lot from him.
Lindsay: Did it feel different on this set versus others, working on a project that has a lot of women involved? Was there anything special in that sense, of being on a project that’s led by women and woman-centered as well?
Jurnee: I got to say, I’ve been very spoiled lately. I could be wrong, but I think over the last five projects I’ve done, four of them were led by women.
Lindsay: Amazing. That’s rare though.
Jurnee: This year, I shot two movies back-to-back, both directed by women. Maggie Betts directed a movie I did this year that comes out next year with Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones called The Burial.
Lindsay: Ooh, I want to see this.
Jurnee: Girl, It’s going to be good. It’s going to be good. It was so much fun. It’s based on a true story. I play this litigator. Jamie Foxx is Willie E. Gary. He and I are adversaries in the film, so I had a lot of fun being his enemy. But I’ve been quite spoiled lately working in these spaces and these environments where women are captains of the ship, and we have these incredible men as allies, as supporters: J.J. Abrams on Lou, Jamie Foxx and Datari Turner on The Burial. These are experiences that ignite my excitement about the industry and where we’re going.
Lindsay: You also have Black Canary coming up next year, which I’m also very excited about. If there’s anything you can tell us, or how you’ve been feeling about it or what you’re excited about with it, we would love to hear.
Jurnee: Can’t say a thing. I can’t even confirm or deny what you just said.
Lindsay: That’s okay, we’re still excited.
I wanted to close by asking a little bit more about something you stated in our conversation, and I think a few others: How you are walking in the industry in a different way, and no longer want to do the dance of the industry. What are you hopeful about? What do you hope to find in yourself or in the future as you move at your own pace and kind of do it your own way?
Jurnee: I’m very hopeful about the new voices that are being ushered in. Misha Green, I stay a fan of what that woman does for obvious reasons. I think she just writes Black women, women of all kinds honestly, in such a nuanced way. I’m excited about the voices like a Maggie Betts, a Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay. These are voices that are centering folks who have typically been shut out from the industry, and I think the more voices that we usher forward, the more we will have a wider and expanded gaze. I am so tired of the cis white male gaze in this industry.
Lindsay: You and me both.
Jurnee: And listen, I enjoy the stories. I just am saying it shouldn’t be so dominated. It shouldn’t be so one-sided, right? Look at Issa Rae and what she did with Insecure. We see ourselves in that struggle. I’m just very passionate about these voices that aren’t waiting for an invitation, because honestly we all benefit from it. We just do. Art is so essential, and those of us who have the real blessing of doing what we do have a real responsibility to just tell the truth.
It’s like James Baldwin when he talks about the integrity of an artist, and he says it is impersonal. This force you didn’t ask for, this destiny which you must accept, it’s also your responsibility. If you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, he says, it’s not only your glory, your achievement, but it’s almost our only hope, right? Artists, we illuminate what it’s like to be human, right? And so yes, I’m very excited about those who understand the responsibility, and understand the real honor it is to be an artist.
Lindsay: Well, I’m very excited for you. Thank you again for doing this.
Jurnee: Thank you.
Lindsay: In Her Shoes is hosted by me, Lindsay Peoples. Our producer and editor for this episode is Tarkor Zehn, our engineer is Brandon McFarland, and our executive producer is Hanna Rosin. The Cut is made possible by the excellent team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today at the cut.com/subscribe. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and thank you so much for listening.