Jurnee Smollett on Jussie, Hollywood and ‘no longer asking for a seat at the table’
The 'Lovecraft County' actress shared her experiences with inequal pay and sexual harassment
Now starring in HBO’s upcoming Lovecraft Country, veteran actress Jurnee Smollett is coming into her own as a Hollywood powerhouse who no longer feels the need to apologize.
Smollett has been acting since she was a child, starring in Full House, Eve’s Bayou, Friday Night Lights, Birds of Prey and WGN’s groundbreaking show Underground. Despite her success, the 33-year-old has considered leaving Hollywood because the glittery façade doesn’t match up to reality.
“This business can be maddening,” she says in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“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 says those efforts are often performative and do little to change attitudes or practices.
“If you do that, you’re a hypocrite, and you’re not actually anti-racist,” Smollett maintains.
She had no use for posting Black squares in solidarity for Black Lives Matter after the tragic deaths of African Americans, especially George Floyd.
“Oh, the rage,” she declares, “the rage I feel in my body.”
Smollett is also angry that her brother Jussie, the former Empire star, is still viewed with suspicion. He says he did not stage the now-infamous 2019 racist and homophobic attack that caused a media furor and she believes him.
“It’s been f**king painful,” she says.
“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.”
During that time, she was separating from her husband of almost a decade, musician Josiah Bell, with whom she shares a 3-year-old son, Hunter.
Her family name may have been mired in scandal and she may have been dealing with heartache but fortunately, none of it affected her professionally.
Lovecraft Country, a horror, sci-fi, period mashup set during the Jim Crow era from Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams and Underground‘s Misha Green, debuts on HBO on Aug. 16.
“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.
Before she started the project, the actress reached out to showrunners to make sure she was paid her value after learning she was paid less than her co-star, Aldis Hodge, on Underground even though they were both leads on the WGN show.
The slight reminded her of an executive questioning how she styled her hair for the role.
“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. “There are just so many ways in which this industry will try, subliminally or overtly, to erase your Blackness.”
Smollett is now very vocal in how she expects to be treated.
“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.'”
This is the confidence she didn’t possess in her twenties. Lovecraft Country is the first set where she says she has not felt sexually harassed or undermined. After all the years she’s put in, Smollett is grateful that change is coming to the industry.
“And we’re no longer asking for a seat at the table,” says Smollett. “We’re building our own motherf**king table.”
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